Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Vikings in the Canadian North?

The Icelandic sagas tell of several Viking voyages to Vinland, or North America, a thousand years ago. Scholars have long agreed, though, that the sagas don't tell of every voyage--and they've long disagreed on where the Vikings went.

When I was researching my nonfiction book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman in 2006, the scholarly consensus was that L'Anse aux Meadows, on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland, was the only authenticated Viking settlement in the New World. Birgitta Wallace, the lead archaeologist on the project, speculated that the Vikings traveled from there at least as far as south as the Miramichi River. (For her argument, see my post "The Case of the Butternuts.")

When I wrote my young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (just published by Namelos), I followed Birgitta's suggestion and placed Gudrid and Karlsefni's house on the banks of the Miramichi.

If I'd listened to a different archaeologist, though, I might have sent Gudrid north. For there is now a second authenticated Viking settlement in the New World: on Baffin Island.

Ian Robertson, a reader of this blog, has been helpfully keeping me up-to-date with the work of Canadian archaeologist Patricia Sutherland, now affiliated with the University of Aberdeen. In 2009, Sutherland published an exciting paper reanalyzing some older finds from the Arctic North. She and her colleagues have now followed that up with a paper in Geoarchaeology that--at least for me--puts all other arguments to rest: There were Viking explorers on Baffin Island a thousand years ago.

Sutherland identifies four sites at which Norse objects--or, as she more carefully says, "objects associated with a variety of European technologies"--have been found.

Yarn spun from animal hair.

Bar-shaped whetstones.

Notched wooden sticks that look like Viking tally-sticks.

And now, a crucible used for making bronze.

This small, broken stone vessel was found at a site called Nanook. It was near "a large structure with long straight walls of boulders and turf and a stone-edged drainage channel." The indigenous Dorset people, a Paleo-Eskimo culture, did not build houses like this. The Vikings did, throughout the North Atlantic, including in Greenland.

Under two inches high, the crucible was carved from a gray metamorphic rock not found near Nanook. Among the possible sources are the west coast of Greenland.

When Sutherland and her colleagues examined the crucible under a scanning electron microscope equipped with an Oxford Energy Dispersive Spectra (EDS) system for chemical analysis, they found "abundant traces of copper-tin alloy (bronze) as well as glass spherules similar to those associated with high-temperature processes. These results indicate that it had been used as a crucible" in which copper and tin were melted, "probably for the casting of small bronze objects."

The Dorset Eskimos, who lived in this area throughout the Viking Age and until being pushed out by the Inuit in the 13th or 14th century, did not make bronze. In fact, no one in North America north of Mexico knew how to make bronze.

But the Vikings did.

To learn more, read "Evidence of Early Metalworking in Canada" by Patricia D. Sutherland, Peter H. Thompson, and Patricia A. Hunt in Geoarchaeology 30 (2015): 74-78.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating!

    My copy of GUDRID is sitting on my desk--can't wait to clear the decks so I can settle down to read it!