Thanks to the sagas, it has long been known that Vikings reached the North American continent about 1000 AD. But not until the 1960s did archaeological evidence emerge in Newfoundland, Canada to corroborate the written accounts. Until recently, that site provided the only archeological substantiation of the Viking presence, apart from a few Norse artifacts obtained from scattered Eskimo and Indian excavations.
But in October 2012, after 13 years of field research, Canadian archaeologist Patricia Sutherland, 63, presented findings at a meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology in St. John’s, Canada suggesting the presence of a second Viking outpost, on Baffin Island, part of a former Norse region known as Helluland.
Prior to 1945, Scandinavia experienced three large population expansions resulting in major out-migrations.
The first caused the Goth migration from Sweden to Germany in the last century BC and the first two centuries AD. The subsequent fall of Rome relieved population pressures throughout the Teutonic world.
A second baby boom led to the spectacular Viking expansions of 800-1100 AD, almost unimaginable in terms of their geographic scope. Exploration, piracy, plunder, warfare, trade, conquest, and settlement were all integral to this vast out-migration.
Swedes, known as East Vikings, Varangians, and Rus, sailed east across the Baltic and the great continental network of Russian rivers to the Caspian and Black Seas, which they also crossed. They established the first Russian states, Novgorod and Kiev, and commanded and staffed the Eastern Roman Empire’s Varangian Guard, described by William Pierce as “an elite military unit composed entirely of Vikings, the Schutzstaffel [SS] of its day.”
Danes swept across England and south over the European continent, including France, the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, and Asia Minor. As in Russia, the shallow draft of their ships, the most sophisticated seagoing vessels of the day, enabled them to penetrate far inland—in France, as far as Paris.
To the north and west, Norwegians traveled to the limits of the known world, high above the Arctic Circle from the White Sea in Russia to the edge of the great ice, to Iceland and, on a different continent, Greenland and Canada.
Such was the general directional thrust, though in reality it was more complex.
For example, King Harald’s Saga, part of Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (1230), narrated a legendary Norwegian, not Swedish, leader’s expedition to the East, his marriage to a Rus princess, command of the Varangian Guard, brilliant exploits in Constantinople, Syria, and Sicily, his skaldic achievements as a poet, and his battles in England against Harold Godwinson. The saga king fell at Stamford Bridge in 1066, just a few days before Godwinson himself died at the Battle of Hastings in an attempt to fend off another warrior of Viking descent, William the Conqueror.
Finally, between 1815 and 1939 Scandinavian overpopulation created a net outflow of 2.75 million Norse to the New World—1.25 million Swedes, 850,000 Norwegians, 350,000 Danes, and 250,000 Finns. Relative to size, Norway’s contribution was the largest.
Iceland and Greenland
Iceland, a small island just south of the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic, was settled by the Norse c. 850-875 AD. It lies 570 miles west of Norway, but only 155 miles southeast of Greenland, which in turn is adjacent to Canada.
Until recently the population of Iceland was extremely homogeneous, being almost entirely of Scandinavian and Celtic descent. The Icelandic language remains nearer to the Old Norse of Iceland’s original Viking settlers than it does to other Scandinavian languages. Old Norse literature attained its greatest flowering in Iceland between 1000 and 1350 AD.
The medieval Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) describes in considerable detail the settlement of Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries AD.
Greenland, the largest island in the world, lies mostly north of the Arctic Circle and is separated from Canada on the west by Davis Strait and Baffin Bay and Iceland on the east by the Denmark Strait. There are numerous islands along its coast, which is deeply indented by fjords. Eighty-five percent of its total area is ice cap.
The island was discovered and settled about 982 AD by outlaw Norwegian chieftain Eric the Red, father of famed Icelandic-born explorer Leif Ericsson. Greenland was uninhabited at the time of the Norwegians’ arrival—the Eskimos did not migrate to the island until more than 200 years later, c. 1200 AD.
In the 1200s the island fell under Norwegian and, subsequently Danish, rule. The colonists mysteriously disappeared around 1435, possibly due to a climate change known as the Little Ice Age. Archaeological remains and written records indicate malnourishment among the dwindling number of white inhabitants. The last written records of the Norse Greenlanders pertain to a 1408 wedding in HvalseyChurch, today the best-preserved Norse ruins in Greenland.
Grœnlendinga Saga and Eiríks Saga are the primary written accounts of the discovery and settlement of Greenland and, in North America, Helluland (“Flat Stone Land”—Baffin Island), Markland (“Woodland”—Labrador), and Vinland (“Wineland”—Newfoundland), all in present-day Canada.
The Vikings in North America
In North America the Norsemen encountered a race they called “skraelings.” The sagas describe them as “short people with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads . . . large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Smithsonian Institution states that although the exact meaning of “skraeling” is unclear, “it was certainly a derogatory term.”
In fact, the Norse encountered not only different tribes but, in all probability, both Eskimos (Inuit) and Indians, though the records provide only a single name for all these groups.
In the 1960s a Norwegian husband and wife team, Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered and excavated a Viking base camp at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland, the first archaeologically confirmed Viking outpost in the Americas. It pre-dated the voyages of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot by 500 years. Dated to between 989 and 1020 AD, the camp boasted three Viking halls and an assortment of huts for weaving, iron-working, and ship repair.
L’Anse aux Meadows was not Vinland, but rather situated within a land called Vinland extending south from L’Anse aux Meadows to the St. Lawrence River and New Brunswick. The outpost served as a winter camp and base for expeditions.
