So what have we learned so far about the Viking presence in America?
Well, we’ve looked at all the past usual suspects:
The Newport Tower. – Where we discuss where the tower came from and why it looks so much like a Norse tower. The reality of this structure seems to be that it’s really a windmill built by Gov. Benedict Arnold in the 17th cen, and the passing resemblance to a Norse tower was a creation in the mind of Carl Christian Rafn gotten from looking over some poorly drawn images of the tower, and never actually seeing the tower himself.
The Vinland Map – One of my favorite hoaxes of all time! Not just because it deals with maps, for which I have a fondness, but because it’s so old a hoax, it’s practically a real artifact itself now. Granted Yale would probably be really happy if it would turn out to be the real deal somehow, but with all the tests that have been done over the years, the evidence is really starting to weigh against that chance.
The Kensington Runestone. – The Runestone Museum in Minnesota still sort-of touts this one as being a real artifact when all evidence points to it being a hoax. The most convincing of all includes a detailed confession of how the hoax was set up and a then there is the major lack of any supporting evidence that it is remotely real.
Wisconsin Viking Horse Skull – This one is interesting because it’s not really about whether or not the skull is that of a Viking horse or not (it’s not BTW), but over if the skull found was the skull that was planted by pot hunters, or a different skull actually buried with the human remains it was found with.
Beardmore Relics – These are indeed Viking relics, but where and how they were found is the real question. Still, after confessions brought the truth to light, the Royal Ontario Museum still got the last laugh. They gamely put the relic’s back out on display explaining the whole situation, and showing that they could take a joke.
But with the dismissal of all of these fun, yet unreal, stories about Viking’s in America, lets not overlook the real evidence of their presence here.
Please let’s all ooh and aah over L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada once more. Because, as I’ve explained many times, Vikings are cool, and we have evidence they landed here long before Columbus! Yay! Still as awesome as my beloved Vikings were, they were sadly not the first people to reach the new world.
So who were, you ask? Well, we still have several candidates out there. Mayhaps the Chinese?
The Vinland map is an interesting artifact, one that captured my attention as a child. Frankly, I think the evidence points to the map being a fake, but there are a some who still fight for it to be real.
The Vinland map first surface in 1957 glued inside the of the cover of a bound volume of Hystoria Tartarorum (Feder 2006:119, Wiki). Apparently, the book was originaly owned by a Spanish-Italian book dealer named Enzo Ferrajoli de Ry. He hired London book dealer Irving Davis to offer the book to the British Museum. When that offer was refused Ferrajoli sold the volume, for $3,500, to an American dealer Laurence C. Witten II, who offered it to Yale University, who took the book (Wiki).
At first, it was dated to around 1440 and people suggested that the map was actually a copy of an earlier map based on Viking knowledge of Canada and Greenland (Feder 2006:119). Yet, even from the beginning there were skeptics.
One reason the British Museum had turned down the map when offered was because their Keeper of Manuscripts detected elements of handwriting style not developed until the 19 century (Seaver 2004). Also, map Scholar Douglas McNaughton pointed out that the map was in a style unlike any other 15 Cen map (Feder 2006:119). There was no delineation boarder showing the dived between heaven and earth, the orientation was wrong, and there was no mention of the map in the book in which it was bound (Feder 2006:119). The parchment appeared to have been soaked in some unknown substance that was not able to be tested for and the out line of the map seemed to consist of two separate tracings, one in a feint graphite or ash, the other one more yellowish (Baynes-Cope 1974). This yellow line was of more interest because the black ink used to outline the continentsappeared to have a diffused yellow band around it, which was typical for old inks, and normally takes hundreds of years to form. However, under the microscope it was discernible that the yellow line had been drawn on first, then retraced with the black in to mimic the appearance of old ink (Feder 2006:119).
Also, there is the appearance that they map was on drawn on a single sheet of paper, but rather two separate pieces (Baynes-Cope 1974). Evidence of this is that several place-names start or finish right before the inner edge of the map instead of being written straight across it (Baynes-Cope 1974). Even the rivers of eastern Europe run parallel to it (Baynes-Cope 1974). In 2005 a team from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, led by Dr. René Larsen, studied the map and confirmed that the two halves of the map were entirely separate (Larsen and Poulsen 2005). It was suggested that two separate blank leaves in the original “Speculum Historiale”, of which the first dozen or so pages are missing, could have been used to create the map (Seaver 2004). This would explain the chemical treatment of the pages to disguise differences in color and texture, and the noticeable notch in the bottom could have been cut to disguised the slight size difference (Seaver 2004). All of which were common tricks of the fake antique trade.
All of this before we even discuss the ink!
