Walrus Pitch and Other Novelties: Gavin Menzies and the Far North”
by Kirsten A. Seaver, © Kirsten A. Seaver. All rights reserved.
Some four years have passed since knowledgeable critics began to take apart Gavin Menzies’s published assertion that the task of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama and other early European explorers had been considerably simplified by their access to maps incorporating key information collected by medieval Chinese navigators who supposedly preceded them: thus it is hardly news that 1421: The Year China Discovered America[i] is now seen primarily as a completely unsubstantiated hypothesis dressed up as history. Nor is it news that the “Menzies team” continues to make extravagant assertions ranging from an insulting “explanation” for the origin of New Zealand’s Maoris to equally unwarranted claims about a medieval Chinese naval stronghold in Nova Scotia. Such claims now encounter analysis and deconstruction as soon as they appear.
On the assumption that it continues to be in the interest of both academic and general readers to maintain the distinction between entertainment and verifiable information, the present article will address anomalies in 1421 that have so far remained largely untouched by other critics, particularly details connected with the book’s claims that Zheng He’s Chinese explorers left their lasting imprint on New England, Newfoundland, Greenland and Ellesmere Island (to name just a few locations), as well as on several well known maps, including the so-called “Vinland Map,” first announced in 1965 and claimed as authentic medieval evidence of the Norse outreach to Greenland and North America.
Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad’s discovery and investigation of the L’Anse aux Meadows ruin site in northern Newfoundland during the early 1960s established that Norse travelers had reached the Canadian shores in the early eleventh century, their arrival in North America the culmination of two centuries of gradual exploration and colonization of the Atlantic islands that served as their stepping stones. Their last stop before going on to North America was Greenland, where Eirik the Red Thorvaldsson and his settlers succeeded in creating Europe’s most distant outpost and, in time, the most distant northwestern beacon of the Roman Church.
The three North American regions named by Eirik the Red’s son Leif[ii] were, from north to south, Helluland or “Slab Land” (a stretch of Baffin Island), Markland or “Forest Land” (a stretch of Labrador), and V’nland or “Wine Land” (in the area of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, incorporating at least parts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia). The medieval Norse neither used nor drew maps, and the scant surviving literary descriptions fail to define the American areas the Norse visited, but modern archaeologists have found evidence of their physical presence on both sides of the Davis Strait. The verifiable archaeological evidence reaches no farther south than to the southern St. Lawrence estuary, where the Norse would have found wild grapes, and where they would have been able to harvest the white walnuts whose shells turned up at the L’Anse aux Meadows site.[iii]
When 1421 purports to investigate the origins of the “Round Tower” at Newport, Rhode Island and states that the Norsemen “had penetrated nearly as far south as Newport” (328), the book ought surely to have provided some evidence taken from modern scholarship and to have demonstrated more than a glancing acquaintance with cult history. In order to arrive at the desired conclusion that the tower is a fifteenth-century structure erected by the Chinese to serve as both an astronomical observatory and a light house (328-33), the book raises the possibility that the “Round Tower” might have been built by medieval Norse, but dismisses the suggestion out-of-hand on the grounds that the Norse at that time “had little experience of lighthouse design” (330). This is an odd observation from an author who repeatedly assures his readers that he is a world-traveled old salt with excellent knowledge of medieval maritime matters. The Norwegian maritime historian Roald Morcken provides a long list of carefully constructed stone cairns marking the safe entrances to harbors, in many cases a feature of the Norwegian coastal landscape since before A.D. 1000;[iv] the Norwegians even lit warning fires on some of those cairns in times of danger. Innumerable inland structures furthermore testify to highly developed Norwegian stone masonry skills long before the fifteenth century.
