Viking Celebration

The great square-rigged wooden ship could have arrived on the northern tip of Newfoundland about this time of year, when the Labrador Current drags the icebergs, like immense white ghosts, through the Strait of Belle Isle.

Viking Celebration

The great square-rigged wooden ship could have arrived on the northern tip of Newfoundland about this time of year, when the Labrador Current drags the icebergs, like immense white ghosts, through the Strait of Belle Isle. It might have been foggy, as it often is at the eastern edge of North America, or there may have been seabirds circling overhead. As the ship drew closer, Leif Ericsson and his crew of Norse explorers would almost certainly have seen the stunted tuckamore trees and tannin-stained bogs that covered the mysterious new world they called Vinland. Though the average temperature was a couple of degrees warmer 1,000 years ago, the gnarled finger of rock they headed for - centuries later renamed L'Anse aux Meadows - would have looked much as it does now: rugged, barren, bleak. "It's hard to imagine anyone with a choice wanting to make anchor there," marvels Hodding Carter, the American adventurer and author who, in 1998, re-enacted Leif's historic voyage in a replica Norse ship. But being Vikings, that, of course, was precisely where they decided to call home.

Not for long, however. All told, the Vikings spent less than a decade in Newfoundland before mysteriously leaving forever. But their arrival in this remote spot - 500 years before the voyages of Columbus - literally put the New World on the map. And a millennium later, the ghosts of those seafaring adventurers still haunt L'Anse aux Meadows, home to 45 Newfoundlanders and the first and still only authentic site of Viking settlement in North America. Outside three sod-walled buildings - meticulously restored by Parks Canada - a small Norse dory, called a faering, rests on a wooden stand. Inside the main longhouse, a Viking chieftain named Bjorn Fallagar - played by a bearded local fisherman named Mike Sexton - carves a piece of wood and talks wistfully of the long-ago voyages west from Greenland in search of new worlds with forests and farmland ripe for colonization.

This summer, Bjorn must feel like the good old days are back. A few kilometres from the site, workmen are hustling to ensure that Norstead, the recreated Viking village, is ready for July 28 when 14 replica Norse ships arrive. Viking buffs who can't make the trek to L'Anse aux Meadows can visit the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre, where the Newfoundland Museum is mounting Full Circle: First Contact, an exhibition relating the initial encounter between the Vikings and the aboriginals they called Skraelings. In faraway Washington, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History is displaying the full scope of Norse culture and achievement in its exhibition,Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. "The response has been phenomenal," says Bill Fitzhugh, the exhibition's curator. "It's Viking-mania."

The reality may turn out to be a lot different from the oft-told Viking legends, literature and folktales - at least, judging from the archeological excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows and elsewhere. Despite their larger-than-life reputation, anthropologists say the fair-haired, blue-eyed adventurers averaged five-foot, six-inches - which, although tall for the era, would hardly stand out in a crowd today. They wore cone-shaped helmets, not the horned models they usually sport in Hollywood costume dramas. The Vikings were also innovative shipbuilders and skilful artists who decorated woodwork and cast-metal ornaments with designs of dazzling complexity. And in spite of their reputation for violence, most actually survived by raising livestock and cutting hay back in their homeland.

But the temptations of the bigger world were too much for some Norsemen. By the ninth century, Scandinavian traders, raiders and adventurers - the term Viking technically refers only to those who went on raids in longships - ranged as far east as Russia, and as far south as modern-day Iraq. To the west, they island-hopped across the Atlantic to the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland. "In a way, they were like the Romans," says Brigitta Linderoth Wallace, an archeologist at the L'Anse aux Meadows site. "The Viking age was a golden age of exploration and discovery." Eventually, their quest for land and riches brought them to North America.

For centuries, the only clues to how and when Ericsson and the Vikings crossed the Atlantic lay undeciphered in the sagas - ancient stories passed on by word of mouth before finally being written down centuries later. In the early 1800s, English translation of the sagas sparked interest in finding Vinland. Most scholars thought the probable site was the southern part of North America's eastern seaboard. By the mid-1950s, however, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad had his own theory. He focused on ancient maps that showed Vinland to be on a jutting piece of land or peninsula, similar to the landscape of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula. Ingstad also found nautical information in the sagas, including references to floating ice and rocky beaches, which buttressed his theory.

He and his archeologist wife, Anne Stine, were aboard a hospital boat in 1961 when it stopped at L'Anse aux Meadows. When Ingstad asked the locals if anyone had noticed any unusual ruins in the area, fisherman George Decker took him to a nearby shore where Ingstad saw in a meadow what appeared to be the outlines of old foundations. "I was very excited," Ingstad, now 100, and living in Oslo, Norway, recalled during an interview with Maclean's. "This struck me as exactly the kind of place where the Vikings might settle."

Proving that took seven long years. The excavation team, led by Ingstad's wife, unearthed the outlines of seven turf houses. Capable of sheltering 50 to 100 people, they were identical to those the Vikings were known to have built in Iceland and Greenland. Artifacts the team unearthed shed further light on the settlement's origins. They discovered a kiln and a smelting pit as well as a smithy, where red-hot iron slag could be shaped into a weapon or tool - a skill the Vikings, but none of the early Indians or Inuit, possessed. When the Ingstads left in 1968, Parks Canada archeologists continued to piece the story together. Carbon dating proved the L'Anse aux Meadows artifacts were approximately 1,000 years old.

Was L'Anse aux Meadows part of Ericsson's Vinland? Parks Canada's Wallace does not think so. More than likely, she says, it was for a few years a way station from which different groups of Vikings further explored the new world. "They were striking out in all different directions," she says. "Then they just stopped coming back." And they left behind some long-ago ruins and a mystery that would take 1,000 years to unravel.

Maclean's July 10, 2000