Q: And why do you think we care so much about when Europeans arrived in North America and where they went?
A: Part of it, as I mentioned above, is that the story is shrouded in mystery, and that our speculations are fuelled by a certain sense of legendary mystique. I think this applies to most approaches to the question – both at the scholarly and at the popular level.
On the “nobler” side of things, I think there is an increasing recognition of the cultural complexity of the Vikings and on their important contribution to the development of medieval Europe, as we steadily move away from the outdated, one-sided stereotype of seeing the Vikings as sanguinary barbarians. Understanding the farthest reach of their Westward expansion is adding to one of the least well-understood aspects of Viking Age history, and for that it has intrinsic value.
For true scholars and fans of the Viking world, this intellectual excitement should really be evenly applied to any discoveries that push the boundaries of our understanding of the Vikings and their activities. We should (and many do) get as excited about new discoveries in other parts of the Viking world, say Russia for example, as we do about new discoveries in North America.
But in many cases, North America receives more attention and interest than other areas. This is in part because of the sagas, because of the known progression of the Vikings across the North Atlantic, and because of the tantalizingly close, confirmed presence of the Norse in Greenland for about 500 years. North America is one of the main parts of modern “Western” culture, and I think that the marked interest in Viking excursions here has a lot to do with a certain Western chauvinism, of which we are most often unaware. Expanding the narrative of Viking contact with North America is a way of giving the entire continent a longer European pedigree. European culture, and specifically that of Western Europe, is the conceptual source of modern Western culture, and by having an earlier European presence in North America, we can therefore extend its belonging into the Western world and therefore come closer to imagining the presence of a nearly complete model of this Western culture at an earlier date. The passage of time gives this model legitimacy: the longer we Westerners have been here in North America, the longer it has been part of “our” world and history. We can claim it as our own.
One of the more positive (?) reasons for this is perhaps a desire to have a Western European cultural association with North America that predates the Columbian expansion of the Early Modern period, and all the cultural baggage that comes with full-sale colonialism and genocide. The Viking explorations do not operate in this way at all and cannot be considered within a this kind of colonial framework (and it would be severely anachronistic to interpret the Viking Age in this way). Perhaps in some way we might believe that having the Vikings be the first Europeans in North America helps us salve our collective Western conscience by removing the colonialist bad guys from holding first place…
The need to integrate North America into as long a Western pedigree as possible is especially important, I think, for North Americans themselves, or at least those who stem from the dominant cultural stratum which has its historical roots in Western Europe. There is a tremendous amount of cultural anxiety amongst the modern descendants of the immigrant European populations of North America, who perhaps see a greater cultural legitimacy in the European identities of their ancestors than they do in their own, hard-to-define North American identities. This generates a certain desperation for cultural attachment, which in turn leads to such wholesale nonsense as the profusion of kitsch branded with absurdities like “Kiss me, I’m Irish”, and the entire concept of North American St. Patrick’s day celebrations, for example. What is being put forward here is a caricature of cultural identity, one that is accessible and easily-consumed, but often completely disconnected from both the historical and current reality of the cultures represented. It is perpetuated and consumed by people who want to have a cultural affiliation with what they consider to be their past, but whose flavour is one that they define themselves. Very often, those who claim such strong cultural affiliations have never travelled to the places they idolize in a caricatured form. Often, they have never strayed from their North American hometowns. I must admit that I relish in bursting this particular bubble. When I am confronted by (to keep with my example) a St. Patrick’s Day neo-Irish zealot who claims with great pride to be Irish, I quietly ask them which part of Ireland they grew up in…
The case of cultural appropriation of the Vikings is one that I’ve had a chance to observe in great detail both as a North American scholar of the Viking Age, but also thanks to a rather entertaining part of my life when I was on the Executive Committee of the Canadian Nordic Society, in Ottawa. I still have a loose affiliation with this group and enjoy observing the cultural constructions of its membership at arm’s length. So, in the case of the Vikings, there is a strong desire for cultural affiliation stemming from communities descended from a genuine, but modern, Scandinavian diaspora that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, and which led to significant Scandinavian settlement primarily in the American Midwest and the Canadian Great Lakes and eastern Prairies regions. The Scandinavian connection to these places is direct and indisputable, but it is young. 19th-century young. Definitely not Viking Age. But the Scandinavian connection usually seems to give these descendant communities a sense of ownership over an historical pedigree that connects them directly to the Vikings. The Vikings are no longer a distant medieval culture that were the first Europeans to set foot on North American shores… they were “us”. They are “us”. And so we get things like the logo of the Minnesota Vikings football team – as stereotypical an image of the Viking as Barbarian Warrior as you could ever hope to find (an image that suits the aura of American football all too perfectly). You also get the Fake of Fakes, the 19th-century Kensington Runestone, once again from Minnesota (sorry, Minnesota), which seeks to create a direct archaeological link to genuine Norse exploration, claiming that medieval Scandinavians actually made it to the American Midwest. This would push back the Scandinavian connection to close to the Viking Age: a genuine Norse pedigree (not just a young modern Scandinavian connection), and a genuine reason to “own” the Vikings. The Kensington Runestone, by the way, still has its staunch defenders.
