Saturday, October 21, 2006

BOOK: Andrew Robinson, "Lost Languages"

Andrew Robinson: Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts. Mc-Graw Hill, 2002, 0071357432 (hc), 0965421244 (pb). 352 pp.

This is an interesting book about various undeciphered (or formerly undeciphered) writing systems. It includes the three famous examples of successful decipherment: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mycenaean Linear B writing, and the Mayan hieroglyphs. Then there are several chapters about scripts that are still undeciphered, including both well-known and less well-known ones: Linear A, the Indus Valley script, the Etruscan alphabet, the inscription on the Phaistos disc, two pre-Maya scripts from Central America (Zapotec and Isthmian), the rongorongo writing of Easter Island, the Meroitic script (Egypt-inspired, used in Sudan in the late 1st millenium BC), and the Proto-Elamite script (the earliest writing system of Persia, just a bit younger than the early cuneiform of neighbouring Mesopotamia).

Physical aspects of this book

From the point of view of form and production, this is an unusual book — it has many elements that remind one more of a textbook than of a traditional trade publication. For example, there's the unusually wide format; the pages are almost as wide as they are tall, and much of the text is set in two columns. (I guess the width of the pages was chosen so as to accommodate the illustrations better, which is a good idea as there certainly are lots of illustrations.)

Another very unusual thing is that the whole text is set in a sans-serif typeface; I think this is the first time I've read a whole book in a sans-serif face, and I now quite agree with those who say that seriffed faces are easier to read and sans-serifs should not be used for extended amounts of text. And, most curiously of all, the book is printed in two colors: the text and illustrations are mostly in black, but occasionaly a bit of blue is used in headings and to frame or highlight some particularly interesting part of an illustration. Perhaps it was originally really intended to be some kind of textbook — after all, McGraw-Hill does also publish textbooks. But it doesn't anywhere explicitly say that it's intended to function as a textbook (nor it is obvious to me what sort of student would find this sort of book useful — it's a very fine book to satisfy the curiosity of the general reader, but a student of history or archaeology will probably want to specialize in just one of the scripts mentioned here, and will want much more detail about it than a book like this one can provide).

This particular copy that I bought has another curious aspect: it isn't the McGraw-Hill edition; it's “A Peter N. Nevraumont Book” published by “BCA” (whatever that means) “by arrangement with McGraw-Hill [. . .] Created and produced by Nevraumont Publishing Company” and it doesn't even have an ISBN, only a “CN” (I guess that would be some sort of catalog number internal to the publisher) of 106839. However, it is listed on amazon as having the ISBN 064169959X.

Successful decipherments

The chapters about the three deciphered scripts are particularly interesting as they show the various small steps and discoveries that eventually led to the successful decipherment. About the other, still undeciphered, scripts discussed in this book, so little is known that the author cannot do much more than describe the currently known inscriptions, how they have been discovered, and what attempts have been so far been made (often of a rather crankish nature) to explain and decipher them. There is not much hope that these other scripts will be deciphered in the foreseeable future, as we don't have enough material in them, no bilingual texts, and often no knowledge of the languages that were written using those scripts.

In fact, if we compare the three cases of successful decipherment (Egyptian, Linear B, and Mayan writing), we see that they have several characteristics in common:

Firstly, something was known of the language: Champollion knew Coptic, a descendant of the ancient Egyptian language, and put it to good use (pp. 64b, 69b, 72a). Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B, made the crucial steps towards decipherment soon after he realized that the language used in the inscriptions is an early form of ancient Greek (and not some completely unrelated language, as has been believed until then and as is still considered to be the most likely for the Linear A inscriptions from Crete); pp. 98–101. And in the case of Mayan inscriptians, languages related to the one used by the pre-Columbian Maya in their inscriptions are still spoken by the present-day Maya that inhabit roughly the same area (p. 111).

Secondly, there was a substantial amount of material. This enabled e.g. Ventris and other decipherers of Linear B to look for frequently occurring patterns of characters, infer that they represented various grammatical inflections (for different cases etc.), so that he could start deducing where the Linear B characters fit on his ‘grid’ (since Linear B is a syllabic writing system, each character tends to represent a combination of a consonant and a vowel, and most of the syllabary can be compactly represented by a grid with one row for each consonant and one column for each vowel); see pp. 90, 97, 100.

In the case of Linear B, decipherment efforts moved practically nowhere for several decades until all the available material was edited and published and thus made accessible to people interested in deciphering it. Before that, for example, Evans sat on his Linear B material for decades, hoping that he would be the first one to decipher it (but he didn0t get far, unsurprisingly given that he was firmly convinced that the language of those inscriptions had nothing to do with Greek, and he also believed that the script was more pictographic than phonetic); pp. 84–7.

Thirdly, there was some bilingual material. The most well-known case is the Rosetta stone, containing the same text in Greek and in Egyptian. This enabled the decipherers to look for personal names, which could be reasonably assumed to be written approximately the same way in different languages.

Ventris similarly benefited from similarities between Linear B and the Cypriot script, which had been deciphered thanks to bilingual Cypriot/Greek inscriptions (pp. 81, 83, 98b); after the first steps, he could also make use of known place-names such as Knossos and Amnisos (p. 99b).

In the case of the Mayan writing, there was the “Landa alphabet”: Landa was a 16th-century bishop who ordered the destruction of many Mayan manuscripts that fell into his hands, but (somewhat surprisingly) he also wanted to record some information about their writing. He apparently thought the Mayan writing was a simple alphabet and got a native speaker to write down one character for each phoneme (p. 120). I remember reading about this in Sprague de Camp's books (Lost Continents p. 32, Citadels of Mystery p. 8), where I got the impression that the Landa alphabet was perfectly useless. But it seems to have been slightly useful after all: it did give the present-day decipherers some hints as to the pronunciation of some of the Mayan characters, just enough to get them started in the right direction and get the ball rolling, so to speak (pp. 119–21, 123). It was difficult enough even so, but without those hints provided by the Landa alphabet it might have been more difficult still, perhaps even impossible (p. 272a).

