New evidence confirms second Viking outpost in North America 1,000 years ago

New evidence confirms second Viking outpost in North America 1,000 years ago

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Canada’s top Arctic archaeologist, Pat Sutherland, has found new evidence which confirms the presence of a second Viking base in the New World.  The only previously known location of a Viking settlement in North America was discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in 1960.

Sutherland, professor of archaeology at Memorial University, Newfoundland, has spent years compiling evidence that Norse explorers visited other parts of Canada.  Four sites occupied by indigenous Arctic hunters of the Dorset culture, ranging a distance of 1,000 miles from Baffin Island to northern Labrador, have also yielded dozens of suspected Norse artefacts, such as Scandinavian-style spun yarn, pelt fragments from Old World rats, distinctive wooden tallysticks, and a whalebone spade similar to ones found at Norse sites in Greenland.  A human tooth from one of the sites was tested a few years ago for possible European DNA, but the results were inconclusive.

Excavation of Viking outpost on Baffin Island

During a recent dig at the ruins of an ancient building on the southeast coast of Baffin Island, Sutherland’s team found whetstones used for sharpening metal bladed tools.  Wear grooves in the whetstones bear traces of copper alloys such as bronze and brass—materials unknown to the Arctic’s native inhabitants, but well-known to Viking metalsmiths.  The stone-and-sod building itself, which bears a striking resemblance to Viking buildings in Greenland, was long suspected to have been built by Norse seafarers rather than the Dorset people, but the evidence of advanced European metallurgy there provides ‘the smoking gun’ for a Viking presence.

It has long been known that Leif Eriksson, a Viking chieftain from Greenland, set sail for the New World around 1000 AD, five centuries before the voyages of Christopher Columbus.  His exploits are recorded in two Icelandic sagas, the Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, which tell how Eriksson stopped long enough to walk the coast on Baffin Island—which they named ‘Helluland’, meaning ‘land of stone-slabs’ in Old Norse—before heading south to settle in ‘Vinland’, meaning ‘land of meadows’.  The Vinland settlement is almost certainly the L’Anse aux Meadows site, which dates to between 989 and 1020 AD and consisted of 3 Viking halls, as well as an assortment of huts for weaving, ironworking, and ship repair.  It was inhabited by a succession of Viking expeditions, but the colony ultimately failed.

Viking Settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows reconstruction

The sagas tell how the Vikings’ uneasy trading relations with the Skraelings (the indigenous Native American inhabitants) erupted in violence one day when the natives were scared by a bull that broke loose from the Norse encampment.  In the ensuing battle two of the Vikings and “many of the natives” were killed.  Despite everything the land had to offer, the Vikings realised they would be under the constant threat of attack by the Skraelings and so returned to Greenland, leaving Vinland behind forever.

However, Pat Sutherland believes that Norse seafarers continued to travel between Greenland and Arctic Canada for generations after the attempt to colonise Newfoundland failed, and that they traded with the ancient Dorset people before they were displaced around 1400 AD by the ancestors of the modern Inuit.  The medieval nobles of Europe highly prized walrus ivory, soft Arctic furs, and other luxuries from the Far North, and Dorset hunters and trappers had an almost limitless supply of walruses and Arctic foxes around the coastal areas of Helluland.  The Dorset people, in turn, would have found European metalwork an irresistible exchange.  If Sutherland’s theory is correct then her evidence may point to a previously unknown transatlantic trade network between Viking seafarers and Native American hunters.  As she told National Geographic, “I think things were a lot more complex in this part of the world than most people assumed.”  Her Memorial University colleague, archaeologist James Tuck, agreed, “It’s pretty convincing that there was a much larger Norse presence in the Canadian Arctic than any of us thought.”

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