In part one of a far-reaching interview, The Viking Herald spoke to archeologist Birgitta Wallace about the discovery and development of L'Anse aux Meadows, the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America.

In part two, we discuss the historic encounter between the Norse and the indigenous peoples, how and why the Viking missions ended, and Birgitta's hopes for further research on the presence of the Vikings in North America.

Full circle

As related previously, the Norse almost certainly didn't realize that they had found a new continent, nor did they make much impact on the lands they visited. 

That doesn't mean, however, that their adventures were of no great significance. 

The impressive maritime feat, in its scale and audacity, mirrors the Polynesian navigation of the Pacific Ocean. 

And as Birgitta highlights, this appears to be the first instance where the two outer fringes of human migration finally reunited. This reunion comes some 60,000 years after homo sapiens first set out from Africa to explore the globe.

In the excerpt from The Vinland Sagas below, Karlsefni refers to Thorfinn Karlsefni, the Icelandic explorer:

"But early one morning, as they looked around, they caught sight of nine skin boats; the men in them were waving sticks which made a noise like flails, and the motion was sunwise. Karlsefni said, 'What can this signify?' 'It could well be a token of peace,' said Snorri. 'Let us take a white shield and go to meet them with it.' They did so. The newcomers rowed towards them and stared at them in amazement as they came ashore. They were small and evil-looking, and their hair was coarse; they had large eyes and broad cheekbones. They stayed there for a while, marvel-ling, and then rowed away south round the headland."

The Vinland Sagas, Penguin 

"The only evidence of the meetings is textual," admits Birgitta. "But the encounters between the Norse and indigenous peoples are so stirring and detailed that I'm absolutely sure that they did meet." 

"The amazement of the native population at running into these people is almost palpable. The two groups just stood there and stared at each other. They spoke different languages, and nobody understood each other. It is a wonderful description."

"One Icelandic historian pointed out that the description of the Northmen meeting native people is almost identical to the description of Jacques Cartier sailing into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in 1534," Birgitta notes. 

"Cartier enters areas that correspond almost exactly to the North Vinland texts, and the description of the people is also almost the same."

L'Anse aux Meadows was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1968 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Photo: Birgitta Wallace

A close encounter

The indigenous people may have belonged to the Dorset culture, which inhabited large parts of Northern Canada and Greenland or could also have been ancestors of the later Beothuk culture. 

The sagas refer to them as Skrælings, which some experts believe came from the Old Norse word skrá, meaning "dried skin" in reference to the animal pelts they wore. 

The two parties initially traded goods and attempted to converse with each other. 

Yet violence soon followed:

"Then it so happened that a bull belonging to Karlsefni and his men came running out of the woods, bellowing furiously. The Skrælings were terrified and ran to their skin boats and rowed away south around the headland. After that, there was no sign of the natives for three whole weeks. But then Karlsefni's men saw a huge number of boats coming from the south, pouring in like a torrent. This time, all the sticks were being waved anti-clockwise, and all the Skrælings were howling loudly. Karlsefni and his men now hoisted red shields and advanced towards them."

The Vinland Sagas, Penguin

The encounters between the indigenous peoples and the Norse intruders were typical of the clash of cultures seen throughout human history. This classic mix of curiosity, apprehension, and outright fear has perpetually led to both expansive human relations and vicious conflict.

As The Vinland Sagas recount, the indigenous presence was one of the main reasons for the heavily outnumbered Norse to abandon their settlement to posterity. 

"It seems like the first encounter was worrying," admits Birgitta. "The Norse felt like they would never have any peace from the natives."

The bronze sculpture named the "Meeting of Two Worlds" marks the meeting of human migration in Northern Newfoundland, where the Vikings first landed in North America. Photo: Mary Anne Love / Shutterstock

A failed expedition

Ultimately, one of the greatest seafaring achievements of all time could also be seen as a failure. 

People may search for new lands in the spirit of adventure, but they need practical reasons to stay. 

Ultimately, the combination of the large group of hostile locals, the vast distances, and the relatively small size of the colony on Greenland, the nearest Norse settlements, meant that it simply didn't make sense to keep returning. 

All of the first adventurers, including Leif Erikson and Thorfinn Karlsefni, chose to return home.

"At best, there were 70 or 90 people at L'Anse aux Meadows," Birgitta points out. "From fairly recent research, we now know that the population in Iceland reached 50,000, but in Greenland, it was never higher than 2-3,000." 

"This very fact makes much further exploration impossible. Those kinds of numbers made the colony very vulnerable and in Greenland the settlers did eventually die out, of course."

The last trip

"The distances were also vast. To get to L'Anse aux Meadows from Iceland is almost as far as going back to Norway – 1,700 nautical miles."

"Then from L'Anse aux Meadows to New Brunswick is another 600 nautical miles. I think they intended to return for regular expeditions but possibly found it too difficult, perhaps partly because of native operations." 

"People are looking for further evidence, but I don't think they will find it in Newfoundland. I do think they will in Labrador because there are better forests there, or possibly farther north. But these would have been expeditions only."

There are some fragments of information that point to isolated attempts to return to the shores of North America after the initial period of exploration. 

According to written accounts, a ship that sank near Iceland in 1347 was returning laden with wood after a trip to Markland (possibly Labrador). Birgitta believes this to be the last authentic mention in Icelandic records of voyages to America.

Of course, it would be another 145 years before Europeans would venture again to the shores of the New World, while Newfoundland and Canada would eventually be settled by Europeans moving West in greater numbers.

Birgitta on site at L'Anse aux Meadows in 1976, during her years of pioneering research on the Viking presence in North America. Photo: Birgitta Wallace

Awaiting new discoveries

Today, Birgitta Wallace lives with her husband, fellow archeologist Robert Ferguson, in the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Now semi-retired, Birgitta reflects gratefully on a career that has taken her from East to West – "It's been a good ride!"

At the same time, she cannot help but look to the future. 

"There are wood studies being done right now in Greenland to see if they can trace certain timber from North America. There is still more dendrochronological work going on at L'Anse aux Meadows, too. I'm involved on the archeological side, with others working on more radiocarbon dating."

"And there will be more. Excavations are being carried out by Memorial University of Newfoundland. The new research is wonderful: you never know what to expect, and often, what you do expect doesn't come true."

"There is so much being done now, more than ever before, with DNA, drone photography, all things we would have loved. I wish I were starting all over again!"

Westward Vikings: The Saga of L'Anse Aux Meadows by Birgitta Wallace is available for purchase on Amazon here.

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