Unsuccessful decipherments

At least some of these three elements are usually absent in the case of the other (still undeciphered) scripts described in this book. Sometimes we don't know anything definite about the language (e.g. about Etruscan; or about the language used on Crete for Linear A, pp. 198–9); for the Indus Valley script, some have proposed that the language is from the Dravidian family, but the earliest related language that is known is from the 3rd century BC, nearly two thousand years after the Indus Valley civilization, so even if the Dravidian hypothesis is correct, the two languages cannot be very closely related (p. 278). Sometimes we have too little material, e.g. just a few rongorongo boards, or even just one single artefact in the case of the Phaistos disc. In most of these cases we also lack anything bilingual, even just a few recognized personal names or place-names that we might otherwise hope to find on the inscriptions in the unknown script and then work from there.

Anyway, how much material do we need to decipher an alphabet? John Chadwick, one of the pioneers of Linear B decipherment, spoke of a ‘critical mass’: “a quantity of text which will ensure that a few correct guesses will produce a chain reaction leading to more solutions. There is no formula known to me for determining the critical mass; it depends of course on the complexity of the script, and I should guess that it contains n squared where n is the number of different signs in the script.” (P. 36.)

Linear B

For the most part, this book was quite interesting to read. Occasionally the author goes into more detail about some script than I was really interested to read, but these potentially boring parts are never very long. The illustrations were nice — many of these old scripts are beautiful to look at; Linear A and B are the notable exceptions, being quite boring and dull. But this is hardly surprising if we remember that they were also used, apparently, almost exclusively for boring purposes such as business record-keeping. However, I am still somewhat amazed by the fact that the Minoan civilization, which by all accounts was brimming with joie de vivre more than almost an yother, has not taken the trouble to commit any of that exuberance and liveliness to writing, and has instead satisfied itself with writing down only the sort of boring commercial data that wouldn't tell us anything interesting about their history even if we were able to decipher their script.

I was interested to learn that, apart from the well-known Linear A and Linear B scripts, another and still earlier writing system was used on Crete, namely a kind of hieroglyphs (pp. 76, 183). Of course, even less is known about this script than there is about Linear A, and there is also much less material in it.

P. 99 mentions some of the first Mycenaean Greek words that Ventris recovered from Linear B inscriptions, such as “ke-ra-me-u (potter), ka-na-pe-u (fuller), i-e-re-u (priest) and i-je-re-ja (priestess)”. I am always delighted, even touched, to discover how many words that have a fancy ring to them nowadays actually have perfectly decent, ordinary, down-to-earth origins. Ceramics has always seemed somewhat fancy to me. But here I learned that the word has a charmingly humble origin: keramos means ‘clay’, kerameus means ‘potter’, and so on. And as for ka-na-pe-u, if this is the man who stuffs furniture, is the word related to our modern canapé, which is a kind of sofa (probably usually stuffed too)?

“Those who approach decipherment expecting sensational revelations—of great battles and the fall of civilizations” etc. “are likely to find their expectations confirmed [. . .] even if they have to invent an underlying language” (p. 44). Thus, the more mundane the contents of a text are according to a proposed decipherment, the more likely the decipherment is correct and not the result of some crank's feverish imagination. When Chadwick and Ventris “found the names of four classical Greek gods on a single tablet [. . .] Ventris had been horrified, because this was exactly the sort of too-good-bo-be-true result that previous, eccentric attempts at decipherment had been offering as ‘proof’. ” (P. 45.) Fortunately it turned out to be the description of a ritual, listing the gods to which sacrifices had been made: a “fairly mundane explanation” after all.

A substantial number of new Linear B tablets had been discovered at Pylos just before the WW2; soon after the war was over, Emmett Bennett edited and published a book about them and sent a copy to Ventris in England. “[W]hen he [= Ventris] went to pick up the packet, a suspicious postal official asked him: ‘I see the contents are listed as PYLOS TABLETS. Now, just what ailments are pylos tablets supposed to alleviate?’ ” (Pp. 87–9.)

Ventris was very talented for languages. While on holiday in Rome with a friend, “he was able to get them into a part of the Vatican closed to the public by chatting to the Swiss Guards, in what they mistook to be the Swiss-German dialect of a native speaker.” (P. 92a.)

The Mayan script

The chapter about Mayan glyphs also has some interesting pages on the Mayan number system and calendar; these were also the first parts of their writing to be successfully deciphered (pp. 112–6).

“The very name Yucatan is derived from ‘uic aithan’—the phrase spoken tot he Spanish conquistadors by the Maya when asked what their land was called: it means ‘what do you say, we do not understand you.’ ” (P. 120a.)

During Landa's efforts to get a native Maya speaker to explain the Maya writing, at some point “communication with his informant clearly broke down, as we can see from the following noted phrase: ma-i-n-ka-ti which means ‘I don't want to’—presumably the informant's response to Landa on being requested to write further phonetic values of the mysterious glyphs.” (P. 121.)

There's a photo of Yuri Knorozov, the chief decipherer of the Maya writing, on p. 122. The photo must be quite old; the contrast is quite high, some very bright white, lots and lots of very dark black, and little of any shades of gray in between; the expression on Knozorov's gaunt, grim face is best described by >-(, and in his arms he is holding a cat that is staring at the camera as if it was determined to win some kind of award from If I didn't see from the caption that it was Knorozov, I would assume that it must be the supreme villain from some cold-war-era James Bond movie. Priceless. (It's similar to the one on this web page, but even better.)

The “Maya scribes loved to play with their system and use it to spell words in several different and unpredictable mixtures of phoneticism and logography, not just two or three, as in the Egyptian hieroglyphs.” (P. 132.)

The Etruscans

An interesting quote from Seneca about the Etruscans (p. 162): “ ‘The difference between us and [them] . . . is the following: while we believe that lightning is released as the result of the collision of clouds, they believe that clouds collide so as to cause lightning. For since they attribute everything to the gods' will, they believe, not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they happen because they must have a meaning.’ ”

Apparently, the vowel o “did not exist in Etruscan” (p. 170a) — I'm amazed; how is it possible for a language to fail to make use of a sound as obvious and easily pronounced as o?

