L’anse Aux Meadows and Vinland

Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen – Summer in the Greenland coast

L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland

By Birgitta Linderoth Wallace

 

Birgitta Linderoth Wallace is a Swedish–Canadian archaeologistspecialising in Norse archaeology in North America. She spent most of her career as an archaeologist with Parks Canada and is best known for her work on L'Anse aux Meadows, currently the only widely-accepted Norse site in North America. She received a Smith-Wintemberg Award from the Canadian Archaeological Association in 2015 for her contributions to Canadian archaeology, and an Honorary Doctorate from Memorial University in 2018.

 

“The Voyage to Vinland the Good” by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones c. 1881. Designs for a series of stained glass windows, commissioned by William Morris, in the early 1880s. The windows were intended to decorate a new estate named Vinland, built by hardware and tobacco heiress Catherine Lorillard Wolfe on Ochre Point Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. The theme of the estate was inspired by the rumored viking origins of the “Old Stone Mill” located there. Upon her death in 1887, Ms. Wolfe was one of the major contributors of art to the fledgling New York Metropolitian Museum of Art. The main panels illustrate the Norse gods Thor, Odin and Freyr, and three viking explorers: þorfinnr karlsefni, Guðríðr þorbjarnardóttir, and Liefr Eiríksson. The top of the panel depicted a viking ship at sail, flanked by runic inscriptions. www.germanicmythology.com/works/BURNEJONESART.html

 

The Vinland Sagas

The Vinland sagas tell of Norse voyages from Greenland to North America around the year 1000. Originally told around the fire in chieftains’ halls, they were written down in the early 13th century and preserved among the many medieval manuscripts of Iceland. There are two versions, The Greenlanders’ Saga and Erik the Red’s Saga. They record the same events but differ in details.

According to the Greenlanders’ Saga, Bjarni Herjolfsson accidentally discovered unknown land on a voyage to the newly established Norse colony in Greenland. In the following years, four expeditions set out to explore this new world. The first was led by Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, Chief of Greenland. Others followed, led by members of his family, including the Icelandic aristocrat Thorfinn Karlsefni who had married Leif’s widowed sister-in-law Gudrid. Erik’s Saga describes the same events but all four expeditions have been rolled into one single expedition led by Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid. The author apparently was attempting to elevate Karlsefni’s importance for the benefit of his descendants. Leif‘s role has been reduced to that of accidental discoverer.

 

Leif Eriksson discovers North America by Christian Krohg (c. 1893)

 

Straumfjord, Hóp, and Leifsbúðir

The sagas tell of voyages to three lands, Helluland (Land of Stone Slabs). Markland (Land of Forests), and Vinland (Land of Wine). It was in Vinland that the Norse saw potential value. Erik’s Saga describes two settlements: one is Straumfjord, a couple of days’ sail from Markland (most researchers identify the Hamilton Inlet area of Labrador as Markland), and Hóp somewhere south of Straumfjord. Straumfjord (Current Fjord) is the winter base from which explorations are launched in several directions in the summer. It derives its name from the turbulent currents surrounding an offshore island. Hóp (Tidal Lagoon) is an area rich in resources: fine lumber, salmon, halibut, self-sown wheat and, not least, wild grapes. Its name refers to the presence of warm lagoons affected by the tide. This is where a large portion of the crew go in summer to collect these riches and to bring them back to Straumfjord in the fall for ultimate transfer back to Greenland. It is an area where they run into large parties of native people. They also come across native people en route to Straumfjord and to the north of there, but there are no other people at Straumfjord itself.

In the Greenlanders’ Saga, Straumfjord and Hóp have been conflated into one site called Leifsbúðir (Leif’s Camp). Leifsbúðir is both a winter base and a summer resource camp, and its physical description is a mixture of those given for Straumfjord and Hóp. 

