From Saga to Science: American Vikings

Recent news of Norse remains in North America has rekindled my interest in what was once the main theme of this blog, the connections between literature, myth, and archaeology. Much of Viking archaeology has been spurred by scholarship of medieval literature; some of the most notable archaeological discoveries of the past two centuries have been those guided by details from the classical and medieval epics. The impulse to look for archaeological roots to literary sources like the Icelandic Sagas, with their accounts of Viking adventures spanning Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and America, illustrates the power that stories have over even the most academic of imaginations, causing researchers to embark on long quests for sites like the lost Viking Vinland.

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Reenactment of the Viking landing at L’Anse Aux Meadows. Photo credit: Joyce Hill

The Icelandic Sagas are prose histories written in the 13th and 14th centuries describing events that took place in the 10th and 11th. While most of the sagas focus on folk stories or family histories, some depict the Viking expansion westward: the settlement of Iceland, Greenland and the western land known as “Vinland.” Stripped of their supernatural trimmings of ghosts and seers, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Eirik the Red tell similar stories of the arrival of Icelanders on the northeast coast of America, at first the accidental result of the harsh storms of the northern Atlantic, but later a deliberate attempt at colonization, four centuries prior to Columbus.

The Saga of the Greenlanders begins with Eirik the Red banished from Iceland for murder. The outlaw makes a new home in unsettled Greenland, but one of his ships is blown off course and runs ashore on an unknown land to the west. This first glimpse of Vinland inspired Leif, Eirik’s son, to make his own voyage. The first land he reaches is barren, rocky and covered with glaciers, and he names it Helluland, “slab-land.” The second landing is at the flat, wooded country that Leif names Markland, “forest-land.” Further south, he finds an island lying offshore from a grassy headland, and soon after arrives at a river that flows out of a lake, where he sets up camp and builds several houses. The Vikings find the new country to be fruitful: “There was no lack of salmon in the river or the lake, bigger salmon than they had ever seen. The country seemed to them so kind that no winter fodder would be needed for livestock: there was never any frost all winter and the grass hardly withered at all.” Upon exploration, they find grapevines, giving the land its name: Vinland. Leif and his crew return to Greenland in the spring with a full cargo of grapes and timber.

Leif’s tale makes Vinland sound like an empty natural paradise, but the next Norsemen to quest for riches in the New World discovered differently. After the Vikings of a second expedition met and attacked a group of natives, a larger party returned and drove the Vikings off, sending them back to Greenland in ships that had already been loaded with rich cargo. The appeal of Vinland’s resources was apparently enough to keep the invaders coming back despite the lack of welcome; another voyage was led by a woman named Gudrid and her husband Karlsefni, and they were successful for a short time at trade with the locals. Gudrid’s son Snorri was born in Vinland, the first recorded European to be born in the Americas. This trip too, ended violently, when an argument broke out during a meeting for trade, and the attempts at settlement ended at last.

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The Viking houses at L’Anse Aux Meadows.

The accounts in the sagas had long inspired quests for evidence of the real thing. The search was scattered along on the east coast of North America, ranging as far south as Boston and New York. Researchers pulled clues from the key features in the saga descriptions: the series of landings by Leif Eirksson – rocky Helluland followed by forested Markland and fruitful Vinland – as well as the plant and animal life described: wild grape vines, meadows, salmon, and timber. Helluland, the first and most northern land, has been connected with Baffin Island, which lies just to the west of Greenland and is notable for its glaciers and rocky cliffs. In 2008, a site on Baffin Island that had been occupied by people of the Dorset culture, precursors to the Inuit culture, yielded finds indicating contact with the Vikings: whetstones used on metal implements, which were not used by the Dorset people; pelt fragments from Old World rats; a whalebone shovel of the type used in Greenland to cut sod; and woven yarn, where the Dorset people used animal sinew cord. The site indicates trade between the Norse and the Dorset, perhaps for luxuries such as ivory and furs to trade with the rest of Europe, and confirms that Baffin Island was known to the Vikings.