From an illustration on p. 178, it seems that the Etruscans did not make paragraph breaks the way we do today, but instead used ‘insert paragraph’ marks very similar to those used by modern proofreaders.

Linear A

The development of writing in the Minoan-Mycenaean culture was not quite so straightforward as Evans had originally imagined (the hieroglyphic script leading to linear A which led to Linear B, and all of this happening on Crete): “all three scripts have been found outside Crete, and the spans of their dates are now seen to overlap; [. . .] Linear A and Linear B may be ocusin scripts, rather than the first being the parent of the second.” (P. 183b.)

Two French researchers published a “five-volume collection of Linear A inscriptions, Recueil des Inscriptions en Linéaire A (known familiarly as GORILA)” (p. 193). (From their last names, Godart and Olivier, and the first letters of the title words.)

The origins of the language used to write Linear A are unknown; it is “only possibly Cretan in origin” (p. 183b). Various other hypotheses have been proposed: that it is a Semitic language; that it is another early form of Greek; or that it is an Indo-European language originally from Anatolia, e.g. Lycian (pp. 198–9).

The Phaistos disc

Page 298 discusses whether the Phaistos disc may be a modern fake, “ ‘a joke perpetrated by a clever archaeologist from the Italian mission to Crete upon his fellow excavators. Taking a thermoluminescence test, which should date the firing of the clay at about 100 years ago, can solve the mystery of the disc.’ ” (Jerome M. Eisenberg, cited on p. 298.) But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Greek authorities have so far not appeared to be willing to try anything of that sort: “No one is going to thank the person who proves the disc to be a fake. ‘For who would want to look at an ex-enigma, or buy a Phaistos disc postcard, or any souvenir, if the disc had already been deciphered?’ asks Bennett.” Actually, I don't think that decipherment would impact the souvenir sales — the British Museum, for example, is still whoring out the Rosetta stone for all it's worth. But proving that the disc is a fake might be harmful to the trinket business. Nevertheless, fake or not, it's a beautiful artefact. And “[i]n fairness, it must be said that the hoax theory is very mucha minority opinion” (p. 303a), and there are lots of arguments against it.

Interestingly, the characters on the Phaistos disc “are undoubtedly impressed, not incised, into the clay (unlike the characters of Linear A and B)” thus making it “ ‘the world's first typewritten document’ (Chadwick)” (p. 304a).

“There is an empirical formula for working out the probable number of signs in an alphabet or syllabary from a small sample of the alphabetic or syllabic writing. It has been shown to work well” with many scripts both ancient and modern (pp. 308–10). The formula is (L × L)/(L − M) − L where L is the total number of characters in your corpus, and M is the number of different characters (p. 310a). A bit of mathematics certainly shows that this converges to M as L grows towards infinity. The formula has been used on the Phaistos disc and suggest that the full Phaistos syllabary would have around 56–57 signs.

The Phaistos disc has been very popular with all sorts of cranks claiming to have deciphered it. They kept pestering archaeologists such as John Chadwick, who complained that it “has been a millstone round my neck for decades” (p. 312b).


“[A]s we now know, the Egyptian languages written in hieroglyphic and demotic are not identical, but they are closely related, like Latin and Renaissance Italian.” (P. 60.)

There's an interesting paragraph on the origins of the inhabitants of Easter Island on p. 222. It's well known that Thor Heyerdahl proposed that at least a part of them came from South America rather than from the other Polynesian islands lying to the west of Easter Island. I have also read in various places that Heyerdahl's arguments didn't manage to persuade the other experts, and hardly anyone accepts his hypothesis nowadays. Here in this book at least some of the reasons why are mentioned: “the scientific evidence—archaeological, ethnological, linguistic and genetic—overwhelimgly supports the” theory that Easter Island was settled only from Polynesia; among other things, “a 1990s analysis of the DNA in early skeletons from Easter Island (predating the colonial contacts of the 18th century) revealed no trace of genetic contact with South America.”

“If we could decipher the Indus script, we would perhaps learn if the root sof Indian civilization really did possess some special genius, different from the other ancient civilizations, as suggested by the material artefacts at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa and the spiritual emphasis of subsequent Indian culture—Buddha instead of Alexander, so to speak.” (P. 321.) This is an intriguing idea, but I'm not too optimistic. So far, whenever we have had an idealized opinion of some ancient culture, it has subsequently been found to be not quite so ideal; the Maya were eventually found to be bloodthirsty, and even the Minoans were not above the occasional human sacrifice (Nat. Geo., Feb. 1981, 205–24). On the other hand, those whom we are apt to demonize eventually turn out to be ordinary people after all (e.g. the Carthaginians). I'm afraid that human nature is equally bad all over the world, in all times and places.


  • Maurice Pope: The Story of Decipherment (2nd ed., 1999). Covers “every significant deciphered script” (p. 46 here).

  • Michael Coe: Breaking the Maya Code.

  • Hans J. Nissen et al.: Archaic Bookkeeping: Early Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East. “[T]heir fascinating unraveling of the proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite texts [. . .] perhaps the most important book on the origins of writing yet written” (p. 210a).

  • It might be interesting to read more about the interactions between ancient Egypt and the areas south of it, e.g. the Kushite culture of Nubia and Meroe. I suppose that the elements of Egyptian civilization slowly trickled across its borders and influenced the adjacent areas, but it must have been a slow process. I hope I'll eventually find some interesting book about this subject. Some years ago I started reading a History of Black Africa by Joseph Ki-Zerbo, but found it terribly boring and gave up before I read more than a fifth of it. I must admit that it contained a lot of information about early states in sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps I should give it another try some day.

  • I also recommend this bit of Linear B humor.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

BOOK: Kirsten Seaver, "Maps, Myths, and Men" (cont.)

