Tag Archives: Science Channel

Sop’s Arm is also not Vinland — ‘America’s Lost Vikings’ Episode 2

The official title of America’s Lost Vikings episode 2 is “Mystery of the Sea Raiders,” never mind that the Norse weren’t raiding the coast here, they were exploring and settling. Regardless, this episode isn’t actually looking at any particular mystery, it’s supposedly looking to see if there’s any way to connect Newfoundland with Vinland. Since the last episode, Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot agreed that L’Anse aux Meadows wasn’t Vinland, so they’re on the hunt for a new location, and they get a tip that there might be a potential site near the community of Sop’s Arm.

What’s of interest here are several long pits dug into the landscape that appear to be man-made. These have been examined in the ’60s by first Helge Ingstad and later by Helen Devereux. Both seem to agree that these were pitfall traps, a type of hunting trap recorded all over the world, characterized by deep pits dug into the ground, into which large game were driven by hunters. Ingstad believed the pits were Norse in nature, but Deveraux argued they could have been for mineral exploration, and attributes the pits to the Indigenous people of the area.

Nelson and Arbuthnot are looking at the pits to see if they can find any evidence they’re connected to L’Anse aux Meadows and/or are Norse in origin. They seem to be drawing from the article Falling Into Vinland: Newfoundland Hunting Pitfalls at the Edge of the Viking World , which is co-authored by Bjarni F. Einarsson, mentioned in the first episode and credited with suggesting that L’Anse aux Meadows was inhabited for hundreds of years, and Kevin McAleese, who we’ll meet later in the show.

They spend some time looking at the pitfalls, and Nelson takes some measurements and uses a tablet in the field. It’s nice to see the tech in use because there is a slight push to start using more digital tablets in the field and move away from paper. Archaeology is trying to go high-tech.

While Nelson takes notes, Arbuthnot talks to McAleese, who says there’s no evidence that the Indigenous people were using pitfall traps to hunt. I’m a little confused, because there are several references I can find that state that Indigenous peoples used pitfall traps. Even in the Kristjánsson et al paper, the authors refer to the 1966 excavation led by Devereux that suggested the pitfalls were of indigenous use for hunting, although the authors do point out there seem to be no other occurrences of pitfall hunting in Canada. So Norse or not, if these are pitfalls at Sop’s Arm, then this site is significant for that reason alone.

Unfortunately, Kristjánsson et al found no artifacts at all in the pits, Norse, Indigenous or otherwise. They attempted to take radiocarbon dates but got mixed results. Not that the radiocarbon dates would have proven a Norse presence, but it would have given a time period for the possible construction of the pits. Even with these results, the authors, including McAleese, chose to argue that the pits are probably Norse in origin, since pitfall traps like these are not known to the Indigenous people in the area. Again, a confusing statement, but I can’t find any definitive papers that counter that.

So what does all this get us? Inconclusive results leaning heavily towards Indigenous origins due to lack of anything saying otherwise. The show adds nothing to this really; Nelson and Arbuthnot were not able to excavate or investigate the pitfalls beyond taking some notes and measurements. So, other than being interesting, there’s no hard evidence to tie these pitfalls to the Norse.

Nelson goes back to his Found roots and goes to look at the Viking Museum curated by the late Kent Budden. In his museum, Budden kept many objects he collected over the years, thinking they were Norse in origin. He’s even published a paper on his explorations and conclusions into Norse occupation of Sop’s Arm. With Budden’s death, the museum’s collection has passed into the care of a committee of some kind, and Nelson managed to get permission from them to see it. When the camera pans over the collection, it’s clear to me that the objects Budden has collected are historical in origin.

Nelson is fascinated with a few of the objects, giving the misleading comment of, “This could be a thousand years old, or just a hundred.” Which — no, just, no. Nelson gets oddly obsessed over a nail from the collection. It looks identical to a square cut nail seen on pretty much every historical site in America that foraged its own nails. Nelson seems to think it has a good chance to be Norse in origin and goes about trying to convince the current keepers of the museum to let him take it to be tested.

Which leads to a scene that is confusing on several levels. Nelson eventuality gets his nail in the mail and takes it out with a pair of gloves, saying he doesn’t want to contaminate the sample, even though he’s already been shown handling the nail bare-handed. Then he takes out a portable PXRF machine, which, 1) is actually really cool, and 2) why didn’t he just take the PXRF machine to the museum and test all the things there? It’s portable, and he’s doing this test in what looks like his hotel room. If it could have gone there, why all the drama of getting the museum to part with the artifact for testing?

Anyway, the nail comes back as being made of nearly pure iron. Nelson did a good job of telling us that if it had been made from bog iron, he’d expect a lot of impurities. The nail didn’t demonstrate that. It would have been even more impactful if he had also done a sample of the bog iron for comparison, but we’re left with just the nail. This is a neat thing, more tech in the field, but this is also not a common tool in a field kit. It also doesn’t help prove that Sop’s Arm is connected to the Norse, and to Nelson’s credit, he doesn’t try to shoehorn it into fitting.

And that wraps up the more traditional archaeology for the show, with Nelson and Arbuthnot saying they’ve pretty much done all they can at Sop’s Arm. Nelson says something about him discovering that the sea winds would have been stronger on one side of Newfoundland than the other. I’m not really sure what that was meant to do other than segue to the second half of the show, where Nelson and Arbuthnot are looking at Norse ships in a Viking shipyard in Copenhagen, Denmark, and then sailing one for a speed test.

Yes, this entire segment is neat and fun and Norse ships are impressive. If you ever get a chance to go see one up close, especially one of the reproductions, I highly recommend it. Aside from just showing off these awesome ships, and having Arista Holden, the captain of the Polaris, demonstrate how a Norse Sunstone works, there’s no real point to this bit.

What it does do is feed a fear of mine that I expressed for the last episode, that America’s Lost Vikings is going to devolve into two dudes doing stuff and then saying things like, “Well if we can do it, the Viking’s could have, too!” Which is not the point. Lots of culture groups had the ability to do things like voyage to new lands. The point is, there’s no evidence they did.

Still, Arbuthnot says, “It [the ship’s speed] could mean the Vikings made landfall in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts,” and, “I think we’ve demonstrated conclusively that they had the technology and the capability.” Again, this is currently irrelevant because there’s no evidence to support the claim that they did do it.

Overall, this episode was better than the first, especially with the presentation of negative evidence. The show demonstrated archaeology more and even showed some tech in use in the field. Nelson and Arbuthnot seem to accept their lack of evidence with aplomb, but they do try to make it sound like there’s still possibly something out there.

Arbuthnot: “We’re still lacking the physical archaeological evidence.”

Nelson: “It just means you haven’t found it yet.”

I mean, guys, sometimes the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

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Check out Jeb Card’s new book Spooky Archaeology : 
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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.

If you’d like to support the Podcast or site, consider donating to us on Patreon or buy us a  Ko-Fi. Either option helps us out.

Check out Jeb Card’s new book Spooky Archaeology : 
Myth and the Science of the Past

And Ken Feder’s new book Archaeological Oddities: A Field Guide to Forty Claims of Lost Civilizations, Ancient Visitors, and Other Strange Sites in North America

Grab a t-shirt or coffee mug from our Swag Store on Zazzle.

Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on the blog and like and share us where ever you can.

You can follow us on twitter @ArchyFantasies, or look us up on Facebook. You can reach us by email at ArchyFantasies@gmail.com.

Contact us below or leave a comment.