In a Yale University library sits a map depicting the New World that predates the landing of Columbus by 60 years--if it isn't a fake. Although the lines on the so-called Vinland map are faded, those between scientists on the controversy are sharp. New salvos regarding its authenticity now come from both sides.
The parchment map, about 11 by 16 inches large, was uncovered in a Geneva bookshop in 1957 with no records of prior ownership. To the west of the inscriptions of Europe, Africa and the Far East are the words "a new land, extremely fertile and even having vines." The writing also says the crew of Leif Eriksson named the land "Vinland."
In 2002 Jacqueline S. Olin, retired from the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education in Suitland, Md., and her colleagues reported results of carbon dating indicating that the map dates from 1434, give or take 11 years. That finding bolstered three decades of speculation linking it to the Council of Basel, convened in Switzerland by the Catholic Church from 1431 to 1449. There scholars from around Europe assembled to discuss important affairs, such as the rift in the papacy and the possible reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches. "The fact that it existed in the 15th century certainly presents the very real possibility of Columbus, or someone in contact with him, having some knowledge of the map," Olin says.
But since the map's discovery, critics have called it a clever fake. What lies in dispute is not the pre-Columbian age of the parchment but that of the map drawn on it. At the same time Olin and colleagues dated the map's parchment, chemists Katherine Brown and Robin Clark of University College London argued that the map's ink dated from after 1923. The ink contained jagged yellow crystals of anatase, a titanium-bearing mineral rarely found in nature that became commercially available in 20th-century printing ink. "The whole points to an elaborate forgery," Clark states.
Dueling papers appeared again in recent months. With medieval methods, Olin made iron gall inks, which were used before the printing press. She found that her inks contained anatase, results she discusses in the December 1, 2003, issue of Analytical Chemistry. She adds that the anatase crystals in the map and her inks were the same size, citing the electron microscope work of geologist Kenneth M. Towe, retired from the Smithsonian Institution. Those crystals found in modern inks should be about 10 times as large.
Towe vociferously disagrees with Olin's interpretation of his work in a report appearing online in January in Analytical Chemistry. He concludes that the map's anatase crystals look modern in size. Moreover, he notes that whereas a map drawn with iron gall inks would reasonably be expected to contain iron, "there's hardly any there."
Olin responds by suggesting that iron might have disappeared as the inks deteriorated. Regarding the anatase crystal sizes, she concurs with Towe but says many other inks contain titanium and should be researched further to see what sizes are present. She adds that the presence of copper, zinc, aluminum and gold in the map's ink are also consistent with medieval manufacturing.
Historian Kirsten A. Seaver, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London, states that the map's writing contains historical anachronisms such as mention of Bishop Eirik of Greenland of the early 12th century reporting to superiors, although he would have had none, because Greenland had not yet become part of the Church hierarchy. "This map absolutely screams 'fake,'" Seaver remarks. In fact, she believes she has found the culprit--a German Jesuit priest, Father Josef Fischer, a specialist in mid-15th-century world maps. Her theory is that Fischer created the map in the 1930s to tease the Nazis, playing on their claims of early Norse dominion of the Americas and on their loathing of Roman Catholic Church authority. The map, she supposes, vanished during postwar looting. Seaver's book on her search will appear this June.
Charles Choi is based in New York City.