The origin and purpose of the Newport Tower are well known, even if not admitted to in 1421. There is ample archaeological and documentary evidence that it was built in the late seventeenth century as a windmill on Governor Benedict Arnold’s estate and that it was copied from an identical structure still standing in England.[v] In one of many examples of the book’s penchant for contorting the published research of others to fit its own arguments, 1421 notes (328-29) that Suzanne O. Carlson of the New England Antiquities Research Association challenged the most recent Newport Tower research on several grounds, but the book fails to allow her central argument, namely that the structure is most likely Norse in origin[vi] (a notion that goes back to 1837 when the Danish scholar C.C. Rafn first stated his conviction that the Newport Tower had served as a Norse church[vii]). Though demonstrably mistaken in her general position on the Norse in North America, Carlson argues her views so meticulously and lucidly that it is hard to misunderstand her central point, and the more surprising that her arguments should have been used to validate the Chinese lighthouse theory. She may take comfort from the fact that 1421 does not scruple to assign Chinese workmanship to the Dighton Rock in Massachusetts -- carved by Algonkian natives but variously claimed over the years to be Welsh, Norse, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Portuguese.[viii]
The archaeological evidence for the northern extent of the Norse Greenlanders’ travels over several centuries goes at least as far as to 72 degrees north latitude,[ix] while Norse artifacts obtained either directly or indirectly by Arctic natives have been found as far north as on Ellesmere Island in conjunction with medieval Thule-culture house ruins.[x] In none of these carefully investigated High Arctic sites, nor farther south along the Canadian and Greenland shores, have archaeologists found a single artifact or other evidence suggesting a fifteenth-century Chinese presence.
Against this void of evidence, the book claims that in 1421-1422, a squadron of Chinese explorers and world colonizers rode the Irminger and West Greenland currents north from the Azores after they had parted company with yet another section of the immense fleet organized by Admiral Zheng He and supposedly charged with exploring and colonizing the whole world (323-39, 345-46). According to these claims, various segments of the fleet had gone their separate ways after reaching the Cape Verde Islands off the African west coast, and -- as luck and 1421 would have it -- junks commanded by Admiral Zhou Wen landed in Massachusetts “around Christmas 1421” (337-39). Leaving behind enough crew members in New England to start yet another supposed Chinese colony with several of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of concubines, the remainder of Zhou Wen’s men, we are told, then sailed on northward with the aim of fixing the exact position of the North Pole.
Sprinkling Chinese settlers or at least Chinese genes on their way, they purportedly took in such locations as Newfoundland, Greenland, and the Bache Peninsula on Ellesmere Island (345-47, 352). 1421 never explains why, after passing to the east of Newfoundland, the Chinese mariners did not follow the long Labrador coast north to South Baffin, past the Hudson Strait, before heading east to Greenland, using a route the medieval Norse had found convenient. Instead, Zhou Wen’s flotilla supposedly made a long loop out into the Atlantic and the lower Davis Strait (where in fact any travelers risked running into English ships by that time) before heading north from the southernmost point of Greenland (345-46 and maps 24-25, 346). The book’s claim that the winds and currents in these waters ensure that a “ship circumnavigating Greenland in this way would never have to sail into an opposing wind or current at any stage” (346) is utter fabrication. At any time of year the winds in both the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay are as unpredictable and treacherous as the frequent fogs, and while experience with the local currents would certainly factor into a navigator’s plans here as elsewhere, one wonders what experience these apocryphal Chinese travelers might possibly have had at their disposal in planning to coast a huge land mass as completely unfamiliar to them as the sea next to it.
Overlooking these problems, the book claims evidence for the Chinese explorers’ “thrilling gamble” in “the remarkable medieval maps that had already led me to so many discoveries about the Chinese voyages,” most particularly in the “Vinland Map” (347). The cartographical evidence in 1421 will be discussed in connection with the tale of how Zhou Wen’s men completed their alleged circumnavigation of the world’s biggest island and headed for home. For the present, our focus will remain on the assertion that a party of Zhou Wen’s mariners visited the main Norse colony in southwest Greenland, usually known as the Eastern Settlement.[xi] The subsequent account of a Chinese interlude in the Eastern Settlement has little to do with the known history of the Norse Greenlanders, however. Choosing to spotlight the person of Sigrid Bjšrnsdaughter and the Norse Greenland farm at Hvalsey, the book combines unrelated statements lifted (mercifully without any attribution) from my research in The Frozen Echo and adds its own embroidery to produce an amalgam of misinformation.
Contrary to the story told in 1421 (349-51), Sigrid was not Greenlandic, but the daughter of a wealthy North Iceland farmer who had married her off to someone at Hvalsey -- most likely the owner of Hvalsey farm, as befitted her wealth and social status. When her father died (evidently from the Black Death which swept through Iceland 1402-04), she inherited a number of Icelandic farms and was an attractive marriage prospect for the landless young Icelandic chieftain Thorstein Olafsson who arrived in Greenland in 1406 along with several friends. At that time Sigrid either was a widow or soon became a widow. In any event, she and Thorstein were married in Hvalsey Church in 1408 and, after a trading trip to Norway a couple of years later, went back to Iceland to stay. What little written evidence there is about these events comes from Iceland; it is not “preserved in the state archives in Oslo” (349).
