“We have to celebrate Columbus because he discovered America.”
“No he didn’t. Leif Erikson got there first.”
I paraphrase here from the halls of my elementary school circa sometime in the late 20th century, when many of us were convinced the first Europeans to set foot on the continent were not the Spanish and their bloody-minded, treasure-seeking Italian captain, but what we thought of as bloody-minded, treasure-seeking Vikings. Which side was right?
Our grade-school objections to Columbus were not necessarily moral or intellectual. Most of us chose team Viking for the helmets (more on that later). But evidence that Vikings landed in North America dates back hundreds of years to historical accounts and sagas about Leif’s father, Erik the Red. These accounts tell of a place called Vinland, identified as lying somewhere along the Northeastern coastline where the Norse found wild grapes.
In the 20th century came the suggestion that Vinland might have been located in Canada, at a site called L’Anse aux Meadows in what is now Newfoundland. Between 1960 and 1968, an excavation by Norwegian archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad and her husband, explorer Helge Ingstad, found the remains of the “only conclusively identified Viking site in the Americas outside of Greenland,” writes Katherine Kornei at The New York Times.
Eight timber-framed buildings at the site look very much like similar structures in Greenland built for Erik the Red. And yet, exactly when the settlement arose has been a mystery; “radiocarbon measurements of artifacts from L’Anse aux Meadows span the entire Viking Age, from the late eighth through the 11th centuries.” That is, until new results just published in Nature which claim to have “decisively pinned down when the Norse explorers were in Newfoundland: the year A.D. 1021, or exactly 1,000 years ago.”
Scientists obtained this date from three pieces of wood lately unearthed from what is known as the site’s “Viking layer” — a stump, a log, and a branch. “These artifacts were significant finds for two reasons,” notes the CBC. “One is that they showed cut marks made by metal blades, specific to Vikings, not Indigenous stone blades. The second reason is that all three artifacts still had the outermost layer of the tree intact,” allowing archaeologists to conclusively tell their age.
A host of unanswered questions remain. We cannot say for certain this new data confirms the ancient stories of Vinland or Leif Erikson. Although the structures, tools, and other artifacts at the site are unquestionably Norse, researchers don’t know who, precisely, settled at L’Anse aux Meadows, or whether it was a long-term settlement or a temporary outpost. (Evidence published in 2019 suggests that “Norse activity at LAM may have endured for a century.”)
At the top of the post, see a short explainer from Nature showing not only how archeologists confirmed that Vikings landed in North America, but also how they learned exactly when — 471 years before Columbus. As for why there’s no Leif Erikson day in the U.S.… well, there is, it turns out — October 9th — though no one gets a holiday. And about those helmets? Stereotypes that first appeared in Wagnerian opera.
As even video games recognize these days, the Vikings may be some of the most misunderstood peoples in ancient history. Learn more about their time in Newfoundland, and maybe points further south, in the episode of America Unearthed from the History Channel, above, and read the Nature article on the most recent artifacts here.