23 October 2021
By Gwynne Dyer
It was already known that the first and only Norse settlement in North America was at L’Anse aux Meadows, at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The specialists even assumed that it happened in the early 11th century, because the Viking sagas more or less said so. But the traditional carbon-14 dates were all over the place.
The Dutch-led team of archaeologists who solved the riddle used three pieces of wood from the settlement that had been cut by metal (and therefore Viking) tools. They found a specific tree ring in each piece that had been hit by a massive burst of cosmic radiation in AD 993, and then counted tree rings outwards to the last growth ring in the year the trees died: 28 more rings, so 1021.
Clever work and a solid date at last, but we already know from the sagas that the site was only inhabited for a few years. Many people also suspected that ‘Vinland’, as the Norse called it, was never meant to be a permanent colony.
Nevertheless, it’s striking how this obscure bit of archaeological news has been amplified in the media, presumably because it provides opportunities for homilies about the evils of colonialism. Wrong target. Leif ‘The Lucky’ Ericsson and his comrades were actually just interested in trade.
The settlements back in Greenland that the Norse at L’Anse aux Meadows came from had only been founded themselves one generation before, in AD 985. There were probably fewer than a thousand Norse in Greenland in 1021, and the last thing on their minds would have been to set up another settlement a further 1,500 km. by sea from Europe.
‘By sea’, because Norse longships kept in sight of land whenever possible. It’s only 750 km. as the bird flies from Greenland to Newfoundland, but the longships sailed north up the Greenland coast, a short hop across open ocean to Baffin Island, west along the Baffin coast, another brief ocean passage, and then south down the Labrador coast to L’Anse aux Meadows.
So what motivated them to go so far? Timber, for one thing, as there are few trees in Greenland and none big enough to make keels for ships or roof beams for houses. But there was plenty of good timber in southern Labrador and Newfoundland. Just go and cut some, and come home again. Why did they need a year-round base at L’Anse aux Meadows?
Because they needed trade goods to pay for all the things they had to import from Europe: grain, iron, wine, glass and luxury goods. So having discovered a whole new region, it seemed worthwhile to take a look around and see what low-bulk, high-value resources it might have to offer.
To do that, they needed the year-round base, because they could not get out of their fjords back home in Greenland until the sea-ice retreated in late May. That didn’t leave enough time to sail to L’Anse aux Meadows, explore farther south, and get home again before the autumn freeze-up. The crews had to over-winter in Newfoundland.
They explored the St Lawrence River and what is now Canada’s Maritime provinces. They may have made it down to the New England coast. There were clashes with the Skraelings, as they called the native inhabitants, and even among the Vikings themselves. (They were quarrelsome people.) At least one baby was born at L’Anse aux Meadows.
But they found nothing as valuable as the walrus ivory they were already hunting at Disko Bay far up the Greenland coast, and the ivory from there was covering the cost of their imports. So they wound the Vinland operation up, went home, and lived happily ever after – until the climate turned against them three centuries later.
No villains, no victims, no harm done. An utterly inconsequential outcome of the first contact between Europeans and the Americas. Although Vinland appeared on European maps as early as 1070, no European bothered going there again for half a millennium.
So you can imagine my dilemma when the Newfoundland Museum asked me twenty years ago to write a guide to a major exhibition on the Vikings and the Skraelings in Vinland. (I’m a Newfoundlander, I’m a freelance, and we look after our own.) How can you make a big deal out of this damp squib?
Well, the ancestors of all modern human beings came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. Some turned left and headed into Europe, where they were stopped by the Atlantic, too broad to cross. Others turned right, and populated Asia, Australasia and eventually the Americas via the land-bridge in the Bering Strait.
But the descendants of the ones who turned left never saw the descendants of those who turned right again until AD 1021 in Newfoundland. Full circle. Will that do?