The Vinland Map: How a Mysterious Forgery Fooled Experts for Decades

After years of debate, a map once believed to be the first-ever depiction of North America was finally revealed to be a fraud—but mystery still abounds.
The Vinland Map courted controversy from the moment its discovery was announced.
The Vinland Map courted controversy from the moment its discovery was announced. / Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University // Public Domain (map); wilatlak villette/Moment/Getty Images (background)

In 1965, Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice Michael A. Musmanno traveled to Yale University to look at a map that, until recently, had been kept a closely guarded secret.

The document, dubbed the Vinland Map, was said to date back to 1440. It was inscribed with a phrase alternately deciphered as Vinlanda Insula, Vimlanda Insula, or Vinilanda Insula, and depicted a version of North America that included Greenland as an island as well as part of what appears to be the North American coast. When translated, text on the map seemed to corroborate the events of what are known as the Vinland Sagas, two 13th-century Icelandic texts that speak of legendary explorer Leif Erikson arriving in North America—likely present-day Newfoundland, Canada—by way of Greenland around 1000. If legit, as the university claimed it was, the map was the earliest representation of North America and provided more evidence that Vikings had made it to the continent nearly 500 years ahead of Christopher Columbus—who, although he sailed for Spain, was Genoese by birth and was later embraced by Italian Americans as a hero.

In a blow to their pride, the map’s existence was announced in a splashy press conference just before the holiday honoring the explorer. With it came a book written by scholars who had worked in secret for seven years to verify the map’s authenticity. “Cartographic Scholarship Turns Over New Leif,” the Los Angeles Times punned.

But after examining the map, Musmanno found it lacking. “I am convinced that the Vinland map is not genuine,” said the justice, a member of the Italian American Historical Society whose family originated from the Italian commune of Noepoli in Basilicata. “I trust that the Yale University library will repudiate the map and disassociate itself from a document of palpable irresponsibility.” He wasn’t the only one who had an issue; immediately after Yale’s announcement, skeptics noted the map wasn’t designed like a 15th-century map, pointed out historical anachronisms, and called other parts of the university’s evidence into question.

And it seemed those skeptics were on to something: In 1974, an independent analysis of the Vinland map by experts in microanalysis concluded it was a forgery. But even then, believers in the map’s authenticity persisted. It would take another, even more comprehensive analysis conducted by the university itself decades later to finally settle the debate once and for all.

The History of the Vinland Map

Provenance of the Vinland Map is murky. According to Connecticut Insider, the document first showed up in 1957 in the hands of an Italian book dealer named Enzo Ferrajoli de Ry, who was later arrested for stealing rare manuscripts from the La Seo archives in Zaragoza, Spain. 

After initially offering the map to the British Museum through a dealer named Irving Davis—the museum turned it down on suspicion it was a forgery—Ferrajoli sold the map to another dealer, Laurence Witten, from New Haven, for $3500. Witten, in turn, brought it to his alma mater Yale. Yale declined to purchase the map, but another alumnus bought it for $300,000 and agreed to donate it if its authenticity could be proven.

Although the map’s fuzzy history was a cause of concern for Yale, it didn’t necessarily indicate that the document was a fraud. “There was a lot of stuff on the market that had no provenance,” Nicholas R. Bell, then the senior vice president for curatorial affairs at Mystic Seaport Museum, told Insider in 2018. He  attributed the phenomenon to the turmoil of World War II: “ You just didn’t necessarily know where it came from because there was so much movement of material over the war years and after.”

The Vinland Map.
The Vinland Map. Click to enlarge. / Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University // Public Domain

When Witten purchased the Vinland Map from Ferrajoli, he discovered it was bound to a copy of the Tartar Relation, a report of the Mongol Empire originally written by C. de Bridia in 1247. Witten later claimed they were written in the same hand as another document Yale had recently acquired and asked him to examine: a copy of the Speculum Historiale, a history of the world composed by Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais.

The three documents also had corresponding wormhole patterns, indicating that the Vinland Map had originally been attached to the Speculum Historiale as well before the map and the Tartar Relation were removed and rebound together.

All of these observations led researchers at Yale to conclude that the Vinland Map was the (probably) real deal. They announced their conclusion in the book The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, written by British Museum curators R.A. Skelton and George D. Painter and Yale librarian Thomas Marston. But not everyone agreed with their findings.

The Debate, Continued

Doubt about the authenticity of the Vinland Map was so high that in November 1966, the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of American Studies put on a conference “to discuss the many questions that had arisen after the Vinland Map and the Yale book were made public the previous autumn,” Kirsten A. Seaver writes in Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map.

The issue of the map’s uncertain provenance was raised; Witten, a speaker at the symposium, claimed that the map’s owner “did not wish it known that he had such valuable things … because he would be taxed on them.” Also addressed was the secrecy that the three authors of the book had been forced to work under, which Seaver notes “prevented [them] from freely consulting other scholars when addressing such widely different subjects as codicological problems, the map’s place in the cartographical record, and the map's value to the history of the Norse in America.” Later, skeptics would point out other things that didn’t make sense, like textual issues—the Latinization of Leif Erikson’s name, for example, is problematic—and the depiction of Greenland as an island, a fact that wasn’t known in the 15th century. In short, there was an alarming number of red flags.

