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The Vikings: They Got Here First, But Why Didn't They Stay?*

Norse explorers and traders landing at L'Anse aux Meadows, Nfld., 1,000 years ago. (John Ryan, artist)

The year 1837, a year of rebellion in the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, saw the publication in Copenhagen of a book, Antiquitates Americanae, in which the Danish professor, Carl Christian Rafn, argued that two obscure Icelandic sagas provided evidence that Norse explorers had discovered North America 500 years before Columbus. Earlier scholars had proposed the same idea, But Rafn's publication was the first to find a large and interested audience. Translated into English and French, it quickly led to a hunt for Viking antiquities in North America. The search has continued for the past 150 years, intriguing historians, literary scholars, archeologists and laymen alike.

As in most scholarly hunts, this one turned up many false trails and unearthed much evidence that was mistaken or misunderstood. Most learned pursuits are carried out within the insulated confines of an academic discipline. The subject of the medieval Norse in North America, however, was largely played up in the press, where any discovery or claim of discovery roused keen public enthusiasm.

Several generations of Canadians and Americans have, if fact, been fascinated by Viking exploration in the New World, and hundreds of books and articles have been written, some of them by crackpots and confidence artists. Since the historical and literary data is so limited - two legendary stories and a few vague references in other ancient texts - archeology has been the main field of contention. A stone windmill built by a 17th-Century governor of Rhode Island has long been misinterpreted as a "Viking tower". In 1898, a stone slab with a message carved in the ancient Scandinavian runic alphabet was found by a Swedish immigrant farmer in Minnesota. The inscription was immediately denounced as a forgery, a view reinforced by 50 years of research. Nevertheless, the message, telling of a Viking expedition to Minnesota, survived in the public imagination; the Minnesota Vikings, a team in the National Football League, is an example.

Fake runic inscriptions, and similar pieces of phony or misjudged clues, have been reported from Maine to Oklahoma and Paraguay. The major Canadian contribution to this panoply of fraud has been the "Beardmore find" - an iron sword, axe and portions of a shield said to have been found in 1930 by a prospector in northwest Ontario. The objects, recognized as genuine Viking-age Scandinavian weapons, were purchased by the Royal Ontario Museum. Unfortunately, these same weapons had been seen in the prospector's home long before the "discovery". It seems he had received them from a young Norwegian immigrant whose father was a collector of such material.

A generation ago, the scholarly search for New World Vikings appeared to be at an impasse. Few professionals were willing to join the hunt or risk their reputations by association with the mounting accumulation of deceit and exaggeration. No genuine archeological artifacts had been found in more than a century of searching. The few literary and historical records seemed to be mined out; all useful information in the Norse sagas had long ago been recognized, leaving only quibbles over the meanings of unclear terms and vague geographical descriptions. By the mid-20th Century e knew little more than Professor Rafn did in 1837.

Those who thought about the subject were divided into two camps. On the one hand were romantics who believed in most of the fraudulent archeological evidence, and who pictured bands of courageous Vikings exploring and even settling much of North America. On the other were those who considered the sagas to be fantastic stories, or to reflect at most a brief Norse foray to the eastern coast of the continent.

The last 30 years, however, have produced a new wave of archeological discovery which has validated the literary documentation and brought new respect to the search for Vikings. Almost all of these new finds have been in Canada, suggesting that the medieval Norse did indeed reach the eastern shores of Canada, and that they may have visited the area over several centuries.

Early Explorations

Christian Europe first became painfully aware of their heathen Scandinavian neighbours to the north in AD 793, when ship-borne raiders sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne in northeastern England. During the following century, isolated Viking raids gradually developed into Norse armies that seized and occupied large areas of western Europe. In the east, Norse adventurers explored and traded as far as the Black Sea and Constantinople. But by the late 9th Century things had begun to go badly for the Norse, with military defeats in Europe and, at home, the attempt of King Harald Fairhair to unify Norway by suppressing the powers of the local chiefs.

