L'anse Aux Meadows: Ancient Viking Settlement

L'Anse Aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, Canada, is the first North American Viking settlement. Dr. Helge Ingstad proved Norsemen sailed to America 500 years before Columbus.

Centuries before Christopher Columbus left Spain and discovered America, Viking raiders and Norse traders were already sailing across the cold and dangerous Atlantic. They settled in Iceland and Greenland and also a legendary place called Vinland. Icelandic sagas told of this rich land discovered and settled by Leif Eirikson. But nothing tangible was ever found proving that Vikings had landed on the shores of North America long before Columbus. Not until 1961, when dedicated Norwegian explorer and writer, Helge Ingstad,discovered the site of an ancient Viking colony at a solitary, wind-swept location in Newfoundland called L'Anse aux Meadows.

Archaeologists, scholars and other interested parties like Ingstad had been searching for the fabled Vinland for over 100 years. The 13th century Viking sagas described Vinland as a narrow peninsula that extended into the sea. The land was lush with meadows, forests and bubbling streams that teemed with salmon. The grass stayed green year round and when the tides were low, the whole bay turned into dry land. After Leif and his crew had settled, one sailor strayed away one day and found fields of wild grapes.

The stories about wild grapes convinced many that the location of Vinland had to be somewhere along the more temperate Northeast coast of the United States. The search for Viking settlements lasted for decades and took archaeologists as far inland as Minnesota. Tower ruins found in Maine and oddly-marked stones discovered in Yarmouth,Nova Scotia,were all believed to be of Viking origin. Others read old maps for any hints about the possible location of Vinland. Dr. Helge Ingstad found the first viable clues.

Dr.Ingstad was born in Norway in 1899 and studied law, but left his practice at age 27 to explore the Arctic. By the early 1950's he had led expeditions into the Sierra Madres searching for lost Indian tribes and travelled to Alaska to study Eskimos. In 1953 he left for Greenland to explore old Norse settlements. It was while doing research there that Dr. Ingstad concluded that northern Newfoundland was the most logical loca- tion for the fabled Vinland.

Further investigation led Dr. Ingstad to Hungary and a private map collection where he located a copy of an original Icelandic map. On it was depicted a long, narrow strip of land marked Windlandia, and that bore a striking resemblance to the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. In 1960, while exploring terrain around a tiny community called L'Anse aux Meadows, Ingstad and his daughter met with a local named George Decker. He led the two Norwegians to a grassy meadow filled with outlines of what Ingstad was certain were ancient building foundations.

Between 1961 and 1968 the Ingstads and teams of archaeologists from Norway, Canada, Iceland, Sweden and the US studied the site. At first experts thought the foundations were that of an early Indian or Eskimo settlement. But soon many interesting discoveries were made that would corroborate Dr. Ingstad's original theory. Out- lines of eight Viking "long houses" were unearthed. They had been built of turf, a common material for Norse dwellings. Further excavations revealed rusty nails, a soapstone spindle early Viking women used to twist fleece into yarn, a stone lamp, and a bronze pin discovered in a cooking pit. Lumps of slag were also unearthed, as well as a smithy complete with stone anvil and bits of iron. All of these artefacts were more than enough evidence to prove once and for all that Vikings had indeed settled on the coast of North America 500 years before Columbus.

Further digs found three separate layers of arte- facts that proved other settlers had lived in the area, probably Eskimo and the Maritime Archaic Indians, common to the region 5000 years ago. The Dorset Eskimos also inhabited the area from the 6th-9th centuries AD. Today the ancient site is under the protection of Parks Canada and has been named a World Heritage Site. Many of the original Norse buildings have been reconstructed and Viking figures placed inside to show visitors what life in the settlement may have been like 10 centuries ago.

L'Anse aux Meadows has grown significantly since Dr. Ingstad's arrival in 1961. It's become a very popular tourist destination attracting many people interested in Viking history. Visitors are free to explore the site and the museum where over 2000 artefacts are on display. Even more tourists flocked to the site in the summer of 2000 to commemorate the landing of Leif Eirikson on the shores of North America a thousand years ago. Two hundred Viking Millennium events were planned in Canada and the US, and included the arrival of a fleet of 13 authentic Viking ships off the shores of L'Anse aux Meadows.

Archaeologists believe that there could be more Viking settlements along the eastern shores of North America and even up into the Canadian Arctic. But until evidence is found no one can be certain how far the adventurous Norsemen travelled. Nor have the Ingstad's or other experts positively identified L'Anse aux Meadows as Leif Eirikson's elusive and fabled paradise called Vinland. It may well remain a topic of debate and speculation for many years to come.

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