The ink was instantly a point of contention as it was not conventional iron-gall ink, and didn’t match any known formula available at the time (Baynes-Cope 1974). Also, microscopist Walter McCrone, examined the physical characteristics of the map with a scanning electron microscope and election and ion microprobes (Feder 2006:119). He found the presence of titanium dioxide, the name for a yellow pigment called anatase or titanium white, which was not manufactured until the 1917 and required a knowledge unknown until this time (Feder 2006:119). His conclusions are backed up by a second study and by British researchers Katherine Brown and Robin Clark (Feder 2006:119). Interestingly, this ink is not found on any of the pages of the book (Feder 2006:119).
As always there must be deceters, one of which is Larsen himself. At the International Conference on the History of Cartography in July 2009, Larsen revealed that his team had continued their investigation after publishing their original report, which was apparently not in support of authenticity. He letter explained to Reuters that:
“All the tests that we have done over the past five years — on the materials and other aspects — do not show any signs of forgery” (Acher 2009).
He says that his team studied the ink and the wormholes in the document and found that the wormholes were consistent with the book the map is bound in (Acher 2009), which contradicts earlier studies (Feder 2006:119), and that the ink could have gotten it’s traces of anatase from sand that could have been used to dry the ink (Acher 2009). Of course there is no evidence of this and Larsen and his team did not examine the crystals of the anatase to see if it matched up with anatase found in sand.
Kenneth Towe, a retired geologist from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. says,
“The problem is if the anatase…came out of gneiss or any other natural source, it is going to have a totally different appearance than the anatase that appears on the Vinland map ink,” he notes. Towe says the Vinland ink has small round crystals produced chemically, whereas sand would have larger fractured crystals from grinding along with other minerals like quartz. “Even if sand has been found on other maps,” he adds, “it still has never been found on the Vinland Map.” (Borrell 2008)
Though it is true that the parchment on which the map is drawn does carbon date to about 1440 (Acher 2009, Borrell 2008, Feder 2006:119), that doesn’t actually mean the drawing of the map itself was made at that time. Clever forgers of the past have used old papers to create the look of authenticity. So why exactly did Larsen change his story? We may never know.
Still, the map is an interesting item, though at this point I would guess most scholars don’t believe in it’s real. What’s more important, we don’t need it to be. We have other, very credible evidence of a Viking presence in America long before Columbus. At this point the authenticity of the map is more to do with Yale than with history.
2009 “Vinland Map of America no forgery, expert says”. Reuters.com. Reuters. 17 July 2009. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
1974 “The Scientific Examination of the Vinland Map at the Research Laboratory of the British Museum”.Geographical Journal (The Geographical Journal, Vol. 140, No. 2) 140 (2): 208–211. doi:10.2307/1797077.JSTOR1797077.
2008 Pre-Columbian Map of North America Could Be Authentic–Or not, Scientific American. July 22 2008. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
Feder, Kenneth L.
2006 Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, 5th ed, McGraw-Hill, New York. NY.
René Larsen & Dorte V. Poulsen,
2005 “Report on the Assessment and Survey of the Condition and Technique of the Vinland Map and the Bindings of the Tartar Relation and Speculum Historiale.” Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
Seaver, Kirsten A.
2004 Maps, Myths and Men. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
In our first installment of this series we looked over the actual factual, evidence of both Christopher Columbus and Leif Eiriksson discovering the Americas. Arguably, you could say Columbus discovered South America, and Leif the North. I would say, simply touching a rock on one park of a massive continentcomplex doesn’t equal discovering both bits of America, but that’s my opinion on the matter.
Apparently some folks agree with me, because there have been several claims around North America of evidence of Vikings. We’re going to go over them, and see if there is any merit to these claims.
The Newport Tower.
Newport, Rhode Island is said to have a singular structure, surely evidence of Vikings. The Newport Tower, aka Old Stone Tower, aka Touro Tower, aka Old Stone Mill, aka…anyway you get the point. The Newport Tower stands at the west end of Touro Park. It is a round stone structure that was preserved in 1854 when Judah Touro donated $10,000.00 to the City of Newport to conserve it and the land around it (Barstad 2007, 2008). Until recently, little has been known about the tower, except some speculation that the Tower might have been built by Vikings, but is there evidence?
Certainly there is no other known Norse structures around, or Nordic artifacts, or anything else to suggest the Norse were ever in the area, but you do have to admit, the tower does look strange. It doesn’t look like other known 17th-century structures, which are often square or rectangular and built of wood. New England smock mills are described as tapered, with narrow tops and wide basis, and almost always built of wood (Barstad 2007, 2008). It has a very rustic look to it, made out of stone, it even has those weird arches at the base. Does it match up to any other known Nordic structures? Not as far as I can tell. Still there is enough going on here that it’s worth looking at the unusual structure.