For many of these chiefs, the best solution to their problems lay in moving to another place. The most attractive land then lay in the almost uninhabited islands of the North Atlantic. For decades the Norse had occupied Ireland, living and intermarrying with the local people. Here they must have learned of the islands discovered by Irish monks, who for centuries had taken to the sea in their skin-covered curraghs (light, bowl-shaped boats) seeking solitude and an absence of temptation far from the haunts of men. These pious men had established small monastic communities on the Shetlands, Orkneys and Faroes, and by AD 800 were occupying Iceland during at least the summer months. Their isolation on these islands was not to last for long, as Norse settlers followed in their wake. When the Norse reached Iceland about AD 860, they recounted finding communities of monks who "went away" leaving religious books and other equipment that showed them to have been Irish.

During the "settlement period" of Iceland, between about AD 870 and 930, immigrants flocked to the island. By the end of the period, the population was estimated to be 30,000 people. All of the useful land had now been taken, and adventurers or those who could not get along with their neighbours began to look elsewhere.


 Map of Norse exploration and settlements.

Eric the Red's exploration of Greenland about AD 980 arose from such circumstances, and the immigrants who followed him to establish colonies on the southwestern coast of the island soon swelled the population to an estimated 3,000 people. For the next four centuries ships from Greenland, Iceland and northern Europe crossed and recrossed the North Atlantic, bringing immigrants, taking people on visits to the Old Country, and especially carrying the trade in ivory and furs on which Greenland colonies depended for a livelihood.

The Greenland settlements were only 800 kilometres from the Labrador coast of North America, and less than 500 kilometres, a little over two days' sailing, from Baffin Island. The Norse were excellent seamen with ships capable of extended ocean voyaging, yet they had only the most primitive methods of navigation, and ships could often survive storms only by running before them for days. The accounts of the period tell many stories of ships beings storm-driven far from their intended course, and in such a situation it was inevitable that North America would be discovered by ships travelling between Greenland and Europe.

This is exactly what happened, probably within a year or so of the founding of the Greenland settlements. According to The Greenlander's Saga, the first sighting was by Bjarni Herj?lfsson, who was blown far off course on his first voyage from Iceland to visit his family in Greenland.

Bjarni's discoveries were followed a few years later, probably around AD 1000, by Leif Ericsson (son the Eric the Red) who visited and named three countries: Helluland, a rocky and barren land, probably Baffin Island; Markland, a low forested coast, almost certainly Labrador; and Vinland, where there was good grazing and timber, and where they even claim to have found the grapes for which Leif named the country. After wintering and exploring, Leif and his crew loaded a cargo of grapes and timber and sailed for Greenland.

Leif's reports led to four voyages to Vinland over the next several years. The largest was led by an Icelander named Thorfinn Karlsefni who intended to settle a colony in Vinland, and whose son, Snorri, was reported to be the first European child born in the New World. During their three years in Vinland, Karlsefni's people explored and traded with the indigenous people for furs. Eventually, however, their relations with the natives turned hostile and two battles ensued. Probably as a result of this opposition, the Norse abandoned their colony and sailed home.

There has been much argument over the location of Vinland, with scholars and local enthusiasts placing it anywhere between Labrador and Florida, and even in the Great Lakes or the Mississippi Valley. The geographical descriptions in the Norse sagas are too vague to allow certain placement on a modern map, but there is growing consensus that they best fit Newfoundland. The main problem with a Newfoundland site is the absence of wild grapes. Still, there is a strong suspicion that what Leif found were only berries, and that he followed the practice of his father in "giving a land a good name so that men would want to go there".
The Vinland map. Drawn on a folded sheet of vellum in the style of late medieval maps, it was copied by an unknown scribe in about 1440 from earlier originals, later lost.

Stefanssons's 16th-Century map of the Northern American coast clearly shows Greenland, Hulluland, Markland and Vinland.

