Move over Christopher Columbus …
The Vikings discovered North America first at L’Anse aux Meadows
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
Who would have thought? At the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula lies the first and only known evidence of European presence in the Americas, perhaps the location of Straumfjord of the Vinland sagas.
Against a stunning backdrop of rugged cliffs, bog and coastline, here Norse expeditions sailed from Greenland, building a small encampment of timber and peat-turf buildings over 1,000 years ago, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus dreamed of sailing across the Atlantic. A place called L’Anse aux Meadows holds archaeological remains of the 11th-century Viking settlement that was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1968 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 and is today a popular tourist destination and a site for ongoing archeological research.
History of discovery
This land was once owned by George Decker, grandfather of Loretta Decker, who today works for Parks Canada as the Visitor Experience and Product Development Officer “crafting experiences and helping tell the tales of many travelers and adventures in [Canada’s] past.”
Loretta, born and bred in the tiny village of L’Anse aux Meadows, tells the story: “In 1960, my grandfather, George Decker, had led Norwegian archeologist Helge Ingstad to our nearby pasture lands that, as it turned out, was the base camp for the first Europeans to have lived in North America. After 11 seasons of excavations and numerous exciting finds, it has been proved that this pasture contains the remains of Norse housing and outbuildings.”
The first to suggest that the site was a former Viking settlement was Newfoundlander William Munn, publisher of a major St. John’s newspaper, The Evening Telegram, in a series of articles in 1914. The articles were later compiled into a small book, The Wineland Voyages: The location of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland from the Icelandic sagas.
The remnants at L’Anse aux Meadows correspond with two Icelandic sagas, called the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. Finnish geologist Väinö Tanner developed a similar theory in 1939.
Adam of Bremen, a medieval chronicler, mentions Vinland in an account he wrote in 1073 AD stating, “He [The Danish King Sven Estridsson] also told me of another island discovered by many in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines grow there on their own accord, producing the most excellent wine.”
When Danish archeologist Jørgen Meldgaard visited the area in 1956, he conducted several test excavations and planned to return but was delayed by other projects. However, his quest sparked interest among community residents.
So, when Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his daughter Benedicte appeared in 1960, George Decker led them to the grass-covered mounds at L’Anse aux Meadows. Helge’s wife, archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, led the first excavations from 1961 to 1968 and ultimately proved that the site was indeed Norse and dated to the 11th century. With their knowledge of Norse encampments, the couple asked about unique house foundations and structures in all the towns they visited. They struck paydirt at L’Anse aux Meadows because they knew that Norse farms in Greenland were built at the heads of shallow bays near freshwater. This is where they dug and over the next seven years, Ingstad and an international team uncovered a treasure trove.
As Loretta Decker tells it, “I grew up with a full house of excavators working at the dig, as well as enthusiasts from around the world who were early explorers of the story, thanks to a 1963 National Geographic article on the site. Inspired by their work and the many stories I heard while sitting under the table of an evening while the adults all talked and told stories of Vikings, trolls, and all other means of fantastic beasts and the places they lived, I went on to study folklore, returning to L’Anse aux Meadows for summer jobs. After graduating university, I started working for Parks Canada as a passionate interpreter, embodying the spirit of a Viking through first-person interpretation.” She continues the passion. “As a child, my father worked for Vikings, and now I do, too! I love L’Anse aux Meadows. It’s my home,” she says.
However, questions on the length and nature of the Norse occupation and its relationship to Indigenous people remain unclear. It is believed that from the 11th century, for some years, Norsemen used this settlement either permanently or on a seasonal basis. Several archeologists have conducted additional excavations. Their findings, complemented by a series of natural-sciences investigations, contributed to L’Anse aux Meadows being named the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Exploring the site
This site consists of eight timber-framed turf structures built in the same style as those found in Greenland and Iceland from the same period. The buildings include three dwellings, one forge, and four workshops on a narrow terrace overlooking a peat bog and small brook near the shore of Islands Bay, formerly Epaves Bay. The total number of sleeping places indicates a population of 70 to 90 people at one time.
