The Year 2000 marks the 1000th anniversary of the Viking exploration of North America. At the very northern tip of Newfoundland is a site that preserves this outstanding cultural and historical event - L'Anse aux Meadows.
L'Anse aux Meadows is the only authenticated Viking site in North America. It was established 1000 years ago by the explorer Leif Eiriksson during his adventures in eastern North America - 500 years before Columbus' exploits in the "New World". The site was rediscovered by Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine in 1960. L'Anse aux Meadows is now a National Historic Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first cultural site in the world to receive this designation - a symbol of its outstanding cultural and historical value.
Compared to the histories of contemporary European civilizations, the history of the Nordic peoples is sparse. It is a puzzle that consists of Sagas - a combination of genealogies, histories and legends written during the 1100's through to the 1300's, and archeological findings. The Sagas describe how the Vikings emigrated from Norway to systematically colonize the Shetland, Hebrides, and Faeroe Islands before venturing further north and westwards into Iceland and Greenland. Graelendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga tell of Eirik the Red's colonization of the western region of Greenland and his son's adventures in Vinland.
Leif Eiriksson set out from Greenland on a westerly course and first reached Baffin Island which he named Helluland or Land of Stone. From there he sailed south to Labrador (Markland or Land of Forest) and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence region which he named Vinland (Land of Wine) for the wild grapes that were found there. He established a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows (Leif's Camp in the sagas) which served as a base of exploration during his tenure in eastern North America. He collected timber and other riches of the land and returned to his home in Greenland.
Leif's good fortune in Vinland enticed others to conduct their own expeditions including his brother Thorvald, a relative by marriage Thorfinn Karlsefni, and his sister Freydis. According to the sagas, Leif granted each group use of his houses, but never relinquished ownership. The largest contingent, which was led by Thorfinn Karlsefni, consisted of 135 men, 15 women, and some number of livestock. They spent several summers at the site exploring, cutting timber, and trading for goods that they could sell in Greenland. The sagas also tell of conflicts with Skraelings or natives, the death of Leif's brother Thorvald in Vinland, and the birth of Snorri Karlsefnisson- the first white child born in North America. Leif's Camp was used for a relatively short period of time in Norse history - perhaps as few as 15 years. It never became a colony.
The translation of the sagas into Latin in the 1840's marked the beginning of a renewed interest in Viking history. Historians analysed the fragmented history contained in the numerous sagas of the Viking Age and pieced together a puzzle of Norse colonization. The puzzle evolved as archeological expeditions in Iceland and Greenland revealed details about community structure, hierarchies and lifestyles, but finds in Vinland were elusive.
Clues from the sagas, like references to wild grapes, hardwoods, butternuts, and day length led explorers to speculate that Leif's camp was somewhere between New England and Newfoundland. In 1960, Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian writer and explorer, and his wife, Anne Stine - an archeologist sailed into L'Anse aux meadows. They were directed by a local named George Decker to three groups of overgrown bumps and ridges that looked like they might have been sod houses of the type that were found at Norse sites in Iceland and Greenland.
From 1960 until 1968, Anne Stine led archeological digs at L'Anse aux Meadows. The digs revealed the existence of eight Norse buildings arranged in three complexes. The buildings were wooden frameworks overlain with sod walls and roofs. Fireplaces were located in the centre of each house. Among the important artifacts discovered were a small stone oil lamp, a small spindle whorl, a bone needle, a small brass ring, and bronze, ring-headed cloak pin used by Norse men and women of the eleventh century. This last piece of evidence was conclusive proof that Norse people inhabited North America 500 years before Columbus. Later digs turned up pieces of wood that could only have come from Europe, nails or rivets of the type found in Viking ships, and slag from the smelting and refining of bog ore - a process which marked the introduction of the iron age to North America!
Excavations of the area were resumed by Parks Canada from 1973 to 1976. During that time the picture of Norse inhabitation of L'Anse aux Meadows grew more complete. Each of the three complexes housed specialized craftsmen. One complex consisting of two houses next to a brook was occupied by the smiths who roasted bog ore in one house and worked the metal in another. They also operated a forge on the other side of the brook. The middle complex, which was also the smallest, housed the carpenters, while the largest complex housed the shipwrights. The complexes appeared to function in concert and were occupied simultaneously. The size of the garbage heaps and the lack of burial plots suggested that the occupation of the site was of a short duration. Interestingly, the digs revealed that the site had been home to other cultures, but that they did not occupy the site concurrently.
L'Anse aux Meadows has been a National Historic Site since 1977. Parks Canada operates a Visitor Centre which displays artifacts discovered during the archeological excavations. The park's staff, dressed in period costume, offer interpretive tours of the archeological site and the adjacent full-scale replica houses. They provide visitors with a feeling of what it might have been like to live during the exciting era of Norse exploration of the North Atlantic. Visitors can hike the site using a series of board walks and short hiking trails and see the surrounding landscape which hasn't changed much since the Viking era.