Tag Archives: L’Anse aux Meadows

America’s Not-Lost Vikings, or Picking Fights with The Science Channel.

When AiPT! asked me to review the new six-part Science Channel series, America’s Lost Vikings, I was apprehensive, but a little hopeful. First, it was on the Science Channel; that’s safe, right? Also, it’s headed by two archaeologists, Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot.

I don’t know either man, so I did a little digging. Blue Nelson is an archaeologist, who appears to work in Cultural Resource Management and has been on a TV show prior to this on the History Channel, called Found. I dug a little into that show, and despite being on the History Channel (with everything that brings), Found seems to be a pretty solid show about archaeologists looking at the weird stuff people find in their yards and helping them accurately identify the items. I’ve seen one episode and was pretty pleased with it.

Nelson played a very small part in the first episode of Found, but I’m sure he’ll pop up more as I go through it. Most importantly to me was that Nelson didn’t seem to be playing into any weird pseudoarchaeology ideas like Minoans in America or Transoceanic Travelers or the European-First claims that tend to go hand in hand with “Vikings” in America.

Michael Arbuthnot is another story altogether. Arbuthnot is an archaeologist who specializes in underwater archaeology and used to run a company called Team Atlantis, which he described as, “A multidisciplinary research outfit whose mission is to explore archaeological mysteries with an emphasis on those enigmas associated with underwater contexts.”

In a 2013 reprint of a 2005 publication, The Disinformation Guide to Ancient Aliens, Lost Civilizations, Astonishing Archaeology, and Hidden History,Arbuthnot acknowledges the possibility that Atlantis could be a real place on Earth, but stated it wasn’t his primary focus of research. No, his work was to discover how the Americas were really populated. Arbuthnot then proceeds to argue for completely unsupported ideas of cultural diffusion to the Americas via prehistoric European migration by boat or raft.

I do not have the space here to explain why this is not an accepted archaeological theory, other than there is no evidence to support it and the implications of such a theory are problematic, to say the least.

So, with this unfortunate information now in my head, I watched the first episode of  America’s Lost Vikings.

Right off the bat, I’m struck with how this show will be following the format of others like Unearthed America, The Curse of Oak Island, and Legends of the Lostby using splashy graphics, epic music, and choppy editing to create a narrative that supports the show’s premises. I’m also struck with how Vikings‘ chosen audience is clearly men, given how far it went to not mention women at all.

The main focus of the first episode is the well-researched and documented site of L’Anse aux Meadows, the only confirmed Norse settlement site in the Americas. L’Anse aux Meadows was investigated in the 1960s by archaeologists Anne Stine Ingstad and her husband Helge Ingstad. The majority of what we know about L’Anse aux Meadows is because of the Ingstads, and continuing work in the 1970s by Birgitta Wallace, archaeologist emerita for Parks Canada.

Not that Nelson or Arbuthnot mention any of that. They attribute everything to only Helge Ingstad, effectively erasing Anne Stine Ingstad and Wallace from the picture. (There’s literally a monument at L’Anse aux Meadows for both of the Ingstads. They have to walk past it to see the site.)

Anyway. The rest of the first segment is Nelson and Arbuthnot walking around the site, looking at the reproduction of one of the longhouses, and in general talking about the particulars of the site.

There’s evidence that  L’Anse aux Meadows was home to somewhere between 60 -180 people, including women. Again, this is blatantly ignored. Why? Maybe they just didn’t have time to add in the word “woman” between Nelson making observations like, “This place must have just reeked of Man” (said of the longhouse), and, “This here, this is the Man’s room” (said of the sleeping closet).

Arbuthnot does spend about 30 seconds explaining that the Norse get a bad reputation as being Vikings, and really were mostly merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. The show follows this up with images of violent Vikings and passive women. So, way to clear up that misconception.

Arbuthnot also brings up the relatively short habitation period at L’Anse aux Meadows. It’s thought, via the Ingstads’ and Wallace’s research, that the site was only occupied for 3-5 years. In the long scheme of things, that is rather short, but Arbuthnot’s question of, “Why would they build so much for such a short stay?” is misleading. There are only eight structures identified at the site. Only three are housing. Eight buildings between 60-180 people doesn’t seem like “so much” to me.

It’s another subtle way the show is trying to build up the mystery of the site. Calling the houses “monumental” when they are not, saying it would have taken a long time to build, when it wouldn’t have, claiming there’s a huge number of structures when there isn’t. It’s exaggerating the facts to make it seem like more than it is.