In order to shore up various claims about the balmy weather enjoyed by the hypothetical Chinese explorers of Greenland, in contrast with the conditions endured by later travelers in the same waters, 1421 embellishes its account of the nonexistent “Oslo” documents, which “paint a very different picture of the land we know as Greenland... [Sigrid] possessed substantial flocks of sheep and cattle that fed on lush Greenland pastures, a scene quite unrecognizable from today’s barren, icebound land” (349). Suffice it to say that in addition to its other inaccuracies, this description bears witness to an astounding ignorance of Greenland topography. The inner fjord areas, where the medieval Norse tended their farms for about half a millennium, are actually as green and inviting during the summer season now as they were a thousand years ago, when Eirik the Red decided that this was where he wanted to settle.
The book produces additional misinformation to embellish the point it tries to make: “Excavations of the floors of the houses in which she, her family and her retainers and servants lived show that the climate in Greenland was far warmer before the onset of a miniature Ice Age in the 1430s” (349-50). Actually, the “Little Ice Age” began in the seventeenth century; meanwhile, the Norse Greenlanders had coped with sometimes significant climate fluctuations throughout their tenure on that enormous island. And nobody knows which house Sigrid and her “retainers” occupied while she lived at Hvalsey. The 1421 description of what archaeologists supposedly found on that site, indicative of a subsequent frigid climate period, uses disparate elements from reports having nothing to do with Eastern Settlement sites, but with investigations of Western Settlement ruins (abandoned by about 1400), to produce a medley luridly seasoned with free fantasy.
1421 repeatedly cites DNA “evidence” to describe the lasting impact around the world of the 1421-23 Chinese voyagers, and Greenland is no exception: “DNA analysis has again shown that the native people around Hvalsey possess Chinese DNA” (351). No documented modern investigation has found evidence even for Thule-Norse interbreeding, and 1421 does not explain who bedded whom and when to produce Inuit-Chinese offspring after the Thule people had moved inland from the outer coast to occupy the former farmsteads in the inner fjord regions when the Norse Greenland colony had closed down by about 1500. Instead, the reader is confronted with a scenario of disasters befalling the Norse denizens at Hvalsey, which becomes a cue for another piece of “evidence” that the Chinese had favored Hvalsey with a visit in 1422.
“Additional corroboration that the Chinese did reach Greenland comes from a most curious letter written in 1448 by Pope Nicholas V to the bishops of Skalholt and H—lar in Iceland,” 1421 intones (350). Failing to accompany its ensuing commentary with the known historical background to this letter or with source notes of any kind,[xii] the book explains that Nicholas V expressed concern for trials the Norse Greenlanders had experienced thirty years earlier at the hands of “’barbarians’ who came from Ôthe nearby coast of the heathens.’” The pope’s letter actually refers to “barbarian heathens,” but 1421 insists that the pope distinguished between the Canadian Inuit Ôheathens’ and the Ôbarbarians,’ defining the latter as “people who invaded Europe from the East,” and briskly concludes that “the Pope was almost certainly referring to Mongolian or Chinese invaders of Greenland.” Thus “the only rational view to take is that this letter is describing a Chinese fleet arriving from North America and attacking the local people, perhaps with cannon (Hvalsey, Sigrid Bjornsdottir’s home town and the main settlement of Greenland was within cannon range from the sea).” To the author’s own question in his book of “why the Chinese should have acted in this uncharacteristic way,” the reader receives this reply: “Perhaps they were attacked first” (351).
The mind reels at the thought of a small group of Norse men, women, and children menacing a huge, armed ship still a good distance off shore. One might also ask why the Chinese mariners decided to leave the outer coast and enter the Hvalsey fjord in the first place. Rather than pursue the argument the book’s author appears to be having with himself here, let it suffice that not a single cannon ball has been found on Hvalsey. The name itself (meaning “Whale Island”) refers to an island in the sheltered Hvalsey fjord and to a farm and church with an acknowledged status in the Eastern Settlement, but not constituting “the main settlement of Greenland.” Nor was it Sigrid’s “home town” -- there were no “towns” in Norse Greenland, only separate farms, of which Hvalsey farm with its distinctive church was merely one.
