Putting a face on the Vikings in North America

At the turn of the last millennium, a party of Norse Vikings landed on this rocky, fogbound shore, built a small settlement, and set out to explore a vast new region they called "Vinland."

But for much of the past 1,000 years, the Norse voyages were forgotten, the epic accounts of their journeys dismissed as myths. Generations of schoolchildren were taught that Columbus discovered America, and that another Italian, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), was the first European to lay eyes on Newfoundland.

Today, the elusive Viking legacy in North America remains controversial. Like fall leaves falling, the US celebration of Columbus Day in a few weeks routinely prompts scholarly interest in the Viking legacy.

This year, as a century draws to a close, the effort to see through the mist of a 1,000 years of Viking legend will intensify, gathering force from the broad array of millennial deliberations.

Historians remain divided over the significance of the Norse exploration of North America. "To my mind discovery and exploitation are linked, and the age of Columbus is the age of discovery," says Byron Nordstrom, professor of Scandinavian Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. "The Norse discovered these places, but there's no lasting colonial or trade establishment and the contact [with native Americans] never develops into anything significant."

Historians debate whether the Viking landing is of lasting historical significance. Archaeologists argue over the authenticity of alleged Norse artifacts found everywhere from New England to the Upper Plains (Minnesota via the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes). Vikings may have been the first Europeans to visit and live in the New World, but did they really "discover" it?

The Norsemen's most important historical contribution may have been the geographical knowledge that trickled from Greenland to Europe over the centuries leading up to Columbus's voyage.

Experts think this knowledge may have contributed to 15th-century rumors that there was land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, prompting Columbus and others to sail west in search of new trade routes to Asia.

Columbus may even have had direct knowledge of the Norse discoveries: Some documents suggest he may have visited Iceland in 1477, say scholars.

The Vikings were credited with colonizing Greenland in the 10th century, but that wasn't quite "the real North America," and the episode remained a historical footnote. But in 1960, the remains of a Viking village were discovered outside this fishing hamlet at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The subsequent excavation of the humble remains of 8,000-year-old sod buildings shook the foundations of North American historical scholarship. If Greenland Vikings were exploring the New World at the height of the Middle Ages, suddenly anything seemed possible.

Through their recorded sagas, the Vikings themselves provided the clues that led Viking hunters to Newfoundland. The sagas - first transmitted orally, then written down in the 12th century - tell the story of the voyages of Eric the Red and his son Leif Ericson.

Around 982, Eric the Red, a Norwegian-born settler, was exiled from Iceland for killing two men in a feud. Eric sailed westward to discover Greenland and, after his three-year banishment concluded, he returned to Iceland to organize the colonization of the newly discovered land. In 986, Eric, his family, and several dozen settlers founded a Greenland settlement that would endure for four centuries.

One of the settlers, Bjarni Herjolfsson, had arrived some weeks later than the others and became lost on the dangerous ocean crossing from Iceland. They arrived in Greenland to report having sighted a low-lying, tree-covered coastline several days sail to the west and mountainous, glaciated land five days north of that. Herjolfsson is now thought to be the first European to lay eyes on North America.

According to the sagas, around 1000, Eric's son Leif set off to find and explore these lands. He soon landed on a coastline of flat stones and tall glaciers that he called Helluland ("land of flat stones") - today almost universally accepted to be Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. He then sailed south to Markland, a forested coastline with long, white sand beaches now thought to be the coast of Labrador around Cape Porcupine, which has a 30-mile stretch of beach.

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.

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

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