Are you ready for a week full of Vikings?
Ever see a news story about an amazing historical discovery and wonder what is so special about it? Or read a news article about a “historic moment,” only to wonder what they were talking about? In this series, “History in the News,” I take you behind the headlines, explaining the history behind these findings and announcements, giving you a historian’s perspective on why they are important.
This week, we’ll be discussing the latest discovery of a second possible Viking settlement in Newfoundland. On April 1, 2016, Dr. Sarah Parcak announced she and her team of researchers had discovered evidence of what might be a Viking-style hearth and eight kilograms of early bog iron in a part of Newfoundland called Point Rosee. This discovery was even featured in a NOVA documentary, Vikings Unearthed (which featured Parcak and others horrifyingly mispronouncing “Newfoundland” and the typical sensationalizing of Vikings as murdering barbarians). Parcak and NOVA believe that Parcak’s findings are strong evidence for what they describe as only the second Viking settlement in North America. But are they correct? We will explore the answer to this question over the course of three blog posts. The first post, which you are reading right now, will discuss the history of Viking sites in North America and give you an overview of Parcak’s discovery. The second post, which comes out tomorrow (Wednesday) will be Part 1 of an interview with Vikingologist and dear friend, Dr. Teva Vidal, who will discuss Parcak’s findings and the significance of such a find. The third post, which comes out on Thursday, will be Part 2 of the interview with Dr. Vidal, and will discuss why we seem to care so much about when Europeans arrived in North America and where they went. Are you excited? I know I am!
For many years, historians and archaeologists have been aware of two medieval Icelandic texts, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eric the Red, that describe several different voyages to a place called “Vinland,” which was believed to be somewhere in North America, around the year 1000. There was a great deal of speculation about whether these sagas were simply stories or descriptions of real events. Since these had texts were based on oral histories recorded long after the events in question had happened, and there was no physical evidence for the presence of the Norse in North America, there was no way to prove whether or not they were true.
Expert Tip: The term “Viking” is a bit of a misnomer. The exact origins of the term are unclear, but it seems to have referred specifically to raiders and sailors from Scandinavia. In more recent years, it has become an umbrella term to describe people who lived in Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark, Sweden) between the 8thth and 11thth centuries. But this term implies that there was a unified power structure or culture when in fact there were many different groups that acted more or less independently. The correct term is “Norse,” which refers to the language (Old Norse) used by individuals living in Scandinavia at this time. It’s also important to keep in mind that, as in the TV show “Vikings,” the Norse established settlement far beyond the borders of their homeland, in places like Iceland, Greenland, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England.
Our historical understanding all changed in the 1960s when two Norwegian archaeologists, Dr. Helge Ingstad and Dr. Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered what they believed to be the first evidence of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland.
They found eight different house sites that were extremely similar to the kinds of houses that were being built in Greenland and Iceland around the year 1000. Based on this evidence, they concluded that the Norse had actually reached North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The site of their discovery, now known as L’Anse aux Meadows, is the only confirmed Norse settlement on this continent.
Expert Tip: The term “settlement” is important here. When using the term to refer to an archaeological site, it implies the long-term occupation. The term “site” however simply refers to a location where evidence has been unearthed.
There have been further discoveries that strongly suggest a Norse settlement in the Arctic. This is largely due to the work of Dr. Patricia Sutherland, previously curator of Arctic Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now Canada’s History Museum). Archaeologists have largely concluded that the location referred to in the Sagas as “Helluland” is in fact Baffin Island and Northern Labrador. Sutherland has been working on Baffin Island since the late 1970s, and has discovered a number of artefacts that have been conclusively proved as Norse, suggesting occasional trade and contact between the Norse and the Inuit during the 13th and 14th centuries.
In more recent years, she and her team investigated a number of previously excavated artefacts that point to the establishment of long-term settlements of the Norse on Baffin Island around the year 1000. At the time, Baffin Island was inhabited by a people known as the Dorset, who were unrelated to the Inuit. The artefacts in question included “several lengths of yarn or fine cordage spun from the fur of local animals, bar-shaped whetstones of a type used by the Norse, and a variety of wooden objects including notched sticks closely resembling those used by the Norse as tallies.” The most telling artefact, was a broken metal-working crucible with traces of metal inside alongside evidence of smelted metals on working surfaces. These were technologies unknown to the Dorset, and the metal that was recovered further suggested a European origin.