We are not told how long a sojourn the Chinese required at Hvalsey to produce that interesting DNA aftermath, nor why they subsequently went straight up along the rest of the long Greenland coast, apparently stopping nowhere else until they reached Smith Sound and headed for the pleasures of Ellesmere Island. According to 1421, on Ellesmere the far-flung travelers supposedly benefited not only from the presence of a polynya[xiii] close by, but from unusually warm climate conditions that made navigation in those Arctic waters comparatively free of the sea ice and fast-ice that bedeviled later European explorers (350, 353). The book’s argument disregards modern climate and ice research, which shows that at no time between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1500 would the waters along either Greenland coast have constituted anything less than a serious hazard even to intrepid and seasoned navigators.[xiv] In fact, the circumnavigation of Greenland which testified to its island status and general outline was completed piecemeal only early in the twentieth century.
Blithely ignoring the painstaking research done over the past century by experts on the Canadian and Greenlandic Arctic,[xv]1421 reports how the Chinese supposedly spent their time up on Ellesmere, where the ubiquitous polar bears (a constant threat to modern researchers working in the Canadian and Greenlandic Arctic) appear never to have interfered with the medieval Chinese visitors. Were these large beasts serenely turned into meals providing the mariners and their concubines with energy for procreative as well as practical pursuits in a cold climate? Their activities as described in 1421 certainly spark awe and wonder at what could be accomplished in a hostile and alien environment afflicted with menacingly huge distances. They are also guaranteed to perplex anyone familiar with research results from that remote region, most recently and thoroughly obtained by teams led by the two Canadian archaeologists Karen McCullough and Peter Schledermann.
Given the book’s inattention to scholarly reputations, its defiance of the ground rules for scholarship generally, and its blatant disregard for the detailed information Schledermann has published in the academic arena over the years, one ought perhaps not to wonder at this statement: “Peter Schlederman [sic] and Farley Mowat, two well-known authors and explorers, have carried out years of painstaking research in the High Arctic at the extraordinary villages of stone houses centred on the Bache Peninsula of Ellesmere Island...”(351-52). Mowat’s felicitous pen is certainly well recognized, but by his own admission he is neither a scholar nor an explorer. As he once wrote, he had found himself interested in the Norse sagas of Atlantic exploration but was confused by the many conflicting statements: “In order to synthesize all of them I concluded I would need to spend several years in close company with an educated computer. The alternative was to reconstruct the entire tale myself. This was a somewhat intimidating prospect, since I am no specialist in the arcane field of Scandinavian scholarship. But was this such a frightful handicap?”[xvi]
In a rare end note (623, n.6), the reader of 1421 learns that although the author’s conclusions differ from those drawn by Schledermann and Mowat, he relied heavily on their research, “without which this chapter could not have been written.” While an inventive methodology similar to Mowat’s might plausibly be claimed for 1421, the chapter “Expedition to the North Pole” reflects none of Schledermann’s work nor the findings of any other scholars focused on the successive Eskimo cultures known as the Pal¾o-Dorset, the Dorset, and the Thule (ancestors of the modern Inuit in Greenland and eastern Canada). The condescending attitude in 1421 to these Arctic natives is much the same as that brought to bear on other indigenous populations the medieval Chinese supposedly encountered on their way around the world. The bookrepeatedly claims that cultural, technological, or artistic prowess -- not to mention comparatively pale skin among native tribes encountered by later European explorers -- are evidence of skills and/or superior genes generously imparted by those fifteenth-century Chinese mariners and their marvelously fecund concubines.
Extolling the “exquisite artefacts ...of sumptuous workmanship carved from walrus ivory” and found within 250 miles of the North Pole (354-55), Menzies notes in his book that they “were designed by artists of genius. Could the Inuit have made them, or were they the art of a civilization almost as old as time?” Concerning Ellesmere Island specifically, 1421 focuses (350) on the “superb artefacts of exquisite workmanship that have been found nearby, such as fish hooks made from walrus ivory,” and resolutely ignores the beautifully crafted small objects in distinctive cultural styles that are now recognized as the work of the Dorset and Thule Eskimo peoples. Instead, the book takes it for granted that the nimble-fingered producers of Ellesmere fish hooks were members of Zhou Wen’s party, and that the “extraordinary villages of stone houses on the Bache Peninsula,” featuring “houses...so large and...stonework so well constructed that it is unlikely they were built by the Inuit peoples,” likewise owed their existence to those gifted visitors (352). In a further explanation, the reader is told that the Chinese architects responsible for the structures had “roofed them using the timbers of their ships” (353).
