Where Was the Viking Colony of Vinland?

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Map Showing the Extent of Viking/Norse Exploration and Colonization: the Numbers Indicate the Year They a Made Particular Voyage While the Light Green Shading Shows Their Homelands and Later Colonies

Norse or Viking exploration is fairly well-known thanks in large part to a considerable amount of surviving primary sources. The Vikings explored and established colonies as far west as North America and to the east in Russia. Modern scholars know this due to a plethora of written texts, which includes those written by the Norse as well as the many people they came into contact within Europe and the Middle East. Modern archaeological work has also helped uncover many of the mysteries of the Norse sagas, which were semi-historical stories about their kings, nobles, and various other heroes who were worthy in Viking eyes of being remembered for their great deeds.

One particular mystery that was debated for decades was the claim in two of the sagas – Erik’s Saga and The Greenland Saga – that the Norse discovered and colonized North America, which they referred to as “Vinland” or “Vineland,” approximately 500 years before Columbus made his first voyage to the Caribbean. Many scholars believed the sagas were just boasts or good yarns until a Viking Age settlement was discovered in 1960 in L’Anse aux Meadows at the tip of the island of Newfoundland in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows throughout the 1960s confirmed that it was indeed a Viking settlement, giving credence to the two sagas, which are often referred to collectively as the “Vinland Sagas.” Although there is a consensus among scholars that the Vikings established a small colony briefly in North America in the early eleventh century, there is no consensus regarding the specific location of Vinland. Since it is not possible to grow wine producing vines in northern Newfoundland, many scholars believe that L’Anse aux Meadows was a staging point and that Vinland was farther to the south. Based on some factors, primarily flora and fauna, the modern Canadian province of Nova Scotia is probably the best candidate for the location of the Viking Vinland.

The Vikings and Exploration

 
Leif Eriksson Statue in front of the Minnesota State Capitol Building in St. Paul

The Viking Age began in the late eighth century AD like a bolt of thunder coming from Scandinavia across most of Europe. Many factors contributed to the raids that so epitomized the period. The loose political structure in Scandinavia allowed wealthy warlords to organize warbands to conduct raids, while the lure of easy riches in European monasteries was certainly a pulling factor. The Viking religion, which placed a premium on bravery and the virtue of dying in battle, also led to many young men searching for fame and fortune beyond Scandinavia. [1] But perhaps just as important as warfare was to the Vikings, was the desire and will to explore.

The Vikings’ outstanding ships and seamanship gave them the ability to travel great distances and the element of surprise in amphibious attacks. As fearless as the Vikings were in battle, they were equally brave on the high seas because to die at sea during exploration was considered just as honorable as dying in the battlefield.[2]

The Vikings’ shipbuilding skills and technology provided them with the ability to travel long distances in their ships. Viking ships were constructed by overlapping strakes that were joined with iron rivets and then caulked with animal hair, which gave the ships the ability to maneuver better and travel faster. The sea vessels that the Vikings used for war and long-distance exploration was low and narrow relative to their length and usually made of oak.

These ships also had a single mast that could be taken down in inclement weather or to go under bridges. [3] The cargo ships the Vikings used were a lot less elegant looking than their war/exploration ships, but just as effective for the needed job. They measured about sixteen to twenty-five meters in length and could carry from thirteen to thirty-eight tons of cargo. The deeper and bulkier cargo ships were also different than the warships because they had few oar holes. [4]

The Vikings in North America

 
Reconstruction of a Norse Sod House at L’Anse aux Meadow

The Vikings are the first recorded Europeans to have discovered the North American continent, although it was a long process. Viking explorers left Norway in the early Viking Age, discovering and settling such isolated places in the North Atlantic as the Faroes Islands and Iceland. A Viking named Gunnbjorn Ulf-Krakuson first sighted Greenland around 900, but it would be several decades later when Erik the Red was forced to moved there around 985 after being declared an “outlaw” in Iceland. Hoping to entice Icelandic settlers to join him on the large frozen island, Erik named the land Greenland, although it should be noted that the climate was much warmer 1,000 years ago. Eventually, the Norse established three colonies in Greenland that despite the harsh conditions, thrived and became a source of exotic goods coveted in Europe, such as ivory from walrus tusks and polar bear skins. [5]

Not long after the Greenland settlements were established in 985, a Viking mariner named Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course during a voyage from Iceland to Greenland and became the first of his people to sight North America. The tale of new lands to the west intrigued the inquisitive Vikings, who set to work to conduct a full-fledged expedition to the mysterious lands. Around the year 1000, Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, led the first recorded expedition to North America. The two Norse sagas divide North America by topography: Helluland (Rock Land) coincides with Labrador or Baffin Island; Markland (Wood Land) coincides with Newfoundland; while Vinland (Wine Land) remains enigmatic and a source of dispute among modern scholars. Both of the Vinland Sagas describe Vinland, but the Greenland Saga gives a more detailed description of its discovery. The passage describes how Leif and the other Vikings found their comrade, Tyrkir the German, who had wandered away from their camp by accident.