Wanting a definitive answer on the map’s authenticity, Yale University sent it to McCrone Associates in 1972. What their analysis uncovered did not support Yale’s conclusion.

For starters, a look under a stereomicroscope suggested the map was double-inked; someone had used yellow ink to simulate the stains that develop on medieval texts as ink seeps into parchment fibers, followed by black ink for the map itself (though this claim would prove controversial).

Researchers didn’t stop there: They used a number of ultramicroanalysis techniques—including polarized light microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and electron microprobe analysis—to determine that the ink on the map contained what appeared to be a synthetic form of anatase, a titanium dioxide compound. “These particles are unique and impossible to have been prepared in 1440,” Walter C. McCrone, a renowned chemist and founder of McCrone Associates, explained, “300 years before titanium was discovered and nearly 500 years before the chemical synthesis of pigment titanium dioxide was developed.”

McCrone’s findings should have settled debate around the Vinland Map, as should have Witten’s confession, published in a 1989 issue of The Yale University Library Gazette, that he had purchased the map without finding out its provenance. When examining Ferrajoli’s wares, Witten wrote, “I of course asked where these fine books came from, but the usual answer, ‘From various libraries and collections,’ was not very illuminating. Why did I not then and there insist on a pedigree? My reply can be only that 30 years ago there was no compelling reason to do so” due to the fact that, at the time, “books of quality fairly rained on the market, trotted forth as frequently by dealers as by the auctioneers.”

Yet discussion continued. Jacqueline Olin, a retired chemist who worked with the Smithsonian Institution, argued that the findings regarding the map’s ink didn’t prove that it wasn’t medieval in origin. In her research, she speculated that its creator could have unknowingly produced anatase by leaching titanium-rich ilmenite, a mineral that would have been available in the 1400s.

The foundation of one of the Viking workshops at L'Anse aux Meadows.
The foundation of one of the Viking workshops at L'Anse aux Meadows. / Torbenbrinker, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Belief in the map’s authenticity endured in part because, in 1961, archaeologists announced they had found proof of Vikings reaching the Americas, with the remains of a Norse encampment being unearthed at L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland. It was a huge revelation, providing the first evidence of North American colonization by Nordic people outside of Greenland—and although it remains the only evidence to this day, it’s not unthinkable that the settlement’s discovery may have made people a little more accepting of the Vinland map.

And in fact, the settlement had a direct effect on how the announcement of the map was made: Seaver writes that “the very existence of the Newfoundland site threatened to make the Vinland Map superfluous as ‘evidence’ for the Norse discovery of America,” making “the timing of Yale’s announcement … critical.” Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, the Norwegians who had discovered the site at L’Anse Aux Meadows, seemed to be the most likely of anyone to object to the map’s authenticity, something Yale felt might happen if they read about the find in the news rather than being informed ahead of time. So the decision was made to “overwhelm them with supposed corroborative information before any questions could be asked,” and to hold a gala in Norway. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, according to Seaver, Helge Ingstad noted that “while the map was certainly interesting, he considered it premature to judge it before he had been able to acquaint himself with the background material.”

The Final Analysis

In 2021, Yale decided to face the mystery again. Whereas previous investigations had looked at the map in isolation, this time the university examined it in conjunction with the authentic manuscripts to which it had been attached.

The interior of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where the Vinland map is held.
The interior of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where the Vinland map is held. / Michael Kastelic, Wikimedia Commons // CC by SA 4.0

Using newer, more reliable technology, researchers with the university’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage not only found that titanium was virtually absent from maps and texts of the same age, but also that the titanium found in the Vinland Map closely resembled a pigment that was mass-produced in Norway in 1923, dispelling Olin’s hypothesis and giving a new estimation for the document’s creation.

A later date for the map’s making was also supported by researcher John Paul Floyd, who uncovered an 1892 reference to what is almost certainly the Tartar Relation and Speculum Historiale that doesn’t make any mention of a map. The reference also confirms that the manuscripts were once in Zaragoza, where Ferrajoli had been convicted of stealing books. 

The Yale study also indicated that a Latin inscription on the back of the Vinland Map, a bookbinder’s note on how to assemble the document within the Speculum Historiale, was another piece of forgery, created to give the map an additional air of authenticity.

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“The Vinland Map is a fake,” Raymond Clemens, curator of early books at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, declared. “The altered inscription certainly seems like an attempt to make people believe the map was created at the same time as the Speculum Historiale … It’s powerful evidence that this is a forgery, not an innocent creation by a third party that was co-opted by someone else, although it doesn’t tell us who perpetrated the deception.”

Clemens also said he himself was eager to move on, arguing that “objects like the Vinland Map soak up a lot of intellectual air space … We don’t want this to continue to be a controversy. There are so many fun and fascinating things that we ought to be examining that can actually tell us something about exploration and travel in the medieval world.”

Who Forged the Vinland Map?

Though we now know the map to be a forgery, one mystery still lingers: We don’t know for sure who forged the Vinland Map, or why.

One scholar has suggested it was an elaborate prank to embarrass Nazi treasure hunters. That its ink dates to the 1920s has led others to theorize that the map may have been created to shift credit for the “discovery” of North America from Columbus to the Vikings due to anti-Italian sentiment that was prevalent at the time.

One thing, though, is certain. The Vinland Map may not be as valuable or historic as it was once believed, but the document’s shadowy provenance and extensive examination have granted it a status it will never lose.