These amazing discoveries were profiled in an article in National Geographic, which you can read here, and featured in an episode of The Nature of Things, and you can watch the full episode here. It’s well worth a watch! Plus I could listen to David Suzuki talk all day.
Unfortunately, Sutherland’s work on the Norse in the Arctic has been suspended. She was dismissed from her position in the spring of 2012 and has been denied access to her research since that time.
In addition to the discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows and in Baffin Island, many archaeologists believe that there might be at least one other Norse site in North America for two reasons. Firstly, there are other sites mentioned in the Sagas. Secondly, the presence of butternuts at the L’Anse aux Meadows site is also telling. Butternut, a species of walnut that is native to the Eastern Coast of North America, is found only as far north as New Brunswick and Quebec. The presence of butternuts in L’Anse aux Meadows suggests that the Norse had explored further south, at least on a temporary basis, but evidence of this continues to elude archaeologists.
Dr. Parcak’s discovery was the result of using high-resolution satellite imagery to scan areas of Norse settlement around the Atlantic. These satellites not only record images in the visible spectrum, but also in infrared and near infrared. Parcak can look at photographs taken in the near infrared spectrum and look for differences in plant growth that are not visible to the naked eye. These differences can result from the presence of ruins underneath the soil, which block root growth and affect the soil’s water holding capacity. Many of these differences are due to geological phenomena, so Parcak is looking for objects that look man-made — specifically straight lines and right angles. Norse settlements nearly always featured rectangular buildings, called longhouses, and so Parcak was looking for disturbances in the soil that indicated something of this size — 5 to 7 meters wide and 15 to 25 meters long.GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0
Once the potential site was located, local archaeologists visited the site and conducted scans using a magnetometer (which measures differences in magnetism) to see if there is any evidence of metal or burning in the soil. After confirming that the magnetometer did detect variations in the magnetism at the Pointe Rosee site, Parcak and her team were given permission to dig test trenches to see if there was any evidence of a Norse settlement. The team dug five trenches in different areas. In one trench, Parcak’s team noticed different colour banding in the soil, which is similar to the kind of evidence you’d expect from a Norse longhouse built out of turf. In another trench, Parcak’s team found a fire-cracked boulder, ash compacted over flat stones, some objects that looked like they could be a by-product of metalworking, and three berries. While not all of the finds indicated a Norse settlement (many of the potential metal items were regular stones), the team did find roasted bog iron.
Expert Tip: Bog iron is a kind of iron deposit that would be excavated by the Norse, and then burned over a fire as part of the process of purifying the metal for smithing.
This was significant because the local Indigenous groups (the Beothuk and the Mi’kmaq) did not have metal working technology at the time, so the find suggested a European presence. The berries were carbon dated to a median date of 1781, which is much later than the Norse period. But Parcak’s team argues that these were likely deposited later, and that if this was a colonial-era site, there would be evidence of wooden buildings and pieces of glass and ceramics, which were missing. So on the basis of the existing evidence, Parcak’s team believe they have located a potential Norse settlement.
As of yet, there are no scholarly publications on Parcak’s work. All of the information from this post was culled from the NOVA documentary as well as a National Geographic article on the discovery. It is noteworthy, however, that while L’Anse aux Meadows was discussed, Dr. Sutherland’s discoveries were not.
While there is a great deal more to learn about the Norse explorations of North America, this post has briefly outlined the most important points, as well as elaborated on Parcak’s discoveries. Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for Part 1 of my interview with Dr. Teva Vidal, where he talks about Parcak’s findings and their significance!
 Parks Canada, “History,” L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/nl/meadows/natcul/decouverte_discovery.aspx
 P. D. Sutherland, P. H. Thompson, and P. A. Hunt, “Evidence of Early Metalworking in Arctic Canada.” Geoarchaeology 30 (2015): 74–78.
Douglas Hunter, “White Tribism: Viking Explorations and Indigenous Erasures,” Borealia, April 11, 2016. https://earlycanadianhistory.ca/2016/04/11/white-tribism-viking-explorations-and-indigenous-erasures/
P. D. Sutherland, “The Question Of Contact Between Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos And Early Europeans In The Eastern Arctic,” in The Northern World Ad 900–1400: The Dynamics Of Climate, Economy, And Politics In Hemispheric Perspective, H. Maschner, O. Mason, & R. Mcghee, eds., 279-299 (Salt Lake City: University Of Utah Press, 2009).
“Where is Vinland?” Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/vinland/home/indexen.html