 
Panoramic View of the Ruins of the Norse Settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows

“‘I did not go much farther than you,’ he said. ‘I have some news. I found vines and grapes. ‘Is that true, foster-father?’ asked Leif. ‘Of course, it is true,’ he replied. ‘Where I was born there were plenty of vines and grapes.’ They slept for the rest of the night, and next morning Leif said to his men, ‘Now we have two tasks on our hands. On alternate days we must gather grapes and cut vines, and then fell trees, to make a cargo for my ship.’ This was done. The tow-boat was filled with grapes. They took on a full cargo of timber; and in the spring they made ready to leave and sailed away. Leif named the country after its natural qualities and called it Vinland.” [6]

According to the sagas, another of Erik’s sons, Thorstein Eriksson, led expeditions to North America, as did Thorfinn Karlsefni. Although the existence of the Vinland Sagas was known quite widely in the modern world, many thought they were the boastful stories of Norse skalds until the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960.

L’Anse aux Meadows represents so far the only substantial archaeological evidence of a Viking colony in North America. Located at the northern tip of Newfoundland, L’Anse aux Meadows was once the site of a modest Norse settlement of several large buildings that were surrounded by turf walls. [7] Many scholars believe that L’Anse aux Meadows was the location of Vinland, but many are skeptical of that assessment for several reasons and place the position much farther south.

The Location of Vinland

 
The Controversial 15th Century Vinland Map

After the discovery of the Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, the majority of Norse scholars in the 1960s and 1970s believed that it was synonymous with the enigmatic Vinland. [8] An examination of the evidence from the site seemed to confirm that idea on some levels: there were as many as ninety inhabitants there during its peak, and iron rivets and slags were found there along with the remains of a blacksmith’s shop, all of which indicate what was intended to be a long-term colony. [9] But a more critical examination of flora and fauna mentioned in the Vinland Sagas pointed to a more southerly location for Vinland.

 

In the late 1970s, the idea that L’Anse aux Meadows was a permanent colony that functioned as a transit point for Norse explorers heading farther south into Vinland was popularized. The fact that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is the northernmost point where grapes can grow in the wild led scholars to look for Vinland somewhere in that region. [10] The Norwegian historian Gustav Storm first forwarded the idea in 1887 that Vinland was located in the modern Canadian province of Nova Scotia, based on flora and fauna of the region. [11] Storm’s assessment was refuted because there are no wild grape vines found in Nova Scotia today, but early modern French explorers mentioned them in their observations, and it should be noted that the area was warmer in 1000 AD.

Concerning the other plants, animals, and people that the sagas mentioned as native to Vinland, Larsson believes the wild wheat mentioned was probably wild rye, which is found throughout Nova Scotia. Salmon is also abundant in Nova Scotia and can be found as far south as Cape Cod. Finally, the Amerindians mentioned in the sagas who used “skin boats” to travel were probably the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia, who were known to make their canoes from moose skins occasionally. [12] The theory that Vinland was farther to the south than Nova Scotia is less appealing, but should be considered.

In 1748, while on a tour of North America, Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm noted what he believed were the remains of mining operations along the Delaware and New Jersey coasts. He argued that since the pre-Columbian Amerindians had no metalworking, that what he saw must have been left by the Viking explorers/colonizers of Vinland. [13]

Unfortunately, Kalm’s observations cannot be corroborated by any extant archaeological evidence. The only evidence of a Viking presence south of L’Anse aux Meadows is a coin of King Olaf Kyree of Norway (ruled 1066-1080), which was discovered in Maine. The coin, though, could have ended up in that location in some ways and should not be considered as undeniable evidence of a Norse presence in that region. [14]

The End of the Viking Experiment in North America

Scholars believe that the Viking colonization of North America only lasted about twenty years. L’Anse aux Meadows was simply too far from the Greenland colonies, which were themselves far from Europe, and the ever bellicose Norse made too many enemies with the indigenous population. [15] The Vinland Sagas relate this last point in several passages.

“Karlsefni and his men had realized by now that although the land was excellent, they could never live there in safety or freedom from fear, because of the native inhabitants. So they made ready to leave the place and return home.” [16]

The Norse exploration and colonization was an amazing chapter in European history, but it ultimately proved to be ephemeral. It would be hundreds of years before Europeans returned to North America and even longer for modern scholars to realize that the Vikings were there before Columbus.

Conclusion

The Vikings’ discovery and exploration of North America is an interesting and exciting aspect of medieval European history. Archaeological evidence from L’Anse aux Meadows confirms that the Vikings did colonize North America, but the location of the fabled Vinland remains an enigma. Some scholars believe that it was L’Anse aux Meadows, but based on flora and fauna mentioned in the Vinland Sagas, it is more likely that Vinland was located somewhere in the modern Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

References

  1. Rosedahl, Else. The Vikings. Translated by Susan M. Margeson and Kirsten Williams. (London: Penguin, 1998), pgs. 148-58; 189-205
  2. Rosedahl, p. 187
  3. Rosedahl, pgs. 84-85
  4. Rosedahl, pgs. 89-91
  5. Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 96
  6. Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Pálsson, trans. and eds. The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. (London: Penguin, 1965), Graendlendinga Saga, 4
  7. Rosedahl, p. 274
  8. Larsson, Mats G. “The Vinland Sagas and Nova Scotia: A Reappraisal of an Old Theory.” Scandinavian Studies 64 (1992) p. 305
  9. Haywood, p. 98
  10. Haywood, p. 98
  11. Larsson, p. 306
  12. Larsson, pgs. 313-17
  13. Kaups Matti, Douglas R. McManis, Brian Birch, and John C. Hudson. “Some Observations on Vinland.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 60 (1970) p. 604
  14. Rosedahl, p.275
  15. Rosedahl, pgs. 274-5
  16. Magnusson and Pálsson, Erik’s Saga, 11

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