NEWPORT NEWS — On the surface, the Vinland Map might be one of the great manuscripts of Western civilization. Supporters of the map housed at Yale University say it's a 15th-century document showing the first outline of North America and includes a legend describing the Vikings' discovery of the continent decades before Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World in 1492.
The Vikings called their discovery "Vinland" — "wine land" — because it was rich in grapes and wild berries. Archaeologists found proof of a Viking outpost in Newfoundland in the 1960s. And the estimated value of the map has soared to $35 million.
But beneath the surface, the Vinland Map is a fake, according to skeptics like chemist Michael Henchman.
"It's worth nothing," says Henchman, a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts who will use chemistry to debunk the map at a Jefferson Lab lecture Tuesday night in Newport News.
Henchman isn't the first to cast doubt on the map's authenticity.
Since its publication by Yale University Press in 1965, the map has been under debate. In 1972, a scientific team reported that its ink contained anatase, or titanium oxide, which was first made commercially available in the 1920s. In 1992, another scientist found titanium in a variety of medieval documents, which seemed to support the map's authenticity.
But controversy over the map continues to swirl. Henchman sees plenty of clues that point to forgery, even outside chemical investigation.
First of all, the Vikings had no tradition of mapmaking, Henchman said. Second, the map shows Greenland's rigid coastline with incredible accuracy for the 15th century. And the Latin writing on the map includes inflections that don't match the era.
The evidence looks even more damning when it comes to the chemical makeup of the map's ink.
Writers used two types of ink in the 15th century — Indian ink, a relatively expensive charcoal-based material that doesn't decay, and iron gall ink, made of iron and acid extracted from oaks. Over time, iron gall ink decays, and the iron rusts, creating a yellow-brown smudge around the writing in many antique manuscripts.
The writing on the Vinland Map contains what appears to be the yellow-brown shadow of decay.
But when Henchman's colleague Robin Clark analyzed the ink, he found no evidence of iron oxide, or rust. He found that the map was written in Indian ink, which should have shown no signs of decay.
"The forger put Indian ink on the map and then used anatase to make it look decayed," Henchman said. "It's a fundamental flaw, due the fact that he didn't know any chemistry."
During Henchman's lecture at Jefferson Lab, he will also discuss evidence to debunk a popular Impressionist painting, "Reading in the Forest," purportedly by Eva Gonzales, a student of Edouard Manet.
Paul Saenger, a medieval manuscript expert at Newberry Library in Chicago, said he wasn't surprised by Henchman's conclusions on the Vinland map.
"When there are so many questions on so many different levels about the map, it is unlikely to be genuine," Saenger said.
Submitted: Sunday, October 5, 2003 - 12:00am