Centuries before Columbus, Vikings came to the Western hemisphere. How far into the Americas did they travel?
Who, besides the indigenous peoples from Asia who crossed the Alaskan land bridge in prehistory, arrived in the Americas before Columbus? The question has fascinated generations of scholars. Could a Chinese tribute ship, as Gavin Menzies proposed in 2002, have departed from the rest of the Ming fleet in East Africa in 1421 and sailed to North and South America, Australia and the Arctic? Could fishing vessels from the British port of Bristol, as David Beers Quinn suggested in 1974, have followed schools of cod across the north Atlantic and reached the fishing grounds off the Canadian shore in 1480 or 1481? No persuasive evidence supports the claim about the 15th-century Chinese. The voyages of the Bristol cod fishermen are more likely, but no documentation concerning them predates 1492, possibly because they wanted to keep the location of the fishing grounds secret.
The most credible claim – that the Vikings reached North America around the year 1000 – deserves more attention. It arose in the 19th century, following the publication of C C Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanae (1837), which proposed that the place the Icelandic sagas called Vinland (meaning ‘vine land’) was located somewhere near Cape Cod in Massachusetts, or the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. (The Vinland Sagas refers to two different orally transmitted sagas about these early voyages: Erik the Red’s saga was written down shortly after 1264, and the Greenlanders’ saga was copied into a collection of different materials in 1387.)
According to these two sagas, the Vikings encountered a group of indigenous Amerindians, whom they called Skraelings, or ‘wretched ones’. The Norse traded red woollen textiles for animal pelts. That exchange marked a turning point in world history: it is the earliest documented encounter between the peoples living on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Around the year 1000, Leif Erikson set sail from Greenland and landed first in ‘Stone-slab land’, then ‘Forest land’ and finally in Vinland, where Erikson and his men found ‘fields of wild wheat growing there, and vines, and among the trees there were maples’.
Where exactly did Erikson land? The sagas provide important clues. Vinland enjoyed more hours of daylight than Greenland: ‘In the depth of winter, the sun was aloft by mid-morning and still visible at mid-afternoon,’ information that places Vinland somewhere between New Jersey and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
In 1960, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, the archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, set out to find these places. Hoping that the descriptions in the sagas might lead them to Norse sites, they set off in a sailboat and went down the northeastern Canadian coast.
They were looking for places mentioned in the sagas, including Forest Land, which ‘was flat and wooded, with white sandy beaches wherever they went; and the land sloped gently down to the sea’, a description that fit the Labrador coast perfectly. Continuing to sail in southerly direction, the Ingstads reached Newfoundland.
When they arrived at the village of L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the island, they asked the locals about possible Viking remains. One man showed them some grassy mounds on a beach, which the villagers believed were abandoned dwellings of native peoples. The structures turned out to be the collapsed remains of eight sod buildings originally held up by wooden frames.
Digging at the site for seven summers from 1961 to 1968, the Ingstads concluded that it was indeed a Viking settlement. The excavators found evidence of iron-working: a work shed with an anvil and a large stone, iron fragments, and slag. The working of gold, copper and arsenic occurred elsewhere in the Americas in the year 1000 but, because no one else in the Americas worked iron, the archaeologists reasoned that outsiders – quite possibly the Norse – had to be doing the smelting.
‘We let out a holler because we immediately knew that here was evidence that nobody could deny’
Archaeologists also uncovered traces of a wooden structure not connected to any of the walls. This was probably a boat-building frame, just like those in use in western Norway today. The vessel under construction measured no more than 25 feet (c8 metres) in length, which was typical for Norse boats used on inland waterways. L’Anse aux Meadows was the perfect location for a ship repair centre because it lay directly on the route across the North Atlantic to Greenland.
One item from the site was distinctively Scandinavian, confirming that the residents of the eight structures were definitely Norse: a straight bronze pin with a ring at the end of it. The archaeologists uncovered the pin on the final day of their last season in 1968.
In her memoirs, Anne Stein Ingstad described the discovery: ‘We let out a holler because we immediately knew that here was evidence that nobody could deny – a bronze ring-headed pin indisputably like those from the Norse Viking period.’ Used to fasten a cloak at the neck, it matched bronze pins made between 920 and 1050 CE from other Norse sites in Ireland and Scotland.