In the 50 years since the discovery of the thousand-year-old settlement, archaeologists and amateur historians have unsuccessfully combed North America’s east coast searching for further traces of Viking visitors.
Finally, in October and November 2012, it was reported that archaeologist Patricia Sutherland, adjunct professor of archeology at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, had announced new archaeological evidence strongly supporting the presence of a second Viking outpost on Baffin Island.
Sutherland was alerted to the possibility of a Norse camp in 1999, when she discovered two unusual pieces of cord excavated from a Baffin Island site by an earlier archaeologist and stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, where she worked.
Rather than consisting of twisted animal sinew, the cords were expertly woven Viking yarn identical to yarn produced by Viking women in Greenland in the 14th century.
Sutherland scoured other museums, finding more pieces of Viking yarn and a small trove of previously overlooked Viking gear including wooden tally sticks for recording trade transactions and dozens of Viking whetstones.
The specimens derived from four sites located across a thousand miles of territory extending from northern Baffin Island to northern Labrador. The sites belonged to the Dorset culture, an extinct Paleo-Eskimo people.
From the artifacts at Dorset sites, Sutherland conjectured the Eskimos had traded with Vikings, which of course may be true. But, as archeologist Lawrence H. Keeley has impudently pointed out, items found in this manner can just as easily represent the spoils of war.
The archaeologist focused on the most promising of the four sites, Tanfield Valley on the southeast coast of Baffin Island. There, in the 1960s, a US archaeologist named Moreau Maxwell had excavated parts of a stone-and-sod building which he described as “very difficult to interpret.” She believed the site might have been occupied by different cultures at different times, raising the possibility that the enigmatic stone ruins, which bear a striking resemblance to Viking buildings in Greenland, were European.
Since 2001, Sutherland’s team has been carefully excavating the site, where they have discovered a wide range of artifacts pointing to the presence of European seafarers: pelt fragments from Old World rats; a whalebone shovel similar to those used by Viking settlers in Greenland to cut sod; large stones that appear to have been cut and shaped by European stone masons; and more Viking yarn and whetstones.
Using energy dispersive spectroscopy, the team examined wear grooves on more than 20 whetstones, detecting microscopic streaks of bronze, brass, and smelted iron—evidence of European metallurgy.
After 13 years of careful research, the weight of the evidence placed European traders on Baffin Island sometime between 1000–1300 AD.
“The Norse were here over a long period of time,” Sutherland said. “There were Europeans on the site, no question about that. I think we’ve only just begun to delve into what the Norse were doing there, and we’ve just got the beginning of the story.”
Viking Project “Derailed”
Besides her teaching jobs, Dr. Sutherland had been associated with the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec for 28 years. Twelve years ago she was hired to run the Helluland archeology project. Recently she served as the Museum’s curator of Arctic Archeology.
The Museum is a major institution—Canada’s largest national museum, a significant research establishment, and one of North America’s oldest cultural organizations. It is situated on the Ottawa River across from the Canadian Parliament.
In 1910 Jewish anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir was appointed the first anthropologist in its newly formed anthropology division upon the recommendation of American German-Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas.
Until 1986 the Museum was known as the Museum of Man, but after Left-wing elites denounced the name as “gender biased,” it was changed to the Museum of Civilization. It will soon change again to the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
In the spring of 2012, Dr. Patricia Sutherland was dismissed from her position with the Museum. Simultaneously, Museum officials stripped her husband, prominent Canadian archaeologist Robert McGhee, of the emeritus status he’d enjoyed since his retirement from the Museum in 2008.
No one involved will say why this happened. Two off-the-record sources told the Ottawa Citizen that the firings followed a year-long external investigation into allegations of “bullying and harassment,” although who was allegedly bullied and harassed, or who did the bullying, was not reported.
Dr. Sutherland is contesting the dismissal through her union, which is treating the case as a wrongful dismissal. It is currently before an arbitrator. Meanwhile, the Helluland Project has been suspended.
Some of the artifacts Sutherland had assembled were on loan from other institutions, and within days of her dismissal, they were sent back to museums in Newfoundland and Greenland.
Sutherland intended to co-publish her findings with 15 international collaborators, but her dismissal dashed those plans. She also wanted to work with the community of Kimmirut to get national historic site designation for the Nanook site.
The book cannot go forward unless she regains access to her research materials.
“I’m very confident that what we have is an indication of a Norse presence in the Canadian Arctic that we weren’t aware of before, that it was over a longer period of time, and that the interactions with the aboriginal people were more complex and extensive than we thought before.”
Because it was only a two-day sail to Norse outposts in Greenland, “One could reasonably argue that the travels to the east coast of Canada, to the Arctic, was over a period of four centuries,” she adds.
Canadian Broadcasting Corp., “The Norse: An Arctic Mystery,” The Nature of Things, November 22, 2012. Executive Producer: Gordon Henderson. Produced, written and directed by Andrew Gregg. A 45-minute Canadian television documentary about Patricia Sutherland’s Baffin Island discoveries. Viewable online only in Canada.
Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland (New York: Checkmark Books, 2001)
PBS Television, “The Lost Vikings,” Secrets of the Dead, May 16, 2000. 55 mins. Narrated by Roy Scheider. Archaeologists and forensic anthropologists investigate the disappearance of the Greenland Vikings. Full episode available online.
The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (London: Penguin Books, 2004; 1st ed. 1965), trans. by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. English translation of Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga, both of which are short and easily read. Devoted as much to the settlement of Greenland and the family of Erik the Red as to the discovery of the New World.