A Newfoundland location is supported by the Sigurdur Stefansson map, a late 16th-Century Icelandic chart that seems to have been copied from an earlier document, and which shows Greenland, Helluland, Markland and the "Promontorium Winlandiae". The latter feature unmistakably resembles the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, in its shape as well as in its latitude relative to the British Isles and its distance and direction from Greenland.
Excavations have revealed eight turf-walled structures similar to those built by the Norse in Iceland and Greenland. Three are large, multi-roomed dwellings with stone hearths; the rest are outbuildings, including a forge for making nails and rivets. Parks Canada has preserved the ruins of the colony and built full-scale replicas nearby to show some of the turf buildings. (Malak)


Interior living arrangements. L'Anse aux Meadows is now a World Heritage Site. (Malak)

It was on the northern tip of the Great Northern Peninsula in 1960 that Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian writer and adventurer, found the remains of what appeared to be an ancient European settlement near the fishing village of L'Anse aux Meadows. A cluster of low mounds in a grassy meadow facing northward across the Strait of Belle Isle proved to be the remains of walls built of piled turf. Years of excavation at the site, first by Ingstad and his wife, Anne Stine, and later by Parks Canada archeologists, have uncovered the remains of eight turf-walled structures, the largest 25 metres in length, similar to those built by the Norse in Iceland and Greenland. Three of these are large multi-roomed dwellings with stone hearths, while the remainder are smaller outbuildings, one of which may have been used as a smithe or forge.

 A hand-carved stone oil lamp found on the site of a Norse dwelling at L'Anse aux Meadows. (Parks Canada)
Also unearthed at L'Anse aux Meadows is this bronze cloak pin with a design similar to artifacts recovered in Iceland and Greenland. (Parks Canada)

Excavations in the houses and in the surrounding bogs have produced more than 130 artifacts. Most are iron nails or rivets, but a soapstone spindle whorl, a stone lamp, a bronze pin and a bone pin, a sewn birchbark container, the floorboard of a small boat, a carved wooden finial from a piece of furniture, and several other wooden pieces have also been found. The virtual absence of a midden of bone, ashes and other debris, and the fact that none of the houses was rebuilt, indicates that this occupation lasted only a few years.

Nonetheless, the archeological facts indicate that L'Anse aux Meadows was briefly occupied by Europeans several centuries before Columbus discovered the New World, and it seems most likely that this occupation was by the Greenlandic Norse. Archeology cannot prove that this was the Vinland of the Norse sagas - the houses may have been built and occupied by an unrecorded Norse expedition - but it is in the most probable geographical area, and reasonable to expect that the remains left by the brief visits described in the sagas would look like what has been found at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Archeological evidence indicates that sporadic trips to the eastern Canadian coast continued for at least three centuries after Leif's discovery. A historical note in the Icelandic annals, reporting that in 1347 a ship was driven to Iceland while on a voyage from Markland to Greenland, adds further evidence, as do a few small fragments of smelted sheet copper found in the occupation sites of the Dorset culture Paleoeskimos who occupied the Labrador-Ungava Peninsula at the time.

Norse silver penny minted in the 11th Century found in an Indian village site on the coast of Maine. (Maine State Museum).

A more interesting find is a coin, excavated from an Indian village on the coast of Maine (the Goddard site), which has recently been recognized as a Norse penny minted between AD 1065 and 1080. Some of the stone tools used by the Indians who lived there were made from a distinctive type of chert that comes from the Ramah Bay region of northern Labrador, and one of the Indian artifacts has clearly been reworked from a ground-stone tool of the type used by the Paleoeskimos of this region. It seems quite possible that the Norse penny was obtained by the Paleoeskimos, who then traded it southward with a consignment of Ramah Bay chert. Wherever the penny first reached native hands, its minting date appears to prove that voyages to the New World did not cease during the early 11th Century.

A number of other authentic artifacts of Norse origin have come from the remains of villages occupied by ancestral Inuit in Arctic Canada. At the same time that Eric the Red's followers were colonizing southwestern Greenland, Thule culture Inuit were pushing eastward from Alaska, displacing the Paleoeskimos and eventually crossing from Ellesmere Island to northwestern Greenland. It was inevitable that the two immigrant groups would meet, but it was not until AD 1266 that a historical reference mentions contact: a Norse hunting party in the Disko Bay area of western Greenland had found traces of natives.

