In the year , nearly years before Christopher Columbus set sail, a Viking longboat, skippered by Leif Erikson, brought 90 men and women from Iceland to establish a new settlement — the first European settlement in the New World. When the tide returned, they moved further inland, navigating up Black Duck Brook to the place where they would establish their stronghold in their new-found land.
By modern sensibilities, Newfoundland can seem a harsh place, with fierce coastal winds whipping across the remote landscape. But for people who just travelled across the unforgiving North Atlantic in open boats, it would have been perfect. The forests were rich in game; the rivers teemed with salmon larger than the Norse had ever seen; the grasslands provided a bounty of food for livestock; and, in some places, wild grapes grew, prompting the Vikings to name this land 'Vinland'. Then, the discovery of a 1,year-old nail indicated that ship building had taken place here, leading them to believe that they had discovered the long lost Vineland settlement.
View image of In , two Norwegian archaeologists discovered that what was thought to be an old native village was the Viking settlement Credit: Credit: Parks Canada.
Mossy partridgeberry and bakeapple vines cover a boggy shelf along the rocky shoreline. Cow parsnip stands as tall as centuries-old dwarf trees, its clusters of tiny, white flowers blooming at shoulder level. In this case, Parcak used satellite imagery to measure the difference in plant life growth across the Point Rosee site.
A magnetometer also indicated a hot spot in one specific location; the archaeologists who excavated there found 28 pounds of iron slag, indicating the spot was used to dry the bog iron the Vikings relied on for making iron weapons I recommend reading the full Nat Geo article, which has additional details on this. There are no extant maps from the period when the colony was founded.
The discovery of significant iron smelting at Point Rosee could be a sign the location was another industry-specific settlement this time for smelting iron, rather than repairing vessels and launching expeditions , or it could mean that the main Viking settlement for the entire expedition is nearby.
Part of what complicates the search is that the Norse relied on perishable materials for building. Stone buildings can last millennia; wood, fur, and cloth decay fairly quickly over archaeological timescales. Researchers have tried for years to map the most likely locations of both Vinland and its settlers based on the various descriptions of flora and fauna within the Icelandic sagas, but changing climate conditions and uncertainty over exact details make precise location difficult.
It is impossible to be certain but historians now think the most likely explanation is that it was attacked and looted. When I visited, a couple of months before the trip to Point Rosee, I held a piece of skull in my hand, presumably from a monk. It had been shattered by a mighty blow, the sword's blade left a deep gouge that makes the cause of death clear. Who were these men who slaughtered God's servants and annihilated one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain?
Almost certainly they were men who cared nothing for the Christian God, men who came in ships from the north and west, men who sought gold: Vikings. The attack on Portmahomack is the only Viking raid in Britain for which we have archaeological evidence. Others, such as the attack on Lindisfarne at about the same time, echo only through the reports recorded in chronicles. Together these two violent raids mark the start of an era of attacks from across the North Sea. The Vikings or Norse exploded out of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, using hugely sophisticated navigational skills and shipbuilding technology as they pushed ever further into the wider world.
Vikings conquered Normandy in France - the land of the Northmen - even parts of Italy and the Levant. They also founded Dublin, made deep inroads into England and island-hopped across the North Atlantic. Orkney, Shetland, Fair Isle and Iceland. They even crossed to Greenland, where I visited stunning Viking sites on the coast, dodging icebergs to get ashore.
But perhaps their greatest achievement is the one shrouded in the most mystery.
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Did they get to North America? If so, was it a fleeting visit or did they colonise that distant coast too, centuries before Christopher Columbus? The descendants of the Vikings left sagas - beautiful works of literature in which fact and fiction are often poetically intermixed. They clearly state that the intrepid Leif Erikson led an expedition to the east coast of North America.
Who Discovered the New World?
They describe good harbours, and an abundance of natural resources. One of the most fascinating mysteries in history is whether these can be believed. In The Vikings Uncovered Dan Snow tracks their expansion west, first as raiders and then as settlers and traders. He travels through Britain, to Iceland, Greenland and Canada to see what could be the most westerly Viking settlement ever discovered. In , a site on the very northernmost tip of Newfoundland in Canada, L'Anse aux Meadows, was investigated and archaeologists were convinced that it was a Viking settlement. The world woke up to the fact that the Vikings had reached North America before any other Europeans.
But no other site has been identified, the search for Viking America stalled. Until now. Sarah Parcak uses satellite imagery to look for irregularities in the soil, potentially caused by man-made structures which lie beneath.
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She has used this technique to find ancient sites in Egypt and a few years ago she scoured the Roman Empire where she identified the site of the great lighthouse at Portus near Rome and several other buildings, from a fort in Tunisia to ramparts in Romania. Last year, she decided to search for the Vikings. It wasn't easy.
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- New satellite images reveal fresh evidence that Vikings settled in North America.
They travelled light and left nothing behind.
Related The Vikings: Discoverers of a New World
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