In 1960 Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad were searching
for archeological evidence of Vikings in Labrador and Newfoundland. In
the small village of L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland
they met a fisherman named George Decker who showed them sod foundations
that had the shape of Viking longhouses. More than a decade of archeological
investigation at this site has proved conclusively that Vikings had built
a settlement in North America 500 years before Columbus, just as the sagas
say. The evidence at the site also suggests that more southerly voyages
might have taken place, and that other settlements might be found. Archeologists
believe L'Anse aux Meadows was a base camp which afforded a way-station
to further explorations of North America.
Excavations revealed a number of artifacts that are diagnostic of a Viking site. From 1961 until 1968, the Ingstad excavations uncovered Viking artifacts including a ringed pin, a soapstone spindle whorl, a bone pin, a whetstone, iron boat rivets, worked wood and other objects. There was evidence of iron-smelting and forging, and hearth charcoal is dated to A.D. 1000. The style and construction of the three longhouses and outbuildings are identical to 11th century Iceland and Greenland. The artifacts indicated weaving and iron-working, activities which were not practiced by Native Americans until after A.D. 1500. These finds confirm L'Anse aux Meadows as the earliest European settlement yet known in North America.
Later excavations by Bengt Schoenbak and Birgitta Wallace for Parks Canada revealed more about the purpose of this settlement and the type of activities that took place here. Their work produced further evidence of wood-working and iron-smelting, suggesting that the main activity at the site was repairing damaged vessels or constructing new ones from wood obtained in the nearby forests. Butternuts and worked pieces of butternut wood-a tree that was not native to Newfoundland but was present one thousand years ago in northern Nova Scotia and New Brunswick-were also found. This discovery indicates that the people who lived at L'Anse aux Meadows had traveled further south into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and had brought back nuts and wood native to those southern areas and were sampling the region's resources as described in the sagas. These finds suggest that the L'Anse aux Meadows site was a base-camp or gateway to the rich lands around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is likely the Vinland of the sagas.
After 20 years of excavations, archeologists can also say with confidence
that this was a short-lived settlement because of the small amount of remains
indicating domestic activity. There were no stables for animals, no storage
barns, and no burials. Even the houses and their surroundings contained
very little domestic debris. For these reasons, it is believed that the
site may have been used for only a few years. Where are all these objects? Were they made of perishable materials
that have not survived? Were they taken by native visitors after the Norse
departed? Were the Norse Vinland explorations less extensive than suggested
in the sagas? Or was Vinland - that bounteous "picture book" southern land
of grapes and pastures - as much a mythical paradise to the Vikings as it
seems to us today?
Archeological Evidence of Native Contacts in Vinland
The excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows provide a small bit of evidence for these contacts in the form of two artifacts obtained by the Norse from skraelings. One is a beautiful oval soapstone lamp found in the smelting hut. Unlike thick, roughly-made soapstone lamps made by the Norse, this lamp is thin and delicately carved and is an unmistakable product of a Dorset Eskimo carver. How this piece arrived at L'Anse aux Meadows is mysterious, because there were no Dorset people living in Newfoundland at this time. It seems likely that the Norse obtained this lamp by trade or by taking it from an abandoned Dorset site they visited in Labrador. The second piece is a small soapstone spindle whorl that the Norse appear to have made from a fragment of a thin, fat-encrusted Dorset cooking pot which could have come from the same source or from an earlier Dorset site in Newfoundland.
To date, only one other artifact has been found indicating contact between Norse and Native people in the Vinland region: a Norwegian silver penny dating to the reign of Olaf Kyhre, minted between A.D. 1065 and 1080, found at the Goddard site, a large Indian site in Penobscot Bay, Maine. However, this coin is not proof that the Vikings ever reached Maine. When it was found the penny had a perforation for use as a pendant, but later this portion of the corroded coin crumbled to dust. Because several other artifacts found at the Goddard site were Dorset tools made from stone, archeologists believe this penny probably arrived in Maine as an interesting curio by native trade from Labrador or Newfoundland rather than by a Norse ship.
Considering the many contacts described in the sagas, it is strange that
so few Norse artifacts have been found in the many Native archeological
sites that have been excavated in the Vinland region between Newfoundland
and New England. In the 11th century these areas were occupied by large
numbers of people organized into different native groups who traveled
widely along the coast by boat in summer. Had the Norse been as active
exploring or settling in these regions as described in the sagas, one
would expect their sites to contain Norse artifacts they had acquired
by trade, theft, or by scavenging Norse sites. The picture that emerges
from archeology is that Vinland is further north than suggested by the
sagas, and also involved fewer people and less extensive exploration than
suggested by the sagas.