People informed about these and similar ruins elsewhere in the Canadian and Greenlandic Arctic know that they were constructed by the Dorset people for communal use during the summer hunting season and that they never had a roof, but this explanation would not have allowed the 1421 story to spin on and to claim that those large houses must necessarily have been constructed by Chinese mariners needing proper shelter during their Arctic odyssey, while the nearby outdoor stone hearths (similarly relics of the Dorset people) noted by archaeologists “must have” had an equally specific purpose in the Chinese scheme of things. They “must have been built for industrial purposes” (353). As described in 1421, this industrial activity included large-scale smelting of copper -- a “very valuable commodity” available on Ellesmere. Lest anyone wonder at this geological and industrial miracle, readers are assured (353) that “of course, the Chinese were adept at surveying for, mining and refining metals,” with an added non sequitur: “Coal originating from Newport, Rhode Island, has also been found in Greenland. Someone must have carried it there.” Not only do these observations fall short of compelling as evidence for the claim about Chinese copper smelting on the Bache Peninsula, but this American-coals-to-Greenland remark cultivates a tiny seed of outdated speculation into a sturdy plant of misinformation. A few decades ago, a small piece of coal was discovered in the ruins of Sandness, a Greenland Norse farm in the inner Nuuk region. The lack of coal deposits reasonably close by led to the hopeful suggestion that the piece had been brought back from North America by the medieval Norse.[xvii] Evidence of brown coal in Greenland has long since put paid to that notion, however, except among those with a vested interest in disregarding the evidence.
With the fuel at hand, those outdoor hearths on Ellesmere are said in 1421 to have lent themselves to other lucrative undertakings besides the smelting of copper and such useful domestic activities as “desalinating sea water or smelting snow for drinking water” (354). The book compounds these inanities by adding that the Chinese occupiers of Bache Peninsula also took full advantage of the local walrus population with “their magnificent ivory tusks and their hides, which could be boiled to make blubber oil for heating and lighting and distilled to make pitch to seal the hulls of ships” (353), therefore “the hearths were used to boil blubber, both to make pitch for sealing the wooden roofs of the houses and to provide heating and lighting oil for the winter” (354). This account reveals such a ludicrous ignorance of traditional northern resource exploitation that it ought not to pass without comment. Walrus ivory was indeed a precious commodity, and the thick layer of blubber that insulates seals, whales, and walrus from frigid temperatures was valued by both Arctic natives and the medieval Norse as a source of food, fuel, and lamp oil in addition to being used to waterproof kayaks, umiaks, and wooden-hulled ships. None of those people would have boiled walrus hide hoping to obtain oil, however. With considerable exertion, the Norsemen used to cut the thick hide into strips which, when dried, served as heavy-duty ropes, but the Chinese mariners were probably fully occupied with the alchemical challenge of turning blubber into pitch -- a substance which elsewhere at that time was obtainable only from pine tar.[xviii]
All good things come to an end, however, even at the bustling Bache Peninsula Chinese settlement. The reader of 1421 is never made privy to the number of ships and people allegedly at Zhou Wen’s disposal when he reached Ellesmere, nor to the extent and duration of the reduced settlement that supposedly remained when the Admiral decided to push on. Push on he did, however, of that the book’s author seems in no doubt. “Part of the Chinese fleet must have remained at the settlement for some time, but at least one ship must have gone on to circumnavigate Greenland because the northern and eastern coasts of Greenland appear on the Vinland Map” (354).
Reaching (or coming close to) the North Pole in yet another maritime feat is among the purported accomplishments of the remaining fleet as it set out on its long voyage home, past the north coast of Greenland. “They could now eat the last of the dogs and drain the remaining bottles of rice wine in celebration before at last setting sail for their homeland” (356). Taking advantage of the ever-helpful current they had predicted would curve around Greenland’s north cape and run down the east coast, the mariners supposedly headed smoothly south as far as to the Arctic Circle, where they altered course to head eastward to skirt Iceland’s north coast. Then north they went again to clear Norway’s North Cape, sailing past the White Sea, Novaya Zemlya, and the remainder of Eurasia’s northern extremity before dipping south again for the home stretch (354-56 and map 24-25).
