- Historic Sites
The Mapping Of Vinland
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
One must also consider the description of these lands and of their prominent features. Helluland is stony; Markland low and wooded, with beaches; Furdustrands has long sandy beaches; Keelness is a northpointing cape, with a sound or bay on the west; Straumfjord has strong currents; Hop is a landlocked tidal estuary. It is the difficulty of reconciling these physical attributes with the other circumstances of the Norse discoveries that has occasioned the strongest conflict of opinion regarding the identification of the lands named in the narratives. The possibility that, in the process of transmission, details may have been transferred from one voyage to another, or even introduced into the saga narratives from some extraneous source, cannot be disregarded; and this gives a certain air of unreality to much of the debate. (In Mark Twain’s words, “the researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it.”)
It must be admitted that the Vinland Map reproduces very little of the geographical detail noted in the narratives of the Norse voyages. We find only the outline of a single land mass, divided into three by two deep inlets and the prominent capes, pointing northward or northwestward, on the south of their entrances. The narratives furnish no authority for the combination of the three lands discovered into a single great island, nor for the tracing of a continuous east coast, still less of a west coast. Are we to suppose these to be cartographic constructions evolved by the author of the map to justify his theoretical concept of Vinland?
We may observe on the map that Iceland is laid down a little north, and Greenland a little south, of the true positions. If these necessary corrections are made, it is not difficult to reconcile the relative positions of Atlantic lands in the map with the navigational data of the Norse voyages. We can see, in the first place, how Bjarni, sailing from Iceland and driven south of his course for Greenland by northeasterly winds, inevitably made a landfall on the American coast perhaps as far south as Nova Scotia, perhaps on Newfoundland or Labrador; his second and third landfalls lie northward of his first, and thence a southwesterly wind brings him, doubtless on a course more east than north, to Cape Herjolfsnes. Leif’s course to Helluland and Markland follows that of Bjarni in reverse; and, after crossing a sound and passing a north-pointing cape to the east of it, he comes to the land which he named Vinland. This topographical description is plainly reflected in the delineation of the more southerly inlet and cape in the Vinland Map. This cape perhaps also corresponds, in the cartographer’s mind, to the Kjalarnes of Thorvald’s and Karlsefni’s voyages. Karlsefni adopts a different outward course; and if the “Bjarneyar” of his narrative correspond to the similarly named islands of the old chorography of Greenland already cited, he may have gone as far north as Disko Island (69°-70° N) before turning his ship’s head westward. Hovgaard’s suggestion that the open coastal channel had to be followed “at least as far as the Western Settlement” before Karlsefni could find a passage through the East Pack neglects the probability that at this date Davis Strait was free of ice. With a northerly wind, and thus (we may suppose) on a southwest or westerly course, Karlsefni crosses Davis Strait and picks up land in two days. If we discount the map’s longitudinal error, these courses agree reasonably enough with the delineation of Greenland and the most northerly section (Helluland) of Vinlanda Insula .
Thus, if we were able to take the delineation in the map “at its face value,” by supposing its scale to be equivalent to that of the European coasts, correlation of the American lands depicted in it with the geographical conditions prescribed by the written sources would justify the identification of the two large inlets as Hudson Strait or Ungava Bay and as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and of the three land sections respectively as Baffin Land, Labrador (perhaps with Newfoundland), and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
The delineation of Vinlanda Insula in the map does not, in our view, derive from a cartographic model drawn from experience. The general appearance and conventional style of the outlines, the elements evidently born of theory or conjecture, and plainly contrasting with a few features which are clearly and boldly depicted as they are described in the narratives; the want of particularity elsewhere and the omission of numerous other geographical details mentioned in the texts—all these aspects of the design persuade us that it owes its ultimate, if not immediate, origin to a graphic reconstruction of the geography of the voyages, compiled from saga accounts or from hearsay, and generalized in transmission.
That the author of the Vinland Map made use of a map prototype compiled in this way is of course very probable. The prototype, whose maker must have enjoyed access to the texts of the saga narratives, was- with little less probability—drawn in Iceland.
There are, as Mr. Skelton points out at length, many differing identifications offered by scholars as to just what actual places Helluland, Markland, and Vinland may have been.