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Continuing Vinland Map feud might make Musmanno smile

Tuesday, February 29, 2000

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Chistopher Columbus or Leif Ericson?

Worm holes or caliper measurements?

Titanium dioxide as a 20th century additive or as a centuries-old product of chemical breakdown?

  Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael A Musmanno would have been cheered by the latest challenge to the so-called Vinland Map. An outspoken critic of the map based on his own studies, he died on Columbus Day, 1968, before much of the latest scientific challenge to the authenticity of the map had surfaced. (Undated PG file photo)

Such a scholarly battle royal has raged ever since Yale University announced 35 years ago that it had obtained a chart -- the so-called Vinland Map -- purporting to show that Viking explorers, and not Columbus, had discovered America.

The most recent salvo in the academic war over the map's authenticity was fired by physicist Douglas McNaughton, who conducted a study in preparation for an exhibition on Vikings in April at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

McNaughton arrived at the same conclusion promoted 35 years ago by a noted Italian-American jurist from Stowe -- the Vinland Map is probably a fake.

Announcement of McNaughton's findings wasn't the first time that Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael A. Musmanno's adamant -- some might say vitriolic -- position on the map had been backed up by scholars.

In 1973, an independent geochemical analysis by Dr. Walter C. McCrone showed that the map ink contained materials that would not have been available as a commercial pigment until about 1920.

But Musmanno never could use much of the scientific support for his view because he died -- appropriately enough given his passion for the man -- on Columbus Day 1968 at the age of 71 before much of it had come out.

No matter. Musmanno never for a moment doubted he was right about the map and Columbus. While he may have been right about the former he probably was wrong about the latter because archeologists now agree that a site at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland attests to the pre-Columbian presence of the Norse.

For the three years preceding his death, Musmanno never wavered in his belief that Yale scholars were less than scholarly in "documenting" the map's authenticity or that they had engaged in an "outright gratuitous sneer" at the Italian explorer by announcing the discovery on Oct. 11, 1965, and putting it on public display the next day -- Columbus Day.

Yale had conducted "a publicity campaign seemingly quarterbacked by a team consisting of PT Barnum and Machiavelli," Musmanno wrote in his 160-page book on the controversy, "Columbus WAS First."

"Not content with exhibiting it as the mere unverified cartographic curio it is, those responsible for the custody of the map at Yale have succumbed to the temptation of slitting open their ungainly goose of a map to extract the golden egg of publicity and sensationalism."


Musmanno's book was published in 1966 on Columbus Day.

Yale parried that a reasoned response to Musmanno's tome was impossible because he had launched an emotional rather than a scholarly attack.

If they thought that would shut him up, they didn't know Musmanno, the proud son of an Italian immigrant; the holder of seven degrees from five universities; a passionate defender of doomed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti; a thrice-decorated veteran in World War II; a Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal judge; the author of more than a dozen books.

The Yale Bulldogs had met a bulldog in his own right.

"It is rather symbolic that the person who speaks for Yale is anonymous as is the drawer of the monstrosity called the Vinland Map," Musmanno responded, noting his position was based on cartographic, historic and geographic research.

When the map's existence was revealed, Yale and British museum scholars said it was drawn about 52 years before Columbus set forth, basing their opinion in part on worm holes which, they said, coincided with worm holes in two pre-Columbian manuscripts. That proved the three documents had been bound together, they asserted.

Musmanno wasn't buying it and, with Yale's OK, traveled to New Haven and measured the worm holes with metric rule and calipers. His calculations indicated they didn't match, leading him to call the map a "hoax."

McNaughton took a different tack. The physicist and independent scholar of early maps analyzed chemical tests of the map's ink and comparisons with authenticated maps of the 15th and 16th centuries. He said he found persuasive evidence that the map, whose value has been assessed at $25 million, appeared to have been contrived in the early 20th century and modeled after 16th century Portuguese maps of the North Atlantic.

The parchment itself, McNaughton said, may be the only thing about it that is from the pre-Columbian 15th century.

"It has been called a fake since it was first seen by cartographic historians," he wrote in a chapter for a book, "Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga," to be published in conjunction with the opening of the Smithsonian exhibition. "Nothing about the map style, the ink, the lack of provenance, or its unknown date of production suggests otherwise."

Other scholars and scientists who have studied the map generally supported McNaughton's conclusions. They said few experts still defended the map's pre-Columbian origins. Officials at Yale say they are open-minded.

But even with those conclusions, the debate just won't go away. Some defenders of the map's medieval origins have taken sharp issue with the new interpretations.

Jacqueline Olin, a chemist and research associate at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research, said that, if anything, "I'm more and more convinced of the map's authenticity."

She said the presence of titanium dioxide, or anatase, in the ink, often cited as evidence of 20th-century manufacture, would just as easily be there as a consequence of deterioration of the ink since the middle ages.

State Superior Court Judge William F. Cercone, Musmanno's nephew, said yesterday the fact the Vinland Map debate has continued so long is absurd.

"[Musmanno] showed they were in error," Cercone said. "How many times do you have to point out to a great university like Yale that it's wrong?

"People want to carry this on for whatever ulterior motive but you can go on for ages arguing about something that's fallible.

"It's been proven to be in serious error," he said. "For them to continue on another piece of evidence shows their inability to face historical facts."

Somewhere -- probably not the Valhalla of Norse mythology -- Uncle Michael is likely smiling.

The New York Times contributed to this article.

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