To shore up this tale of a voyage that never took place -- and that never could have taken place under the physical circumstances 1421repeatedly goes to such trouble to upgrade -- both Chinese and European sources are called into service. In the pantheon of European witnesses, Christopher Columbus and his 1477 trip to Iceland and beyond[xix] are made to serve the book’s tale (355), and so is the 1507 WaldseemŸller world map, although WaldseemŸller’s honest, tentative, and certainly incomplete depiction of the western Atlantic regions so recently accessed by Europeans can hardly reflect a detailed Chinese survey some eight decades earlier. More than any other European map consulted by Menzies, however, the “Vinland Map” is said to provide incontrovertible cartographic evidence of the northern enterprises by Zhou Wen’s fleet (356).
When I first met Menzies in London in the summer of 2000, he promptly informed me -- in the context of my research into the “Vinland Map”-- that the map most likely dated to about 1425, giving as his reason that such a date would fit best with his other ideas on early exploration. In his book (347, 355) he dates the map to “between 1420 and 1440” or, more specifically, “c.1424” -- dates calculated to put the map hot upon the heels of the Chinese fleet’s return home while keeping it close enough to the c.1440 date claimed by the map’s early promoters. It would have been such a lovely story had the Chinese northern venture described in Menzies’s book ever taken place, and had the “Vinland Map” not been a modern fake.
The map’s authenticity has been disputed since Yale University Library announced its possession of the work in 1965.[xx] Menzies stoutly declares in 1421: “Those claiming the Vinland Map is a forgery have not remotely satisfied the burden of proof.” For his own part, he not only believes that the map is genuine, but “that the original cartographers who produced the information on which it was based were aboard several Chinese junks, at least one of which circumnavigated Greenland on a quest to reach the North Pole” (349).
He hammers home his point with one unsubstantiated statement after another, one of the more breathtaking ones being his association of Claudius Clavus (“Clavius” to Menzies) with the “Vinland Map” (348-49). According to 1421, incomprehensible “fairytale” names were placed on the “Vinland Map” by that Danish cartographer when he drew that map around 1424, but here as well Menzies has an explanation ready: “[I]f the original cartographers had been Chinese, Clavius [sic] would probably not have been able to translate the names marked on the chart, which might explain why he felt the need to invent them” (348). Taking the Chinese out of the story, we are left with poor, innocent Claudius Clavus, who drew two maps that we know of, neither of which is reflected in the “Vinland Map.” One work survives as the so-called Nancy map, made around 1424 and copied c.1427 for Cardinal Guillaume Fillastre. The other one, made a couple of years later, is not extant even as a copy -- we know its approximate contents only from the so-called Vienna texts on which Axel Anton Bj¿rnbo based a reconstructed map. A Dane himself, Bj¿rnbo observed that the seemingly nonsensical place names on Greenland are from a well known Danish ditty.[xxi]
In his book, Menzies credits the “Vinland Map” with showing “Newfoundland, Labrador and the whole of Greenland with great accuracy and in considerable detail” (347). One amazing detail on this “staggering cartographic achievement” is relegated to the far northwest of Greenland, where, by great good luck, a seemingly anomalous part of the map’s outline turns out to represent the “ice protruding into the sea from the huge glaciers of Mylius Erichsen’s Land and Kronprins Christian’s Land. Superimposing the shape of the glaciers onto a modern map of Greenland reconciles the disparity on the Vinland Map” (354). The map certainly shows an outline of Greenland, somewhat skewed, but otherwise quite recognizable -- so recognizable that in 1965 it quickly registered with scholars who knew that the piecemeal circumnavigation of Greenland had not been completed until the early twentieth century and that the lack of reliable information about the island’s shape and general nature is easily seen in maps made before that time. The uncanny outline on the “Vinland Map” is simply one of many signs that the mapmaker was steeped in nineteenth-century ideas, including the notion that the earlier (and much exaggerated) “Medieval Warm Period” had enabled the Norse to travel most of the way up both Greenland coasts and therefore to know the island’s shape.
