The Vinland Map is Fake

From YaleNews (hat tip: Dan Franke): 

The Vinland Map, once hailed as the earliest depiction of the New World, is awash in 20th-century ink. A team of conservators and conservation scientists at Yale has found compelling new evidence for this conclusion through the most thorough analysis yet performed on the infamous parchment map.

Acquired by Yale in the mid-1960s, the purported 15th-century map depicts a pre-Columbian “Vinlanda Insula,” a section of North America’s coastline southwest of Greenland. While earlier studies had detected evidence of modern inks at various points on the map, the new Yale analysis examined the entire document’s elemental composition using state-of-the-art tools and techniques that were previously unavailable.

The analysis revealed that a titanium compound used in inks first produced in the 1920s pervades the map’s lines and text.

The Vinland Map is a fake,” said Raymond Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses the map. “There is no reasonable doubt here. This new analysis should put the matter to rest.”

The new study also uncovered evidence that the map deception was intentional. A Latin inscription on its back, possibly a bookbinder’s note guiding the assembly of the Speculum Historiale — an authentic medieval volume and the likely source of the map’s calfskin parchment — is overwritten with modern ink to appear like instructions for binding the map within the genuine 15th-century manuscript.

The altered inscription certainly seems like an attempt to make people believe the map was created at the same time as the Speculum Historiale,” Clemens said. “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.”

Yale created a sensation in 1965 when it announced the Vinland Map’s existence and published a scholarly book about it by Yale librarians and curators at the British Museum in London. Its discovery seemed to demonstrate that Norsemen were the first Europeans to reach the New World, landing in the Americas well before Columbus’ first voyage. (Archeological discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland during the 1960s confirmed that the Vikings had built settlements in the Americas long before Columbus sailed.)

From the beginning, however, scholars began to question the map’s authenticity. And over time an overwhelming consensus has emerged that it is indeed a 20th-century forgery.

More at the link.

The Gjellestad Longship

News from Norway (hat tip: David Winter):

Norway excavates a Viking longship fit for a king

Pyramids, castles, palaces: symbols of power and status have taken many forms down the ages, and for the Vikings what really counted was the longship.

This month Norwegian archaeologists hope to complete their excavation of a rare, buried longship at Gjellestad, an ancient site south-east of Oslo. It is the first such excavation in Norway for about a century.

Most of the ocean-going ship has rotted away over the centuries, but archaeologist Dr Knut Paasche believes the layout of the iron nails will still enable a replica to be built eventually.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) revealed it to be about 19m (62ft) long and 5m (16ft) wide – putting it on a par with the well-preserved Oseberg and Gokstad Viking ships on display in Oslo.

Those ships were found on the western side of the wide Oslo Fjord.

In the 9th Century the Vikings started using sails, but they still needed strong rowers too for their epic voyages.

In their longships they travelled all around the British Isles, raiding coastal communities, then settling and leaving a legacy of fine craftsmanship, as well as Norse words and names.

The Norse Vikings ventured to Iceland and some then settled in Greenland and Vinland in North America – what later became Newfoundland.

The Gjellestad warrior longship dates from the pre-Christian Viking period 750-850 AD, Mr Paasche of the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (Niku) told the BBC.

“We don’t yet know if this was a rowing or sailing ship. Others, like the Gokstad and Tune ships, combined rowing and sailing,” he said.

Study of the keel will be crucial and, he said, “the keel looks very different from the others, which is really exciting”.

More at the link

Shires

England does not really have counties – it has shires. The fundamental subunit of the English state was the brainchild of Alfred the Great, who reorganized his kingdom of Wessex to meet the threat of Danish invasion from the north. He defeated the Danes at Eddington in 878, and then proceeded to reconquer England from them, imposing his new system as he went. Eventually Wessex expanded to include all England, and reflecting this fact, the names of most English “counties” end in -shire, for instance Leicestershire, Worcestershire, Lincolnshire, or Hertfordshire. If a shire enjoyed an independent existence prior to Alfred’s conquests it might retain its old name, e.g. Kent, Essex, or Cornwall, but don’t be fooled, these too have been reduced to the status of shires. (This is why there is no County Wessex – England itself is Wessex.) 