Another source, probably dating from about the same period, states that in the north the hunters had encountered small people, whom they called Skraelings, who used stone knives and weapons of walrus ivory. As the Inuit continued southward along the Greenland coast, they must have come into increasingly frequent contact with the Norse settlers. Suprisingly, only a few vague accounts of the Inuit exist in the Norse historical literature.

Recent archeological discoveries suggest that we should not place too much faith in the Norse records. Many of the early Inuit winter villages excavated in the eastern Arctic have produced fragments of smelted metal. Those excavated in eastern Ellesmere Island by Peter Schledermann of the Arctic Institute of North America contained pieces of woolen cloth, chain mail, and fragments of coopered barrels or tubs of oak. An iron rivet and piece of a bronze bowl came from a site on Devon Island. Many of these sites appear to date to the 12th or early 13th centuries, implying that contact between the groups occurred considerably earlier than reported by the Norse.

This interpretation of early contact is supported by a description of a people who can only be Inuit, which is found in a geographical book written about AD 1150 by the respected Arabic scholar, al-Idrisi. His description was written more than a century before Inuit are first mentioned in the Icelandic records.

Early Contact

What would have been the nature of these early, unrecorded contacts? The widespread distribution of smelted iron, copper and bronze in Canadian arctic Inuit sites suggests that metal, even in small fragments, was a valuable trade commodity to the early Inuit, and was widely distributed through their trade routes. The Vinland sagas indicated that the Norse were willing to trade with the Skraelings, and it seems likely that trade with Inuit would have been beneficial too. The Greenland colonies depended on trade with Europe for many of their requirements - grain, metal, timber and luxury goods, such as bishop's vestments. In addition, after 1261, they were required to pay fines and annual tribute to the Norwegian king, as well as tithes and crusade taxes to the Roman church. This tribute was paid in the materials of the country: walrus hides, polar bear skins (on at least one occasion a live polar bear), but primarily ivory from walrus tusks.

Walrus almost certainly did not occur in southwestern Greenland in the relatively warm period when the colonies were occupied. Thus, the Norse hunters had to travel 400 kilometres north of the settlements to the area known as the Nordsetur, the northern hunting grounds. Such hunts must have put great pressure on the Norse economy, depriving the colonies of manpower needed for farming, fishing and hunting for food. Yet the importance of European trade was such that the Nordsetur hunt was an integral part of the Greenlandic Norse way of life. The early Inuit who had occupied Arctic Canada and northwestern Greenland by about AD 1100 had quantities of ivory, as can be seen from the archeological remains of their settlements. If they were willing to trade ivory for small scraps of metal and worn-out tools, as were their descendants of the 17th and 18th centuries, it would seem to have been profitable for the Norse to exploit this trade.

Part of a bronze balance with folding arms, used for measuring small objects, found in northwest Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic. (Patricia Sutherland)

Is there any evidence that such trade did occur? Two finds from early Inuit villages in the eastern Arctic provide some hints. The first, from northwestern Ellesmere Island, is a hinged bar of bronze, unearthed by archeologist Patricia Sutherland. This is the beam of a folding balance similar to those used by Norse traders for weighing coins and other small objects. This characteristic trader's artifact, the only one know west of Iceland, was found in an Inuit village 2,000 kilometres from the Greenlandic Norse colonies.

Small wooden figurine recovered from a prehistoric Inuit house on southern Baffin Island; the carving appears to represent a person in European dress. (Canadian Museum of Civilization).

The second object, obtained from a 13th-Century village on the south coast of Baffin Island, suggests the actual presence of Norsemen in Arctic Canada at the time. This is a small wooden figurine carved in typically Inuit style with flat, featureless face and stumpy arms, but dressed, untypically, in a long robe with what appears to be a cross on the chest. The clothing is consistent with European apparel of the period. The most plausible explanation is that the figurine was made locally by someone who had seen a Norse Greenlander, perhaps on Baffin Island or in Labrador.

