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The Viking Connection – L’Anse aux Meadows

by Sonya Procenko

“L’Anse aux Meadows is rippling gold in the sunset. Northward, Belle Isle looms like a fairy castle. Farther off, day dims along the Labrador shore, where the Vinland voyagers came coasting south almost 1,000 years ago…. Think of the courage of those Norsemen, setting out to sea in open boats, wives on some voyages, compasses on none; driven by their lust for adventure, and by the need to find good new land where families could settle and live.” From Fjord to Frontier A History of Norwegians in Canada, Gulbrand Loken

Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad and the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows

Norway’s legendary adventurer Helge Ingstad wrote these words during the excavation of L’Anse aux Meadows, the first authenticated Viking settlement of North America. The fateful discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows, by Ingstad and his archaeologist wife Anne Stine, rewrote the world’s history books. The couple had been intensely interested in the Vikings and their lore. By 1960, they turned to Newfoundland believing it held answers to questions about the discovery of North America raised in the Sagas. An authority on ancient Viking manuscripts and folklore, Helge Ingstad correlated geographical locations by boat and airplane with information from the Sagas on “Vinland”.

Those calculations led Ingstad to Newfoundland and L’Anse aux Meadows and local resident George Decker. In 1960, near his home, Decker, a fisherman, showed Ingstad and his daughter Benedicte some overgrown ridges, the lower courses of the walls of eight Norse buildings from the 11th century. For eight years, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad led an international team of archaeologists from Norway, Iceland, Sweden and the United States in excavating the site. Carbon-14 testing of the site proved it dated to approximately 1,000 A.D. In 1968, the archaeological site was declared to be of national historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The United Nations (UN) designated it an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Thirty years later, in January 2000, on the eve of the Viking Millennium, the now late Helge Ingstad, reflected on the discovery, speaking to The Canadian Press. In his Oslo wood cabin-style home, a snarling polar bear rug was spread on the floor and mounted oxen heads hung on the walls. Every week, school children around the world still wrote to him, discovering the Vikings for the first time through history lessons. “Those 70 people (in L’Anse aux Meadows) were some of the finest people I ever met,” he fondly recalled. “They became close friends and helped us in every way. I’ve never forgotten them and my personal friend George Decker. I feel it is a very great satisfaction that our long work has been of such importance…It took time before it was realized, now more and more it’s realized around the world.

Viking experts on L’Anse aux Meadows

Norway’s Dr. Arne Emil Christensen, of the University of Oslo, and Canada’s Dr. Birgitta Wallace, archeologist emeritus, Parks Canada, have established reputations as world renown Viking experts. Based at the Viking Ship Museum, Christensen specializes in shipbuilding history and craftsmanship in the Iron Age and the Viking Period. “Attempts at pinpointing the location of the Norsemen’s settlement have led to varied results as Labrador and Manhattan, in accordance with different interpretations of the Icelandic sagas,” he explained.

“In the 1960s, Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad found the site of early homesteads on the north coast of Newfoundland. Excavation showed these to be the same sort of buildings found on Greenland and Iceland. In addition, Nordic artefacts were excavated at the site and dated at circa 1,000 A.D. Whether these are traces of the settlements mentioned in the sagas, or from other journeys which we have no record of, is impossible to say. However the finds (at L’Anse aux Meadows) prove that Nordic seafarers really sailed to the North American Continent around the year 1000.

Dr. Birgitta Wallace, an authority on the Norse in North America, explained the reasons behind Viking exploration leading to the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement. “There were many factors behind the expansion of Vikings territories…In Norway, the kings and chieftains were competing. It was a bunch of disgruntled chieftains who preferred to emigrate to areas where the Viking influence was not established, such as Iceland and the Scottish Isles. Perhaps most importantly was that they had the means. They had ships that were big enough and seaworthy enough to move many people, and their livestock and so on, across stretches of ocean.

L’Anse aux Meadows – A National Historic Site of Canada and UNESCO World Heritage Site

The ruins of those eight Norse buildings, made of sod walls and roofs laid over a supporting frame, resembled those found in Iceland and Greenland before and after the year 1,000. Long narrow fireplaces in the middle of the floor served for heating, lighting and cooking. Similar artifacts were found in one cooking pit including a bronze, ring-headed pin that Norsemen used to fasten their cloaks. Another building had a stone oil lamp and a small spindle whorl, once the flywheel of a handheld spindle. In the fire pit of a third, a fragment of a bone needle, used for knitting, and a small decorated brass fragment were located. Slag from smelting and iron working was also unearthed alongside a large number of iron boat nails or rivets, startling evidence that the site was indeed Norse.

Themes of national historic significance

· L’Anse aux Meadows was occupied in the early 11th century by Vikings, the first Europeans known to have established a site in North America;
· The site was a base camp used by the Vikings to explore and exploit Vinland and other areas mentioned in the Vinland sagas;
· The site is strategically located at the entrance to Vinland; and · The arrival of the Vikings in Vinland represents the first known contact between North American Aboriginal peoples and Europeans.

Themes of international historic significance

· L’Anse aux Meadows was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978 in recognition of its symbolic significance in the history of worldwide exploration and movement of peoples.