Vikings in the Americas

By Julie Skurdenis
This item appears on page 52 of the May 2018 issue.

Re-created Vikings’ blacksmith shop and church — Norstead, Newfoundland. Photos by Julie Skurdenis
He is generally credited with being the first European to “discover” the New World. If you think that the “he” is Christopher Columbus, think again. Nor was the year of discovery 1492, as most of us were taught in grammar school. It was AD 1000.

The one who should be credited with the “discovery” is Leif Erikson (his name in Old Norse is Leifr Eiriksson), whose father was Erik the Red and whose ancestors originally came from Norway. 

According to Icelandic sagas, Leif set sail from his home in Greenland, eventually making landfall in what is now eastern Canada. His sea journey of approximately 1,400 nautical miles happened around the year AD 1000, almost 500 years before Columbus landed in the Americas.

Leif Erikson’s voyage to the New World occurred toward the end of the Viking Age, a period roughly spanning the 250 years between AD 800 and 1050. It is a mistake to call the Northern Europeans of this period — those who inhabited what is today Norway, Sweden and Denmark — Vikings. More properly, they were Norsemen, a more inclusive term than Vikings. 

Those Norsemen who remained in their homelands, farming the land or carrying on their day-to-day activities, were simply called the Norsemen. Those who left home to raid, trade or settle in new lands were called Vikings. A Viking was a Norseman. A Norseman was not necessarily a Viking. 

By this definition, the 11th-century voyagers to the New World were Vikings.

The Sagas

Replica of Viking complex A-B-C at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.

The Icelandic sagas — Grœnlendinga Saga (Greenlanders’ Saga) and Eiriks Saga Rauða (Erik the Red’s Saga) — both of which mix historical fact and myth, tell of Icelanders’ emigration to Greenland around AD 985 and their expedition to, and temporary settlement of, a place called Vinland about 15 years after their first arrival in Greenland.

These sagas, written down in the 13th and 14th centuries, served as an impetus to the Norwegians Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad (he an explorer and writer, she an archaeologist) in their quest for the Greenlanders’ settlement in the New World, a site they eventually discovered and excavated in the 1960s.

This archaeological site, the first European settlement in the New World, is called L’Anse aux Meadows (phone 709/458-2417, November to April, or 709/623-2608, May to October; visit www.pc.gc.ca/en). 

The name, a combination of French and English, means “Bay by the Meadows.” It is located on the northern tip of present-day Newfoundland in eastern Canada. This is the area that many historians and archaeologists have identified as either the Vinland of the Sagas or the “gateway” to the Vinland of the Sagas.

Lay of the land

 L’Anse aux Meadows is an eerily beautiful place. Mist and fog on the day I visited gave the site an Impressionistic look, as if viewed through a veil. 

As far as the eye can see are meadows and bogs dotted with hillocks. Berry bushes abound. A winding brook runs through the site. In the distance is the bay and, beyond the bay, islands. This is what Leif and his Viking comrades probably saw as they stepped off their boats.

Because of the tall grass, the actual excavation site is not easy to see from the visitors’ center. A path leads from the center over the brook to the nearby excavations.

Excavation site

Once visitors cross the brook, the settlement becomes clearly visible. There were once three complexes situated close to each other. Each complex consisted of a large hall with a smaller house adjacent. What you see today are the halls’ and houses’ grass-covered foundations showing where the rooms within each hall once stood. 

A frame of wood would be constructed, with sod placed over the frame. The roofs were covered with either branches or birch bark, with a sod covering above. The sod covering both the walls and the roof was laid grassy side up, and, from a distance, the buildings must have resembled gigantic green sheep or gently sloped hills. 

This building technique, using wood and sod, was common in the construction of 10th/11th-century houses in Iceland and Greenland, so it is no surprise to find it at L’Anse aux Meadows.

Replica of the main communal hall in Viking complex A-B-C  at L’Anse aux Meadows — Newfoundland, Canada.

The three archaeological complexes are prosaically labeled A-B-C, D-E and F-G. More apt, I thought, would have been Thor’s Complex, Odin’s and Freyja’s, names of Norse deities.

