How the Vikings played out a saga of epic exploration and experiment, only for the daggers of reality to seep in and perform their deadly craft as the noose of extreme indigenous un-rest and limited resources slowly cut the throat of the short lived Viking colony in the New World.
The ‘Vikings’, what does that name conjure up? A hairy mix of Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, with horns on their helmets and weapons that look as though they were forged by Odin himself, destroying everything they see with their plunder hungry eyes? Or maybe a people of incredible dynamic, a people that loved, settled, were farmers and intrinsic craftsman that also evolved the standards of sea faring and navigation for years to come. History tends to focus on the ‘bloody’ stuff, the meat that makes the dinner, but archaeology has since come along as the rescuer of the Viking people. The Vikings were warriors yes, and very good at it too. But not from hell as the poor wretched monks of Lindisfarne must have thought when they heard the first strike of the war drum and cast their wary eye over the bright sails that emanated rays of colourful menace. Seemingly un-stoppable, even when soundly beaten, thus they returned through the mist to again strike fear in anything that had a beating heart.
This was popular misconception for many years, the men from the north looking like hell in human disguise, bringing forth the scourge of existence on pious populations You’d be forgiven in thinking that the Vikings getting in their wooden boats, nonchalantly popping across the Atlantic and deciding that yes, the east coast of Canada will do just nicely for them too, was a great yarn. Yet, archaeology has proved its mettle once more…and has shown spectacularly that this is indeed what they did.
Let us begin…
We start with the medieval text of the saga: ‘Eiriks Saga Rauda’ (or Eirik the Reds saga) and the discovery of Greenland. Eirik was born in Jaeren, south west Norway. Eirik, as a young man, engaged in a few casual killings, the text does not tell us the reason why. This lands him in a great deal of trouble. So he and his father decide it’s probably best if they disappear for a while, the text tells us they escape by boat and so, in 980AD they set off for the Norse colony of Iceland.
Before long though Eirik is at it again.
He obviously has anger issues or something because he decides to kill more people in Iceland too. By this time the authorities had had enough, and banished Eirik from the lands of Norseman. This didn’t faze Eirik and he rounded up a few of his friends and family and thought an adventure was in order. So they got in a boat, and decided to head west.
Within 3 years he had returned, he had found somewhere and called it Greenland. He told the people of Iceland that this was the place to be, and many people listened to Eirik. In 985AD, Eirik and a further 25 ships set sail on a mission of colonisation to the ‘green land’, but the journey was plagued with a warzone of elements writhing for control. It felt like the earth had lost control of the weather and was going insane. Only 14 ships arrived battered and bruised to the shores of Greenland. The others being lost to the murky depths.
Again in 985AD, another man called Bjarni Herjolfsson whose parents had gone with Eirik the Red in that year had decided he was not to be left behind and set off to follow his parents for this place of promise and a new life. But on entering his journey west a fog descended upon the water and he got a tad lost. Our man Bjarni did catch sight of land….but this land was different to the land he was looking for, it was flat and covered in a blanket of trees. Yes, I am sure you have guessed exactly what this young man had found completely by accident, North America. But he was not the first to set foot on the soil. He cursed, turned around and went to find Greenland, he had a cargo that was late and he was not going to get in trouble for it.
But maybe he was not the first European to sight America, there is another story of an Irish monk, St Brendan, who it is told in the ‘Voyage of St.Brendan the navigator’ had endeavoured to find the Garden of Eden in a boat of leather, and returned to tell the tale in the 500’s AD. Whether this is to be believed is though is the reader’s choice. The text only mentions a ‘blessed island of vegetation’ Scholars do believe a boat of this nature could have completed the journey, whilst others are adamant it is just a legend. No hard evidence exists. But I would say if you can find any books on him, they’re definitely worth a read. It is a fantastic ride.
To digress, It was Eirik the Reds son who eventually did set foot in the New World. His name was Leif the Lucky (I’d definitely say he was lucky) He had heard of Bjarni’s sighting and had decided to go and find it. He called it Markland, which means Woodland. This is now widely accepted as the coast of Labrador in Canada. This wasn’t enough for Leif, he sailed ever further along the coast, and he found the place he wanted, and he called it Vinland. There is speculation as to what this name means, but it is most probably berry or grape land. It is now known to be Newfoundland, Canada. Here Leif and his crew stayed over winter and built accommodation before setting back to Greenland to fetch more people.
