“This map should not exist,” begins the narration of a new episode of “Treasures Decoded,” a popular history television show that uses historical and forensic experts to dig up new truths about old artefacts.
This particular episode opens with Dr. Richard Raiswell climbing the steps to the library archives of Yale University. He’s been given special permission to examine a rare and controversial document: the Vinland Map.
Dr. Raiswell is an associate professor of history at UPEI, and an expert on medieval documents. He is one of the guides of “Treasures Decoded” as the program examines this mysterious map, which seems to defy what we know about the discovery of North America.
“The Vinland Map is supposed to date from about 50 years before Columbus sailed at the end of the fifteenth century,” says Dr. Raiswell, “but it portrays the world including what would today be the Canadian Atlantic Provinces. A place the map calls Vinland.”
The map is controversial because it flies in the face of historical convention. Dr. Raiswell says that while it is true that the Vikings had explored and settled parts of North America hundreds of years before the voyage of Columbus, they never made maps of the area.
“If it’s a fake, it’s a very good fake,” says Dr. Raiswell. “The parchment dates from the mid-fifteenth century, and some say the knowledge that created the map was passed down from the Vikings to the Roman Catholic Church.”
Dr. Raiswell and others aren’t convinced of the map’s authenticity. The program tells the story of how the document seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the 1950s. A dealer shopped it around to historical archives in the UK, who deemed it to be fake. It was eventually brought to the United States, where a prominent book dealer advocated for its authenticity. Yale bought it, and immediately put three scholars to work to authenticate it.
“These were great scholars,” says Dr. Raiswell, “but they were the wrong scholars. None were experts on maps or handwriting from the fifteenth century. And, they operated without the advice of proper experts, because Yale wanted this work done in secret.”
The map was revealed to the world three years later with great fanfare. Its discovery coincided with the recent discovery of L’anse Aux Meadows—a site in Newfoundland once inhabited by the Vikings.
Watch the full program, produced by Pier 21 Films in Halifax, below.
Dr. Raiswell says most evidence points to the map being a fake, and possibly the handiwork of a German cartographer and Catholic priest in the 1930s.
“When you compare it with authentic maps from the time, it is awfully small, and frankly, kind of shabby. Contents aside, it’s a rather unimpressive piece of work,” says Dr. Raiswell. “This was created in a time when there was a huge market for rare historical artefacts. That sort of demand leads to forgeries, and I think that’s the case with the Vinland Map.”