The destruction and the rediscovery — nine centuries later — of a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.
From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord !
From the eighth century until after the year 1000, such a prayer was whispered in tiny stone chapels in Ireland, in British monasteries, in farm-houses near Paris, and in the great Byzantine cathedrals of Constantinople. Norse raiders, Vikings as we call them, sailed their sleek open longboats out of the misty fjords of Scandinavia to the shores of the British Isles, up the rivers Seine and Loire into the heartland of France, around Gibraltar to the Mediterranean, and down the Dnieper and Volga Rivers deep into Russia and Ukraine. Devotees of the old Norse gods, they pillaged monasteries, kidnapped priests and princesses for ransom, and terrorized the peasants with their lightning attacks.
They also sailed west into the unknown Atlantic, populating Iceland, establishing settlements in Greenland and - around the year 1000 - trying in vain to build a colony on the coast of North America. Five hundred years before Columbus set foot on the islands of the Caribbean, Norse settlers were living in what is now a part of Canada. Yet, for nearly 1,000 years after the Vikings abandoned their North American outpost, no definite proof of their settlement appeared except in the Icelandic sagas, long poems that were first written down in the 13th Century.
In 1961, a Norwegian couple unearthed a Norse site in Newfoundland. A new Historica Minute dramatizes that discovery, and paints a picture of the final moments of life in the ancient Viking village.
The popular image of the Viking - one that appears in comic strips, on football uniforms, and in Swedish furniture stores - is of a blond-bearded warrior, sometimes paired with a "Brunhilde" of Wagnerian proportions. As comical as the caricature may be, it does contain a small semblance of truth. A tenth century poet, obviously impressed with a Viking raider, wrote, "Blond was his hair, and bright his cheeks. Grim as a snake's were his glowing eyes." The sagas also present a daunting portrait of Norse women. In one poem about North America, a Viking woman single-handedly repels a party of attacking natives by slapping her bared breast with the flat of her sword and shrieking an unearthly howl.
The picture of Vikings as savage pirates is by no means complete. The Viking raiders were followed by Norse traders. They exchanged slaves, as well as their celebrated metalwork and cloth, for gold, silver, and other goods. A small statue of Buddha found in a Viking horde in Scandinavia, along with coins from all over the civilized world, are clear evidence of the Norse merchants' reach.
Farmers also followed the raiders. Frequently, kingdoms that were threatened by Viking attacks were able to buy some measure of peace by giving up part of their territory for Norse settlement. This was the pattern for several centuries in Britain, where a large section of the country called the Danelaw was settled and governed by Vikings. Normandy, in the northwest of France, takes its name from the North men who were given that area in order to keep them away from the rest of the country. Within a few generations Norse settlers adapted to the customs and languages of their new lands and became part of Christian Europe.
The Vikings spread out from their homelands in Scandinavia because they needed more space for their expanding populations. Some were also driven by a desire for freedom. The tyranny of Norwegian kings prompted many Norsemen to set out across the North Atlantic in their open boats for a new life in Iceland. But even here there was restlessness. When the boredom of civilized life and the constraints of Iceland's newly-adopted religion [Christianity] began to oppress Eirik the Red, he led a small fleet westward to settle Greenland. A similar restlessness drove Eirik's son, Leif, even further west. It was Leif Eiriksson who brought his long boats to the "Land of Flat Stones," which may be Baffin Island, and to the "Land of Woods," possibly Labrador, and finally to the mysterious place they called "Vinland." According to the sagas, Leif and his men stayed for the winter in Vinland, where no snow fell, where salmon larger than they had ever seen were plentiful, and where days and nights were of equal length. But it was Leif's brother Thorvald and his successor, Thorfinn Karlsefni, who made the first real attempts to inhabit Vinland. A saga tells the story of how Thorvald died from the arrow of a Skraeling, the Norse name for the native inhabitants of Vinland. Another saga tells how Thorfinn, his wife Gudrid, and their colonizers also failed to establish peace with the Skraelings. Karlsefni and Gudrid returned to Greenland with their son Snorri, the first European born in what is now America.
One other Vinland voyage is recorded, this one by Leif's half-sister Freydis. When discord broke out within her colony, Freydis executed all of the other women with her own axe, then threatened with death any man who reported the deed. Freydis and her intimidated companions returned to Greenland. There may have been other expeditions to Vinland, but the sagas only record these daring but doomed efforts.
The mystery of the exact location of the Norse settlements has haunted the popular imagination for many years. Historians, astronomers, archaeologists, navigators, and hosts of amateur sleuths have tried to identify the actual location of Vinland. A carved stone from Minnesota, which was claimed to be an authentic Viking runestone, has been proven a hoax, and a famous Vinland map that Yale University paid thousands to purchase seems now to be drawn with twentieth century ink.
In the 1950s, Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian, took up the challenge. Years earlier, Ingstad had given up a law career to become a trapper, explorer, and ethnographer in the Canadian and Alaskan arctic, and to govern remote islands in Norway's north. Ingstad pursued the answers to the Vinland mystery with passion. He began by studying the sagas and deducing the probable course of Leif's voyage.
He then set off to survey the Atlantic coast for clues. By chance, he gained an opportunity to travel between remote Newfoundland out-ports aboard a hospital ship and to question the local fishermen he encountered. After many weeks, he heard about some peculiar structures near the village of L'Anse aux Meadows, near Newfoundland's northern tip. When Ingstad finally walked around the site, he saw features of landscape that echoed the sagas' description of Leif Eiriksson's landing place.
In 1961, Ingstad returned to L'Anse aux Meadows with his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, and four other researchers. They began to excavate within what appeared to be the remains of old walls. Soon they found a slate-lined fireplace, a cooking pit, and traces of a hearth. They uncovered an ember pit where hot coals had been kept overnight to rekindle morning fires, exactly like ones found in Greenland. By the end of the first year, the Ingstad team had discovered the remains of a turf wall, traces of seven structures, and some rusty nails and lumps of slag. Their later excavations revealed that the main house was once partitioned into five or six rooms with several fireplaces. They also found a smithy with an anvil stone and bits of iron.
Finally, Anne Stine Ingstad came upon a small but telling artifact: a soapstone spindle whorl used in spinning raw wool into yarn. It was identical to those found in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland. The Ingstads had their proof - Vikings had lived at L'Anse aux Meadows.
Today, the ancient Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadows is a national park. There is a museum, and the old sod buildings have been reconstructed to show visitors how the first European inhabitants of Canada lived.
There may have been other Norse settlements in North America. Vikings may have travelled farther south than Newfoundland. They certainly went north, even as far as Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. Who knows what other settlements may be found in the future. There are still many mysteries about the western explorations of the restless seafarers from the Scandinavian fjords.
- Anne – Emma Stevens
- Helga – Frederic Smith
- Viking – Guy Perrault
- Viking – Charles Doucet
- Viking – Richard Zeman
- Viking – Marc Denis
- Viking – Helle MacTaggart
- Viking – Alex Rajeczky
- Additional Cast – Fridtjof Loberg
- Additional Cast – Micki Moore
- Additional Cast – Katherine Trowell