Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Where Was the Vikings' Vinland?

A thousand years ago, an Icelandic woman named Gudrid the Far-Traveler sailed west from Greenland with her husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni. They spent three years exploring North America then, after a clash with Native Americans, returned home to Iceland. As I wrote in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, their story is told in two medieval Icelandic sagas: The Saga of Eirik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders.

It is also backed up by archaeology.

Since they were discovered in the late 1960s, the Viking ruins at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, and the artifacts found in or near them, have provided more and more proof that the stories in the sagas are true. A particularly intriguing tale is told by the collection of strike-a-lights—shards of jasper, a reddish flinty stone that, struck with steel, creates sparks to start a fire.

When I was working on The Far Traveler in 2006, 10 strike-a-lights had been discovered in the three Viking houses.

I discussed them with Birgitta Wallace, who for a long time was head archaeologist at L'Anse aux Meadows. (I've blogged about her work before: see "The Case of the Butternuts" and "A Viking Woman in America.")

Birgitta Wallace believes the L'Anse aux Meadows ruins were the houses the sagas say Leif Eiriksson agreed to lend—but not give—to Gudrid and Karlsefni. She writes in the book Vinland Revisited: "It is far too substantial and complex a site not to be mentioned in the sagas." It is like other gateways in the Viking world, where a king or chieftain will lay claim to a rich region and seek to funnel all its resources to one spot, where he or a trusted deputy can tax them more easily.

This gateway did have a strong leader, someone who divided the work of repairing a small boat among the three houses. As the pattern of artifacts shows, the men in the southern house smelted the ore and fashioned the nails. They worked the wood in the middle house. In the boatshed attached to the northern house, they pried off the broken piece and nailed on the patch.

But was that leader Leif, or Karlsefni? Leif did not have 90 men to build such sturdy houses, according to the sagas; Karlsefni did.

Then there's the jasper evidence. Knowing that jasper varies in its chemical makeup, geochemists compared the trace elements in the 10 strike-a-lights to jasper from Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, as well as to samples from Norway, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, New England, Pennsylvania, and the Great Lakes region. Four of the strike-a-lights came from Greenland. Five came from Iceland. One was Newfoundland stone.

The strike-a-lights had been recovered from the floors of the houses. The southern house held only Icelandic jasper; the middle house had Icelandic and Newfoundland jaspers; the northern house, Icelandic and Greenlandic. In The Saga of Eirik the Red, Karlsefni's expedition had three ships: two crewed by Icelanders, and one, Gudrid's ship, that was "mostly" Greenlanders. Those ten bits of jasper seem to assert Karlsefni's claim.

Which does not push Leif Eiriksson out of the picture. His crew might have wintered here, building themselves a sturdy longhouse and some outbuildings. When Karlsefni and Gudrid arrived four years later, with three ship’s crews to house, perhaps they enlarged the settlement. Birgitta Wallace agrees we will never know. "In archaeology, it doesn't really matter if the houses were built 10 years apart—that’s simultaneous to us."

The idea of L'Anse aux Meadows being a "gateway" raises another question: Where did the Vikings sail from there?

And now the jasper strike-a-lights have provided an answer. The Vikings went at least as far as Notre Dame Bay, 143 miles south, where they picked up a piece of jaspar—and may have encountered the Beothuck Indians. As archaeological research has shown, Newfoundland's Notre Dame Bay was home to a dense settlement of Beothuck Indians a thousand years ago.

"This area of Notre Dame Bay was as good a candidate as any for that first contact between the Old World and the New World, and that's kind of an exciting thing," said Kevin Smith of Brown
University, as reported by Owen Jarus on LiveScience. Smith also worked on the earlier strike-a-lights study. He presented his new findings at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, held April 3-7, 2013, in Honolulu, Hawaii. (A copy of Smith's poster presentation can be downloaded through; the photo below comes from that poster, by way of LiveScience.)

The bit of jaspar that provided this insight was discovered in 2008, 33 feet from one of the Viking longhouses. When compared with 73 jasper samples from around the world, using a handheld X-ray fluorescence device, the chemical signature of the strike-a-light showed the closest match with rocks from a 44-mile-long stretch of Notre Dame Bay known today as Fortune Harbor.

Though a beachcomber might get very, very lucky, don't expect archaeologists to find--or even go looking for--any signs of the Viking presence in Fortune Harbor. As Birgitta Wallace told a reporter from the CBC, "To look for something that was a summer camp 1,000 years ago, by just a handful of people, is pretty useless. Unless there was a big catastrophe, I don't think a group of people like that leave many traces of themselves."

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. This is wonderful. I had no idea about the strike-a-lights.

  2. Hi Nancy (and your readers):

    Please take a look at my new findings regarding the Vikings heading inland (up the St. Lawrence River) to Lac St. Jean and Laval/Terrebonne, Quebec.

    I also have a page on Facebook:

    Thanks very much,
    Donald Wiedman
    Toronto, Canada

  3. This is very cool. My family and I visited L'Anse-aux-Meadows, but that was in 1997, a fair bit before this discovery.

  4. L'Anse aux Meadows was not the Lake and river where Leif Eriksson had his houses, as described in the sagas. Leif's houses were on the small lake at Carpon Cove, 17 miles to the southwest. The carbon 14 age reported for L'Anse aux Meadows is in error because of contamination by water leaching out of old peat from the collapsed walls of the middle house. The true age is probably a few decades younger than the 1004 AD of Leif's time. The fur trade was the name of the game then.