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Olin Helps with Carbon Dating of ‘Vinland’ Map

August 16, 2002

Using carbon-dating techniques, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution have determined the probable age of the “Vinland” map that predated Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. They say it was drawn in 1434 A.D., plus or minus 11 years.

The parchment map is the first known attempt to define the North American continent some 60 years before Columbus arrived in the West Indies.

The new studies also provide evidence that the map is authentic, said researchers at the Smithsonian.

Jacqueline Olin of Great Falls was assistant director for archaeometric research at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (SCMRE) when the study began in 1995.

Though she has since retired, she is still working on the project, she said.

The study results were published in the August issue of “Radiocarbon.”

"We await comments on how people view the significance of those results," Olin said.

“There was a flurry of dispute between two camps," Olin said.

"One thinks [the map] is a forgery and one thinks it was authentic. Olin herself said she believes “It has not been proven to be a forgery.”

Dating of the map provides evidence it is genuine, meaning there was "an intellectual understanding of North America that would result in a map in the middle of the 15th century. It is the concept of putting it down on a map that is unique," said Olin.

Now, she said she wants to investigate the ink on the map.

If it is proven to be a medieval ink, then “the question of forgery is moot,” Olin said.

“Many scholars have agreed that if the Vinland Map is authentic, it is the first cartographic representation of North America, and its date would be key in establishing the history of European knowledge of the lands bordering the western Atlantic Ocean,” she said.

Olin and co-authors Douglas Donahue, a physicist at the University of Arizona, and Garman Harbottle, a chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., along with SCMRE paper conservator Dianne Van Der Reyden, sampled the bottom right edge of the parchment map for analysis.

THE DATING PROCESS was carried out at the National Science Foundation-University of Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometer in Tucson. The unusually high precision of the date was possible because the Vinland Map’s date “fell in a very favorable region of the carbon-14 dating calibration curve,” said Elizabeth Tait of the Smithsonian’s Office of Public Affairs.

The parchment analysis supports a theory about the map’s connection with the Catholic Church’s Council of Basel, which convened between 1431 and 1449.

That connection was first posed by scholars R. A. Skelton, T.E. Marston, and G.D. Painter, who undertook a six-year investigation of the Vinland Map and accompanying “Tartar Relation.”

They argued for the authenticity of the map in their book, “The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation,” published in 1965 by Yale University Press.

Paul A. Mellon had purchased the map and manuscript for $1 million in 1958 and requested the study after donating them to Yale.

The map came to light in Europe in the mid-1950s without any record of previous ownership or provenance in any library or collection. It is now in the collection of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Conn.

The name “Vinland” derives from text on the map that recounts Bjarni and Leif Eriksson discovering “a new land, extremely fertile and even having vines, ... which island they named Vinland.”

The “Island of Vinland” appears on the map in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, and scholars say it may represent present-day Labrador, Newfoundland or Baffin Island. The map also shows Europe, Africa and Asia.

SEVERAL PREVIOUS STUDIES challenging the authenticity of the map focused on the chemical composition of the ink used to draw it, and pointed to the presence of anatase, which was not produced commercially before the 20th century.

But there are questions about how an ink containing anatase could have been formulated and used by a forger.

More recently, the ink has been shown to contain carbon, which also has been presented as evidence of a forgery. However, carbon can also be present in a medieval ink.

“Anatase may be a result of the chemical deterioration of the ink over the centuries, or may even have been present naturally in the ink used in medieval times,” Olin said. “The elemental composition of the ink is consistent with a medieval iron gall ink, based on historical evidence regarding ink production.”

Present carbon-dating technology does not permit the analysis of samples as small as the actual ink lines on the map.

“While the date result itself cannot prove that the map is authentic, it is an important piece of new evidence that must be considered by those who argue that the map is a forgery and without cartographic merit,” said Olin.

The article is available online at www.radiocarbon.org.

SCMRE advises and assists the Smithsonian and other museums in the study, preservation and conservation of artistic and historic objects.