In archeology, excessive caution and an abundance of patience come with the territory. Not only is the excavation process itself painstaking, but even identifying potential sites of interest in the first place can take years, decades, or even centuries.
Once you actually uncover something, there is often a long series of tests and detailed analyses required before any conclusive findings can be made.
Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that sometimes the waiting gets a little too much, especially when you add in the pressure of a ubiquitous camera crew and a tight deadline.
In the 2016 BBC documentary Vikings Uncovered, space archeologist Dr. Sarah Parcak identifies an obscure site on the unkempt extremities of Newfoundland as a potential Norse settlement site.
A team of archeologists duly heads out to investigate. Yet, while their exploration ends in champagne and celebration, had they really discovered what they had desperately set out to find?
Dr. Sarah Parcak's foray into space archeology in 2015 led her to Point Rosee in Newfoundland, where satellite imagery was used in the search for elusive Viking settlements. Photo: MaHarvey / Shutterstock
A winning formula
When Dan Snow and the BBC team first got in touch with Dr. Sarah Parcak to discuss her pioneering work in the field of satellite archeology and how it could apply to the Vikings, they must have felt like they were on to a winner.
Parcak, an archeologist and Egyptologist at the University of Alabama had a clear track record of using sophisticated infrared imaging to identify previously undiscovered sites of historical interest.
In her first big case, Parcak and her team had apparently succeeded in detecting a grand total of 17 pyramids and thousands of ancient settlements in Egypt.
The BBC, which helped fund the research, produced a riveting 2011 documentary about Parcak's findings, Egypt's Lost Cities, and the young archeologist was showered with recognition, including an American Ingenuity Award from the Smithsonian and the 2016 TED Prize.
Yet despite the acclaim, the BBC was later forced to issue an apology after Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities, argued that the satellite images identified nothing more than anomalies in the sand and that further investigation would be needed.
Some 20 years after the report had been initiated, none of the pyramids has been officially confirmed.
Dr. Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist, has made headlines for her ambitious projects like the Point Rosee excavation in Newfoundland, though conclusive evidence of new discoveries remains elusive. Photo: Joi Ito / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A second series with Parcak soon followed, however: Rome's Lost Empire, this time with star presenter Dan Snow on board.
The results were once again inconclusive, but the uncertainty didn't deter the BBC from deciding to take on one of the greatest challenges in archeology – identifying evidence of Viking exploration in North America beyond the site of L'Anse aux Meadows.
For Norse enthusiasts, the resulting two-part, 89-minute documentary is a thrilling ride, complete with poo presentations from the esteemed Dr. Andrew "Bone" Jones in York, a gory massacre at Ridgeway Hill, an interview with Birgitta Wallace, doyenne of L'Anse aux Meadows, and trips to Iceland, Greenland and, of course, North America.
Signs of life
The excitement really reaches fever pitch, however, as Snow and his camera crew head out to Newfoundland to inspect the site at Point Rosee, a headland at the southwest end of the island.
The team on the ground set to work on examining the space that Parcak identified as a possible Viking site.
Initially, they are unsure, and the earth around the initial excavation site doesn't seem to indicate any sign of human activity.
Yet finally, eight days into their dig, the archeologists pull out what appears to be a cracked boulder, potentially evidence of metalworking.
The very next day, a Norse nail and also slag – a by-product of metal production – are found, followed by a charred seed that can be radiocarbon dated.
The evidence appears irrefutable. We know that the indigenous people of Newfoundland and Canada did not engage in metalworking practices.
Who else could it be but the Vikings?
- READ MORE: The history of Vikings in Canada - A primer
While many sites have been speculated upon, L'Anse aux Meadows remains the only Viking settlement in North America with confirmation and UNESCO World Heritage recognition. Photo: Erik Mclean / Pexels
In the second and final episode, the team is joined on-site by Dr. Douglas Bolender, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts and a bona fide Viking expert.
Though initially skeptical, Bolender soon believes they have located some blocks of man-made turf in part of the supposed structure Pacak had identified via satellite.
In fairness, Bolender does continue to insist, as any good archaeologist should, that further investigation is needed.
Finally, the first lab results come in: radiocarbon analysis on the seed. Yet amid great suspense, it is revealed that the seed likely dates from far later than the Viking Age, somewhere around the 18th century.
Parcak and Snow are disappointed but not unbowed, with Parcak speculating that if the seed doesn't match the archeological findings, it must have somehow fallen into the ground at a later date.
The big pay-off
Finally, as our story nears its dramatic end, the findings of detailed testing on the archeological artifacts found at the site are revealed.
The first, a suspected metal object produced by the Norse, turns out to be a stone. The hoped-for hammerscale – a by-product of the iron forging process – is, in fact, merely small lumps of iron oxide.
Yet, almost miraculously, the final hope, the lumps of slag, are declared not to be slag, exactly, but bog iron ore.
And not just any iron ore – the results suggest that it had been collected and roasted to drive off impurities - proof of metalworking by human hands.
The documentary concludes with a celebratory scene, as Snow, Parcak, and the rest of the team raise a glass to toast their success. Cue dramatic music – Dan Snow narrates how the new evidence has "revolutionized our understanding of the Vikings."
Parcak calls it "what may be the beginning of an entirely new chapter" in history.
The quest to uncover more Viking settlements in North America continues, with Newfoundland's vast landscapes holding untold stories yet to be discovered. Photo: Ramon Cliff / Shutterstock
Gone with the wind
Except that the bog ore was later found to be entirely natural, no actual evidence of Viking activity has yet been identified at Point Rosee, and Parcak has not applied for any further archaeological permits in the area.
In other words, to the best of our knowledge, this particular historical find and tremendous feat of innovation was little more than a figment of the imagination.
As the final report from the archeologists involved states:
"The 2015 and 2016 excavations found no evidence whatsoever for either a Norse presence or human activity at Point Rosee prior to the historic period. […] None of the team members, including the Norse specialists, deemed this area [Point Rosee] as having any traces of human activity."
Today, Dr. Sarah Parcak continues to teach and carry out research at the University of Alabama. She has, however, made no more documentaries with the BBC.
On the BBC's website, Vikings Uncovered is no longer available.
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