I assume that the Normans started calling them counties after 1066, given that that was the name they were familiar with on the continent, a name that has stuck. But they are not counties in the French sense of the term, because they are not the private fiefdoms of nobles called “counts.” To this day there are no counts in England – the equivalent noble rank being an “earl” – an Anglo-Saxon term related to the Scandinavian “jarl” (chieftain). But the counties are not earldoms either – such English nobles may have been landowners, but their holdings were scattered here and there – they did not possess their fiefs in return for exercising governmental functions on the local level, as did the vassals of the French king. Instead, the (usually non-noble) shire-reeve, a royal appointee, was in charge of tax collection and law enforcement in his particular shire. William the Conqueror liked this setup and continued it, and the sheriff remained an important figure in medieval England. 

So “county” might have replaced “shire,” but “count” did not replace “earl” (although the wife of an earl is a “countess”). 

And if the word “county” is not really suitable to England, how much less suitable is it to America, where titles of nobility are forbidden by the constitution. But I don’t know what American state subunits should be called. Not duchies or satrapies! “Departments” would be nicely republican. Louisiana calls its subunits “parishes” but given America’s separation of church and state I’ve never felt that “parish” is appropriate either. 

Going Berserk

From Ars Technica (hat tip: Richard Utz):

Viking berserkers may have used henbane to induce trance-like state

Ethnobotanist argues the plant is a better fit than hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The legendary Viking warriors known as berserkers were renowned for their ferocity in battle, purportedly fighting in a trance-like state of blind rage (berserkergang), howling like wild animals, biting their shields, and often unable to distinguish between friend and foe in the heat of battle. But historians know very little about the berserkers apart from scattered Old Norse myths and epic sagas. One intriguing hypothesis as to the source of their behavior is that the berserkers ingested a specific kind of mushroom with psychoactive properties. Now an ethnobotanist is challenging that hypothesis, suggesting in a recent paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology that henbane is a more likely candidate.

Accounts of the berserkers date back to a late ninth-century poem to honor King Harald Fairhair. The 13th-century Icelandic historian/poet Snorri Sturluson described Odin’s berserkers as being “mad as dogs or wolves” and “strong as bears or wild oxen,” killing people with a single blow. Specific attributes can vary widely among the accounts, often veering into magic or mysticism. There are claims that berserkers were not affected by edged weapons or fire, but they could be killed with clubs. Other claims say they could blunt the blades of their enemies with spells or just by giving them the evil eye. Most accounts at least agree on the primary defining characteristic: a blind ferocious rage.

The onset of berserkergang purportedly began with bodily chills, shivering, and teeth chattering, followed by swelling and reddening of the face. Then the rage broke out, and once it abated, the berserker would experience both physical fatigue and emotional numbness for a few days. Several hypotheses have been proposed for why the warriors would have behaved this way, including self-induced hysteria—aided by biting their shields and howling—epilepsy, ergot poisoning, or mental illness. One of the more hotly contested hypotheses is that the berserkers ingested a hallucinogenic mushroom (Amanita muscaria), commonly known as fly agaric, just before battle to induce their trance-like state.

Read the whole thing

L’Anse aux Meadows

Flags of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and the United Nations, at the L’Anse aux Meadows visitors’ centre. 

As promised, a post about L’Anse aux Meadows, an archaeological site of some importance, located at the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland and maintained as a National Heritage Site by Parks Canada. The site, discovered in the 1960s, offers indisputable proof that Scandinavians settled in the New World around the year 1000, almost five hundred years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas; for this reason it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also quite popular and provides a lot of the branding for local tourism (the Viking Trail, the Viking Lodge, the Great Viking Feast, etc.)

Several Icelandic sagas describe voyages made by the Norse from their settlements in Greenland to mainland North America in search of needed supplies, chiefly timber. The explorers visited places they named “Helluland,” “Markland,” and “Vinland” – and since the nineteenth century archaeologists have tried to identify them. It is reckoned that “Helluland” is Baffin Island, and “Markland” somewhere on the coast of Labrador. Vinland was more elusive: the sagas describe it as a place where wild grapes grew, which could be on the southern shore of of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or south of that in New England. 