Construction techniques are similar to those used around the same time in Norway: a wooden framed structure covered with peat taken from the nearby bogs, a pointed roof, inner peat partitions
and internal fireplaces. The buildings suggest the settlement may have been occupied seasonally or used as a base for repairing boats and carrying out exploration farther south. Perhaps the Indigenous populations made it difficult to stay longer. According to the sagas, Leif Erikson’s brother Thorwald was killed in a fight with “the skrælings,” the Viking name for Indigenous people.
The location’s original name was L’Anse à la Médée or Medea’s Cove, probably named after a ship belonging to the French fishing station located there from the 1700s until 1904. The site is on an open plain, but groups of balsam fir, larch, birch, and poplar grew on and around it when the Norse arrived and up until the early 20th century. The site was occupied intermittently by five Indigenous groups before the Norse and one after them. It appears that no groups were at L’Anse aux Meadows during the time of the Vikings, but evidence would have been visible to the Viking settlers that members of groups existed in the larger vicinity.
The remains of a clay pit furnace with slag indicate iron work. Iron objects, including buckles, nails, and rivets, were found, as well as wooden, bronze, bone, and stone artifacts of Norse origins. Artifacts found at the site are evidence of activities such as iron production and woodworking, probably used for ship repair, as well as indications that those who used the settlement probably traveled even farther south and beyond.
The only other artifacts discovered are small personal objects lost by their owners. The artifact that proved most useful in dating the site was a ringed pin, of a style dated to the 10th and early 11th centuries. Ringed pins, like those used in Ireland, which were used to fasten a cloak around a person’s neck or shoulder, have inspiration in Irish Celtic design.
Also found were a small spindle piece and a whetstone for sharpening needles and scissors, domestic textile items that indicate the presence of women. Similarly, a broken bone pin could have been used for hair or clothing or even used for a form of knitting.
Vestiges of butternut squashes, not native to Newfoundland, demonstrate the extent of Nordic travel across North America. Writer Judith Lindbergh describes the Vikings not as bloodthirsty hoodlums, but as cultural ambassadors. “Vikings challenged the boundaries of their world, reaching out to take—by force if necessary—whatever the world had to offer. In doing so, they promoted cross-cultural trade and communication.”
Experts believe that L’Anse aux Meadows was not meant to be a permanent settlement but rather a base camp for exploration.
In Greenland, there was a taste for the kind of things that were available in Newfoundland: lumber, furs, and food delicacies, such as walnuts and grapes so highly prized that the land was named Vinland.
The remnants correspond with stories told in the Vinland Sagas that document the voyages of Leif Erikson and other Norse explorers who ventured westward across the Atlantic Ocean from Iceland and Greenland to find and explore new territory.
Today, you can let your inner Viking shine here. Meet resident Vikings, as you tour the reconstructed Viking settlement. Listen to Vinland sagas in the main hall. View demonstrations on Norse iron forging and textile weaving and try them out yourself. Tour the visitor center to view videos and exhibits on Viking life and the site’s archaeological discovery. See original artifacts as well as replicas. Join costumed Viking interpreters on guided tours. Wander coastal and bog hiking trails to enjoy spectacular viewpoints.
Geocaching, a modern treasure hunt, is a new sport that is growing in popularity with people of all ages. Given the latitudinal and longitudinal co-ordinates, participants use their GPS (Global Positioning System) unit to locate the hidden “cache,” a small box with a punch to record the visit on the program’s card. But during the Covid period, the Geocaching Challenge is being offered in an
In 2022, the Troll Trail will open. No doubt, local artisans will be busy fashioning lots of colorful souvenir trolls for the eager tourists.
Thanks to movies and video games, the Vikings retain an image in our psyche of violence and brutality, but they were also explorers, traders, and early settlers. The very name “Viking” comes from the old Norse word vik, a bay or creek that forms the root of vikingr, or pirate.
At L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, learn how and where the Vikings lived. In addition, it is probable that Leif Erikson’s house is there. Courageous adventurers and legendary seafarers, the Vikings accomplished new trade routes and vast trading networks, a stunning achievement in the history of human migration and discovery.
L’Anse aux Meadows is open May 31 to Oct. 1. Check the website at pc.gc.ca for complete information. According to Loretta Decker, pre-COVID-19, some 37,000 visitors made their way in a season to this Viking outpost.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.