To the west of Greenland lies the feature that earned the “Vinland Map” its name -- an island firmly identified in not just one, but two adjacent legends as Vinilanda insula -- the Island of V’nland. Not Helluland, not Markland, just the elusive V’nland placed in a recognizable relationship to Greenland and depicted with two inlets as befitted another nineteenth-century notion, namely that V’nland -- the only Norse “discovery” then considered worth bothering with -- had consisted of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia combined. An integral part of this nineteenth-century conceit, which lasted far enough into the twentieth century to permeate The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation in 1965,[xxii] was the conviction that the V’nland voyages had constituted a brief flurry of exploration, after which the Norse retreated to Greenland and stayed there. That mistaken notion is the reason why the “Vinland Map” conspicuously fails to show the long stretch of the Canadian east coast with which the Norse had actually become increasingly familiar over several centuries. It singularly fails to show Ellesmere Island.
After the publication of the British edition of 1421, which analyzed the Yale map as idiosyncratically as it did various other maps discussed in the book, Menzies declared himself “delighted to have independent evidence for the authenticity of the Vinland Map and the capacity of the Chinese to circumnavigate Greenland in 1422.” The first piece of supposedly authenticating evidence (479) was a radiocarbon dating of the map’s parchment placing it within the period 1411-68.[xxiii] This was scarcely the bombshell that Menzies would have us believe, however, both because scholars on either side of the debate had long since agreed that the parchment on which the map had been drawn had come from the same source as the two text manuscripts associated with it, and because the age of the parchment does not tell us when the map was in fact drawn.[xxiv]
Before wedging into his “Postscript” another invention about the “warm winters” in the Arctic that would have allowed the Chinese circumnavigation of Greenland, Menzies lists his second brilliant new revelation about the Vinland Map (479-80), namely the discovery of the offset imprint of a document issued in 1437 (not 1435, as Menzies would have it) in connection with the Council of Basel and subsequently used as pastedowns for the late-medieval binding that became associated with the “Vinland Map.” Menzies is apparently unaware that these offsets were first discussed at a conference in 1966 and published in 1971, and that they turned out to be evidence not of the map’s authenticity but of dubious codicological manipulations by the very people who wanted to pass the map off as authentic in 1957.[xxv]
As is well known to those who have followed the “Vinland Map” debate, the composition of the map’s crumbling ink has been investigated over the years by several top scientists, starting in 1974 when the McCrone Institute of Chicago found that in the residual yellow ink line on the parchment -- and only there -- the ink contains anatase crystals modified by modern industrial methods generally available only after about 1920.[xxvi] The result of this observation, several times confirmed, is that very few people are now willing to back the map’s claim to authenticity. In his original heated defense in 1421 of the “Vinland Map,” Menzies magisterially rejected any results of chemical analyses on the map’s ink that did not fit his own convictions (347-48).
If chemistry fails to convince the public that the “Vinland Map” is a modern fake, historical information ought to. The long legend by the Island of V’nland is such a litany of spurious nineteenth-century information about the Norse that it would be amusing were it not for the mischief it has caused since the 1965 publication of the Yale University Press book arguing for the map’s authenticity. There, the authors’ limited access to information about medieval Norse culture and history created a situation that shortchanged readers in search of information rather than speculation and that inadvertently inspired more than one uninformed yarn in the decades following.
The study of history is likely to reward anyone willing to undertake it in a quest for better understanding of who they are, how they became what they are, and what they might hope to become. The manufacture of a history that never existed rewards only those who make money by deceiving the public.
[i] New York: HarperCollins, 2003. It supersedes the 2002 British edition, entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered the World.
[ii] “Saga of the Greenlanders,” in Magnœs Magnœsson and Hermann P‡lsson, trs. and eds. , The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America, London: Penguin Books, 1965.
[iii] Birgitta L. Wallace, “L’Anse aux Meadows, the Western Outpost,” in Birthe L. Clausen, ed.,Viking Voyages to North America, Roskilde, Denmark: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993,p. 39; ---- “The Viking Settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows,” in Fitzhugh and Ward, Vikings, pp. 209-13.
[iv] Roald Morcken, “Europas eldste sj¿merker?” [“Europe’s Oldest Sea marks?” in Roald Morcken, Sj¿fartshistoriske artikler gjennom 20 Œr [Articles on Maritime History through 20 Years] with summaries in English. Bergen: privately published, 1983, pp. 67-108.
