Fall 2018: By David Malakoff.
In the fall of 1965, a select group of people received an ornate and mysterious invitation. Please come, it said, to a black-tie ceremony at Yale University’s Beinecke Library in New Haven, Connecticut, to celebrate the acquisition of a map “of the greatest significance.” The crowd that attended the event wasn’t disappointed. With fanfare, Yale officials unveiled what came to be known as the Vinland Map. The medieval parchment dated to about A.D. 1440, they said, and it would rewrite history by proving that Viking seafarers had reached North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus. The proof was in the map’s upper left corner: the outline of a landmass that resembled the eastern coast of Canada marked Vinland—a Norse name for a land to the west of Greenland—and a caption explaining that European explorers had visited in the eleventh century.
The map, the Yale experts noted, matched Viking sagas describing Leif Eriksson’s voyages to Vinland. And the timeline was supported by a remarkable archaeological discovery, made just a few years earlier on the coast of Canada, at a site called L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. There, a team led by Norwegian researchers Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad had found evidence of a small Norse settlement dating to roughly A.D. 1000. Among the finds were the ruins of eight structures, iron boat nails, a bone knitting needle, a hone, and a bronze pin likely used to fasten a Viking cloak. The Norse had probably established the outpost to tap the region’s rich natural resources, including timber, iron ore, and wildlife.
The Yale announcement, made just hours before Columbus Day, immediately generated headlines—and controversy. Americans of Scandinavian origin were giddy with newfound pride in their Norse ancestors, but many Italian Americans were distressed by the perceived attack on their hero of discovery. Numerous scholars, meanwhile, were simply baffled by the Vinland Map and doubted its authenticity.
Excerpt, More in our Fall 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 22 No. 2. Browse Contents: FALL 2018
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