This is the tale of a failed experiment that was also one of the most impressive seafaring feats in human history.
In part 1 of a comprehensive Viking Herald interview, Jonathan Bennett speaks to Birgitta about her work at L'Anse aux Meadows, the motivation behind the westward migration of the Norse, and the likely endpoint of their travels.
Answering the call
Swedish-born Birgitta Wallace graduated in Nordic archeology from the University of Uppsala.
Soon afterward, Birgitta emigrated to the United States, where she worked as a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
"I was asked to carry out an investigation of all the alleged Viking sites in North America, and that was when I first met the archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, who was directing excavations at the site of L'Anse aux Meadows."
"In 1964, Anne invited me to work on the site for the very first time."
L'Anse aux Meadows stands in a remote location on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland, Canada. Anne had discovered the site in 1960, together with her husband, the explorer Helge Ingstad.
This appeared to be the first genuine confirmation of the semi-mythical Vinland, an area the Norse had visited and was long-rumored to have been located in North America.
Archaeologists would eventually uncover the remains of eight buildings and more than 800 Norse artifacts.
Today, it remains the only confirmed archeological site that clearly demonstrates a Viking presence in North America.
After leading the initial examinations and submitting an application for national recognition, Anne Ingstad decided to return home to Scandinavia.
The incoming director, Dr. Bengt Schonbach, invited Birgitta to work on the digs during two consecutive summers.
In 1975, Parks Canada offered Birgitta a full-time position that enabled her to devote even more time to L'Anse aux Meadows. "Three years later, Dr. Schonbach returned to Sweden, and I became the director by default," says Birgitta.
"There were so many questions to be answered, not to mention the project to build the reconstructions. It became a huge part of my working life. L'Anse aux Meadows and the story of the Vikings hold a magical allure for many."
The site was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1968 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Today, it attracts archaeologists, TV crews, and tourists from all over the globe.
L'Anse aux Meadows: Footprints of the largest Viking hall. Photo: Birgitta Wallace
The real thing
In her other investigations into potential Norse activity in North America, Birgitta was unable to identify any genuinely conclusive evidence of a Viking presence.
So, what was so different about L'Anse aux Meadows?
"Firstly, the style of the houses," she explains. "They displayed a very typical, distinctive form of Icelandic architecture from the tenth or eleventh century. There were significant diagnostic artifacts, and there has also been lots of radiocarbon dating."
Work on these finds is still ongoing.
In 2021, a Dutch team was able to pinpoint a more precise date for the settlement using the mark of a specific solar flare, which is known from written records to have occurred in 993.
"The tree ring from that particular year is very distinct," says Birgitta.
"We examined one piece of timber used at L'Anse aux Meadows, and it indicated the year 1021. I am still doing more statistical work with one of my colleagues to narrow down the dates of the total period of stay."
"But it is definitely the early 11th century, which, of course, is the time described in the Vinland Sagas."
Myths brought to life
The Vinland Sagas were written in the 13th century in Iceland but described events in approximately 970-1030.
Two in particular, the Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders, narrate the exploits of a loosely related group of Norse who journey to parts of mainland Scandinavia, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland.
Eventually, they travel even further west and discover the mysterious new territories of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland.
While Birgitta admits that the sagas should not be treated as sober historical documents, they do appear to describe some actual events and known people from history.
Indeed, the truth contained within the Vinland Sagas has been revealed through the corroborating evidence at L'Anse aux Meadows, just as the written texts have reinforced the findings at the archeological site.
According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif's ship lost course, and he and his crew discovered what would soon become Vinland. Source: Dimitrios Karamitros / Shutterstock
Leif the leader
Though there is some dispute about who sailed the first ship to land on the shores of the New World, most historians believe it to have been Leif Erikson.
"I think that's a very fair assumption," Birgitta agrees.
"Both Leif and his father, Erik the Red, were historical people. Erik raised himself from a regular farmer with no money to become an early ruler of Greenland."
"As his son, it's logical that Leif had the resources to launch such an expedition – to buy a ship and engage people."
Many people believe that Bjarni Herjólfsson first sighted the new lands, while one version of the Saga of Erik the Red gives much of the credit for the new settlement to Thorfinn Karlsefni.
Birgitta, however, believes this was probably a later addition to the saga.
"The concept of Vinland had become quite prestigious. One of Karlsefni's descendants, Bishop Björn Gilsson, wanted to be made a saint – for this, he required illustrious ancestors."
"So it was said that Karlsefni founded Vinland. But I am absolutely sure that this story is manufactured."
"According to the way Norse society functioned, a journey like that would have to be acknowledged by a chieftain or a person of real prominence. Leif's father would have been alive and overseen everything."
"In fact, Erik names and claims the land for himself. 'I call this land Vinland,' a declaration of ownership."
"When Erik dies, Leif becomes chieftain. His family members then get the authority to go and lead expeditions."
"It's also very striking that Leif's brother and the others asked if they could have the houses when they wanted to go on an expedition. Leif said that though they could borrow the houses, they would remain his, which meant he still claimed authority over the area."
It is easy to imagine this movement as a heady time of bold exploration, adventure, and colonization, but Birgitta insists the reality may have been rather tentative and fractured.
"I have worked on both aboriginal and particularly early French sites. L'Anse aux Meadows has much in common with the sites of the French settlers."
"People come in main groups and remain for certain periods of time. They may go back home and describe where they've been, and it often becomes quite desirable for people to go to the new areas."
"But these men are led by aristocrats, who are in it for the money."
Birgitta believes L'Anse aux Meadows would have functioned as a gateway or base transit camp for further exploration.
"They were not interested in looking for land to settle. They had only arrived in Greenland 15 years earlier – they were just getting established."
"You have to start with small herds, clear land, build houses, everything. The whole population of Greenland was no more than about 400 people. To break that up to start a new colony doesn't make sense."
Bog excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows captured in 1976. Photo: Birgitta Wallace
Birgitta does believe that in addition to L'Anse aux Meadows, the Vikings also ventured further afield.
Though many Americans believe that the Vikings went as far as New England, Birgitta identifies New Brunswick as the most likely main area of exploration.
"I think they made a number of expeditions from L'Anse aux Meadows, as the sagas describe, but I don't think they went much further than New Brunswick."
"Because they couldn't determine longitude, only latitude, they were confined to sailing along the Labrador coast. When you sail south, you come to Nova Scotia, and when you go along the Atlantic coast, it's just the same kind of nature and resources as in Newfoundland."
"But if you go the other way, across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, you come to a completely different climate zone."
"Summers along the coast there were much warmer, and resources were different. Instead of thin or soft woods, you had hardwood and vibrant fauna."
"They could probably see there was more coastline going south, but the distances were too great. Though we can't say for sure."
The next landmass along
There is often an urge to attribute a grand meaning to the Vikings' discovery of this new land, which preceded Christopher Columbus's momentous journey by more than 500 years.
"It's funny," smiles Birgitta. "In 2000, I was working on an exhibit for the millennium anniversary of the discovery."
"There were four of us sitting around, all of us archaeologists, and somebody asked us, So what was the significance of this enormous discovery? We looked at each other and said, None, really!"
"A group of people went there, worked on the land, brought no diseases – because they were not around long enough – and then went home. But this is not an answer most people like."
"I don't think they had any idea it was a whole new continent. It was more like coming from Iceland to Greenland. Yeah, it's a new place and then another."
"I know when the president of Iceland came to visit L'Anse aux Meadows, he said, 'Oh, it's just like home!'"
This isn't to suggest their stay was uneventful, especially given that North America was already inhabited, as we shall see in part 2...
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