It is easy to imagine that Baffin Island was inhabited by the Vikings. Situated just west of Greenland in the Arctic Archipelago, it is a land of towering mountains and expansive valleys, often enveloped in mist and snow. 

Even the names of some of its landmarks, such as Mount Asgard and Thor Peak, suggest a strong Scandinavian heritage. 

Over the past decade or so, speculation and debate have been rife about whether the island, which belongs to the Canadian territory of Nunavut, can be regarded as a definitive second site of the Vikings in North America after L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. 

So, could Baffin Island really be not only the Helluland of the Icelandic sagas but also home to a small but historic trading post in the High Arctic? 

Or is it just another case of wishful thinking driven by academics and history enthusiasts hungry for more evidence of a Norse presence in the New World

The Church of Hvalsey stands as one of the best-preserved remnants from the Norse settlement in Greenland, serving as a testament to the Viking explorers who set sail from there to reach Vinland. Photo: Number 57 (Public domain)

The land of flat stones 

"They sailed away from land; then to the Vestribygd and to Bjarneyjar.
Thence they sailed away from Bjarneyjar with northerly winds. 
They were out at sea two half-days. Then they came to land, and
rowed along it in boats, and explored it, and found there flat stones,
many and so great that two men might well lie on them stretched on
their backs with heel to heel. Polar-foxes were there in abundance.
This land they gave name to, and called it Helluland." 

(Saga of Erik the Red)

In The Saga of Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson leads an expedition from the coast of Greenland towards Bjarneyjar (the Bear Islands) before landing on what they would name Helluland or Stone-Slab Land. 

The saga indicates that the crew spent a short time on the relatively inhospitable island before soon setting sail again. 

They followed the coastline past Labrador until they eventually reached a place that would come to be known as Vinland – today thought to be Newfoundland or possibly New Brunswick. 

It was long believed by many that these particular stories were little more than rumor and fantasy. 

Yet the discovery and subsequent excavation of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in the 1960s awakened archeologists, historians, and the general public to the thrilling possibility that the accounts – though at times fantastical – may have been based in fact. 

And if Vinland was real, surely there must be further evidence of the Vikings in America? 

Baffin Island's role as a potential second Viking site in North America has sparked discussions, as experts weigh whether it matches the descriptions of the mythical Helluland from Icelandic sagas. Photo: NASA (Public domain)

New signs of ancient activity 

In the decades since, there has been a concerted attempt to identify further real-life locations that could correspond to the various western lands of the sagas. 

One particularly promising site was identified at Tanfield Valley on Baffin Island. 

Also known as Nanook, Tanfield Valley was first discovered in the 1960s by Dr. Moreau Maxwell, who designated it as primarily a site of the Dorset culture, which populated the area from 500 BCE to between 1000 and 1500 CE. 

After several years of exploration and speculation, news began filtering through in the 2000s and 2010s that experts working at the site believed they had found clear evidence of a Norse presence on the island.

Some of the group's most important findings were later published in the 2014 paper Evidence of Early Metalworking in Arctic Canada

The researchers' credentials were impressive: Patricia D. Sutherland of the University of Aberdeen, Patricia A. Hunt of the Geological Survey of Canada, and Peter H. Thompson, an experienced geology consultant. 

Led by Patricia Sutherland, the team had been excavating the site at Tanfield Valley intermittently since 2001. 

The article presented some of their key discoveries in detail, including a small stone vessel that contained abundant traces of Copper–tin alloy. 

The paper asserted that the vessel "may represent the earliest evidence of high-temperature nonferrous metalworking in the New World north of Mesoamerica." 

Graphical depiction of the various sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland (Newfoundland), Helluland (Baffin Island), and Markland (Labrador) as described in the Icelandic sagas. Source: Masae (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Heard around the world 

The team's investigations also extended to the analysis of material from other sites, including Nunguvik in the north of Baffin Island, Willows Island in the east, and Avayalik in northern Labrador. 

According to the paper, at each of these disparate locations, there was evidence of yarn or cordage and whetstones that bore a close resemblance to those used by the Norse. 

The team also identified a variety of wooden objects, including notched sticks similar in appearance to tallies used by the Vikings, a whalebone shovel, and large stones that they believed had been cut and shaped in a European style. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team's findings made headline news around the globe. The story was covered by National Geographic and the BBC, among others, and the media was swift to declare Baffin Island a new site of Viking settlement. 

Many in the academic world agreed. 

For example, the archeologist James Tuck of Memorial University (admittedly Sutherland's colleague at the time) asserted that "While Sutherland's evidence was compelling before, I find it convincing now." 