Kirsten A. Seaver: Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vínland Map. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004. 0804749639. xxvi + 406 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

The publication

Chapter 5 is quite interesting and describes the activities connected with the publication of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation in 1965 and the various exhibitions of the Vinland Map in the following years. The map and the book were kept secret until the publication, supposedly because Mellon, who was financing the book, “wanted no newspaper publicity ahead of time” (p. 145). Unfortunately this prevented the authors from consulting with other experts (but insofar as other experts did have the opportunity to comment on the map, the authors generally ignored any concerns expressed by these other experts regarding the authenticity of the map: p. 146); nor could the book have been peer-reviewed prior to publication. In fact the book had “as its sole object to reassure the public about the authenticity” of the map (p. 145).

The launch of the book itself was preceded by some curious pre-launch activity, e.g. a “gala event [. . .] at the Norwegian Academy of Sciences” (p. 149); probably the Yale University Press' chief concern was that Norwegians like Helge and Anne Ingstad (who had recently discovered the Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland) might express doubts about the Vinland Map; therefore Yale decided to “take [them] by surprise and to overwhelm them with supposed corroborative information before any questions could be asked” (pp. 150–1).

The publication of the book drew some rather silly criticism from the Italian-American community, who felt that Columbus' achievements are being slighted (p. 153). More serious criticism came from experts in Iceland and Britain (pp. 153–4).

In 1995, a new edition of the book was published, actually identical to the first except for the addition of a few short chapters. “Like the first edition, the second one had been prepared in secrecy; its aim was to affirm the authenticity of the map, and it was launched with as much fanfare and carefully planned media attention as its predecessor.” (P. 155.) This was also followed by a symposium about the map, where only pro-authenticity arguments were presented (p. 158, unlike during the 1966 conference orgazined by Wilcomb Washburn from the Smithsonian).

The map was exhibited during 1967 in England, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and the Netherlands. In Norway, Yale insisted that it be insured for $4 million: “The Norwegians' acceptance of Yale's terms set the chief precedent for future inflated claims about the map's market value” (p. 162). (According to the inflation calculator, $4 million in 1967 dollars is equivalent to about $22.77 million in 2005 dollars.)

It's interesting to note that institutions such as Yale, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian never officially endorsed the authenticity of the map: “every high-profile claim that the map is authentic has been the work of a few individuals who have made sure that their respectable institutional ties were noted” (p. 152).

More about the map...

Chapter 6 is mostly a physical description of the map itself and I again found it fairly boring. It has sections on ink, wormholes, the exact translation of certain legends, etc.

Some of the smaller legends on the map have “ruled lines spaced exactly two millimeters apart” (p. 173) — clearly suspicious for a supposedly medieval map.

Chapters 7 and 8 are about the map's content as well as about the development of medieval cartography, particularly of the mapmakers' notions of the areas far to the northwest of Europe. This is again more interesting than the previous chapter.

“The fact that medieval maps were handily contained within a flat circle certainly did not mean that their authors thought of the earth as a flat disk, but rather that the known [. . .] part of the world [. . .] took up only half of the planet's circumference” (p. 205). “The idea that medieval people were taught to believe in a flat earth is a modern myth [. . .] the majority of [the church fathers] in fact believed in a spherical earth.” (P. 207.)

As mentioned above, the authors of the Yale book believed that the medieval church was a great facilitator of communications between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, and that this may have helped diffuse the Norse geographic knowledge about the North Atlantic. This largely mistaken belief may be partly due to the writings of various medieval clerical authors, such as the mid-11th-century chronicler Adam of Bremen who wrote a lot about Northern Europe. Adam wanted to praise and celebrate the church and its achievements, and may therefore have given the impression that the church was more active in the far North than had really been the case (p. 214). The extent of his geographical knowledge is illustrated by his reports of Amazons on the eastern shores of the Baltic (p. 215), and by his saying that “[t]he people there [i.e. in Greenland] are green from the salt water, whence, too, that region gets its name” (p. 217). He does mention the discovery of Vinland, however (p. 212).

This may be the source of the tales of Amazons on the Baltic: Ohthere, a ninth-century Norwegian traveller, had reported a ‘Land of the Kvens’, “an ethnic group living just northeast of the innermost Bothnian Bay”. But “[i]n Richard Hakluyt's sixteenth-century English translation of this passage, the name became ‘Queeneland,’ because the translator had obviously confused cwena [. . .] with the Old English cwene (woman). There would have been a similar potential for confusion among the Norse” (p. 239).

“The map's message is that by the mid-thirteenth century, Christian missionaries had spanned the entire inhabited world.” (P. 255.) However, the fact is that “[t]he known documents concerning Rome's relations with the Far North demonstrate a mixture of bewilderment, ignorance, concern, and indifference” (p. 257) and the church is not likely to have had much information about Greenland, let alone Vinland. The idea that “the medieval Roman Church was an important link to the Norse Greenland colony” was formed in the late 19th and early 20th century and still persists to some extent in the literature although more recent discoveries are making it untenable (p. 260).

Pp. 261–3 mention a few bizarre 19th-century theories about the Norse in America, e.g. those of the Frenchman Gabriel Gravier and (slightly saner) the Franciscan friar Luka Jelić. Unfortunately the sources cited here are mostly in French, and very obscure anyway, so I guess I won't be able to read more about them.

If the map were authentic, it would also be the earliest map mentioning the Samoyeds (the next earliest is from 1516; pp. 283, 309).

One of the legends on the map claims that Vinland was discovered jointly by Leif Eiriksson and a certain Bjarni. This differs from the account in the sagas and can be traced to a 1765 History of Greenland by a German missionary, David Crantz (p. 287).

...and its author

After all these discussions about the map and about what its author must have, or cannot have, known, believed, or intended to express, Seaver finally says that these criteria allow us to narrow the choice of possible candidates down to one: Josef Fischer, an Austrian Jesuit and an internationally renowned cartographic scholar from the early decades of the 20th century (pp. 295–6).

The last chapter of the book is an overview of Fisher's life, his scientific work, his correspondence with foreign colleagues, etc. This was quite an interesting glimpse into how the scientific world functioned in the early 20th century.

