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Putting a face on the Vikings in North America

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Two days later they came to a land of grassy meadows, where they found grapevines and wild wheat. The sagas call this place Vinland, presumably in reference to the grapes found here. Leif's party built long houses and spent the winter in Vinland before returning to Greenland.

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Other parties wintered over in Vinland during the next few years. They explored surrounding lands, traded with native people, and, in the end, were forced to abandon the settlement when relations with the natives turned sour. The Greenland colonies thrived for nearly four centuries before mysteriously collapsing a few decades before Columbus's voyage.

In the 19th century, the sagas were rediscovered in the hands of several old Icelandic families and quickly led to the rediscovery of the failed Greenland colony. But the search for Vinland would last for a hundred years.

Scholars searched the northeast coast of the United States, looking for signs of Norse habitation in places where wild grapes can grow. "Runic inscriptions" were found on rocks in Maine and Nova Scotia, but further investigation showed them to be random glacial scratches.

Although grapes do not grow there, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad became convinced that sailing directions in the sagas placed Vinland in northern Newfoundland. In 1960, after an exhaustive search by air and boat, a local fisherman led Ingstad to a group of overgrown mounds outside L'Anse aux Meadows. Over the next few years he and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, unearthed the remains of a sizable Norse settlement. But was it Vinland?

Some, like maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morison, argued that L'Anse aux Meadows is Leif Ericson's famous settlement, suggesting that the abundant berry fields surrounding the site might be the "grapes" mentioned in the sagas. Others think the Vikings traveled further south.

"There's a consensus that L'Anse aux Meadows was Leif's base camp and that the area they called Vinland extended from there south as far as they got," says William Fitzhugh, director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center in Washington, D.C. "But that's where the controversy lies, because there's no archaeological evidence or settlement remains to confirm that."

At the L'Anse aux Meadows site, archaeologists did find butternuts, which are found no further north than New Brunswick - evidence that Norse did explore at least as far as Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In Brooklin, Maine, archaeologists found an authentic 11th-century Norse coin amid the remains of a sprawling Indian village. "We believe it was obtained by Indians somewhere to the north and traded down to Maine through Indian trade networks," says archaeologist Steven Cox of the Maine State Museum in Augusta, who has worked at the Brooklin site. "We can't rule out Norse having visited there, but there's no evidence for that."

Cox says his office receives two or three calls a month from people who think they may have found new Norse artifacts in Maine, but all have turned out to be "fakes or natural mistakes."

However, recent finds elsewhere confirm that Norsemen from the Greenland colony did explore the Canadian Arctic and had active contact with Thule Eskimos. Peter Schledermann of the University of Calgary, Alberta, found pieces of Norse chain mail armor, woolen cloth, knife blades, boat rivets, and other items in a Thule village on Ellesmere Island. Other Norse items have been found at more than 50 Indian sites from Hudson Bay to Baffin Island, indicating expansive trade.

Dr. Fitzhugh believes the Norse contact with Dorset Indians and Thule Eskimos did have a lasting effect: familiarizing natives of the Canadian Arctic with Europeans and their goods.

"It's interesting because here's a case where the natives actually won, and the Europeans were too weak and vulnerable to gain a foothold," he says. By defeating the Vikings, natives postponed the European settlement of North America for several hundred years.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society