The shore lands around the Gulf of St. Lawrence form the natural route south from L’Anse aux Meadows. Five hundred years later the French explorer Jacques Cartier took the same route into Canada. Credit: Vis-à-Vis Graphics, St. John’s, NL

 

What Do the Vinland Sagas Really Tell Us about the Settlements?

The Vinland voyages were not about colonization. Everyone expected to return to Greenland. Their purpose was to scout out the unknown land for resources that could be useful for the new settlement in Greenland, and to bring back valuable cargo, such as lumber, furs and grapes. The participants were primarily male work crews hired for a particular voyage, with a few women coming along to handle domestic chores.

 

The Discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows

In 1960 Helge Ingstad discovered intriguing ruins near the fishing village of L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Excavations by his wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, between 1961 and 1968 clearly showed that this was a Norse site dating back to the early 11th century. Nonetheless, there was little evidence to connect it with the Vinland sagas. Subsequent excavations by Parks Canada in 1973 through 1976, led first by the Swedish Viking specialist Bengt Schönbäck and later by the author, added significantly to the evidence. We can now say that L’Anse aux Meadows is the key to the Vinland sagas.

 

There were three large halls, each capable of housing twenty to thirty people. One of the large halls and two of the smaller dwellings have been reconstructed on the site. Photo: Birgitta Wallace

 

The Site

The site is located on the northern tip of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. It is on a shallow bay on the shore of the Strait of Belle Isle facing west to Labrador. There are three large halls on a terrace encircling a bog, all typical of late 10th to early 11th-century Icelandic-Greenland architecture. Smaller huts flank the halls. On the other side of a brook running through the site is a hut that contained remains of a small furnace for smelting iron. The large halls are of a size only chieftains and high-status people could afford. They were solidly built, with walls 1.5 m to over 2 m wide, and with heavy interior posts to carry the large roofs. The construction tells us that the people who built them intended to spend the winter on the site over a number of years. There were large storage rooms and rooms for special activities such as iron smithing, carpentry, and boat repair. The huts are small and of the kind used by working people. Altogether the buildings could accommodate 70 – 90 people.

 

Activities on the Site

At some time, a boat was repaired on the site. Old nails and rivets were removed and discarded. Iron was produced from local bog ore, and new nails hammered by a smith, leaving both smelting and smithing slag. A boat board was discarded in the bog, along with wood chips from carpentry. Among the artifacts are a few small personal items, including a cloak pin of bronze. A spindle whorl and a needle sharpener testify to the presence of women on the site, as spinning, weaving, and sewing were the chores of women.

 

The Date of the Norse Presence

While the artifacts are of general form, used throughout the Viking Age, the architectural style of the three large halls is datable from the late 10thto the middle of the 11th century. Of more than 150 radiocarbon dates on the site, about 50 relate to the Norse occupation. They range from 600 to 1050 AD. This does not indicate that the Norse were there for a long time. The oldest dates are on core wood that was already old when the tree was cut. The dates on young wood, such as branches and twigs, all line up around the year 1000 with a margin of about twenty years on either side.

The Norse stay was short, probably no more than a decade – one can tell from the absence of garbage. Garbage was usually thrown out the door and left to accumulate. Outside Greenland halls there are mounds of garbage. At L’Anse aux Meadows the garbage heaps are minute.

The Norse were not the only ones making L’Anse aux Meadows their temporary home. Native groups camped there for 5000 years before the Norse, and in the centuries after them. None were present during the Norse stay.

 

 

A pin of bronze dating from the 10th to early 11th century had been used as a clothes fastener. Photo by G. Vanderfloogt for Parks Canada

 

A Strange Site

L’Anse aux Meadows is unique among Norse sites. It is located on the shore of an exposed coast. In Iceland and Greenland, household sites are protected in inland locations. There are also no barns or byres which are so prominent on Icelandic and Greenland farms. L’Anse aux Meadows was not a colonizing site. People did not come here to settle and farm. Large storage rooms in each hall are peculiar because of their size. This was a site where people laid up supplies, presumably for trans-shipment to Greenland. The substantial buildings gave shelter when winter storms set in. And here they could repair their boats and prepare goods for the journey back to Greenland. L’Anse aux Meadows was a base of operation for the exploration of Vinland. Wood chips and fragments in the bog show that the Norse had gone farther south and brought back lumber not native to Newfoundland, such as Eastern hemlock, elm, and linden.  

