vikings in north america -- 11/06/19

Today's selection -- from Archaeology from Space by Sarah Parcak. Speculation abounds over the westward migration of the Norse. Specifically, the location of a lost settlement called Vinland:

"Thousands of other explorers, adventurers, and archaeologists have searched for evidence of Viking presence in North America. In Minnesota, people claim to have found Viking runestones. In Maine, a legitimate discovery of a Viking coin at a Native American site sug­gests some form of contact with or perhaps transitory exploration of New England. Many people also think there are more Viking sites to be found in eastern Canada and, perhaps, along the northeast coast of the United States. ...

"To picture Norse expansion from the fjords of northern Europe and Iceland, imagine how rapidly Iceland filled with farmers and how their sons and daughters carved up more and more of the arable land. Naturally, it led to tension and competition.

"Legendary Viking Erik the Red, perhaps named for his hair color as well as his temper, got into a nasty fight, killing two men called Eyjolf the Foul and Hrafn the Dueller. This got Erik exiled from Ice­land in 982, so he took a group of people westward to Greenland and founded its first Norse settlement, the remains of which can be seen today as a crumbling church and stone house foundations. More than three thousand people lived in the Eastern and Western Settlements, adapting and surviving for over 400 years in a new land. Though the descendants of the first settlers abandoned the place around 1450, losing their livelihoods to climate change as the Little Ice Age swept in, it was still an extraordinary accomplishment. But that new land was not enough to quench their thirst for exploration.

"We know so much about the Norse adventures to North America thanks to the Icelandic sagas. The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders describe five separate trips to a place they called 'Vinland,' between 999 and 1017. Also, we see other references to Vinland in the Icelandic Landnámabók and in Icelandic annals.

"Where and what is Vinland remains a subject of much debate in the Norse world. ... As the Norse sailed west and south from Greenland, they encountered three diverse landscapes. The first, Helluland, or 'flat slab land,' was known to have rocky coasts and no trees, and today, archae­ologists believe that area corresponds to Baffin Island in Canada. Markland, or 'forest land,' located south of Helluland, is associated with present-day Labrador, where dense forest runs for many miles along the coast. Vinland, the third, is supposedly somewhere farther south.

"Even the translation of the name is up for debate. The 'Vinland' could be a place where the Norse could grow grapes for wine, but it could be named for the large number of berries in Newfound­land and elsewhere along the Gulf of Saint Lawrence that were good for making wine, as they are today. Or the vines could be just vines.

The Vinland map, alleged to be pre-Columbian.

"What we do know is that after sailing south from Helluland, the Norse established more than one settlement, with at least one in New­foundland. ... While so many searches for Norse sites had failed, one succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations -- and changed North Ameri­can history in the process.

"It began in 1960 with a Norwegian couple, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad. In reading the Norse sagas, they thought that Vinland likely referred to Newfoundland, as its northern coast would have been the first logical area for the Norse to make landfall when sailing south from Labrador. After they spoke about their search to George Decker, a local fisherman, he led them to a series of foundations made from sod and covered in grass that had a similar shape to Norse long­houses. This goes to show you that locals everywhere know what is what.

"Over the next few seasons at the site, called L'Anse aux Meadows ... came a spindle whorl made of soapstone, essential for spinning wool to make woolen garments. Iron boat rivets suggested that larger boats had made the journey there. Excavations in other areas revealed a forge, where iron was smelted and iron items manufac­tured, but it was the discovery of a typical Norse metal ring pin that quieted the naysayers.

"Radiocarbon tests provided multiple dates around 1000 AD, with the buildings having an identical shape to those in Iceland and Greenland from the same time period. It appeared the Ingstads had discovered the first evidence of the Norse in North America.

"After the Ingstads came legendary archaeologist Birgitta Wallace from Parks Canada. She and her team worked in the swampier area of the site next to the beach, where they found pieces of worked wood. Significantly, they also uncovered a butternut, along with wood from a butternut tree, which is a species of walnut not found in Newfoundland. That's a strong suggestion that the inhabitants of L'Anse aux Meadows sailed across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, cut­ting down trees for wood and exploring. The evidence added up to show that the Norse lived at L'Anse aux Meadows for a short period of time, with a maximum population of about a hundred people. Curiously, no animal bones appeared in the archaeological record, nor was there any evidence for stables."



Sarah Parcak


Archaeology from Space


Henry Holt and Company


Copyright 2019 by Sarah Parcak


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