L’Anse aux Meadows is an amazing site, but it’s not a wonder of the world or the most mysterious place in America. Pretending that it is takes away from the importance of the site, and the actually interesting things we’ve learned about it.

Arbuthnot touches on some of that a little by bringing up the controversial idea from Bjarni Einarsson that the site was used for hundreds of years, not just five. It’s the first big idea the show latches onto, and here we get to see some actual archaeology, however briefly.

Arbuthnot brings out a drone that he uses to take images of the site so he can then stitch them together into a 3D model of the footprints of the structures at the site. He makes a neat map out of the images and uses them to check the elevations of the footprints.

Not to be mean here, but honestly, as cool as it was to see this all in use, it was unnecessary. The building footprints are clear to the naked eye, and these are hardly the first aerial photographs of the site. You can find many online by simply Googling them.

Arbuthnot then compares the footprints of the buildings from L’Anse aux Meadows to other sites in Iceland. He’s doing this because he thinks he can “age” the buildings on the site this way.  The major problem with this is there are radiocarbon dates for the L’Anse aux Meadows site, and those are slightly more accurate than the stylistic footprints of buildings that could vary for any reason, from regional variation to the purpose of use. It’s interesting, and a neat trick, but not really hard evidence.

From here we kind of abandon “traditional” archaeology and start doing things that might generously be called “experimental archaeology.” There’s merit in doing experimental archaeology, but some of this I think is just an excuse for Nelson to dress up like a Norseman.

They go to Toronto’s Climate Lab, where there’s a giant freezer that can reach extreme temperatures, and they dress Nelson up in the best reproduction of Norse clothes they can find. Then they stick him in and monitor his vitals as the freezer drops to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, or -13.9 Celsius. Nelson says he was not too uncomfortable while in the freezer, and that’s nice and all. What this was proving, I don’t know. We already knew the Norse could live through the winters at L’Anse aux Meadows. They did so for about five years.

We then go to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies. Nelson and Arbuthnot get access to early written-down sagas, and they want to see if L’Anse aux Meadows is possibly mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas. You see, there’s an argument that L’Anse aux Meadows is actually Vinland, mentioned in the Vinland sagas, but it in no ways matches the description of Vinland.  The researcher they talk with mentions it might be Leif’s camp, also mentioned in the Vinland saga, but there’s really no way to know or prove that. So, fun idea, but not really helpful.

We then take a detour to go to the apparent childhood home of Leif Erikson. Honestly, I have no idea why we’re here, other than to let Nelson and Arbuthnot have a moment to be wowed that they’re standing in the same spot as the first European to set foot in America, which is important for some reason.

Lastly, we head back to L’Anse aux Meadows to figure out why anyone would want to live there. L’Anse aux Meadows is a little strange in that there is apparently no evidence of agriculture or animal husbandry beyond foodstuffs. Even the food that is found there appears to be brought in from other places. We do know there was an iron smithy there, and that the people at L’Anse aux Meadows were harvesting bog iron and working it.

Nelson again decides he’s going to be the one to go learn how to harvest bog iron and drops the wonderful gem as he’s scraping mud barehanded from the creek bank, “While the Indigenous people of America were still using stone, the Vikings were extracting iron ore.”

Three things:

  • Seriously, Blue Nelson?
  • The Indigenous people of America were also mining and working copper, lead, and gold, harvesting oil, carving stone, crafting pottery, weaving, and building earthworks, among other things.
  • Am I really supposed to believe that people that figured out how to cross an ocean, work iron, and cut sod for houses, hadn’t figured out how to make and use a shovel? I think the guide was just screwing with Nelson here.

It’s possible this was not a typical settlement colony and more of a resource colony. Eleanor Barraclough at Durham University has even suggested that the site was a stop-over for ships, a place to possibly build and repair them. This idea is one Arbuthnot appears to repeat, commenting on the number of nails found at L’Anse aux Meadows, and comparing that number to known shipyards in Iceland. Honestly, that’s the first convincing thing I’ve heard all episode, and the originator of that idea isn’t even mentioned.

Nelson and Arbuthnot wrap up the episode with some stirring dialogue about how they’ve only just begun to investigate the Viking presence in America. But before they go off to chase wild geese, they have to have a drinking party with people dressed up as Vikings.