Room layout

The halls in complexes A-B-C and F-G each had a large communal room that was used for eating, working and sleeping; a smaller room used by higher-status people (e.g., Leif Erikson), and a kitchen. 

The larger of the two complexes, F-G, had storage rooms as well and a large, attached, open-ended boat shed. The main structure’s six rooms and boat shed measure 1,728 square feet, the size of a small, modern-day house.

The D-E complex, by contrast, is half the size with just three rooms, not counting its outbuilding. Within this settlement it is estimated that there lived between 65 and 90 people.

Short life of the settlement

L’Anse aux Meadows had a short life as a settlement. Perhaps only about 10 years. Why? 

The probable explanation is that the Greenlanders never intended to settle permanently in the first place. It’s likely they went there to explore, to collect resources like timber, fur and perhaps even grapes for wine-making and then to return home to Greenland. 

What reinforces this idea is that there is no evidence of farming. Farming would have implied longer-term settlement. Also, there is no cemetery. Those who died in L’Anse aux Meadows were probably taken back to Greenland for burial.

What might also have hastened departure was the presence of hostile aboriginals. 

Finally, the community back home in Greenland was small — perhaps no bigger than 500 individuals — and so did not need to resettle some of its inhabitants elsewhere.

In any case, the Norsemen returned to Greenland taking everything they could with them, and L’Anse aux Meadows ceased to exist until uncovered by the Ingstads half a century ago.

Replica of complex A-B-C

Adjacent to the archaeological site, a replica has been constructed of the A-B-C complex. Visitors can see what the settlement looked like 1,000 years ago. 

The buildings — the large hall and the two outbuildings — are full-sized and furnished down to the smallest detail. Low wooden platforms, used for working, eating and sleeping, line the walls. Interpreters in Norse costume explain facets of 11th-century Norse life in this New World outpost.

L’Anse aux Meadows is open daily, 9 to 5, from the end of May to the beginning of October. From about mid-June to mid-September, the site remains open until 6. The admission fee is CAD11.70 (near $9).

Re-created Viking village

An interpreter dressed in Norse garb inside the main communal hall (A), part of Viking complex A-B-C in L’Anse aux Meadows — Newfoundland, Canada.

A little over one mile from L’Anse aux Meadows is the re-created Viking village of Norstead (phone 877/620-2828 or 709/623-2828, www.norstead.com), where there is a large Chieftain’s Hall; an enormous boathouse housing a 54-foot-long knarr, a replica of the ship the Norsemen used to sail to Newfoundland; a blacksmith’s shop, and a minuscule church. 

By the year AD 1000, many Norsemen had converted to Christianity, so it is not strange to find a church as part of the Viking village. There are well-informed, costumed interpreters staffing each building.

Norstead is open daily from early June to mid-September, 9:30 to 5:30. Admission costs CAD10.

Norstead was not included on our group tour of L’Anse aux Meadows. Our Atlantic Tours guide made arrangements for my husband, Paul, and me to visit.

If you go…

Our visit to L’Anse aux Meadows was part of a tour we took with Atlantic Tours (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; 800/565-7173 or 902/423-7172, www.atlantictours.com), a Canadian company.

Atlantic Tours offers a wide range of bus tours, mostly to the Atlantic provinces of eastern Canada: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador. The company also offers train and self-drive tours. Trips vary in length from a few days to a grand tour of 23 days visiting all of the Atlantic provinces.

The trip we took in August 2017 was the 13-day “East Coast Islands” tour, which included visits to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites (L’Anse aux Meadows, Old Town Lunenburg and Gros Morne National Park), Red Bay in Labrador (site of an 11th-century Basque whaling station), Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Green Gables and the Fortress of Louisbourg plus two whale-watching expeditions.

With departures scheduled between June 10 and Aug. 26, the 2018 price of CAD4,436 ($3,442) per person includes accommodations, breakfasts, most dinners, some lunches, transportation by bus, admission fees and experienced guides.