[v] See, e.g., Johannes Hertz, “The Newport Tower,” in William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000, p. 376; Kirsten A. Seaver, Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map, Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 55.
[vi] NEARA accommodates the views of pre-Columbianists of various hues. Suzanne Carlson’s article, “Loose Threads in a Tapestry of Stone: the Architecture of the Newport Tower,” may be read on NEARA’S web site: www.neara.org/CARLSON/newporttower.htm.
[vii] C.C. Rafn and Finn Magnusen, comps. and eds., Antiquitates Americanae, Hafni¾: Regia Antiquarium Septentrionalium, 1837.
[viii] Erik Wahlgren, The Vikings and America, London, Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1986, p. 108.
[ix] I have detailed these developments in The Frozen Echo : Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca. 1000-1500 A.D., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996, and in Maps, Myths, esp. chapter two.
[x] Peter Schledermann, “Notes on Norse Finds from the East Coast of Ellesmere Island, NWT,” Arctic 33, no. 3, 1980; Peter Schledermann and Karen McCullough,”Western Elements in the Early Thule Culture of the Eastern High Arctic,” Arctic 33, no. 4, 1980, pp. 833-41.
[xi] A smaller medieval Norse settlement, the so-called Western Settlement, some 400 miles farther up the Greenland west coast, is now generally thought to have been deserted around A.D. 1400. See, e.g., Inge B¿dkter Enghoff, Hunting, fishing and animal husbandry at the Farm Beneath the Sand, Western Greenland , i n Meddelelser om Gr¿nland: Man & Society 2003, 28: 15, 30, 91.
[xii] See, e.g., Seaver, Frozen Echo, pp. 96, 174-79 passim, 189, 226, 137.
[xiii] Polynya -- an area of year-round ice free water, of which there are several occurrences in the northern waters between Greenland and Canada.
[xiv] See, e.g., Astrid E.J. Ogilvie and Trausti J—nsson, “’Little Ice Age’ Research: A Perspective from Iceland,” in A.E.J. Ogilvie and T. J—nsson, gen. eds., Climatic Change 48 (2001), special monograph[h issue, pp. 1-46; Seaver, Maps, Myths, pp. 64-66
[xv] For an excellent overview of these investigations, see Peter Schledermann and Karen McCullough, Late Thule Culture Developments on the Central East Coast of Ellesmere Island (Danish Polar Centre Publication 12), Copenhagen: Danish Polar Centre, 2003, pp. 9-19.
[xvi] Farley Mowat, Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America., London: Secker and Warburg, 1965, p. vii.
[xvii] Helge Ingstad, Land Under the Pole Star (Naomi Walford, tr.), New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966, pp. 163-166. The Norwegian original (1959 ) was entitled Landet under Polstjernen.
[xviii]Nowadays, pitch is also obtainable as a petroleum derivative.
[xix] See, e.g., Seaver, Frozen Echo, pp. 208-11.
[xx] The known provenance of the “Vinland Map” -- a small, black-and-white manuscript world map in poor condition -- does not reach beyond the map’s sudden appearance on the antiquarian market in 1957. Menzies’s version of the original sales transaction (p. 347) is the work of someone who chooses not to check even the most mundane and easily available facts.
[xxi] Axel Anton Bj¿rnbo and Carl S. Petersen, Fyenboen Claudius Clauss¿n Swart (Claudius Clavus), Nordens ¾ldste Kartograf. Det Kgl. Danske Vidensk. Selsk. Skrifter, 6. R¾kke, historisk og filosofisk Afd. VI.2. Copenhagen, 1904, esp. pp. 106-09; Seaver, Maps, Myths, pp. 226-230.
[xxii] R.A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, and George D. Painter,The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.
[xxiii] D.J. Donahue, J.S. Olin, and G. Harbottle, “Determination of the Radiocarbon Age of the Vinland Map,” Radiocarbon44, no. 1 (2002): 45-52. Both Olin and Harbottle are longtime defenders of the map’s authenticity.
[xxiv] Seaver, Maps, Myths, pp. 167-68.
[xxv] Wilcomb Washburn, ed., Proceedings of the Vinland Map Conference, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, photos pp. xiv-xv; Seaver,Maps, Myths, esp. pp. 129-33.
[xxvi] Helen Wallis et al. 1974. “The Strange Case of the Vinland Map: A Symposium.” The Geographical Journal 140 no. 2 : 183-217.