The island of Vinland on the map is probably “intended to conflate Portuguese rediscovery of a North American region with the original Norse discovery of the same region. [. . .] this section of the Vínland Map supposedly demonstrates how residual Norse information might have been perceived by a particularly well-informed person of the mid-fifteenth century before the Portuguese had laid claim to North America.” (P. 310.) Islands similar to the Vinland of the Vinland Map actually did appear on early 16th-century maps, based of course not on Norse but on Portuguese discoveries (e.g. those of the Corte Reals; pp. 309–10). “Given Fischer's own scholarly convictions, neither the shape nor the placement of the Vinilanda Insula would have constituted a misrepresentation of the record he believed had once existed.” (P. 310.)

In the 1930s, the library of castle Nikolsburg near Brno was being dispersed and auctioned off in the 1930s, and Fischer helped in this process by doing some research on one of its more valuable manuscripts (p. 339). “It would have been reasonable for either the auction house or the Dietrichstein heirs to offer him a chance to pick out [. . .] one or more items too dilapidated to bring to auction but still of potential value to a scholar and teacher.” (P. 352.) This is how he might have obtained the manuscripts of the Speculum and the Tartar Relation.

After 1933 he practically retired and stopped publishing for several years, partly because he was devastated by harsh reviews of his 1932 magnum opus on Ptolemy's maps (p. 357), and partly because, after the Nazis came to power in Germany and started perverting the sciences to their own ideological goals, it became increasingly difficult to publish honest research about those areas of geography and history that Fischer cared the most about, e.g. the Norse (pp. 356, 360).

Seaver suggests that Fischer probably drew the Vinland map during those years of retirement, as an act of “quiet and courageous” intellectual sabotage (p. 371) against the Nazi abuse of history and geography. He knew that the map would likely eventually come into the hands of the Nazis and their scholars, who “would then have to decide whether to reject the map's depiction of the early and worldwide influence of the Roman Church, or to swallow that aspect of the work in order to crow over its equally clear depiction of American discovery by their ‘ancestors’ the Norse.” (Pp. 364–5.)

Stella Matutina, the Jesuit-operated boarding school where Fischer had taught for most of his career, was shut down by the Nazis after they annexed Austria in 1938; Fischer had to relocate several times in the following years, and died in 1944 (pp. 367–70). The volume containing the Speculum fragment, the Tartar Relation, and Fischer's Vinland map was probably left behind at the Stella Matutina library and was pilfered at some point between then and the early post-war period; possibly as early as 1938 (pp. 371–2).


George Painter, one of the co-authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, also wrote, among other things, a biography of Proust (1959). However, it was criticized as taking “ ‘considerable liberty with the facts’ ” (p. 148).

A curious passage from p. 271: “the Upper Rhine region, which would include not only Bavaria, but also Bohemia and Moravia”. But as far as I can tell, at the point where the Rhine gets closest to Bohemia, they are still separated by precisely the whole of Austria. Why then is it reasonable to say that Bohemia is in the Upper Rhine region?

Another curious passage, p. 290: “De Bridia [author of the Tartar Relation] was domiciled somewhere in the Bohemian-Silesian region [. . .] To him, ‘Greater India’ would indeed have been to the northeast.” There is, from the context, no doubt that “northeast’ is not just a slip of the pen here: De Bridia wrote that India is to the northeast, Painter commented that this must be a mistake, and Seaver says that it is not a mistake, because it is to the northeast of Bohemia. Except, of course, that it isn't — the whole of India is well to the south of the whole of Europe. I don't doubt that Seaver knows this just as well as anyone, so I don't understand what to make of that passage.

In the school where Fischer worked as a teacher, “not only the school's pupils, but also Fischer and the other teachers used ordinary black or blue ink for writing. Black India ink, being more expensive, was reserved for drawing and decorative lettering, such as making library labels. One of the priests also used a distinctive purple ink for some archival labels” (p. 361). I find this kind of factoids so fascinating — one doesn't think of interwar Austria as exactly a dirt-poor country after all, and yet this school had to carefully limit their spending on ink. Nowadays, surely it would not occur to anyone that ink is anything but a negligibly small expense. How damnably slow a process the ascent from poverty is, if after a century of the industrial revolution people still had to scrimp on their ink!

One thing that somewhat annoyed me when reading this book is that Seaver evidently has, from the beginning onwards, a firm conviction not only that the Vinland map is a modern fake but also that she has identified its author. However, she doesn't say this quite explicitly until p. 296, nor does she say until then who the author was! I found this really annoying. In my opinion the decent thing to do would be to state on the very first page: “I think that the map is a modern fake, made by So-and-So at such-and-such a time, and I will now proceed to present arguments supporting this”. She often accuses the map's delineations and legends of being teasing, but she is in fact just as much of a tease herself, saying things such as that the Danish cartographer Bjørnbo (1874–1911) corresponded with the author of the Vinland map (p. 229), and that “the author of the Vínland Map was [. . .] thoroughly grounded in early cosmography as well as the writings of the church fathers” (p. 206).


All in all, this is an admirable and impressive book. Just like in the case of The Frozen Echo, I'm impressed by the amount of material that Seaver had to collect, wade through, and integrate. At the same time I must admit that much of it went right over my head; there are pages upon pages of technicalities about obscure subjects such as paper watermarks, ink composition, wormholes, etc.; a lot of the time this was really quite boring and not at all enjoyable to read. I occasionally even felt that the writing is not only pedantic, but pedantic in a somewhat smug way that was really beginning to get on my nerves. The way she has everything under control all the time, the careful expressions, the masses of people, the gazillions of endnotes, the convoluted arguments, the elegant typography — it was all starting to feel somewhat prim, and therefore started to annoy me. But this should under no circumstances be considered as a serious complaint against the book.

