LOOKING BACK – Vikings In North America? New Evidence Points To Extended Occupation In Newfoundland


From the 9th to 11th centuries A.D., Viking explorers ventured out into the northern Atlantic Ocean. Long lasting colonies were established on both Iceland and Greenland, and Norse sagas speak of yet another colony further to the west called Vinland. While the details were scant, Vinland was described as both vast and already inhabited by people the explorers called Skraelings.

More than 400 years later, Christopher Columbus and other European sailors also found themselves in a vast land inhabited by diverse and thriving groups of people. Eventually, some scholars began to connect the dots and wonder if Viking explorers had also reached North America. These speculations were substantially muddied in the 19th century when several alleged “Viking rune stones” were brought to light. Many of these stones were simply overeager interpretations of faint or confusing inscriptions, and some, such as the Kensington Rune stone, appear to have been outright hoaxes. As such, the question of a Viking presence in North America became a confusing quagmire where few wished to tread.

The picture changed substantially when an archaeological excavation in the 1960s documented the presence of Norse material culture at the site of L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland island along the Atlantic coast of Canada. Archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad spent seven years excavating the site and were able to document a series of Icelandic-style turf structures along with a plethora of objects associated with Norse culture, including a bronze cloak pin, a spindle whorl made of soapstone, and iron rivets typically associated with boats. Radiocarbon dates associated with these materials suggested the site had been occupied for a short period of time around 1000 A.D.


New excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month, however, suggest that the site may have seen a longer occupation than previously expected. Archaeologist Paul M. Ledger led the research which initially sought to collect plant and animal remains from a neighboring peat bog to assess the environment at the time of Norse occupation, but their excavations encountered unexpected evidence for further cultural activity.

In the excavation trench, the team encountered a series of finely laminated layers that appear to have been trampled by either humans or animals. These layers were rich with wood debris, charcoal, and other charred plant remains, several of which were not native to North America. In their paper the researchers note that these “layers of peat may not be as evocative as artifacts such as a ringed bronze pin, or a finely crafted lithic projectile point. Yet, they present new horizons for examining the environmental legacies of inter- and intracontinental movement of people within North America prior to 1492.”

Due to the large quantities of organic material found in the excavations, the researchers were able to retrieve several radiocarbon dates associated with the Norse occupation. These dates suggest that L’Anse aux Meadows may have been first occupied in the 10th century with an occupation continuing into the 12th-century A.D. The radiocarbon samples do present considerable ranges of error making it difficult to come away with a specific period of occupation, but at the same time they also imply a notably longer period of occupation.

Ledger and his colleagues suggest that their findings likely do not indicate a continuous long-term occupation at the site. The limited material culture at L’Anse aux Meadows suggests a small population. However, the site may have witnessed periodic reoccupation as Viking explorers returned to “Vinland” over multiple voyages in search of the resources and farmland so valued by the Norse.  We are unlikely to ever have a complete picture of Viking activities in North America, but these new findings offer a tantalizing glimpse as to what may have been.

Forbes.com – David S. Anderson Science

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