Forested Markland appears to correspond to Labrador, south of Baffin Island on the mainland. The northern limit for forests on the east coast in modern times is at 58 degrees north, at the northern tip of Labrador. Researchers surmised that Vinland itself, therefore, should lie to the south, but where precisely was a matter of contention until 1961. A Viking site was located near the small fishing village of L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland. When explorations of the Newfoundland coast, inspired by the sagas, were conducted to search for Norse house sites, the village caught researchers’ attention because of the grassy meadowlands as well as forests and small lakes. The shallow Épaves Bay lies to the west, while nearby Black Duck Brook empties into the bay from Black Duck Pond; someone approaching by sea from the north would also first pass the island of Belle Isle. It is a geographic combination that dovetails with the description of Leif’s first arrival and choice of campsite.

The coincidences with the saga details were suggestive, but the concrete proof lay below the sod of the grassy plain that sloped up from the sea. Test excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows found evidence of Norse construction – iron rivets and hearths of a design used in Iceland and Greenland. The structures uncovered in the next seven years consisted of eight buildings constructed of turf and wooden frames, as well as a charcoal kiln, two outdoor cooking pits, outdoor hearths, and four boat-sheds. The artifacts discovered at the site, such as a bronze pin, iron rivets, and a spindle whorl, support the idea of Norse origin; of particular interest is the presence of butternuts and a whorl of butternut wood. The northern limit for butternuts is New Brunswick, 1000 km south of L’Anse aux Meadows. Given that the northernmost extent of the wild grapes that gave Vinland its name is New Brunswick as well, the butternuts suggest that “Vinland” was the name of a larger region, extending southward from the encampment at L’Anse Aux Meadows. The small settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows may have been used as the launching point for exploration further south.

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The excavation at Point Rosee. Photo credit: Nat Geo, http://bit.ly/1Uobktk

It’s a theory that until recently was mostly speculation. Though other evidence, like the finds on Baffin Island and a Norse coin found in Maine, pointed to interaction and trade between North Americans and Europeans during the Viking period, the single site at L’Anse Aux Meadows was the only evidence of actual Viking inhabitation. Three hundred miles away, however, on a rugged peninsula in the south-west of Newfoundland, a small but promising archaeological dig has been excavated which researchers believe may be North America’s second proven Viking site. It’s a find that could shed light on just how expansive the Viking presence in North America truly was, thanks to “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak.

Parcak, who uses satellite-based methods to identify and protect archaeological sites, turned her eyes-in-the-sky to eastern coastal Canada and was able to identify sites with potentially buried ruins using satellite infrared imagery and aerial photography. When vegetation covers over a man-made structure, it grows differently; plants trying to grow over a buried wall, for example, won’t be able to put roots down as deep, and won’t grow as tall. Parcak identified a spot where the vegetation was discolored in a rectilinear pattern, and suspected there was more underneath. The site at Point Rosee, though as far from L’Anse Aux Meadows as Newfoundland allows, shares some important traits with it: a grassy headland, excellent access from the sea, and according to test trenches dug in the summer of 2015, evidence of turf walls, a stone hearth, and iron ore. While the evidence is not conclusive, experts are cautiously optimistic that the finds point to a Viking origin. The turf construction is in the Viking style, unlike any Native architecture in the region. The hearth contained 28 pounds of bog iron, ore that is formed from iron dissolved in water and deposited in bogs and wetlands; in order to smelt the iron, it first had to be roasted to remove water and impurities. The indication of metallurgy at Point Rosee makes it the southernmost and westernmost ironworking site in pre-Columbian North America.

The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, which was briefly inhabited and quickly abandoned, supports the stories from the sagas: a series of short expeditions, with Viking ships spending a few months to a year gathering wood and wild crops then returning across the sea. This second site may tell a different story; as excavations continue, further evidence will hopefully answer questions such as whether it was a temporary camp or a long-term ironworking workshop, supplying expeditions into the Gulf of St. Lawrence; in time, it will reveal a fuller picture of the Viking presence in North America. The sagas may have captured only a small portion of the true story – with a perspective that only covers half the story to begin with – but they were both the why and the how of the search for the earliest European-American contact, a literary map that provided the clues for the discovery of the first Norse inhabitation of North America.

Sources

Ingstad, Anne Stine. The Discovery of a Norse Settlement in America

Kunz, Keneva. The Vinland Sagas: the Icelandic sagas about the first documented voyages across the north Atlantic: the saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s saga.

“Evidence of Viking Outpost Found in Canada.” http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/10/121019-viking-outpost-second-new-canada-science-sutherland/>

http://bit.ly/1U0bktk

Partially adapted from https://www.facebook.com/TheEarthStory/posts/1050241208370256

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