The parts dealing with the history of cartography were more interesting, but even there I was usually lost amidst all the material. Over and over again I noticed that I am wading through some details about some map or mapmaker without having any idea why this information is even there: what links it to the preceding and next map or mapmaker, and how it fits into the big picture, the argument that Seaver is presumably trying to build. Perhaps this ‘big picture’, the structure behind the arguments of each chapter, should be made more explicit; or perhaps the book simply requires a more dedicated and better informed reader than I am. My favourite parts of the book were Chapter 2 about the history of Norse Greenland, and the final chapter, the one about Fischer's life.

As for whether Seaver's proposed explanation of the origins of the Vinland map is true, I'm definitely not competent to form my own opinion about the subject. The story as she presented it certainly fits together nicely enough, but at the same time it's clear that in many places it is supported by well-argued speculation rather than really firm evidence. However, one thing that she certainly convinced me about is that the analysis of the map as published in The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation is not terribly reliable, and that many of the people involved in the story of the Vinland map — Ferrajoli, Witten, the authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, and Yale University Press — have acted in ways that are not entirely honourable.


I'll be quite content not to read anything else on the subject of the Vinland map for some time. :-)

  • One interesting book that I did find mentioned here is In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times, by Fridtjof Nansen (London: William Heinemann, 1911, two volumes). The original edition is of course quite expensive, but some of the later reprints might be more affordable.

  • Adolf Rieth: Archaeological Fakes (1970). Sounds interesting.

  • Derek Wilson, Peter Ayers: White Gold: The Story of African Ivory (1970).

Saturday, October 07, 2006

BOOK: Kirsten Seaver, "Maps, Myths, and Men"

Kirsten A. Seaver: Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vínland Map. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004. 0804749639. xxvi + 406 pp.


I first heard of Seaver some years ago when I was looking for something about the decline and disappearance of the medieval Norse settlements in Greenland; searching for Greenland on, I found her book on this subject, The Frozen Echo. Last year, as I finally got around to buying (and later reading) it,'s ‘Better Together’ feature recommended Maps, Myths, and Men; it sounded interesting enough, so I bought this book as well.

Maps, Myths, and Men is about the Vinland map, a map of the world that supposedly dates from the mid-15th century. The map is notable for incorporating geographical information derived from Norse voyages to Greenland and North America; it shows an ‘isle of Vinland’ with a legend mentioning its discovery by Leif Eiriksson and a certain Bjarni; it also shows Greenland as an island rather than as a peninsula of a hypothetical westward extension of the Eurasian landmass (which is how Greenland is typically represented on many other maps from the late middle or early modern age).

The map appeared in the antiquarian book trade in the mid-1950s, and was brought to the U.S. by a dealer named Laurence Witten, who eventually sold it and two accompanying manuscripts to the wealthy philantropist Paul Mellon for $1 million (p. 100), then a huge sum for a map. Mellon donated it to Yale and Yale University Press eventually published a book about it, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, in which the authors argue that the map is authentic. However, there are also many experts who believe that the map is probably a modern fake. In Maps, Myths, and Men, Seaver presents her arguments against the authenticity of the map, as well as her theory about who made it and why.

The history and decline of Norse Greenland

Maps, Myths, and Men opens with a very interesting chapter about the history of Norse Greenland, although those who have already read Seaver's earlier book, The Frozen Echo, won't really find any new material here. However, since the material is here condensed into just one chapter, it's in a way more accessible; in The Frozen Echo I often felt a bit lost among the masses of detail, while in this chapter here this problem does not really occur.

An interesting discussion on why the Norse didn't bother returning to Vinland after their first voyages there (when they came into conflicts with the Indians): their chief interest was in obtaining timber, which they could already get farther north, in Markland, so there was no point in risking the longer voyage to Vinland: “the forests of Markland would have been far more important than either grass or grapes to the Icelanders and Greenlanders” (p. 42). As far as their trade with Europe was concerned, grapes wouldn't be of very much use either — after all, they were plentiful in many parts of continental Europe.

There's another (and somewhat unusual) argument on p. 60: “It borders on cultural chauvinism if those of us living in a temperate climate assume that because northern regions are cold, the Norse Greenlanders would naturally have made their way quite far south once they had reached America. This is akin to saying that traditional Inuit hunters would obviously be much happier raising vegetables in Massachusetts than catching seals in Baffin Island.” (P. 60.) Call me a cultural chauvinist then. I really believe that people prefer to be in warm places rather than cold ones, and that they'd be happier in an area where sufficient food is relatively easily obtained rather than one in which they can just barely scrape together enough to live on.

Current estimates of Norse Greenland population are at most three to five thousand, “a far lower number than the population envisioned by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century enthusiasts, whose intellectual footprints have proved resistant to erosion.” (P. 54.) As late as 1965, a Norwegian author “Tornøe affirmed that they numbered about 37,333 souls about AD 1250” (ibid.) I'm really amazed; I'd understand somehow if he had said 40,000, but 37,333? How could he have imagined that he had figured them down to the last man (and woman and child)?

Jared Diamond in Collapse mentioned with some amazement that the Norse Greenlanders (unlike the Norse Icelanders and Scandinavians) seemed not to have eaten fish. But Seaver disagrees with such claims. See p. 60 and especially p. 62. She also has little patience for claims that the Norse should have adapted better to the Greenland climate by adopting “Eskimo hunting methods, clothing, and social customs. Any maladaptation theory begs the question of how the Norse managed to survive in Greenland for so many centuries.” (P. 63.)

“Contrary to widespread belief, the overall climate conditions in the eastern North American and West Greenlandic latitudes about hte year 1000 appear to have been rather similar to those of 2000. Several experts on the climate history of the north have concluded that terms such as ‘The Medieval Warm Period’ and ‘The Little Ice Age’ ought to be discarded in favor of a much more nuanced view of climate oscillations in the last thousand years.” (P. 64. See also p. 81.)

