Now, I’m not an expert on the history of the Norse, but I do know someone who is — Dr. Teva Vidal, a real life Vikingologist and all around awesome person.
Here’s his bio:
Teva Vidal is a native of Ottawa and an alumnus of the University of Ottawa, where he got his first taste of medieval history. He completed a PhD in Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK, during which his research took him to places far and wide in the Viking World, including Iceland, Scandinavia, and throughout the UK. After returning to the University of Ottawa to teach about Vikings, medieval history, and medieval material culture, he has now taken on new opportunities as a researcher and analyst for the Federal Government. Teva also shares his expertise on the Viking World with Carleton University’s Learning in Retirement programme, and has been a historical consultant for the Crash Course online educational video series on Youtube.
What to know just how awesome Dr. Vidal is? He teaches classes dressed as Friar Tuck and as a Viking (photos are posted below. ;). He knows how to make chainmail and carves the most amazing pumpkins for Halloween (with intricate Celtic designs).
As soon as I read about Dr. Parcak’s discoveries, I knew exactly who to turn to. In Part 1 of the interview that follows, I ask Dr. Vidal about Parcak’s findings, whether her conclusions were sound, and how these findings fit into the larger history of the Norse in North America.
Q: The documentary (Vikings Unearthed) mentioned that there have been previous sites that were thought to be Norse, but turned out to be something else. How do archaeologists go about confirming a settlement as belonging to a particular group? And what would archaeologists need to find in this site to prove that this was a Norse settlement?
A: There is indeed a proliferation of bogus Viking/Norse sites and artifacts in North America. Despite the mention of a Viking presence in North America in saga literature, and the confirmation of Norse settlement at the site at l’Anse aux Meadows, the extent of the Vikings’ interaction with North America remains largely unknown. We just don’t know exactly what happened, and this lends it a stirring aura of legend. We desperately want to find the Vikings in North America, and leads, in some cases, to rather hasty conclusions and pretentions of authenticity for certain sites and artifacts even in direct contradiction to the results of scientific study. We will see something as Viking, simply because we want it to be Viking. Some salient examples: the Newport tower in Rhode Island (a 17th-century windmill), the Kensington Runestone in Minnesota (a particularly egregious 19th-century fake), the Vinland Map (a 20th-century fake!), the Maine Silver Penny (a planted artifact from the 1950s), and even a “Vikings Fortress” in Laval, Québec, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of history and archaeology…
There are several things that archaeologists use to establish the proper cultural context of finds. Getting the right date range is of course essential. This can be done in several ways. Radiocarbon dating enjoys a certain prestige but it has its limitations, and can only be used to date organic material. In Iceland, there is the advantage of being able to use tephrochronology, or archaeological dating using the analysis of volcanic ash layers measured against a database of known and dated volcanic eruptions. Sometimes artifacts like coins carry a date on them, which is incredibly useful, or can at least be dated based on their design and inscriptions to their date of issue and period of use. Usually though, the most widespread form of dating is by typology. We have a sufficiently vast corpus of artifactual material from the Viking Age to have an idea of how things change through time (the design of sword hilts, for example, or even better, the type of artistic ornamentation on an artifact), or when specific types of items were introduced into the material culture, to be able to compare finds and give them reasonable date ranges. Sometimes though, object forms stay reasonably similar for long periods of time, so this too has its limitations.
