North America – “Vinland”

Where was Vinland?

In the 1960’s, the Norwegian explorer and writer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife, Stine, decided to resolve the question of whether Vinland meant “Grassland” or “Wine-land?”

Following the sailing instructions outlined within the sagas, Ingstad ended up at L’Anse aux Meadows, a grassy expanse located on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.

Excavations began in 1961 and revealed the remains of eight turf-walled houses. One of these was a longhouse measuring 22m by 15 m (72 ft by 50 ft), and contained five rooms along with a “great hall,” and a smithy, where bog iron was smelted. Several of the houses had stone ember pits identical to those found in Norse houses in Greenland. Another artifact unearthed was a soapstone spindle whorl, similar to those discovered in Norse ruins in Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia. This find suggests that women as well as men were present at the site, which is also consistent with the sagas.

The land they found had fertile soil, abundant game resources for either fishing or hunting, and iron. The climate was mild and provided a stable environment for crops if they chose to raise them. Was this in fact Vinland? The question still stands, but we do know that this is undoubtedly the site of a Norse settlement from around AD 1000.

The Vikings were probably the first Europeans to reach North America. The only physical remains today are those of remnants of a Viking settlement in Canada near St. Lunaire, Newfoundland at L’Anse aux Meadows.

Historians suggest hostile Indians forced the settlers to abandon what many believe was the ‘Vinland’ of the Sagas.

Much controversy exists about the Viking incursions into North America. Some rune stones have been unearthed to the SW of the Great Lake Region of the U.S.A. but generally discounted as fakes.

A trip to L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland July 7, 1995

Written for The Viking Network by Robert W. Easton

At the cliff’s edge, looking over the water, I can see the southern coast of Labrador across the Strait of Belle Isle. Dim through the haze, it is fading quickly out of sight. In the water, icebergs move slowly with the current, and I scan the sea hopefully for the spouts of whales. Even though this is July, the wind has an icy bite to it; part of the Labrador Current flows south through the Straits to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cold fog tails are beginning to show over the headlands, and they block my view across the straits. From my rocky outpost, looking down at the small harbor below me, I can see back about a thousand years. A small boat glides towards the crescent of rocky beach. Over the steady crash of breaking waves, pebbles crunch as a Viking knarr, with its gracefully curved bow and stern, grounds on the rough shore. The crew shout to each other as they leap over the gunwales, splashing in the water, pulling the boat up beyond the waves. They grab their few belongings and hurry up the beach. The fog is thickening and it’s getting dark, so they have returned just in time. Their hump-backed sod huts are dark shapes waiting silently for them to come home. Finally, the last man disappears into a low doorway, and I am alone again.

I have been inside those huts, but just as a tourist. The low flickering fires make dark shadows, and fill the rooms with smoke. Almost a thousand years ago, the talk among friends and families filled these rooms with life. Fresh fish went on a spit over the fire; flat bread and vegetables came out from their bins, and all shared an abundant meal. Old tales and new stories mingled with the smoke, and the lonesome shadows of this Viking outpost disappeared for another evening. That was long ago.

This is L’Anse aux Meadows, at the furthest end of the Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland, Canada. In the year 1000, it was the site of a Viking encampment, the only documented Viking site in North America. This is where Europeans first came to this continent. Leif Eiriksson might have slept here, along with 80 or so other Viking men and women. This was probably a base camp, that could be reached easily from Greenland. Small groups of explorers left from here to explore the land and waters to the south, possibly sailing to Vinland. Described in the Icelandic Sagas, Vinland was a place with a mild climate that abounded with timber, salmon, and ample supplies of grapes. According to the sagas, the grapes gave the site its name, but the sagas don’t give quite enough information to find its exact location. It could have been anywhere from here in Newfoundland, to the southern coast of New York’s Long Island.

Now a Canada National Historic Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, L’Anse aux Meadows was first excavated in 1960 by Helge Ingstad. A careful reading of the Vinland Sagas suggested to Ingstad and his archaeologist wife Anne Stine, that Vikings must have had a settlement somewhere along the Newfoundland coast. After a long search, and aided by a local fisherman who recalled some odd rectangular “humps” in the ground, they uncovered and carefully excavated the site. Today there is a small museum to house the artifacts uncovered by the dig, and re creations of three Viking sod houses. Near the beach and surrounded by a rude woven fence, the huts present a realistic setting. An overturned longboat is ready to slide into the water, a fish flake, for drying cod and capelin, stands empty, waiting for the day’s catch to be cleaned and hung, while pine smoke pours from the opening in the roof of the longest house. Maybe it will be warm inside, not just in my hopeful imagination!

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