From June until October, curious visitors trek up to the far tip of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, Canada, to see the UNESCO Heritage Site of L'Anse aux Meadows

Around the excavated remains of what is thought to have been a Viking settlement from the 11th century, its eight wood-framed peat-turf buildings of a similar type to those found in Norse Greenland and Iceland, a National Historic Site was declared in 1975.

Also discovered in 1960 were 800 artifacts of Norse origin, confirming the writings of the Vinland Sagas, recorded some 200 years after the events they describe unfolded. Passed down by oral tradition from the late 900s onwards, these tales relate to the Norse exploration of North America

They are divided into two volumes, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. Both cover the same ventures in slightly contradictory fashion.

The meaning of the name Vinland is disputed – after all, it was never written down until four generations later, after being expressed by word of mouth from father to son. 

The pioneering Norse sailors may have been referring to this part of the Newfoundland coastline as one of meadows and pasture rather than vineyards, although berries and wild grapes do grow there. 

The strange saga of Bjarni Herjólfsson

While it is now commonly acknowledged that Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot on Vinland, he wasn't the first one to set eyes on it. 

That distinction goes to a merchant seaman called Bjarni Herjólfsson, who sailed across the North Atlantic in 986 CE.

Herjólfsson was not a willing explorer – in fact, he would prove to be most reluctant. That year, as he would do every summer, he set out from where he was based as a merchant in Norway for Iceland, where his parents Herjólfr Bárðarson and Thorgerðr had settled. 

But that summer, his father had already set off with Erik the Red, a.k.a. Erik Thorvaldsson, for Greenland. Like his father before him, Thorvald Asvaldson, banished from Norway to settle in Iceland, Erik had been sent into exile from Iceland and sought refuge elsewhere.

Keen to find his father, Herjólfsson and his crew made sail in that same direction, but very few people had made that journey before. When they were fogbound and blown off course, they became lost and just kept going. 

Without realizing it, after several days, they were sailing close to the coast of what is thought to be Newfoundland. 

Spotting mountains and trees, Herjólfsson knew this wasn't Greenland but was hesitant to go any further despite his crew's wishes. They then turned around and made for Greenland, spying more forested landscapes further along the coast as they did so.

All told, according to the Saga of the Greenlanders, they could have landed at three places, but each time Herjólfsson made the decision to keep going:

"They soon approached the land, and saw that it was a flat land covered with wood. Then the fair wind fell, and the sailors said that it seemed to them most advisable to land there; but Bjarne [Herjólfsson] was unwilling to do so. They pretended that they were in want of both wood and water. 'Ye have no want of either of the two,' said Bjarne; for this, however, he met with some reproaches from the sailors. He bade them make sail, and so was done."

Fifteen years after Herjólfsson's journey, Leif Erikson and a 35-man crew headed off, following in his footsteps. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The Greenland colony

Eventually, they made it back to their original destination of Greenland, again, through instinct and guesswork:

"They sailed now four days, when they saw the fourth land. Then asked they Bjarne whether he thought that this was Greenland or not. Bjarne answered: 'This is the most like Greenland, according to what I have been told about it, and here will we steer for land.'"

Herjólfsson joined his father at a coastal spot near the very southern tip of Greenland, Cape Farewell, that juts out into the ocean towards the Labrador Sea and North America. There, around what is today Nørsarmijit, Herjólfr Bárðarson had established a base, then called Herjolfnes. 

His had been one of 25 ships to have made the perilous journey, led by Erik the Red, from Iceland towards Greenland in 895, the reason for his absence when his son tried to visit him a year later. Only 14 vessels would reach the coast of Greenland.

Interestingly, unlike his other fellow Norse settlers, who had set up closer to promising farmland at the head of the fjords, Herjólfr Bárðarson made camp where the fjord faced the open sea. It was there that his son Bjarni Herjólfsson found him and stayed there, a seafarer no longer. After his father died, he headed back to Norway.

Before he did so, Herjólfsson regaled settlers with his tales of the strange but greener landscape he had seen – but was merely chastised for his lack of fortitude in exploring further. Leif Erikson, however, son of the leading settler, Erik the Red, was intrigued, particularly by the prospect of timber, a vital element all too lacking in Greenland.

When Danish archaeologist Poul Nörlund excavated the Herjolfnes site in 1921, he found medieval artifacts in remarkable condition thanks to the icy conditions. 

Tellingly, after the colony had adopted Christianity in 1000 CE and begun to bury their loved ones in coffins, at one point, they ran out of wood and had to use a wrapping of wool. Its remnants duly gave up many secrets to Nörlund and his team.

Go west

Of the same generation as Bjarni Herjólfsson, probably around the same age, Leif Erikson probed him for further details. It is even said that he bought the very same ship from him. 

Fifteen years after Herjólfsson's trepidatious fogbound journey, Erikson and a 35-man crew headed off, following in his footsteps. It was 1001 CE. 

A year or so later, Erik the Red died during an epidemic that wiped out many of the Greenland colonists. He had intended on going on his son's voyage but had backed out at the last minute, fearful of bad omens.

Erikson successfully retraced Herjólfsson's route and decided to land at the most auspicious location, with plentiful trees and salmon. He and his men spent winter there, exploring further inland and along the coast before heading back to Greenland in the spring.

We are not sure if it was Erikson or fellow Greenland colonists after him who established the settlement that tourists now visit every summer at L'Anse aux Meadows. 

Quite probably, they would have had several encampments, but the size of the L'Anse aux Meadows site, nearly 8,000 hectares, indicates that it might have been their main base.

We also don't know, of course, if this was the same place that Bjarni Herjólfsson spied from his ship in 986 CE, little daring to dock and discover. 

Reading between the lines of the Saga of the Greenlanders, experts now reckon that he would have skirted the coast of Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island.

Today, Leif Erikson is a familiar figure to many, mentioned in the same context as Columbus, who made a similar voyage half a millennium later. 

Few would recognize the name of Bjarni Herjólfsson – perhaps that is how this reluctant explorer would have wanted it.

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