Thor Peak, situated in the remote Arctic valley of Akshayuk Pass on Baffin Island, boasts the Earth's greatest vertical drop and derives its name from the Norse God of Thunder. Photo: Marianna Ianovska / Shutterstock

Decades of research 

The work from Sutherland and her team wasn't the first time a Viking imprint on Baffin Island had been suggested. 

In 1978, the article A Possible Thule Carving of a Viking from Baffin Island, N.W.T. was published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology

Its authors, Deborah Sabo and George Sabo III, described a wooden figurine found during archeological excavations on the south coast of Baffin Island. 

Though the figure was thought to have been made by a local person of the Thule culture in the 13th century, the paper asserted that it appeared to depict a Viking man from Greenland due to the similarity of clothing and the presence of a cross on the chest. 

The authors did conclude, however, that "Although this artifact suggests contact between Baffin Island Thule people and Vikings from Greenland, there is insufficient evidence to discuss the significance of such contact." 

Other finds also indicated there may have been Viking activity on the island. 

Several research papers were published in the 1980s, for instance, that documented evidence of either contact between Inuit and Norse Greenlanders or the salvaging of a Norse shipwreck in the 13th or 14th century. 

A recreated Norse longhouse at L'Anse aux Meadows, Canada, the only confirmed Norse settlement in North America outside of Greenland. The site has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978. Photo: Danita Delimont / Shutterstock

A faltering mission 

So why isn't Baffin Island today considered in the same breath as L'Anse aux Meadows as a second official site of Viking inhabitation? 

The reason for the continued doubt in the case of the former is the nature of the finds. 

While some of the material collected could certainly point towards a Viking presence and the existence of trading between the two cultures, the evidence on Baffin Island was not necessarily definitive. 

Indeed, many in the archeological community believed that further, more conclusive evidence was needed. 

Yet even before the official publication of many of their findings, the team at Baffin Island suffered a significant blow when Patricia Sutherland was fired from her position at the Canadian Museum of History. 

Some staff and supporters rallied around her, and a petition demanding her reinstatement earned nearly 5,000 signatures, with accusations abounding that she had been dismissed for political reasons. 

One conspiracy theory even suggested that her work was disparaged to prevent it from boosting Scandinavian claims to land ownership in the Arctic Circle. 

Despite Patricia Sutherland's team's discovery of a small stone vessel containing copper-tin alloy, the evidence of a Norse presence at Tanfield Valley remains inconclusive because other cultures in the region also practiced metalworking. Photo: Ed Dods / Shutterstock

Stopped in their tracks 

There is no question that Sutherland was central to the key investigations on Baffin Island, but the university soon put out a statement that she had lost her position due to accusations of harassment. 

After losing her job, Sutherland was unable to access the material related to the finds on Baffin Island. She complained publicly that the historical research on the Vikings had been compromised.

Perhaps inevitably, the subsequent period has seen both the story and the research itself gradually fade from view. 

Some further studies have also called into question the assumption that the materials found on the island were of Viking origin. 

In 2018, for example, a paper was published by researchers from Brown University that demonstrated, with the help of radiocarbon dating, that the Dorset and Thule people had created spun yarn some 500 to 1,000 years before Vikings arrived in North America. 

The Inuit, referred to as Skraelings in the sagas, have lived on Baffin Island for millennia and were described in Historia Norvegia as using walrus tusks as missiles and sharpened stones in place of knives. Photo: Heiko Wittenborn / Shutterstock

Distant indications 

There are, however, plausible reasons to believe that some of the evidence gathered so far may be authentic. 

It certainly feels implausible that the Vikings who made it to L'Anse aux Meadows would not, at some point, have at least caught a glimpse of Baffin Island, given its relative proximity to the coast of Greenland.

Indeed, it is perhaps likely that Baffin Island – possibly together with the adjacent Ellesmere Island – represents the Helluland of the sagas. 

The suggestion that the Norse had at least some direct or indirect contact with the lands and peoples of the High Arctic is also supported by two later written accounts. 

Historia Norvegia, a 12th-century manuscript, described Skraelings – the Norse word for the indigenous people of the High Arctic: "They do not know the use of iron, but employ walrus tusks as missiles and sharpened stones in place of knives." 

A second, the Greenland Annals, published in 1266, also mentioned signs of Skraelings in Nordrseta, an area around the far north of Greenland. 

We can also acknowledge that several archeological teams have turned up intriguing artifacts on Baffin Island in recent decades that raise some interesting questions. 

Ultimately, however, it seems reasonable to say that, just like with so many aspects of Viking history, more finds and further research are still required to prove the matter beyond a reasonable doubt.

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