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Mystery Map (video)
July 30, 2002

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Interviewee: Dr. Garman Harbottle, Brookhaven National Laboratory.

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Produced by Jack Penland

Copyright ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage from Brookhaven National Laboratory

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The World Before Columbus - PBS

Tales of the "Un-Fake" - Yale Alumni Review


Is it the oldest known map of the New World or an elegant fake?

As this ScienCentral News video reportrs, two studies out this week give support to both sides of the debate.


Controversial cartography

Maps are supposed to help people find their way. But the Vinland Map seems to have groups of scientists heading in opposite directions and to different conclusions.

The map is interesting because it appears to be from nearly the 1430’s—60 years before Christopher Columbus—and shows an outline of the eastern coast of North America. It also has a description of Viking journeys to North America.

The map created controversy when it was first made public in 1965, because at that time there was little archeological evidence that the Vikings had explored parts of what would become Canada. Now, different sets of researchers—publishing almost simultaneously in different scientific journals—have unveiled different evidence that apparently both supports and discredits the map’s authenticity.

The first study, published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, backs earlier studies that the ink on the map shows that it was drawn in the 1920’s.

The second study, published in the journal Radiocarbon reveals that carbon dating of the paper shows the paper to be from before Columbus’s time.

The ink study, done by Robin Clark, professor of chemistry at University College London and doctoral candidate Katherine Brown, used a process called Raman microprobe spectroscopy. In an old document, ink sometimes runs and changes color. The Vinland Map has lines drawn in black, with small amounts of yellow on either side where the ink supposedly ran. The pair did a chemical analysis of both the black and yellow lines. They determined that the chemical composition of the black lines could not cause the yellow lines.

The ink study builds upon an earlier study of the ink done in the 1980’s. In that study, chemical microscopy pioneer Dr. Walter C. McCrone of the McCrone Research Institute concluded that the ink used contained a crystalline form of titanium dioxide, which wasn’t widely available until the 1920’s. However, map supporters said the titanium dioxide could easily be a by-product of 500 years of decay.

The second study took a different approach. Scientists from the University of Arizona, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the Smithsonian Institution used carbon dating to determine the age of the parchment upon which the map was drawn.

"To make a long story short," says Brookhaven chemist Dr. Garman Harbottle, "the final date which we’ve come up with is 1434 A.D., plus or minus eleven years." He calls the variance of 22 years "an unusually precise carbon date." He says carbon dates, "usually have a variance of 40, 50, sometimes a hundred years."

Yale University—which owns the map and keeps it in the University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library—has both argued the map is authentic and agreed it could be a fake. With the help of the university, Harbottle, along with Douglas J. Donahue of the University of Arizona and Jacqueline S. Olin, of the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, undertook a detailed scientific study of the parchment. Harbottle and Donahue had previously worked together to carbon date a portion of the Shroud of Turin.

1434 is significant because, according to Harbottle, "our date fell smack in the middle of the council of Bazil." The council of Bazil was a medieval church council that ran roughly from 1430 to 1440. "So," argues Harbottle, "if a forger really did carry out a forgery using an old piece of parchment, either he was incredibly lucky in having obtained a piece of parchment of precisely the right age, or something else has happened that we are unaware of."

Of the ink study, Clark said, "The Raman results provide the first definitive proof that the map itself was drawn after 1923." He further explained that the process "demonstrates the great importance of modern analytical techniques in the study of items in our cultural heritage."

Still, Harbottle concedes the two tests won’t end the debate, "I think nothing will lay the question of authenticity to rest."

by Jack Penland



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