The Amazing Vikings

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The configuration of the ruined buildings, the paucity of artifacts and garbage compared with those found at other sites, and the absence of a cemetery, stables and holding pens for animals have convinced Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, the site's official archaeologist, that L'Anse aux Meadows wasn't a permanent settlement and was used for perhaps less than 10 years.

Instead, she believes, it served as a base camp for several exploratory expeditions up and down the coast, perhaps as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence. "We know this because of the butternuts," she says. "The closest places they grow are east of Quebec near the Gulf of St. Lawrence or in eastern New Brunswick. They are too heavy for birds to carry, and they can't float. And we know the Norse considered them a delicacy."

The National Museum's Fitzhugh notes that the location of the camp was advantageous for various reasons. "L'Anse aux Meadows is rocky and dangerous," he admits. "There are much better places just a few miles away--but there's a good view. They could watch out for danger, and they could bring their boats in and keep an eye on them." What's more, Fitzhugh says, "they would have built where they could easily be found by other people. That's why they chose the tip of a peninsula. All they had to tell people was, 'Cross the Big Water, turn left and keep the land on your right.'" With fair winds, the voyage would have taken about two weeks; a group of men who tried it in the replica Viking ship Snorri (named after the first European born in America) in 1998 were stuck at sea for three months.

Despite all the natural resources, the Norse never secured a foothold in the New World. Within a decade or so after Leif's landing at L'Anse aux Meadows, they were gone. Wallace, for one, believes that there were simply too few people to keep the camp going and that those stationed there got homesick: "You had a very small community that could barely sustain itself. Recent research has shown it had only 500 people, and we know you need that many at a minimum to start a colony in an uninhabited area. They had barely got started in Greenland when they decided to go to North America. It wasn't practical, and I think they missed their family and friends."

Fitzhugh offers another theory. "I think they recognized that they had found wonderful resources but decided they couldn't defend themselves and were unable to risk their families to stay there," he says. "Imagine 30 Norsemen in a boat on the St. Lawrence meeting a band of Iroquois. They would have been totally freaked out."

As for discovering additional Norse outposts in North America, most experts think the chances are very slim. "These areas were heavily occupied by Native Americans," says archaeologist Patricia Sutherland of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, "so while there may have been some trade, relations would have been hostile. Maybe someone will find an isolated Norse farm on the coast of Labrador or Baffin Island, but not an outpost."

That's not to say Norse artifacts haven't been discovered south of Newfoundland--but aside from a Norse penny, minted between 1065 and 1080 and found in 1957 at an Indian site near Brooklin, Maine, nearly all of them have turned out to be bogus. The Newport (R.I.) Tower, whose supposed Viking origin was central to Longfellow's epic poem The Skeleton in Armor, was built by an early Governor of Rhode Island. The Kensington Stone, a rune-covered slab unearthed on a Minnesota farm in 1898 that purportedly describes a voyage to Vinland in 1362, is today widely believed to be a modern forgery. So is Yale's Vinland Map, a seemingly antique chart with the marking "Vinilanda Insula" that surfaced in the 1950s bound into a medieval book.

To the north, though, it's a different story. Digs at dozens of ancient Inuit sites in the eastern Canadian Arctic and western Greenland have turned up a wealth of Norse artifacts, indicating that the Europeans and Arctic natives interacted long after Leif Eriksson and his mates left. Says Sutherland: "The contact was more extensive and more complex than we suspected even a couple of months ago."

The Norse referred to the indigenous peoples they encountered in Greenland and the New World as skraeling, a derogatory term meaning wretch or scared weakling, and the sagas make it clear that the Norse considered the natives hostile. But the abundance of Norse items found at Inuit sites--some 80 objects from a single site on Skraeling Island, off the east coast of Ellesmere Island, including a small driftwood carving of a face with European features--suggests that there was a lively trade between the groups (as well as an exchange of Norse goods among the Inuit).

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