The end of Norse Greenland came no later than 1500, and most inhabitants seem to have departed in a deliberate and organized way (pp. 66–7). Some suggested that they might have ‘returned’ to Iceland, but “[o]ne may as well argue that in an economic downturn, ‘old families’ in today's Boston would consider going ‘back’ to England, which the Pilgrim Fathers had left in 1620.” (P. 68.) Besides, such a large migration into Iceland couldn't avoid leaving some trace in written records, and the officials in Iceland, Norway and Denmark would not persist (as they did into the 17th century) in their mistaken belief that the Greenland colonies still existed (pp. 68–9).

Regarding the Western Settlement, which was abandoned by 1400, part of the reason may have been that its economy had always relied strongly on hunting (as it was even less suitable for agriculture than the Eastern settlement). If this now had to be abandoned, because of deteriorating climate, conflicts with Eskimos, or the decline of the European markets for walrus ivory (pp. 72–3), the Western settlement might have ceased to be viable (pp. 74–5).

The last clearly recorded voyage from Greenland to Norway was in 1410, and it appears that conditions in the Eastern settlement were still quite normal at the time (p. 79). In the fifteenth century the settlement still had contacts with foreigners, probably English fishermen (ibid.), and “the inhabitants subsequently enjoyed a boost in prosperity that could have come only from foreign trade” (p. 80). They seem to have abandoned some parts of their agriculture, e.g. raising cattle (though they kept on raising sheep), probably because “human labor was needed elsewhere” (p. 82) as the Greenlanders decided to focus their time and effort on “supplying the English with stockfish and fish liver oil” (p. 83).

But in the late 15th century, the English learned how to sail directly from the British isles to the fishing banks near Newfoundland, without sailing via Greenland: “Greenlandic trade with the English would have begun to fall off at a time when, in addition to new economic pressures, the Norse Greenlanders may also have suffered another period of inclement weather that made terrestrial food resources scarcer for both them and their animals. [. . .] if they were faced with converging economic hardships that now included the threat of virtual isolation from foreign trade, at a time when they no longer had oceangoing ships of their own after decades of isolation from Markland [because of the abandonment of the Western settlement, which had been their “way station for voyages to obtain American raw materials”, and because of the presence of English who “had made the situation in the North Atlantic unsafe for ships belonging to other countries&rdquo, p. 75; the last written mention of a voyage to Markland is from 1347, p. 323], they may have accepted an offer to relocate as skilled fishermen-farmers in a sheltered area along the Newfoundland/Labrador coast [. . .] the likely lure would have come from an English or Anglo-Portuguese enterprise hoping to use the Norse Greenlanders' skills in fishing and preserving cod, at a permanent Canadian fishing station where the presence of women and children would have ensured a reasonably normal and stable community.” (Pp. 84–5.)

Like many such early colonization attempts, it would not be at all surprising if this one failed so completely that no traces were left, neither material nor documentary (p. 85). Seaver admits this is just a theory, but one that agrees with the currently known facts about Norse Greenland (p. 86).

Other interesting things from chapter 2

There's an interesting discussion on the progress of Scandinavian shipbuilding and sailing skills during the first millennium AD on p. 22.

The Norse, apparently, didn't use maps at all: “they did not even have a word for ‘map’ or ‘chart’. They relied mostly on experienced pilots, a wealth of sailing lore, and practical skills acquired at sea.” (P. 27.)

Greenland was not quite treeless (as I had imagined); however, none of the trees were large enough to be useful for shipbuilding (p. 36).

“Larch is native only to North America and part of Siberia and is common in the Labrador region called Markland where the Norse were still sailing in 1347.” (P. 38.) I find this somewhat surprising — larches are by no means uncommon in the mountains here, and why would anybody bother transplanting a tree from America into the mountains where it isn't of any economic use? In fact the Wikipedia page on larches mentions several species, including “European Larch”, growing in “[m]ountains of central Europe”. So I'm not quite sure what to make of the claim quoted above.

Again those curious arrangements of walrus mandibles, probably left by the Norse, on Willows Island in the Canadian far north: p. 50. The same paragraph mentions arrangements of ox skulls on a farm in Iceland. What the heck did they think they were doing?

One reason why the sagas don't mention any later voyages to the New World (after the early 11th century) may be that the sagas were writen by Icelanders who were mostly interested in the achievements of other Icelanders, but not of Greenlanders (p. 53.)

Apparently the Latin word for a walrus is morsus (p. 72); I guess this is where our mrož comes from.

The map's provenance

Chapter 3 discusses the complicated early history of the map, from its emergence in the antiquarian book trade to the time it reached Yale. It cannot be traced any farther back than to the Italian Enzo Ferrajoli, from whom Laurence Witten bought the map; Ferrajoli wouldn't say where he got it. It's interesting, however, that Witten told, on various occasions, several strongly inconsistent versions of the story of his early involvement with the map; sometimes he said he visited the library of the previous owner, sometimes that he bought the map from Ferrajoli and did not know who the previous owner was (pp. 90–1). Before Witten bought it, there had been several “convoluted, unsuccessful, and possibly half-hearted attempts to sell the map and its companion manuscript in Europe in 1957; the sellers' chief obstacle was the lack of proper provenance for the volume” (p. 98).

Given all this, the map's price grew in a way that's hard to understand. Witten paid $3500 for the map and the Tartar Relation in 1957, which was considered a reasonable price, perhaps even a bargain (p. 99); but when the second companion manuscript (a part of the Speculum Historiale, a work on world history by Vincent of Beauvais) emerged and supposedly supported the authenticity of the map, the two volumes were sold to Mellon in 1959 for $1 million (pp. 100, 105). Currently the map is insured by Yale for $25 million, which is “grotesque” (p. 159) when compared to the much lower sums attributed to maps of higher quality and undoubted provenance.

The Beauvais manuscript does not really help much in supporting the authenticity of the Vinland map, as it arrived through the hands of the same people and the origins of that volume are no clearer than those of the volume containing the Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (p. 102).

Witten and Tom Marston, who was a Yale curator of manuscripts and one of the co-authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, were “evidently good friends through many dealings at both the private and official level [. . .] Marson and Witten had repeatedly bounced items back and forth between them in order to drive up the price paid by a third party.” (P. 102.)