 

Is L’Anse aux Meadows Vinland?

L’Anse aux Meadows cannot be Vinland. Vinland was a land, the same way Iceland and Greenland are lands, countries.  But L’Anse aux Meadows is a place described in the sagas as part of Vinland. It is the Straumfjord of Eric’s Saga. It is the same kind of settlement, with the same kind of occupants and type of activities, a winter base from where expeditions went south in the summer. Although artifacts and buildings are typically Norse, the layout, location, and artifacts are different from the sites we know elsewhere in the Norse world. Just such a site is described in the sagas: Straumsfjord.

A compelling reason why L’Anse aux Meadows has to be the main site in Vinland lies in demography. In the early 11th century, the total number of people living in Greenland was no more than about 400, including children and seniors. L’Anse aux Meadows was built to house between 70 and 90 people, mostly working men.  While some of them may have been Icelanders, it is easy to see that the small Greenland colony simply did not have the work force to operate a distant site for which so many people had to be away for two or more years.  Greenland was a new colony. Land clearing, building, and raising food were still at an early stage. L’Anse aux Meadows would have taken two months to build by sixty men, or a month and a half by ninety men. At these latitudes this is the better part of the summer. Obviously it was not a job one would needlessly duplicate. Greenlanders’ Saga also says that all of the expeditions taking place after Leif’s voyage used his buildings.

If L’Anse aux Meadows is Straumfjord, where then is Hóp? Three butternuts and a burl of butternut wood were found in the bog among the Norse wood waste. These are the essential clue to Vinland. The northern limit of butternuts is in northeastern New Brunswick and the inner part of the St. Lawrence Valley. The nuts grow in the same areas as wild grapes and they ripen at the same time in late summer. Whoever picked the nuts must also have encountered wild grapes! From L’Anse aux Meadows the most direct way south leads into the Gulf to the eastern coast of New Brunswick.

The finding of the butternuts and other southern tree species shows that the Norse had visited areas where there was excellent hardwood lumber and where grapes grew wild. The closest place harbouring this natural wealth is the Miramichi area of eastern New Brunswick. Other features such as warm coastal lagoons, salmon, halibut and a hospitable landscape characterize the area. Hóp was also the spot where the Norse met large parties of native people. New Brunswick was home to the largest groups of native people in Atlantic Canada. They were the ancestors of the Mi’kmaw who live there today.

 

The finds in the bog included a broken floorboard from a small boat. Photo by D. Crawford for Parks Canada

 

Why Did They Not Stay?

Erik’s Saga states: “The party then realized that, despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants. They made ready to depart for their own country.” Another critical factor is the distance. It is 1290 miles from Brattahlid in Greenland to L’Anse aux Meadows along the coast in a straight line, and another 540 miles to Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick where the wine and good lumber were. That is, if one sails in a straight line, which of course a sailing ship cannot do over such a distance. It was actually farther to New Brunswick than to Norway. It was also more difficult as the Norse could not determine longitude. The course to Norway was easier as all one had to do was to follow the 60th latitude.

Vinland had grapes and timber, but the Norse could get that in Europe, and Vinland lacked the other essentials: luxury metals, spices, fine textiles, weapons, and armour – and family and personal connections. Unlike Iceland and Greenland, Vinland had large native populations, and the Norse were not ready to stand up to them. The most critical reason was the small size of the Greenland settlement. In the early 11th century there were no more than about 400 inhabitants. The Greenland society was too small to support further splits. The Norse westward expansion had reached its limit.

 

Excavation by Parks Canada in the 1970s. Photo by B. Schönbäck for Parks Canada