Vínland, with an acute accent over the “i”, means “wineland,” which would be a natural name for a place with wild grapes. The Norwegian husband-and-wife team of Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, however, hypothesized that it was simply “Vinland,” without the accent, which would mean “pastureland,” with northern Newfoundland being a promising site. Visiting L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960, he was shown a series of low turf walls that the locals referred to as “the Indian mounds.” Excavations throughout the 1960s showed that these were the remains of buildings similar to those found in Iceland and Greenland and dating from around AD 1000. What really established the site as Norse, however, were such discoveries as a spindle whorl used for weaving, a stone with a depression in the middle (interpreted either as a lamp or a pivot stone for a door), a bronze fastening pin, and the remains of a forge that had produced iron slag, and the remains of iron rivets used for boat repair. No Natives at this time used such technology. 

Remains of the Viking buildings.

As it turns out, L’Anse aux Meadows is probably not Vinland, which really ought to have a long “i” and mean “Wineland,” as the sagas suggest. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace points out, in Westward Vikings, that the word “vin” as “pasture” had fallen out of use by 1000. She suggests that Vinland was likely somewhere in northern New Brunswick, and that L’Anse aux Meadows is Straumfjord (“Current Ford”) mentioned in Erik the Red’s Saga, a sort of base camp that served as a gateway to Vinland and a place to gather goods before shipping them back to Greenland. The inhabitants at the site did not practice agriculture, but they could spend the winter there if need be, in the substantial turf buildings they had constructed.

Model of the site.

Will we ever discover where in “Vinland” the Norse actually came ashore? Wallace claims that it’s unlikely. Any temporary camps the Norse may have set up in New Brunswick would have left little evidence behind, or at least such evidence would be indistinguishable from sites of Native provenance. Even items of Viking origin would not be proof of an actual encampment, but simply of trade (such items can travel a long way from their point of origin, through many intermediaries). 

Parks Canada reconstruction of Norse buildings at L’Anse aux Meadows.

L’Anse aux Meadows was not occupied for very long, perhaps less than ten years in total (at least, if you don’t subscribe to the most recent scholarship on the place). Our guide claimed that the Ingstads, and subsequent archaeologists, have actually found very little at the site, evidence that it was deliberately abandoned (if it were suddenly and hastily abandoned, the occupants would have left a lot more stuff, since they wouldn’t have had time to clean it up). He also claimed that the abandonment was as a result of the conversion of the Norse to Christianity, which also took place around the year 1000. With conversion, trade with Europe became much easier, obviating the need to sail to Vinland, although Wallace suggests, from evidence uncovered in Greenland, that the Vinland explorers were already Christian. Either way, it was likely just as easy to sail to Norway as it was to Newfoundland, where more interesting goods could be acquired, and where there was a bigger market for Greenland’s walrus ivory. And in any event, Wallace estimates that maintaining the site was too expensive in terms of manpower – it would have required some 5% of the adult male population of Greenland, which was simply too much.

Reconstructed forge, L’Anse aux Meadows.

It is certainly worth a visit if you ever get there. The Visitors’ Centre is excellent, with thorough and informative exhibits, and a great gift shop. The reconstructed buildings, complete with re-enactors, are also a lot of fun. 

But part of me wonders whether it isn’t somewhat ethnocentric to make such a big deal about L’Anse aux Meadows. The place is significant, but far more significant is Port au Choix, an archaeological site which we visited as we drove up the northern peninsula. It features six thousand years of continuous occupation by successive Native peoples, including the Maritime Archaic people, the Dorset people, the Groswater people and the Beothuks, all of whom fished and hunted seals. This place deserves to be better known.

The trouble is that it would be politically very difficult to have re-enactors playing Indians. Even the diorama, you’ll notice, does not feature three-dimensional figures.

Viking Boat Burials

From the Independent:

Rare Viking boat burials unearthed in first discovery of its kind in 50 years, archaeologists say

Excavation team discover grave containing man, horse and dog in Sweden

A pair of Viking burial boats have been discovered by archaeologists in Sweden, in what is thought to be the first find of its kind in almost half a century.

Uncovered in the city of Uppsala one contained the remains of a man, a horse and a dog.

“This is a unique excavation; the last excavation of this grave type in Old Uppsala was almost 50 years ago,” Anton Seiler, an archaeologist at the National Historical Museums in Sweden, said.

