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L’Anse aux Meadows

L'Anse aux Meadows: Discovery of Norse settlement in Canada Proved Viking Sagas Contain Real History

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Canada has a rich history which is not often realized by foreigners. One of the most remarkable and interesting historic sites in Canada is L’Anse aux Meadows. This was a Norse settlement or outpost that dates to the 11 th century and it was designated a Historic Site of Canada a half-century ago. Today the site is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Where is L’Anse aux Meadows?

It is located in northern Newfoundland on the Great Northern Peninsula with the nearest town being St Anthony. The site is located on a windswept plain which would have been covered by small woods of birch and larch in the 11 th century. The area is enclosed by a high rocky ridge that seals the plain off from the rest of Newfoundland.  L’Anse aux Meadows overlooks the sea and the faint outline of the coast of Labrador can be seen on a clear day.

The claims that there was a Norse outpost somewhere in North America based on a study of the Ancient Norse sagas were initially not taken seriously by experts and historians who regarded stories of the Norse in North America as fables. However, in the 1960s two Norwegian explorers, inspired by the Viking Sagas, went in search of a Norse settlement in the L’Anse aux Meadows. After some preliminary excavations and to the amazement of the world, the two declared that they had found physical evidence of a Norse outpost.

L’Anse aux Meadows

L’Anse aux Meadows Source: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Norwegian duo had discovered a complex with the remnants of sod walls a short distance from the shore. Later excavation revealed that there was a large hall flanked by small houses made of peat. They were built in a style that was similar to Viking-era Iceland and Greenland, in which presumably those of high status lived. The large circular building which would have been the servants or slaves quarters, was also unearthed.  Another building where iron smelting was practiced provided conclusive evidence that the site had been occupied by Norse settlers or explorers as the native peoples did not have this technology. Since the 1960s, there have been a series of excavations at the site and they have established that less than 100 people lived there and that they most likely had strong connections with the Norse in Greenland.

Entrance to a sod house

Entrance to a sod house ( Robertson / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Although mainly wooden debris such as wood chips were found at the site, the Norse also left behind personal artifacts such as a knitting needle, parts of rings, and a bead, suggesting that some of the residents of the Norse village came from a high social class. Fire strikers and nails were unearthed as well as a plank from a ship which was preserved in the peat of L’Anse aux Meadows.  Radiocarbon dating of the wooden artifacts indicates that the site was occupied for a limited time in the 11 th century, possibly for only ten years.

The chapel at Norstead

The chapel at Norstead  (Carrotflower, A / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A visitor center was built on the site in the 1980s. Some of the sod houses were reconstructed a short distance from the archaeological site, as well as an iron furnace in the 2000s.  A theme park called Norstead, a recreation of a Norse village, was constructed nearby and is managed by a private company.   L’Anse aux Meadows is now a popular tourist spot although archaeologists still work in the general area.

History of L’Anse aux Meadows

In the past the site was populated by at least five indigenous groups. The identity of these groups is unknown and whether they are related to the First Nation people who presently live in Newfoundland, has not been determined.  

Leif the Red

Leif the Red (jpellgan / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Viking Sagas provide us with some information on the Norse settlement of Newfoundland.  In the 11 th century, the Norse had established a flourishing settlement in Greenland and it appears that a merchant from the colony was blown off course, landed on Newfoundland, and later returned home with news of his discovery. A leader of the Greenland Norse, Leif the Red (aka Leif Erikson) along with members of his extended family, established outposts on Newfoundland one of which was probably L’Anse aux Meadows. It is believed that the Norse intended to use the settlement for exploration as L’Anse aux Meadows is exposed and not ideal for farming. It was also used for the exploitation of natural resources such as wood, which was very important to the Norse as there was no wood in Greenland. The Viking Sagas relate that the Norse met the indigenous people and traded peacefully at times, but there were also violent clashes between them. The outpost was likely abandoned due to the attacks and in part due to climate change and the decline in the Norse Greenland community.

The significance of L’Anse aux Meadows: Norse settlement

L’Anse aux Meadows is significant in that it proves the Norse were the first Europeans to land in North America, some five centuries before the Spanish. The discovery has validated the Viking Sagas as important historical documents and has enabled archaeologists to understand the nature of the Norse outpost and its links with Greenland.

Viking Sagas (Public Domain )

The archaeological site is now a popular tourist destination and getting accommodation near L’Anse aux Meadows is easy. To experiences what life was like on the settlement, there are guided tours available to the public in the summer and early fall.

Top image: L’Anse aux Meadows         Source: ( YouTube Screenshot )

By: By: Ed Whelan

References

Ingstad, A.S and Ingstad, H.  1986. The Norse Discovery of America : Excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961–1968 [vol 1] and The Norse Discovery of America: The Historical Background and the Evidence of the Norse Settlement Discovered in Newfoundland [vol. 2 ]. Breakwater Books

Nydal, R. (1989) A Critical Review of Radiocarbon Dating of a Norse Settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland Canada. Radiocarbon , 31(3), pp.976-985. Cambridge University Press

Wallace, B., (2005). The Norse in Newfoundland: L'Anse aux Meadows and Vinland . Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 19(1).

Available from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/NFLDS/article/view/140/236

Wallace, B.  (2009) L'Anse Aux Meadows, Leif Eriksson's Home in Vinland . Journal of the North Atlantic, 2(sp2), pp.114-125.

Available from http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3721/037.002.s212.

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