Overall, this episode didn’t really say anything flashing-red-lights “wrong.” The premise of the whole show, though, is an issue because of the loaded implications in the idea that Europeans were in the Americas in prehistoric times. That’s often used as a way to deny Indigenous culture and land rights, usually by claiming something is not actually Indigenous and assigning it to a different group. In this case, for example, Vikings.

L’Anse aux Meadows is the only verified Norse site in the Americans, and it’s not like people aren’t looking. I really hope that America’s Lost Vikings follows the pattern of Found, where they go and examine Viking claims, then effectively debunk them. I have this bad feeling it’s going to be six episodes of two guys doing wacky crap, then saying something like, “Well if we could do it, then Vikings could too!” And the problem there is the same problem with all Vikings-in-America claims — there’s no evidence.


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Where the Vikings Weren’t – Wrap Up.

 

So what have we learned so far about the Viking presence in America?

Well, we’ve looked at all the past usual suspects:

The Newport Tower. – Where we discuss where the tower came from and why it looks so much like a Norse tower. The reality of this structure seems to be that it’s really a windmill built by Gov. Benedict Arnold in the 17th cen, and the passing resemblance to a Norse tower was a creation in the mind of Carl Christian Rafn gotten from looking over some poorly drawn images of the tower, and never actually seeing the tower himself.

The Vinland Map – One of my favorite hoaxes of all time! Not just because it deals with maps, for which I have a fondness, but because it’s so old a hoax, it’s practically a real artifact itself now. Granted Yale would probably be really happy if it would turn out to be the real deal somehow, but with all the tests that have been done over the years, the evidence is really starting to weigh against that chance.

The Kensington Runestone. – The Runestone Museum in Minnesota still sort-of touts this one as being a real artifact when all evidence points to it being a hoax. The most convincing of all includes a detailed confession of how the hoax was set up and a then there is the major lack of any supporting evidence that it is remotely real.

Wisconsin Viking Horse Skull – This one is interesting because it’s not really about whether or not the skull is that of a Viking horse or not (it’s not BTW), but over if the skull found was the skull that was planted by pot hunters, or a different skull actually buried with the human remains it was found with. 

Beardmore Relics – These are indeed Viking relics, but where and how they were found is the real question. Still, after confessions brought the truth to light, the Royal Ontario Museum still got the last laugh. They gamely put the relic’s back out on display explaining the whole situation, and showing that they could take a joke.

But with the dismissal of all of these fun, yet unreal, stories about Viking’s in America, lets not overlook the real evidence of their presence here.

Please let’s all ooh and aah over L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada once more. Because, as I’ve explained many times, Vikings are cool, and we have evidence they landed here long before Columbus! Yay! Still as awesome as my beloved Vikings were, they were sadly not the first people to reach the new world.

So who were, you ask? Well, we still have several candidates out there. Mayhaps the Chinese?

Go to  Columbus was Second-ish: Who Discovered America Anyway? or Where the Vikings Weren’t for more on this series.

Columbus was Second-ish: Who Discovered America Anyway? Mayhaps the Vikings?

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He set out on a bold new mission to reach out to new civilizations and boldly go where no one had gone before. Or was that Star Trek? Either way, when many of us were in grade school, we were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Some of us, if we were lucky, were taught that he thought he had discovered Asia since he had been looking for a new trade route there to trade for spices. None of us ever got the truth.

No Flag, No Country. It’s a rule I just made up.

Columbus made his first landfall in Caribbean islands on what he called San Salvador, somewhere in Cuba. He immediately encountered native people, and though he now knew he wasn’t in either Cathay or Chpangu (China or Japan) he had no flipping clue where he really was. He figured he was still somewhere in Asia, but he couldn’t figure out where. Columbus made three more voyages to the shores of what would be called The New World, making landfall in 1493, 1498, and 1502. He even attempted to establish a temporary colony there in 1492 after the Santa Maria was wrecked off the coast of  Haiti. 39 men were left behind in an encampment built out of the remains of the ship, however when Columbus returned  in late 1493 he found all the men dead and the settlement burned to the ground (Feder 2006).  He managed a much more successful colony in what is now the Dominican Republic called La Isabela.

How do we know all this as fact and not just more fables told to children in grade school history class? We have evidence. Among the artifacts we have, trade goods, glazed ceramics, nails, glassware, horse gear, metal bits, and dated coins (Feder 2006). All distinctly Spanish in origins. We also have verifiable documentation of Columbus’ travels, court records, maps, journals, and other such documents (Feder 2006). We have lots of evidence that all corroborates. And that’s how we know.