William S. Godfrey Jr. conducted a dig around and under the tower and published his findings in American Antiquity in 1951. He appears to have been pretty thorough. He lifted the sidewalk surrounding the tower (placed there by the city, I believe. Don’t quote me.) looking for, and finding, the construction trench and taking his units down to the sterile layers of soil. He describes the soil surrounding the structure thus:
“We cleared the area with great care, but found the yellow clay, as before, completely undisturbed; no sign of foundations, no postholes, no Norse artifacts (Godfrey 1951).”
Instead he did find pottery sherds, iron nails, clay tobacco pipes, buttons and buckles, all traceable to Scotland, England, or the English Colonies in America. All were dated to between the 17th and 19th centuries (Godfrey 1951,Feder 2006:117). He even found a preserved boot-print in the soil beneath the stone foundation (Godfrey 1951, Feder 2006:117).
Later in 2006 and 2007, The Chronognostic Research Foundation sponsored their own research on the Newport Tower (Barstad 2007, 2008). They used several different techniques that would not have been available to Godfrey, including ground penetrating radar (Barstad 2007, 2008). They identified quite a bit about the history of the park and they increased the amount of 17th, 18th, and 19th century artifacts found in association with the tower, backing up Godfrey’s findings (Barstad 2007, 2008).
I’m mildly hesitant to use Barstad’s work, mainly because of the conclusions she draws at the end of the 2008 report. Specifically that the Tower is really an observatory and that it was built around 1125. Her Observatory conclusions are biased on window orientation, making the case that two windows line up for the sunset on the winter solstice, but she seems to ignore a clearly visible, filled in, window. Not to mention the Chesterton Windmill, thought to be the actual model for the Newport tower, displays similar windows and is clearly a mill.
Also, I have no clue where she is getting her date of 1125 when the oldest artifact her team recovered was dated to the 17th century. She goes on to reference Nordic saga’s, but there is no evidence to support or suggest that she should. Also, the lime mortar bonding the stones together has been radiocarbon dated to 1665 (Feder 2006:117), so…
Other factors that work against the tower being as old as 1125, is that the area was settled in 1639, and no one ever mention the tower (Feder 2006:117). Also the Newport Historical Society explained:
“We’re 99.9 percent sure the tower was built as a windmill by Governor Benedict Arnold in the 17th century.” When asked about the remaining 0.1 percent of doubt, the member added, “Oh, well, the public does so love a good mystery, we like to leave a bit for them.” (Barstad Nd).
The first known mention of the Tower is in Gov. Benedict Arnold’s 1677 last-will-and-testament, where he uses it as a landmark for where he wanted to be buried (Barstad Nd, Feder 2006:118). Arnold was brought up near Chesterton, England and the design of the mill was well-known there (Feder 2006:118). Most likely, he built a similar one when he got to the colonies (Feder 2006:118).
Apparently, the origin of the Norse idea began in 1830, when Carl Christian Rafn, the then Danish secretary of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquities in Copenhagen, suggested that the Tower was built in the 12th century by the Norse. He never saw the tower, so was making a guess based on the descriptions of others, specifically a drawing by F. Catherwood (Barstad Nd). Rafn suggested that the tower was built under Eric Gnupsson, a bishop from Gardar, Greenland, sometime between 1112 and 1121.
The problem here is that Rafn never saw the Tower himself, and as gifted an artist Catherwood was, his picture is known to have inaccuracies, which could have influenced Rafn. For Barstad to use this as evidence of any kind is a little unsettling, especially when there is no other apparent reason to accept such an idea, and the actual evidence is so heavily weighed against it.
There are a bunch of other ideas as to how the Tower got here, all attached to the various contenders for the title of “Who Discovered America First”. Some suggest (Barstad mostly) that the Scott, Sir Henry Sinclair, built it while exploring the coast of North America between 1395 and 1398 as part of a planned community (Barstad Nd). There is a Chinese Theory by a retired British submarine commander named Gavin Menzies, who suggests a Chinese treasure fleet (always a treasure involved somewhere) rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1420’s built the tower as part of their colony (Barstad Nd). There is a Dr. Manuel Da Silva who suggests the CorteReal brothers shipwrecked in the early 1500’s and built the Tower so that rescuers could find them (Barstad Nd). She even put forward the idea that the Basque built it as a kind of whale spotting tower (Barstad Nd).
There are massive and immediate holes in all of these ideas. Hearsay cannot trump evidence, especially in archaeology. We can use a good story to help us formulate a hypothesis, but when the evidence, in the form of artifacts and now ground history, doesn’t support that hypothesis, we must decide on the side of the evidence. Clearly this was not done in this case, and it’s upsetting.
Still, the hard facts point to a 17th century birth for the Newport Tower, probably at the hands of Gov. Benedict Arnold, and very probably modeled after the now famous Chesterton Windmill.
But this isn’t the only supposed Viking evidence out there, oh no. There is also a very questionable map that we’ll look over next week.