Ever since its sensational unveiling by Yale University scholars in October 1965, the Vinland Map has been a lightning rod for passionate debate. Most reviews of the arguments, including NOVA's program, have focused on scientific tests designed to gauge the authenticity of the map's ink. The opinions of experts in cartography and historical manuscripts have commanded much less attention, yet from the outset scholars in these disciplines pointed out glaring anomalies in the case for the Vinland Map's authenticity. (To inspect the map, see The Map in Question.)
Most striking of all, the coasts of Greenland and Iceland are suspiciously close to their outlines in a modern atlas. Yet none of the Icelandic sagas identifies Greenland as an island, and archeological discoveries indicate that Viking colonists, hunters, and traders explored Greenland's west coast perhaps as far north as Thule and Cape York, but no farther. Even a century or two after the supposed date of the Vinland Map, European mapmakers were still divided about how to draw Greenland—as an island, part of an arctic landmass, or a peninsula dangling down from northern Europe. The precision of the outlines of Greenland and Iceland is all the more surprising when compared to the Vinland Map's depiction of the Viking homelands in Scandinavia, which are barely recognizable: Sweden has migrated to the wrong side of the Baltic while Norway has been flipped to match the map's overall egg-shaped design.
Did the Vikings make maps?
Could the accuracy of the Vinland Map be testimony to the Vikings' extraordinary seamanship and mapmaking skills? Did the alleged medieval author of the map use an earlier Viking map as a source of information? Unquestionably, the Vikings were the most audacious and accomplished voyagers of the medieval world. Their sleek, clinker-built longships and bulkier cargo boats had reached Iceland during the 9th century A.D. and Greenland during the 10th, leading to permanent colonies and regular trade with the Scandinavian homelands. Beginning in 1961, the excavation of longhouses and typical Norse artifacts at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland proved that Greenland settlers had reached North America, ju
Such far-flung voyages of discovery demanded special navigation skills. An Icelandic codex known as Hauksbok details signs such as the appearance of whales, seabirds, and distant mountain peaks that voyagers would watch for as they crossed the open ocean. Viking sailors may also have developed simple astronomical aids, such as steering by the sun or the Pole Star, although there is no firm evidence for these practices. But however accomplished their seamanship, the Vikings never seem to have charted the coastlines they explored. Despite the detailed navigational texts and abundant geographical references in the sagas, no Norse cartographic drawing or engraving has survived. They don't appear to have been mapmakers at all.
The colorful Icelandic tales of Leif Eriksson and his followers did inspire European mapmakers to create North American charts identifying features mentioned in the stories, such as Markland, Helluland, and Vinland. But this interest in the sagas only took off during the 16th and 17th centuries—long after the purported mid-15th-century date of the Vinland Map. Beginning around 1570, Protestant mapmakers began incorporating new knowledge of the Americas based on pioneering Portuguese and English voyages of discovery. A strong motive for documenting the earlier Norse traditions of settlement was to repudiate Catholic maps and territorial claims defined by papal treaties. But even the most detailed of these maps, such as the Resen Map of 1605, appears to have been mainly an exercise in fantasy.