It seems worth pointing out that none of the three authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation was familiar with the Scandinavian languages and thus they had to rely on secondary sources in English, often badly out of date (p. 20). Additionally, Yale required them to keep their investigations into the map secret until they would be published in a book; thus they weren't able to consult other experts as much as it might be necessary (ibid.; see also e.g. pp. 181–2). And if they had misgivings about the authenticity of the map, it was clear that Yale wasn't really interested in publishing them (p. 123).

The Vinland Map is supposed to have incorporated old Norse geographic knowledge, but is in fact remarkably inaccurate in several areas that were very well known to the Norse, e.g. the northern coast of Norway and the White Sea (pp. 27–8). And it shows Vinland as an island, although it seems to have been clear to the Norse who sailed there that they were going along a continuous coast of a continent rather than visiting an island (p. 36). “Both the map and the book [The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation] express the mistaken notion that only for a brief and definable time in history did the Norse make their daring voyages to North America [. . .] Had any late-medieval cartographer been able to show the actual Norse experience with the North American east coast—from their first organized voyages about AD 1000 and for centuries more—the result would have looked nothing like the Vínland map.” (P. 86.)

Chapter 4 is mostly about the physical condition of the manuscripts. There are sections about bindings (p. 117), watermarks (which can help determine where and when the paper had been manufactured, p. 124), and even such important topics as “[w]hether the map was in fact drawn on a continuous sheet of parchment, and not on two leaves patched together” (p. 116). Small wonder that I nearly fell asleep reading this chapter. It seems that some of the repairs that had been done on the volumes before they were put on the market may have been due to attempts to remove signs of a previous owner, probably library stamps (p. 119); see also p. 135.

The authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation heavily promoted the idea that the creation of the Vinland map is connected with the Council of Basel (1431–9), which was attended by churchmen from various parts of Europe and thus offered opportunities for exchange of information, including geographic knowledge possessed by the Scandinavians (pp. 128–9). But Seaver argues that, given the way in which the authors revealed their Basle hypothesis to the public, it was “just another carefully staged move in the effort to equip the Vínland map with authentication by proxy” (p. 129). There are also other good arguments against the Basle hypothesis; the Scandinavian presence on the council was minuscule (p. 137), and the connections between Greenland and the church had by then been severed for decades (p. 138; no resident bishops since 1378, p. 321).

Another notable subject are the wormholes. The holes on the Vinland map and those on the Tartar relation don't match, but they do match those on the Speculum manuscript, suggesting that all three items had once been bound together for a long time and hence the map has the same medieval origin as the two textual manuscripts. However, Seaver says that the wormholes don't all match quite so perfectly, and besides the worms can work quite quickly: “[Prof. B. W. Langlands said that] in his experience a worm could eat its way through a good few hundred pages in a year. If a forger wished to establish an affinity between the Vínland Map, the Speculum, and the ‘Tartar Relation,’ he might just as well put a worm to work and not bother with making a hatpin hole” (p. 143).

[To be continued in a few days.]

Thursday, October 05, 2006

O Canada

I ♥ Canada so much right now :)

I was starting to plan where to order this year's books from the I Tatti Renaissance Library. Up until now, this was one of the few areas where Amazon had been consistently letting me down: they always stuck firmly to the publisher's recommended retail price, $29.95. Thus I usually ordered them from Barnes and Noble, who gave at least their usual measly discount of 20% (and up until a few years ago, they even offered shipping by surface mail for some deliriously low price, $2 per book or something like that).

But this year, when I, as usually, went to AddAll to compare the prices, a wonderful surprise was waiting for me there: is still stuck at the RRP of $29.95, but the humble and usually overlooked offers a wonderful 34% discount, thereby reducing the price to $21.97 (and that's in Canadian dollars!).

I did some more searching around then, and found several other good deals. There are not a few books that cost fewer Canadian dollars on than they cost U.S. dollars on It's true that the shipping is a bit more expensive; unlike, which has a shipping rate for Europe as a whole, has a separate shipping rate for Western Europe only, so that we are stuck with their ‘rest of the world’ rate for CDN $6.99 (compared to's US $4.50) per book. But in many cases, the total of book price + shipping costs is still lower from than from

Just for the sake of comparison, I also took a glimpse at I'm sorry to have to conclude that Britain is a joke. The sooner it sinks into the Atlantic, the better. Shipping is £3.50 per book, while CDN $6.99 is equivalent to £3.33 (according to Google and the present exchange rates), meaning that the Canadians are able to ship a fricking book 6000 km away for less money than the Brits need to ship it 1200 km away. As for the prices of the books themselves, the I Tatti Renaissance Library's recommended retail price in Britain is £19.95, to which offers a pathetic 5% excuse for a discount, thereby bringing the price down to £18.95, or CDN $39.97 according to present exchange rates. A measly 80% more than in Canada!

But this is not the only example of the insane prices of books in Britain. I've recently noticed a very fascinating book about the economic origins of the WW2, The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze. The UK hardcover edition has a RRP of £30, while the US hardcover costs $32.95, which is currently equivalent to £17.45.

Another and even more outrageous example: some time ago I bought the two volumes of the Penguin classics Ariosto, and the RRPs on the back cover of volume one were £17.99 and US $16.95!!!

What's the reason behind these differences in prices? I'm starting to form a hypothesis that book prices are correlated with population density. This certainly supports the observations in the previous paragraphs: Canada (3.4 people/km2) < USA (30 people/km2) < UK (244 people/km2). Anyone interested in lobbying for an

[Admittedly, maybe I shouldn't be complaining too much about the cost of books in Britain, seeing as I also live in a country where the equivalent of £30 is considered by the publishers to be a not unreasonable price for a new hardcover (while most other prices, as well as things like salaries and GDP per capita, are quite a bit lower than in Britain). But at least we have better excuses for high prices, such as VAT and a small market (and thus small printing runs) :-)]

Anyway, this post is beginning to ramble a bit, so I'll just stop now and start looking forward to many happy and above all inexpensive purchases from