Mystery map exposed

UPEI associate professor of history, Richard Raiswell, was part of an expert team that covered truths about the infamous Vinland map for the Treasures Decoded television series

Mary MacKay
Published on September 7, 2013

Medieval cartography expert Richard Raiswell studies the Vinland map that was allegedly drawn in 1430.


It’s a mystery of history akin to the Shroud of Turin or the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And since 1965 when Yale University announced the discovery of an alleged 15th century Vinland map that detailed an 11th century exploration of the New World by Norsemen hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus, its validity has been a source of controversy.

Now a group of experts, including Richard Raiswell, who is an associate professor of the Department of History at UPEI, has worked to unlock the mystery of this map for a new television series, Treasures Decoded, now airing on the History Channel.

“If this was genuine, it would be absolutely priceless and it would be absolutely revolutionary: revolutionary for what it shows (the first map of the New World) and revolutionary for our understanding of the Vikings as well because we have no other evidence that they thought of drawing a map because they always wrote down sailing directions,” Raiswell says of the map, which details Europe, Asia, Africa and, most importantly, Greenland and a landmass beyond called Vinland, which is in the area of what is now known as Newfoundland and Labrador

One of this UPEI associate professor’s areas of research is in the history of cartography, namely 15th- to 17th-century maps.

“I’m interested, in particular, in the maps that are wrong. I’m not interested in the great cartographers . . . I’m interested in people who get things wrong and why they keep getting it wrong,” Raiswell says.

“And so I’d run into the (Vinland) map in a number of different contexts, but this was the first time I’d actually done some extensive study of the document and started thinking about what it is as a document and why it just doesn’t look right.”

The Vinland map first surfaced in Spain in 1957, bound together with another medieval text called the Tartar Relation.

It was offered for sale to the British Museum, which turned it down.

It was then sold to an American dealer, who in turn sold it to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., which released it with great fanfare in 1965.

However, there was suspicion from the start of its authenticity because the wormholes in the map and the Tartar Relation did not match up, even though they had been bound together.

“Then people started thinking ‘OK, these two things have nothing to do with each other’ and they started thinking this thing was a fake,” Raiswell says.

“And then in just this ridiculous coincidence, which I think is really very, very suspicious, suddenly some book dealer, also in New Haven, shows up with this other manuscript — it’s a medieval encyclopedia. It’s entirely random. It has nothing to do with either the map or the Tartar Relation. But when you put them together the wormholes match. They go through the map, through the encyclopedia and (Tartar Relation) . . . . So at some point there were three parts to this (bound) document.”

Although the map was previously carbon dated to the period of time in which it was said to have been created, that by itself doesn’t prove it is genuine.

“The map is on 15th century parchment, which is not difficult to find if one knows where to look,” Raiswell says.

Compounds that were only found in inks after 1917 were also discovered during prior tests on the map. But for Raiswell, the fact that the ink on the map was also incredibly faded was most interesting.

“Medieval ink generally stays. Most medieval manuscripts, the ink soaks into the parchment because it’s animal skin, and so this ink faded,” he says.

The Latin text on the map tells a brief tale of the two Norsemen who ventured across the sea to create a settlement in what they named Vinland.

“It says that two men, Bjarni (Herjolfsson) and Leif, who is probably Leif Erikson, discovered this region. And we know from Viking writings that Leif Erikson was in Vinland around about the year 1000. So that would put this (map) about the year 1000,” Raiswell says.

“This caption goes even further. It says that people are travelling from Greenland over to Vinland, including the Bishop of Greenland . . . . and we can date that to about (the years) 1113 or 1114. So if this map was genuine, what it’s saying is that the Vikings were

travelling regularly over to the New World and these New World settlements are being sustained from Greenland, and that this region also had the Christian bishop of Greenland going to Vinland at some point.

“This does seem to bear out in Viking sagas, which tell us that the Vikings were in the New World round about the early 11th century. We know that that’s true and L’Anse aux Meadows (Norse archeological site in Newfoundland) confirms that.”

Raiswell says at that level the map seems to ring true, but a key point he noticed during his research for the Treasures Decoded show had to do with one of the cartography images.

“Greenland is shown as an island. It’s really quite an important thing because nobody circumnavigated Greenland until the 20th century. So why does the person who drew this map think of Greenland as an island?

“Could it be that the Vikings circumnavigated it? The Vikings never say that . . . . Could it be that the cartographer guy who drew the map was just guessing? But it’s an incredibly lucky guess because he kind of gets the shape of Greenland right,” he says.

“So that in itself suggests that somebody is working with 20th century knowledge.”

Another debunking factor is the map itself, an alleged 15th century document that details Leif and Bjarni’s journey to the New World four centuries earlier.

“If this is genuine, you’ve got to think that Bjarni and Leif drew something and then people had been copying that for 400 years. We don’t have any of those copies, and then suddenly we have a copy that shows up about 1430,” Raiswell says.

“And if this is real, this is the only map which shows the Vikings drew anything. We don’t have any Viking maps at all. When the Vikings are talking about sailing, they do it in writing (in their sagas). They say, ‘You sail toward the setting sun for 13 days’ or something like that. . . .”

So who crafted the map? And when? A theory by Norse scholar Kirsten Seaver, who was also an expert on the Vinland map Treasure Decoded show, identifies an Austrian Jesuit priest in the late 1930s as a likely culprit.

“At that point Austria has just been taken over by the Nazis and this man is the head of a private religious library in Austria. The Nazis of course aren’t particularly enthusiastic about Catholics. They’re beginning to loot the treasures and so on,” Raiswell says. “And what Kirsten Seaver argues is that what this map does is shows the whole world is actually Christian very, very early. . . . so this Jesuit priest is putting this map together more as just wishful thinking and perhaps to use against the Nazis at some point as a propaganda exercise just to say ‘Well the whole world’s Christian and has been Christian since the 11th century and here’s a map which shows that Christians were the ones who discovered the New World, Christians were the ones who were in Asia and Christians were the ones who were in Africa. . . .’”

The belief is that the priest then bound the map into a book with the other medieval documents and put it in the library, which was then pillaged by the Nazis and through the fickle finger of fate made its way to Yale University where Raiswell got to view it firsthand last summer.

“We were in a special room in Yale’s big library and they brought it out . . . . . with great fanfare and put it in front of me. It was such a disappointment. Some of the medieval maps that I’ve seen are absolutely huge, they’re two metres square. They’re bright colours, there are lots and lots of captions all over them. They’re really big ornate things. And this is a scrubby little document . . . . ,” he says.

(But) the build up was great, and I’m very glad I’ve seen such an important document. Even as a forgery it’s interesting.”