The most important thing that is required, both for dating (through typology) and for the cultural identification of a site, are diagnostic artifacts. These are objects that are unique to the material culture of a given group, either in their design, construction and materials, or in their use. The material culture of the Vikings is well known and there is huge corpus of objects that allow us to have a confident idea of most aspects of their material production. This is the case for most cultural groups in medieval Europe and in many other contexts as well. So that when an object comes up in an archaeological context in northern Canada, we can bring that knowledge to bear in identifying the cultural origin of the object. This isn’t always very straightforward: sometimes forms can be ambiguous, so construction techniques and materials have to be looked at in greater detail. Sometimes materials themselves need to be analysed microscopically and chemically to properly be identified. Also, of course, objects from one culture’s material production can end up in a context that is foreign to their place of manufacture. This happens, for example, through trade or, in the case of the Vikings, often through raiding and plunder. So we usually need an assemblage of finds to help us make a positive identification of a site. In the case of l’Anse aux Meadows, for example, there were such things as the shape and construction techniques of the buildings themselves, which echoed those of the Norse buildings in the North Atlantic and more specifically those in Greenland, there was the smelting of bog iron and the production of rivets for ship repair in a designated forge, and one fantastic bronze ringed pin of a style which originated in Viking Ireland and spread throughout the North Atlantic Viking migrations. That last one was about as diagnostic as you can get, but its presence among other likely candidates for cultural identification helped to confirm the L’Anse aux Meadows site as Norse. I know I’m missing some of the important artifacts, but that’s the general idea.
So far, the Point Rosee site has show some unusual forms in the ground based on detailed satellite imagery. This technique was successfully used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in a very, very different setting in Egypt. These odd landforms were enough to justify some very small test trenches which turned up what appeared to be the early stages of bog-iron smelting. For the time being, this amounts to only the earliest stages of surveying and prospecting, which basically tell us “this is a place worth looking at in greater detail.” It’s nowhere near enough to scream out “WE’VE GOT ANOTHER VIKING SITE IN NEWFOUNDLAND!!!!” like much of the popular media has been doing. Of course, stories like this thrive on sensationalism, but to be honest, it’s just too early to say. We don’t have anything that conclusively disproves that Vikings were there, but nor do we have any conclusive positive proof that they were.
Reading too far into this, at this stage, is basically counting our chickens before they’ve hatched. It may be that this will turn out to be a big colossal nothing, or it may be that we will have a second, bona fide Viking site in Newfoundland. But other than generating interest in the topic, which is entirely valid, I think that the documentary and the media sensationalism was premature and might lead to some unfortunate embarrassment should this prove to be nothing, which is still entirely possible.
So far, this kind of very cautious optimism with a heavy reluctance to pronounce judgement on the site without considerable further evidence appears to be the reactions of most scholars of the Viking world, and mine as well. Dr. Parcak is not a specialist in Viking or North Atlantic archaeology, and I’m hoping that her excavations will include these specialists. Otherwise, there could be serious doubts cast on the team’s ability to properly identify what they’ve found. I hope, too, that Canadian archaeologists will be included in the project.
Everything is up in the air for now.
Q: If this were indeed a Norse site, how would it fit with L’Anse aux Meadows one and/or the sagas?
A: The sagas that talk about the voyages to Vínland – Erik the Red’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders – identify a specific settlement, “Leif’s camp”, but Vínland is an entire area visited by the Vikings around the year 1000. We don’t know exactly where Vínland is, geographically. There are other “lands” in the sagas as well: Helluland, the Land of Flat Stones, is generally understood as corresponding, geographically, to Baffin Island. Markland, or Forest Land, could be the wooded areas of the Labrador coast and even Newfoundland itself. Vínland, or Wine Land, is probably further south, anywhere from Newfoundland to Canada’s Maritime provinces and the Gulf of St-Lawrence. In the sagas, exploration of Vínland is not limited to the one built settlement, and so having a second Viking settlement in Newfoundland south of L’Anse aux Meadows is not at all incompatible with the sagas. In fact, it must be remembered that the sagas themselves are pretty vague as to what and where Vínland was, and the exact nature of the Norse explorations and activities there. Also, the sagas were written hundreds of years after the events they describe, and some details were inevitably lost in time and in the changing cultural lens of their Icelandic authors.
