The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation
The discovery and publication of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation is a gratifying event not only to scholars, on the whole an easily gratified tribe, and not only to those who for a variety of praiseworthy reasons must rejoice to see the eastern shore of North America appear on the map for the first time in history, but also to everyone with a sense of drama and an aesthetic appreciation of how things should be done. The Map itself is exciting, and the story of its recovery from centuries of oblivion, though somewhat drily recorded, is worthy of it. For what we have here is not only a first-class contribution to historical and cartographical knowledge, but a thriller not to be missed by anyone with fifteen dollars, an awareness of the past, and a belief that “books too have their fortunes.”
But let us begin with a framework of facts. For The Vinland Map, important and fascinating though it is, is not the heaven-sent proof many are calling it of the discovery of America, Vinland, Wineland the Good, by the Norsemen, almost five hundred years before Columbus. That, quite simply, is an event which has already been proved. The Map is an interesting and at the moment not easily assessable contribution to our knowledge of that event. It has to be fitted into a pattern consisting, first, of saga narratives from thirteenth-century Iceland, a number of significant references in early northern historical writings, including those of Adam of Bremen towards the end of the eleventh century, Ari Thorgilsson early in the twelfth, and the Icelandic Annals for the years 1121 and 1347, together with some possibly derivative but still reliable mentions in northern geographical treatises of the fourteenth century: second, a number of late northern maps, of which the most important are those prepared by Sigurdur Stefansson c. 1590 and Hans Poulsen Resen in 1605; and third, a limited amount of archaeological evidence, including an Indian arrow-head of Labrador quartzite found in the ancient Norse Western Settlement in Greenland, some chests of Labrador or Newfoundland larch discovered in the Eastern Settlement, a couple of cairns found far north in the Arctic Archipelago of Canada, and various objects uncovered as recently as 1961-3 in Northern Newfoundland. This, by the way, is a severely conservative choice of evidence in support of the Norse discovery.
The event itself took place a little before the year 1000 A.D. The east coast of North America (to be pedantic, Canada) was first sighted and reported on by a young Icelander named Bjarni Herjolfsson, c. 985-6, who for good and stated reasons didn’t go ashore. The first European to set foot on North American soil was Leif Eiriksson, son of the explorer and settler of Greenland, and recently honored with a name-day in the American calendar. Other founding fathers of note were Thorfinn Karlsefni (a fine nickname, meaning “true stuff of a man”) and Leif’s brother Thorvald Eiriksson. Between them these last opened up a…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.