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Athena Review,   Vol. 1, No.3

The Vikings in Vinland (ca. AD 998-1002)

Two types of evidence exist for Norse contacts with North America: written sagas and archaeological findings.  Vinland, southernmost of three North American coastal areas described in Icelandic Sagas by Norse explorers, was said to be rich in grapes, timber, and a self-sown "wheat." Archaeological investigations in the 1960's at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland discovered proof of an early 11th century AD Norse settlement, defining both a Viking outpost in Canada, and contact with North American natives called "Skraelings."

[Fig.1: A Norse seagoing warship from the 11th century Bayeux tapestry.]

The Sagas: Two medieval Icelandic chronicles, the Graenlendinga Saga ("The Greenlander's Saga") and Eirik's Saga comprise the primary written evidence for the Norse landfall , relating their sightings, explorations, and attempts at settlement in North America. The landing on the northern coast of North America in ca. AD 998-1002 was only the last phase of a westward expansion from Norway and Denmark across the north Atlantic, including the Orkney, Shetland, and Faroe Islands (AD 780-800), Iceland (870) and Greenland (985/6).

As described in the Graenlendinga Saga, Bjarni Herjolfsson was the first to sight the North American coast around 985 AD, but did not allow his crew to land. Better known is the Viking explorer Leif Eirikson (called Leif the Lucky), whose voyages to the North American coasts are recorded in both of the Vinland sagas. Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelandic trader, made a more permanent attempt to settle in Vinland. Due to the uncertainty caused by constant Indian attacks, however, this settlement was soon abandoned, the  Vikings returning to Greenland. They must have spent at least three years in North America, as the saga relates that a son, Snorri, was born to Karlsefni and that he was three when the colonizers abandoned the Vinland site.  Other documentary evidence for the Vinland settlement comes from Adam of Bremen, a German cleric writing some time shortly before 1076; and  from the Icelandic Annals for AD 1121 and 1347.

Archaeological finds at L'Anse aux Meadows: Routes of the Vikings' North American voyages and the location of the various places mentioned in the sagas have been the subject of much speculation. As the name Vinland probably reflects the presence of grapes,some researchers believe that the Vikings sailed as far south as Cape Cod, but that Vinland itself was just below the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

[Fig.2: Location of Epave Bay and L'Anse aux Meadows (inset).]

In 1960, Norwegian archaeologists Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine discovered a short-lived Viking settlement at Epaves Bay in Newfoundland. This site, called L'Anse aux Meadows (Meadow Cove), is thus far the only Viking settlement to be discovered in North America. Excavation has revealed the outlines of eight sod-walled structures, one with features suggesting it was a bath-house of a type known from the Norse occupation of Greenland. Iron nail fragments were found in the house and pieces of iron together with slag were found in a smithyP.  Other definite Norse artifacts include a soapstone spindle whorl similar to those in use in Greenland and Iceland during the 11th century, and a bronze-ringed pin. Radiocarbon testing from a number of areas at the site produced a range of dates, many clustering around A.D. 1000.

11th century AD Cultural Contacts: Both peaceful and violent meetings between the Norsemen and natives are recorded in the sagas. Skraelings, the Norse term for the natives, included both northeastern Algonquin tribes (possibly Micmacs or Beothuks) and Eskimos. The short accounts in the sagas provide tantalizing glimpses of North American aboriginal physical appearances and customs, as well as initial inter-cultural reaction. The Graenlendinga Saga contains the first known record of an encounter between native North Americans and Europeans, shortly after AD 1000. That narrative tells how eight Indians were killed by Thorvald, Leif Eirikson's brother, and the battle which ensued.

[Fig.3: Plan of the early 11th century Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows. 1: Large house; 2-7: other structures 8: smithy, 9: possible charcoal kiln; 10-11: large cooking pits. (after Ingstad 1974). ]


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