Baffin Island, of course, was known to the Norse, and the Norse may have coasted it for some 300 years on their voyages to the forests of Markland. Occasional landings may well have been made, and with them contact with the Inuit occupants of the region. A sporadic, opportunistic trading relationship could then have been established, one that served as a basis for relationships between the Norse Greenlanders and the Inuit, who eventually began to move into southwestern Greenland.

This relationship must have been considerably more intensive than that the peoples encountered in voyages along the fringes of Arctic Canada, and also much more intensive and complex than that suggested by Norse historical records. Recent archeological work has shown that the Inuit advance along the west Greenland coast occurred considerably earlier than had been generally thought. Radiocarbon dates indicate that by the 14th Century the Inuit had settled the outer coastal regions of southwestern Greenland, in the same areas where Norse farms were established in the inner fiords. For the next one or two centuries, substantial populations of Norse and Inuit lived in this region, and it seems inevitable that, despite the animosity of which the historical records speak, they must have worked out some means of sharing the country and its resources.

The Norse Greenland colonies died out about the time that John Cabot, Portuguese navigator Gaspar Cortereal and Jacques Cartier were reestablishing contact between Europe and the eastern coast of Canada. Their decline was probably not due to hostilities with the Inuit, but rather the result of a deteriorating climate, combined with a rapid decline in the value of their commercial products as furs and ivory began to reach Europe through the growth of Hanseatic League trade with the East and Portuguese exploration in Africa. Abandoned by their Norse king and by the Pope in Rome, neither of whom any longer bothered to send ships to Greenland, and increasingly harassed by European pirates, the Norse colonies were the victims of economic forces, not of Inuit attacks.

It was a sad end to a heroic venture, one that had lasted almost 500 years and which resulted in the European discovery of what is now Canada. Here, for the first time in their westward expansion, the Norse came upon regions that were already populated by an unknown people who outnumbered the exploring and colonizing parties carried by the small Norse ships, and who had weapons that were almost as efficient as those of the Norse at killing men in small-scale skirmishes. In such a situation, the extended exploration and colonization of a continent was unthinkable. The Norse appear to have been content to make occasional visits to the northeastern coasts of Canada over a period of several centuries, probably cutting timber from the Labrador forests and warily trading with the natives of the country.
Leif Ericsson's brother, Thorvald, is mortally wounded in this imaginative depiction by artist J. Walker. The hostility of the natives, who outnumbered the Norse explorers and had weapons almost as efficient for small-scale skirmishes, ended Norse dreams of expansion in North America. (J. Walker (artist), National Archives)

Those who have pictured a "Norse America", in which redoubtable Vikings wandered across the continent, settling at will, raising stone towers and carving runic inscriptions, have chosen to ignore the presence of the natives of North America. The author of The Greenlanders' Saga probably gives a more accurate picture of Norse abilities to colonize the newly discovered lands. He places the first meeting between New and Old World peoples in Labrador where Thorvald Ericsson's party met and fought with the Skraelings, and where Thorvald received a fatal wound. The dying Thorvald is reported to have drawn the arrow from his stomach and remarked, "There is fat around my belly! We have won a fine and fruitful country, but will hardly by allowed to enjoy it."

Dr. McGhee is an archeologist with the Canadian Museum of Civilization, specializing in the Arctic.

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*McGhee, Robert. "The Vikings: They Got Here First but Why Didn't They Stay", Canadian Geographic. Volume 108, Number 4, August/September 1988. Courtesy of : Robert McGhee; John Ryan; Canadian Geographic;The Canadian Museum of Civilization; Parks Canada, Atlantic Division; Manuscript Department, the Royal Library, Copenhagen; and Malak Photographs Ltd. Permission of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, photo #591-996.

Canada Copyright. The National Library of Canada. (Revised: 1997-12-05).