The past may change, again

Reconstructed Norse house at L’Anse Aux Meadows. My own photo. lw

There’s news in the Viking world this month. New excavations at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, have uncovered traces of occupation that suggest the Norse remained at the site for a couple hundred years, rather than just one or two seasons, as had been thought.

But it’s not a slam dunk, in spite of the sensationalist headlines you might have seen. The new stuff might not be Viking at all. This from the Canadian Broadcasting Company:

As Ledger explained, what they found is not necessarely Viking, “it’s more likely that this material relay to an Indigenous occupation on the site based on the radio carbondates from the material we got from this layer.”

But what is interesting is that this cultural horizon is where the researchers know that Norses used to be. If archaeologists find evidence that these series of layers that appear to have been trampled by humans or animals come from Vikings, this could be evidence that they stayed longer in North America than we thought.

(Who did that horrible transcription? “relay to?” “necessarely?” I have no idea where the word “Norses” comes from; the proper term is “the Norse.”) But the discoveries are very intriguing. Ever since the early excavations, we’ve been fairly certain the houses at L’Anse Aux Meadows were occupied only briefly, then abandoned. A longer occupation would suggest what a lot of us have believed for a while: that the whole Vinland enterprise was a bigger, more serious thing than Helge and Anna Stine Ingstad, the original discoverers, thought.

What exactly was the site’s function? I’ve been telling people that the best evidence suggests it was a boat repair station. However, I read in Nancy Marie Brown’s book The Far Traveler that there’s actually evidence of only one boat being repaired there. She suggested it was a “staging site” for further exploration and settlement.

I’ve been to L’Anse Aux Meadows (as I never tire of telling people), and even shook the hand of Birgitta Wallace, the second chief archaeologist there (though that didn’t happen at L’Anse Aux Meadows). The picture above is one I took there. I forget the year, 2004 or so.

A while back they found a spot that looked like a second Viking site not far away, but subsequent digging proved it not to be so. Now we’ve got something fresh to hang our hopes on.

Personally, I think the real settlement – where Thorfinnn Karlsefni and Gudrid the Far-Traveler lived, exists somewhere, but may never be found. But I think it’s there.

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