New news from L’Anse aux Meadows

A 1,000-year legacy

L'Anse aux Meadows

Photo: Loretta Decker / Parks Canada
L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, is the site of the first Viking settlements in North America.

Norwegian Immigration Association

On Oct. 20, 2021, L’Anse aux Meadows, the famous Viking site in Newfoundland, Canada, was in the news again—60 years after its discovery. The journal Nature published a new study proving the exact date Vikings were chopping wood and building structures at L’Anse aux Meadows—precisely 1,000 years ago, in 1021.

Margot Kuitems and Michael Dee of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have developed an intriguing new dating method that involves testing wood samples. Remnants of sod and timber buildings and a forge used in making iron tools had been uncovered by the Ingstads back in 1960.

Artifacts from the site are now stored in Nova Scotia. Kuitems chose three wood discards from fir and juniper trees, including the bark to test. The samples were definitely Norse because they had been cut and shaped with metal tools showing clean, low-angle cuts. The Indigenous people had not acquired iron by 1000 A.D.

But let’s start at the beginning.

One night in 993 A.D., a powerful solar storm caused a surge of radiocarbon concentrations, which were absorbed by the trees on earth. These solar storms occur probably once or twice a millennium and create a sudden surge of radiocarbon that can be measured in trees.

“Trees breathe carbon dioxide as they grow, and so the researchers used that radioactive carbon signature to determine which of the annual growth rings seen in cross-sections of the wood was from 993. Next, they counted the number of rings from the affected ring out to the bark,” says journalist Tom Metcalfe for NBC News.

This gave them the exact year the tree was cut down by the Vikings, who had come there from Scandinavia and Iceland.

Of course, this evidence has far broader global implications. 

“We provide evidence that the Norse were active on the North American continent in the year AD 1021. This date offers a secure juncture for late Viking chronology. More importantly, it acts as a new point of reference for European cognizance of the Americas, and the earliest known year by which human migration encircled the globe,” says Kuitems in the Nature article. 

Beyond Science: The sagas

There are few subjects closer to the Scandinavian heart than the Vikings and the stories of their lives as related in the sagas. However, the doubters question how to disentangle the trolls and mythical creatures from the fearless warriors sailing on long ships with dragon heads onto the next adventure into the unknown.

After all, the sagas were written 200 years after the Viking Age. They are based on an oral tradition—stories told around the fire and handed down from generation to generation. This latest dating fixes the sagas in time, according to Dee.

This is the time to take another look at two sagas, The Saga of Erik the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders. These two epics enthrall the listener with harrowing descriptions of a Viking ship on its way to Greenland, blown off course and landing in North America. Leif Erikson (Leif the Lucky) was apparently on his way to bring Christianity to Greenland but landed on a strange shore, the tip of Newfoundland in Canada.

Indications are that L’Anse aux Meadows was intended to become a permanent settlement. The Norse found fish, game, and timber. Although it is also said that it was a resting place for Norse explorers, a place to repair their equipment and renew their energy. However, the sagas indicate that there was much strife with the Indigenous people, who they called skrælinger, those who wore furs. The Vikings referred them as “wretched people.” Indications are that the colony lasted from three to 13 years.

The Saga of Greenland tells of later explorations. Thorfinn Karlsefni left Norway and arrived in Greenland. He was Leif Erikson’s guest for the winter and fell in love with Gudrid. They married later that same winter. Karlsefni was encouraged by his wife and friends to lead an expedition to Vinland. 

They settled in L’Anse aux Meadows and all went well.

During their stay in Vinland, Karlsefni and Gudrid had a son, Snorri, the first child born of European parents in North America.

That year, the skrælinger came bearing furs and skins to trade for weapons. Karlsefni forbade this and the skrælinger settled for dairy products in exchange.

The next time the skrælinger came, Karlsefni’s men killed one of the natives who was grabbing a weapon. The skrælinger fled. But Karlsefni knew they would return, hostile and in larger numbers. Indeed, they did. He managed to fight them off. The next spring, the Norse returned to Greenland.

These explorers may have traveled farther south to warmer climes since there is evidence of exotic wood, as well as, butternuts and butternut trees, found at the site, never grown in Newfoundland.

Toward the end of her article Kuitems states, “The Icelandic sagas suggest that the Norse engaged in cultural exchanges with Indigenous groups of North Americans. If these encounters indeed occurred, they may have had inadvertent outcomes, such as pathogen transmission, or the introduction of foreign flora and fauna species.”

“Here we are fixing in time these somewhat legendary Norse sagas,” says Dee. “We’re providing some scientific evidence to say at this exact moment in time, this happened, which actualizes them a bit more.”

Dee added, “Thus it begs the question, how much of the rest of the saga adventures are true?”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Rigmor Swensen

Rigmor K. Swensen is a teacher, translator, and author of educational materials. She was project director of the Ellis Island exhibit “Norwegians in New York 1825-2000” and is currently co-chair of the Norwegian Immigration Association.