But just like the Irish example given above, the Norse connection with Scandinavian descendent communities is very often a fabrication, and one whose cultural characteristics are based neither on a proper understanding of the past (in this case the Viking Age), nor of the present cultural identity of the appropriated “homelands”. Nor is such an understanding necessarily desired, in many cases. That would burst the bubble. Like many other descendant communities, these groups have built a concept of their cultural identity based on a time-capsule of cultural characteristics brought over by their immigrant ancestors, and subsequently isolated from the cultural developments in the “homelands”. And so ironically, the desire to have an ancient, Viking connection takes on a flavour that is redolent of 19th-century Scandinavia. When confronted with the cultural realities of their “homelands” in their current state, the most vociferous of these neo-Viking Scandinavian descendants can sometimes act defensively, as if their “homelands”, somehow, have got it all wrong. How dare they be different than the genuine Viking ancestral memories of a few generations past! Similarly, as a scholar of the Viking Age, I have sometimes been told that I didn’t know what I was talking about, because I didn’t have this bottled Scandinavian pedigree. It’s all terribly entertaining, from an anthropological point of view. (“You’ve got it all wrong, and I should know, I’m Norwegian and Norwegians are Vikings!” “Oh, how fascinating! Which part of Norway did you grow up in?” “… I’m from Brockville. But my great-grandfather came straight from Norway, and I hear Norway’s lovely!”)
Everyone wants to be a Viking these days. This zeal can lead to instances of phenomenal quackery, as I’ve described above, but it can also be felt more benignly in places where Viking settlement is a known fact, such as in Britain. When a new wave of genetic research into the Viking diaspora started gathering speed in the past decade, volunteers for testing abounded from all parts of Britain, especially those known to have been heavily settled by Scandinavians. Sometimes, the results of the harmless, swab-in-mouth genetic tests confirmed a connection to Scandinavia, and sometimes, results were surprisingly off the mark. In all cases, tall tales of glorious Norse ancestry were common currency, in a strikingly similar way to the cultural appropriation seen in North American descendant communities. Everyone, truly everyone, wants to be a Viking. I’ve even played into that game, especially when I’m asked by curious students and other interlocutors as to why I’m so interested in the Vikings. “Do you have Viking blood?,” they ask, as if being a descendant of Vikings were the only reason to be interested in them. “No,” I’d tell them, to their great disappointment. “I’m Canadian. I grew up in Ottawa.” Most of my heritage, as far as I know, is Mediterranean. But to soothe them, I’ve try really hard to find something, anything, to link me to Vikings and therefore gain the “right” to study them. Usually the best I can come up with is a possible connection to Normandy through my mother’s line.
The thing is, there are no more Vikings. Even modern Scandinavians, Faroese and Icelanders, even those residing currently in what was once the Danelaw in England, cannot claim to be a cultural continuation of Vikings. The best they can hope is to have a vague genetic echo. But genes do not carry culture. And on that note, isn’t half the world’s population supposedly related to Genghis Khan, or something like that? Time changes things, people, bloodlines, politics, and cultures. Claiming to be a Viking really doesn’t mean anything in the 21st century, but the desire for cultural connection is so powerful that this will seldom if ever be something that is considered objectively. I seem to have digressed unforgivably far here, but understanding this mentality is relevant to understanding to what degree cultural chauvinism can enter into the infatuation of finding Vikings in North America, be it in spurious mythical/ancestral or genuine historical/archaeological form.
So there you have it! Are you convinced by Parcak’s argument? Or do you think that she jumped the gun? Let us know in the comments below! And a tremendous thank you goes out to Dr. Teva Vidal for his insight into the Point Rosee discovery!