The Amazing Vikings

They earned their brutal reputation--but the Norse were also craftsmen, explorers and believers in democracy

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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).

The Vikings held out in their harsh Greenland outposts for several centuries, but by 1450 they were gone. One reason was climate change. Starting about 1350, global temperatures entered a 500-year slump known as the Little Ice Age. Norse hunting techniques and agriculture were inadequate for survival in this long chill, and the Vikings never adapted the Inuit's more effective strategies for the cold.

Another factor was the rapacious overuse of resources. The goats, pigs and sheep brought by the Norse ate or trampled the forests and shrub lands, eventually transforming them into bare ground. Without enough fodder, the farm animals could not survive. The Norse were forced to eat more seal, seabirds and fish — and these too became locally scarce. The depletion of Greenland's meager trees and bushes meant no wood for fuel or for repairing ships.

To make matters worse, demand for the trade goods that Greenlanders exported to Europe plummeted. Not only was African ivory once again available (the supply had been cut off during the Crusades), but the material was falling out of fashion. And Europeans had their own problems: plague, crops failing in the colder conditions and city dwellers rioting in search of food. By the time the last Norse departed Greenland, the colonies had become so marginal that it took several hundred years before some Europeans realized they were gone. The Icelandic colony suffered too, though it managed to hang on.

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