“But Wait!” You say, “There is evidence of other groups reaching America before Columbus did! What about them?”

Yes, what about them?

There is no dispute that Columbus reached the America’s in 1492, we can back that up. However, there are numerous claims that the America’s were discovered long before Columbus was a twinkle in his mother’s eye. How do these claims hold up? Does the evidence support them? Was someone here before? In this series were going to look over the many and varied claims to the New World, spanning from the Vikings to, yes, Aliens.

So let’s start with the most likely culprits, The awesome Vikings!

Leif Eiriksson discovers America, by Christian Krohg (1893).

The Norse were/are a pretty cool culture, and in my opinion, the coolest. They were culturally sophisticated, socially liberal, and artistically creative. They were kings of the sea, scourges of the land, and the stuff of legends even to today. They left a rich written history behind them in the form of numerous sagas and eddas. Two of those saga’s, The Greenlander’s Saga and Eirik the Red’s Saga, tell of the discovery of Vinland, a land further west then even Greenland and covered with grapes.

Leif, the son of Eirik the Red, is the one said to have landed on, and briefly investigated, three new lands past Greenland. He called them Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. He came home to Greenland and told of the vast riches of the new land, Vinalnd. His brother, Throvald, set off to explore Vinland more fully, met up with the natives, called Skraelings, and promptly got himself killed.

Around 1022 A.D., Throfinn Karlsefni led a sizable group, consisting of families and animals, from Greenland to Vinland to create a permanent settlement  They built homes and farmed the land. Again though, the Skraelings attacked unmercifully and apparently drove the Norse Folk out.

What we have here is a riveting tale of discovery and exploration, but as wondrous at this all seems, it’s not evidence  Not to mention, we don’t even know where Helluland, Markland, and Vinland are on a map.  What we need is physical evidence, and fortunately that’s what we have.

Lots of little things have been found along the Northeastern portions of North America. A Norse coin that dates between 1880 and 1235 AD, smelted metal, chain-mail, ship rivets  and other non-native goods have been found isolated and within native sties (Feder 2006). These artifacts show contact between the native Americans and the Norse, either through trade, or more nefarious means.

But the big payoff came in the 1960’s in a little place called L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.

A Norse long house recreation at L’Anse aux Meadows

I’ve gone over the tenacious Anne Stine Moe Ingstad and her husband Helge Ingstad previously and their discovery of L’Anse aux Meadow.  Here they discovered what appeared to eight typically Norse, turf houses (ArchyFantasies 2012). They worked on the site between 1961 and 1968 and recovered enough information to definitively identify it as a Norse colonial settlement (ArchyFantasies 2012, Feder 2006). The excavation revealed the remains of an early 11th century Norse settlement, including sod houses called “booths”, a forge, cooking pits and boathouses (ArchyFantasies 2012).  They also recovered worked iron, bronze pins, a soapstone spindal, and other Norse artifacts (Feder 2006). They also recovered traditional foodstuffs, like butternut shells, a kind of walnut that does not grown in Newfoundland but in Nova Scotia. Carbon dates for the site date it to 920 AD, plus or minus 30 years (Feder 2006).

Patricia Sutherland

Also, Patricia Sutherland, adjunct professor of archaeology at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, has found evidence of a Viking camp on Baffin Island (Feder 2006, Pringle 2012). Things such as spun yarn, whetstones, metals, a whalebone shovel, and even the pellets of Old World rat stowaways from the ships (Pringle 2012). Sutherland’s dates are still being assessed, but the artifacts can be traced to as early as the 11th century (Feder 2006).

Norse Cord

So we’ve got two settlements loaded with evidence  and lots of isolated objects popping up in Native American sites that date to the same times. Honestly, that’s a pretty open and shut case. Score one for the the awesomeness of the Vikings!

But the fun doesn’t stop there. We know of at least two locations where the Norse where, but there are many more claims out there claiming “Vikings stopped here, too!” Things like the Vinland Map to the numerous rune-stones found all over the United States. These claims just don’t hold up as well under examination when looked at closely, and what kind of blog would this be if we didn’t look at them? In our next installation we’ll examine the not-so-factual evidence of Vikings in America.


 

Go to  Columbus was Second-ish: Who Discovered America Anyway? or Where the Vikings Weren’t for more on this series.