The next expedition party encountered the natives, and they weren’t too happy to see these hairy men, and they kicked up a huge fuss. Leifs brother Thorwald was killed by an arrow.
The man who would set up the hopeful permanent colony is attributed to Thorfinn Karlsefni. We are told that again the natives really weren’t happy with this at all, and they picked and picked at the wounded colony, really making a nuisance of themselves. The Norse colonists called the natives ‘Skraelings’. The text says that after 3 winters, they gave up and decided Greenland was probably safer.
So now we move to the modern world, and onto one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century…..
L’Anse Aux Meadows -
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In the 1950’s, a Norwegian gentleman called Helge Instead, a respected scholar who had spent years studying Northern civilisations. He set off for modern day Newfoundland, armed with his wife, the text and some maps, he was determined to find this Viking settlement. Here, in the meadows of north Newfoundland, at Epaves Bay, he found what he was looking for. He gave the site the name that is now recognisable the world over and thus secured its place as a UNESCO World Heritage Monument, on a par with the Coliseum in Rome and the Great Pyramid in Egypt. He named it: L’Anse Aux Meadows (The Field or Cove of Jellyfish)
He began to excavate and found for the first time, the un-doubtable remains of a Norse settlement, little more than a village. Over the next few digging seasons the site was completely excavated, revealing three groups of turf structures of absolute Norse character, each with its own homestead. In the 1970’s further investigation was undertaken. A furnace house for the smelting of iron was discovered. In addition, Carbon 14 dating at the site has proved conclusive to Norse inhabitation, placing inhabitation at between 900-1050 AD, which fits snugly between the sagas committed to parchment in the medieval period. Yet it suggests occupation of between 3 and 10 years, so it does rub against the literary evidence, which suggests shorter occupation. Hundreds of other small finds of bronze, iron, and bone were. The artefact that really concluded everything with no question was a small bronze pin, which is virtually the same as other examples found in Viking burials from around the British Isles and Norway. In addition to this, a small spindle whorl (which is used with textiles) was discovered of the same type found in excavations in Greenland.
The Site Today
L’Aux Meadows has been reconstructed to close to its former glory by Canada Parks and can be visited by the public. It most certainly looks worth the 8 hour flight from this little island….
Was it built to be permanent?
The short answer is a resounding ‘No’. (Or as close to ‘No’ as you can get in archaeology, at least it’s not described as ‘ritual’, which means no idea whatsoever) The excavations revealed something strange, there was no evidence of animal husbandry at all on the site, and in addition to this, pollen analysis undertaken revealed no evidence of farming, attempted or otherwise. And as a place of permanence these were essential. So this suggests to archaeologists that it was most probably used as a sort of ‘stop gap’ used by the Norse sailing further….
So that means….
Exactly, that means the actual ‘Vinland’ colony still might yet to be found. There is a site in question, further inland and I plan to write a subsequent piece on this.
The sad fact is that the Vikings’ hope of their own new world was doomed to failure from the minute their a leather bound foot hit the earth. This is due to a very strained relationship with the indigenous population which means trade options were a no-go idea. And a ‘middle man’ in the shape of Greenland was an option, even then it was precarious because Greenland had to rely further on Norway and Iceland for the things it needed. The journey being arduous at the best of times, it would be ultimately very expensive and a waste of resources. So a semi-permanent colony might be still there, in the desolate beauty of North America, waiting for the enthusiasm of a trowel wearer with the dream of ultimate discovery to uncover its secrets.
But for now, we are content to know they got there, and that, whichever way we look at it, is one hell of a feat. So join me in saluting the Norseman, the onetime supposed barbarians of blood who made the world that little bit smaller.
Sources and suggested further reading:
The main source material for this article was a copy of the saga of Eirik the Red, and if you are a fan of sagas and adventure, this is definitely up your street.
‘The Viking World’ by James Campbell is a wonderful comprehensive study of the Vikings from the year dot and a truly great book.