“It is extremely exciting for us since boat burials are so rarely excavated. We can now use modern science and methods that will generate new results, hypotheses and answers.”

Only around 10 boat burial sites of this kind have been previously discovered. They were mainly found in the nearby provinces of Uppland and Vastmanland.

In one of the newly discovered graves, archaeologists found personal items, including a sword, spear, shield and an ornate comb.

They said it was likely that they were for important members of society, due to their unusual burial.

“It is a small group of people who were buried in this way. You can suspect that they were distinguished people in the society of the time since burial ships in general are very rare,” Mr Seiler said.

More at the link

L’Anse Aux Meadows

I’m hoping to blog something about our visit to the only authenticated Viking site in North America (if Greenland is not part of North America, of course). In the meantime, I wanted to post this article from Medievalists.net, which suggests that the Norse continued to revisit and reuse the site throughout the High and Late Middle Ages:

New archaeological information uncovered at Viking site in Newfoundland

Researchers from Memorial University in Newfoundland and Liverpool John Moores University made the discovery of a previously unknown archaeological layer, about 30 metres from the 1,000-year-old Norse ruin.

While the new location did not produce any culturally specific artifacts, archaeologists did discover charcoal and wood-working debris. Laboratory analyses also confirmed insect remains, including early records for beetle species assumed to be post-Columbian (1492) additions to the Canadian fauna.

“We are still not sure what this new deposit is,” said Dr. Paul Ledger of Memorial University and the lead author of the article. “Its general character and microscopic content resembles Norse deposits elsewhere in the North Atlantic, but carbon dating indicates it dates from the late 12th to mid-13th century, after the Norse settlement.”

The article, published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, notes that the new research “indicates the possibility of sporadic Norse activity beyond the early 11th century. Data from indigenous contexts is less precise, and activity is modeled to have begun between the 8th and 12th centuries. L’Anse aux Meadows therefore could have been a shared zone of interaction.”

The full article may be read in PNAS. 

Vikings!

Dorothy Kim in Time espouses a common theme among woke medievalists:

Far-right Viking medievalism is not about historical accuracy. Rather, it’s used to create narratives. So, to resist the medieval narratives that activate violent hate, we must create counternarratives — and to do that, we must understand the real Viking past and how it has been weaponized.

I am no fan of white nationalism, but I am chary of Prof. Kim’s prescriptive “counternarrative,” on the principle that it sure looks like she is holding history hostage to her own present-day concerns. Apparently, the far right looks back on the Vikings with admiration, since they were bad-ass white people. Well, we can’t have that, so we’ll imagine that they were “multicultural and multiracial.”

But is this actually true?

I repeat my idea that academics should seek the truth as much as possible. If people want to idealize a historical era for their own reasons, that has nothing to do with us. Or rather, we should keep on doing what we’re doing, gently correcting any misconceptions out there as we discover them. Constructing noble-lie “counternarratives” is just as bad! If it’s bad, say, to elevate the Greeks as the fountainhead of all that is good about Western Civilization, then accusing them of stealing everything from the Egyptians isn’t any better.

Here is a proper use of the Viking past, snapped at a local Dollar General.

Another Viking Site?

Someone ought to compose a list of every claimed Viking site in North America, with a rating: definite (1), as yet undetermined (2), and definitely false (3). The latest one, from Archaeology World (hat tip: David Winter):

Discovery of Viking site in Canada could rewrite history

An iron working hearthstone was discovered on Newfoundland, hundreds of miles from the only noted Viking location to date.

Another thousand-year-old Viking colony might have been found on the island of Newfoundland, Canada. The finding of the old Viking location on the Canadian coast could drastically change the story of the exploration of North America by the Europeans prior to Christopher Columbus.

The excavation of the stone, once used in iron working, on Newfoundland took place a hundred miles south of the only known Viking site located in North America.

This proposes that Vikings may have traveled much farther into the continent than previously thought.

A team of archaeologists have been unearthing the newly-found location at Point Rosee, a narrow, windswept peninsula on the most western part of the island.

Others referenced on this blog:

L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland (1)
Miramichi-Chaleur Bay, New Brunswick (2)
Baffin Island, Nunavut (2)
Cambridge, Massachusetts (3)
Memphis, Tennessee (3)
Alexandria, Minnesota (3)
Newport, Rhode Island (3)