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Comment below or send an email to ArchyFantasies@gmail.com


Resources:  

ArchyFantasies

2012 “Women in Archaeology – Anne Stine Moe Ingstad” ArchyFantasies.  http://archyfantasies.com/2011/09/25/anne-stine-moe-ingstad/. Retrieved Jan 3, 2013.

Feder, Kenneth L.

2006  Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, 5th ed, McGraw-Hill, New York. NY.

Posner, Michael

2012 “New doc aims to unravel an Arctic mystery” The Globe and Mail. Nov. 21 2012 http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/10/121019-viking-outpost-second-new-canada-science-sutherland/. Retrieved Jan 3, 2013.

Pringle, Heather

2012 “Evidence of Viking Outpost Found in Canada” National Geographic The Daily News. October 19, 2012. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/new-doc-aims-to-unravel-an-arctic-mystery/article5540781/?service=mobile. Retrieved Jan 3, 2013.

Anne Stine Moe Ingstad

Anne Stine Moe Ingstad was born in 1918 in Lillehammer, Oppand county, Norway. Her parents were attorney Eilif Moe and Louise Augusta Bauck Lindeman. Before achieving her MA in Scandinavian Archaeology from the University of Oslo she married she married Helge Ingstad In 1941. Instead of impeding her academic career, her marriage turned out to be quite the partnership leading to a major discovery for the couple later in their carrers.

In the 1960’s the Ingstad’s discovered a Norse settlement that dated to ca.1000 AD at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in Canada [1]. A local inhabitant, George Decker, led them to a group of overgrown bumps and ridges that looked as if they might be building remains [3]. These later turned out to be the remains of the settlement. This is perhaps the most famous discovery of her career as it confirmed that the old Norse saga’s were true and the Vikings had found America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus [1].

Anne Stine Ingstad led an international team of archaeologists from Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and the United States in the excavation of the site for seven to eight years [3]. The excavation revealed the remains of an early 11th century Norse settlement, including sod houses, a forge, cooking pits and boathouses [1]. The overgrown ridges were the lower courses of the walls of eight buildings [3]. The walls and roofs were sod, laid over a supporting frame, the same kind as those used in Iceland and Greenland just before and after the year 1000 CE [3]. Long narrow fireplaces in the middle of the floor served for heating, lighting and cooking [3].

Also of interest was the discovery that not all of the inhabitants had been men. Items such as spindle whorls and knitting needles were tools used by women [3]. Even a small whetstone, used to sharpen needles and small scissors, found near the spindle whorl spoke of the presence of women [3]. The settlement is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Site of Canada.

For her efforts she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 1969 from Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland. She received a second in 1992 from the University of Bergen. She was awarded the title of Commander of the Order of St. Olav, which is awarded to individuals as a reward for remarkable accomplishments on behalf of the country and humanity, and was a member of the Academy in Oslo.

In the 1970’s she turned her attention to analyzing the textiles from the Kaupang and Oseberg excavations. The Oseberg grave chamber contained the largest collection of textiles and tools that had been found in a single grave [2]. The collection consisted of fragmented tapestries and other pattern-woven blankets, tablet woven braids and a large collection of fragments from clothing, sails or tents, rugs, etc [2]. Many had detailed silk embroidery and embellishments on them. [2]

Anne Stine Ingstad died in 1997 at the age of 79 from complications from cancer [4]. She left behind her 98 year old husband and her daughter Benedicte Ingstad, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Oslo [4].

References:

(Sadly, I had to refer a great deal to Wikipedia. Any inaccuracies discovered should be brought to my attention immediately and I will correct them. References must be provided for corrections.)

[1] Ingstad, Helge, Anne Stine Ingstad
2001. The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Checkmark Books.

[2] Ingstad, Anne Stine
The Textiles in the Oseberg Ship. (http://bit.ly/nduN7s)

[3] L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site of Canada
Discovery of the Site and Initial Excavations (1960-1968). (http://bit.ly/qFQuNu) Parks Canada. Accessed September 23, 2011.

[4] McG. Thomas, Robert, Jr.
1997. Anne-Stine Ingstad, a Sifter Of Viking Secrets, Dies at 79 (http://nyti.ms/rnzKbM). The New York Times. Accessed September 23, 2011.

Other Rescorces:

Parks Canada. http://www.pc.gc.ca

Wikipedia

Norwegian Forestry Museum’s http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norsk_Skogmuseum