The children from the village of L’Anse-aux-Meadows called them the Indian Lands, a natural playground of grassy mounds enveloped in a summer cloud of blueberries. The mysterious elevations along the ridge beside Black Duck Brook were features as familiar as the sea to the nine families who lived in the isolated fishing outport on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. They were stunned, in 1961, when a team of archeologists led by Norwegian Helge Ingstad, a specialist on Viking culture, arrived and, during seven summers of excavation, unearthed the secret harbored by the mysterious mounds: Viking artifacts.
Around the year AD 1000,
Viking settlers had lived on the shores, most likely led by the handsome Leif Eiriksson.
During the following centuries, children played on the remnants of what some historians now call the greatest archeological find in North America. If this was not the Vinland of Norse legend, it was at least the gateway to a new continent.
Changed: The discovery of Viking homes and artifacts in Canada altered the interpretation of North American history and changed the course of a Newfoundland fishing outport’s future. Last summer, 20,000 tourists streamed down the blacktopped highway to L’Anse-aux-Meadows, a once-peaceful community that until 1965 could be reached only by boat. Now, it is the centrepiece of a 30-squaremile national historic park, which in 1978 was designated by the United Nations as a “world heritage site,” one of 323 places or objects in the world deemed by the organization to be “of exceptional universal value.”
Last week, the 20 families who now live in L’Anse-aux-Meadows were preparing for a further invasion on Aug. 2, when Norwegian, Icelandic and British sailors were expected to arrive for a three-day re-enactment of the Viking landing. Among the residents of the village is Lloyd Decker, 53, a Parks Canada
supervisor who says that his ancestral roots in the area go back to the late 1700s, when French whalers called the outport L’Anse-auxMeduses, or The Bay of Jellyfish. Decker was 22 when excavations began. He gave up fishing for cod to work on the site for a better wage of 50 cents an hour. Said Decker: “Things have changed from the days of whalers and blueberries.”
Still, Ingstad says that some of the changes
that have transformed L’Anse-aux-Meadows were not fully intended. He argues that the site should be left as is to enable future archeologists with more refined technologies to further learn from the remains of the ancient settlement. Now 92, Ingstad recalls witnessing the same kind of encroachment of the 20th century on the original inhabitants of North America when he worked as a trapper in the Canadian Arctic, northeast of Great Slave Lake, from 1926 to 1930. Said Ingstad, who planned to be in L’Anse-aux-Meadows for the Aug. 2 recreation of the first Viking landing: “The people of L’Anse-aux-Meadows were among the finest I have ever met. I don’t begrudge them a thing. But something too was lost.”
In some cases, the changes were inevitable.
To protect the site from deterioration and define more clearly the shape of the houses for the benefit of tourists, Parks Canada officials sodded over the Viking foundations, an action that Ingstad says threatened the authenticity of the site by allowing new soil to leach into the original surface.
The discovery of the Viking remains at L’Anse-aux-Meadows provided an important clue to a centuries-old mystery. Ancient Norse sagas refer to a land called Vinland, apparently a fertile region of North America where grapes grew. Following the clues in the sagas, Ingstad and his wife, archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, spent 15 years searching for Vinland. They studied 4,000 miles of North America’s eastern seaboard, from Labrador to Florida. Ingstad heard about the mounds at L’Anse-auxMeadows from a local fisherman, and said that when he finally saw them he felt a tug of recognition.
By 1973, the year in which Parks Canada took over development of the site, archeologists had uncovered the remains of seven Viking houses, a blacksmith’s shop and a host of medieval artifacts, including rusty nails, fragments of iron, a small piece of smelted copper, a stone lamp, a Norse cloak pin and a spindle whorl for making wool. Radiocarbon tests dated at least a dozen objects to about AD 1000, plus or minus 70 years—the period when, according to the sagas, Leif Eiriksson or members of his family made four separate expeditions to Vinland.
Modest: Further digging between 1973 and the last year of excavation in 1976 resulted in a modest but significant discovery in the form of three butternuts that, according to carbon dating, are 1,000 years old. Because butternuts do not grow in Newfoundland, the finding led to 5L speculation that the Vikings g only used L’Anse-aux-MeadJ ows as a way station in forays that took them into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and possibly into what is now northern New Brunswick. Said Birgitta Wallace, the Parks Canada archeologist who found the nuts: “It was natural for the Norse to enter the rivers, for instance the Miramichi,” a river in New Brunswick where the nuts are found. She added, “There, you have the lagoons, the grapes and the types of things the sagas talk about.” She said that as early as the 17th century, French explorers reported finding grapes in New Brunswick. Still, if L’Anse-aux-Meadows was only a staging point on the Viking route to Vinland, it claims the distinction of being the only known site in North America bearing proof of habitation by the Norsemen of a millenium ago.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.