Evidence for Vikings in Canada Grows with Surprising Find of Ironworking Site in Newfoundland
Experts are “cautiously optimistic” that a hearth where people worked iron about 1,000 years ago in Newfoundland, Northeast Canada, was the site of a Viking settlement, says National Geographic.
This site, at Point Rosee, is the second where there is strong evidence of Viking settlements in the New World. The first, at L’Anse aux Meadows, also in Newfoundland but hundreds of miles north of Point Rosee, was discovered in 1960.
The hearth at Point Rosee is surrounded by the remnants of a rectangular turf wall, says the National Geographic article announcing the find. The hearth itself is just a boulder with a depression in front of it, surrounded by smaller rocks.
But in the hearth’s shallow pit archaeologists found 28 pounds of slag—a byproduct of iron roasting, the step in the ironworking process before smelting and forging. The smith burns and dries the ore in the fire so it doesn’t explode in the forge.
A blackened rock said to be the hearth. Slag was found around the boulder. (Dan Snow)
Scholars do not believe natives of this area in the 11th century were working with iron, though there was metalworking in the New World before Europeans arrived.
The Point Rosee Viking site is the southernmost and westernmost location where evidence of ironworking has been discovered in the Americas before Columbus arrived.
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The method of the discovery is noteworthy, too. “Space archaeologist” and National Geographic fellow Sarah Parcak, working with a $1 million TED prize, used satellite imagery to find evidence of human activity in the landscape.
She usually studies satellite imagery of Egypt to find signs of ancient human activity there but recently expanded her horizons.
At Point Rosee, she saw a faint difference in the vegetation in the form of a rectangle—possibly a structure. Investigations on-site showed the turf walls and hearth.
The site has bog iron, natural deposits of the metal that would have been very attractive to Vikings. It has other features, too, that may have attracted the wandering Norsemen.
The southern coast of the Point Rosee peninsula has few submerged rocks, allowing beaching of ships or anchoring in shallow water.
There was good farm land, plenty of good fishing and a lot of game they could have hunted, National Geographic says. Other things that may have attracted the Vikings include turf for constructing houses and chert for making stone tools.
The researchers found what they believe to be evidence of Norse grass walls at their dig site in Point Rosee in Newfoundland. (BBC)
Parcak told The Washington Post that there is nothing that “absolutely confirms the site as Norse.” She said: “This is going to take years of careful excavation, and it’s going to be controversial. It raises a lot more questions than it answers. But, that’s what any new discovery is supposed to do.”
National Geographic says the most valuable resource for the site was the iron, which formed as rivers carried ore from the mountains into wetlands, where bacteria leached iron from water and left behind the metal.
A lump of what the researchers say is bog iron ore. It is one of the samples being tested from the possible Viking site at Point Rosee. (Greg Mumford)
Instead of mining, the Vikings usually harvested iron from peat bogs, and they needed a lot of it for the nails they used to construct the ships they roamed much of the world in. One reconstructed Norse longship needed 7,000 nails—880 pounds (400 kilograms) of iron, which would have required a blacksmith to heat and smelt 30 tons of raw iron ore.
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Archaeologists say the structure found at Point Rosee is unlike native construction and also unlike the construction of Basque fishermen and whalers who visited 16th century Newfoundland. And the only people who would have been working with bog iron were the Vikings, Doug Bolender, an archaeologist and expert in Viking settlements, told National Geographic.
Bolender says there is documentary evidence for the Norse in North America:
“The sagas suggest a short period of activity and a very brief and failed colonization attempt. L’Anse aux Meadows fits well with that story but is only one site. Point Rosee could reinforce that story or completely change it if the dating is different from L’Anse aux Meadows. We could end up with a much longer period of Norse activity in the New World. A site like Point Rosee has the potential to reveal what that initial wave of Norse colonization looked like not only for Newfoundland but for the rest of the North Atlantic.”
L’Anse aux Meadows showed the sagas weren’t entirely fictional, National Geographic says. The sagas and now even more physical evidence show the Norse probably did venture west from Europe and their Greenland settlements.
Archaeologists conducted small-scale dig to search for initial evidence that the site merits further study. (Robert Clark, National Geographic)
Other evidence of Vikings in the New World include a copper coin and other artifacts of the 11th century found in the U.S. state of Maine. Scholars have speculated the things were obtained by natives trading with Norse people.
Ms. Parcak’s documentary film Vikings Unearthed will be broadcast on American public television the week of April 3.
By Mark Miller