Archaeologically speaking, the presence of a second Viking site in Newfoundland is not incompatible either. Since l’Anse aux Meadows started being understood as a de facto Viking site in the 1970s, it has been generally agreed that this was not meant to be a permanent, long-term settlement, but rather a waystation for rest, repair and refurbishment on the way to explorations further afield. We know that the Vikings went farther south that l’Anse aux Meadows: for example, there are butternut shells that were found in the l’Anse aux Meadows buildings, and these don’t grow that far north. In this context, having other areas of Viking activity, other settlements and camps, would be entirely logical. There’s certainly nothing in the context of what we know about the Viking explorations of North America that excludes this possibility. It’s important here to remember that the site at l’Anse aux Meadows is not necessarily the site mentioned in the sagas. The fact that only one settlement is mentioned in the sagas does not mean that there were not others that were omitted in the retelling of the tale, an “historical novel” at beast. So there is nothing that’s telling us there should be only one Viking site to look for, and nothing telling us that a site farther south is unlikely. In fact, farther south is a good place to look: we know the Vikings went in that direction, and southward exploration would certainly make sense in the perspective of resource gathering.
If the Point Rosee site should end up being confirmed as a Viking site, it would add significantly to our understanding of the exploration process of the Vikings in North America, confirming that multiple waystations could have been used. We would also move away from the narrative told in the sagas, into unknown territory. This is very exciting.
Q: How does this site relate to the findings by Patricia Sutherland on Baffin Island? While they did talk about L’Anse aux Meadows, they didn’t talk about Sutherland’s findings and claimed the Point Rosee site is the most Western Norse settlement. Why do you think they didn’t mention Sutherland’s work at all?
A: The site at L’Anse aux Meadows is acknowledge and confirmed as a Viking site, so far the only one in North America. Dr. Sutherland’s work, while it represents in my opinion a significant, ground-breaking and paradigm-changing contribution to the field of Viking Studies, has yet to be fully acknowledged by the scholarly community. This is, on the one hand, not entirely surprising: even l’Anse aux Meadows had its detractors in the beginning (all the more reason not to jump the gun with the Point Rosee site…). But also, Dr. Sutherland’s work is also embroiled in scandal and institutional turmoil. Dr. Sutherland was dismissed by her former employer, the erstwhile Canadian Museum of Civilizations (currently the Canadian Museum of History, rebranded during the Harper era – there are currently parliamentary challenges being put forward regarding apparent partisan influence of the Museum’s operations by the Harper Conservative government…) in 2012, under less-than-transparent circumstances. At the risk of causing more harm than good, I will not comment as candidly as I otherwise might on the circumstances of Dr. Sutherland dismissal, nor will I discuss my personal opinion on the matter.
Staying within the academic realm of things, one result of this process, which is of significant detriment to the scholarly community, is that Dr. Sutherland has been denied access to her research and artefact collection from the work she undertook when in the Museum’s employ. This has significantly hindered the proper analysis, and publication, of her work on possible Norse-Native contact in the eastern Canadian Arctic. It has to be said, as well, that any archaeological work that intersects deeply with Native Canadian cultures, as is the case with Sutherland’s work, has the potential to raise difficult questions of sovereignty, cultural property and propriety and intercultural relations. This is even the case when the cultural interactions being studied are medieval, therefore making our modern debates about cultural interaction, in my opinion, anachronistic. The current effect of such studies cannot be considered irrelevant, though, and this makes things complicated.
All that to say, Dr. Sutherland’s work should, in every respect, be making the news in as big a fashion as the Point Rosee site has. But circumstances have prevented its wider dissemination. Dr. Sarah Parcak, who is spearheading the Point Rosee investigation, is also an experienced populariser of science and is used to working on big, public-friendly sensationalising projects. These projects seldom accurately represent the true scope of the scientific research being undertaken, and certainly sacrifice the minutiae and nuances of hard research in favour of sensationalism, but they also have a major beneficial impact in getting people interested in the research that goes on. Dr. Sutherland’s work has not benefitted from similar attention.
It is my sincere hope that Dr. Sutherland’s work will soon get the recognition it deserves, and be integrated into the mainstream of the discourse on Norse expansion into North America and the continued interaction of the Norse with Canada’s native populations. Just as there is no reason to exclude the Point Rosee site from an expanded model of Viking explorations south of l’Anse aux Meadows, so too does Dr. Sutherland’s work have its place in an expanded model of Norse interaction with the Canadian Arctic.
That’s all for today! Don’t forget to check back tomorrow to find out about why so many people are fascinated by the thought of Vikings in North America.