September 02, 2008

interesting, post about Nordic Travels in North America

Comments welcome !!


Finding Evidence of North Atlantic Travels

As illuminating as these sagas and historical records were, there was little corroborating evidence until archaeological studies began in the late 19th century. By the 1960s excavations had demonstrated abundant evidence of Viking settlement throughout the region. The most extensive studies were in Greenland, where the mysterious disappearance of the Norse colonies had been a subject of curiosity since the early 1700s. Archaeology at Viking and Norse sites in the Shetlands, Faeroes, and Iceland began later and has begun to produce major results. Little of this information has been available to English-speaking audiences, and none of the archaeological evidence of Viking and Norse settlement in the North Atlantic has ever been seen in North America. While some of the scholarly and popular publications devote a few pages to Viking history in the North Atlantic and North America, their brief presentations do not include the evidence of recent research. These new studies, including new literary research into the Viking sagas, archaeological excavations of Norse and Native sites, and historical and environmental research, bring to life an exciting new picture of a portion of the Viking world that has until recently been neglected and unknown.

Preserving the Vision of a Distant Past

The exhibition begins with a presentation of Viking history and culture in Scandinavia and its expansion, discussed above, into Europe and the British Isles. It then follows the early Viking pioneers who explored and settled the Faeroes and Iceland c.860-870, illustrating their ships, navigating techniques, and the various reasons why the West-Viking expansion took place: these included the need to find new lands for their expanding population and to seize the opportunities
Viking navigators perceived, as they discovered uninhabited islands that were suitable for their stock-raising economy. One of the opportunities was the lure of a different kind of "loot" - walrus
ivory which by this time had become more precious than gold in the high courts and church chambers of Europe.

The Iceland portion of the exhibition features the social and environmental changes that occurred when Vikings arrived and began to set up a new society in this land of fire and ice. The rapid peopling of the landscape, the removal of its fledgling forests, and the installation of large stocks of animals permanently transformed the island into what it is today: an agrarian-industrial nation whose economic interests and environmental resources must be carefully managed to avoid ecological catastrophe. Here archaeological and natural science give evidence of the failed Norse colonies in Greenland and of the changes Vikings brought to the Faeroes and
Icelandic landscapes soon after landnam. These serve as a reminder of the cost of over-exploitation in a part of the world where climatic cooling can have devastating effects. Iceland also exemplifies how a Viking population welded a new nation out of Celtic and Norse immigrants, and then adapted a system of Nordic self government, based on community assemblies, that has been a model of modern democracy, dating back to the first general assembly at Thingvellir in 930. But perhaps the greatest contribution to emerge from Iceland was the recording and preservation of the sagas. This facet of the Viking world is presented dramatically in the exhibition in a dedicated "saga theater" in which the sagas relating to the
discovery of America are staged in sound and light in a simulated Icelandic longhouse.

Sailing Ever Westward

Iceland was also the staging point for the final series of Viking expansions that led to Eric the Red's discovery and settlement of Greenland, and the extension of that effort further west into North America. Recent archaeological work not only offers a window into the four-hundred year span of Norse Greenland (985-1450); it has also given us exciting new information about Viking voyages to Vinland.

Evidence for the latter is presented from cartography and archaeology and includes a construction of the Viking site discovered by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad at L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. This portion of the exhibition includes new information
about contacts between the Norse and various Native American groups (Indian, Dorset, and Thule culture); it suggests the Norse may have been trading for ivory as well as gathering timber from Markland (Labrador) and that their voyages to America continued for several
hundred years after the Vinland voyages ceased in the early 11th century and were confined largely to the Arctic regions of northeastern North America. It now appears that Norse activities in North America were much more extensive than previously believed.

Finally, the exhibition deals with the controversial question,
"Where was Vinland?"
and the many claims and counter-claims made about Viking landings in America. Some of these theories have been based solely on interpretations from the Vinland sagas, while others are tied to reputed Viking artifact finds such as the Kensington Stone, found in Minnesota in 1898. Although once exhibited by the Smithsonian as a genuine relic of a 1362 Norse exploring expedition, scholars today believe it was created by a Swedish immigrant farmer as a practical joke. More romantic is the story of the Newport Tower in Rhode Island, once described by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1841 epic poem, The Skeleton in Armor, as a "lofty bower" built by a wandering Viking for his lost love. Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish scholar of that day, believed that the tower and many otherwise unexplainable archaeological traces in New England attested to a former Viking presence in America. Even the mythical city of Norumbega, thought to lie along the Charles River near Boston, was once thought to have been founded by a lost colony of Vikings. Finally, there is the more recent controversy over Yale's "Vinland" map, supported by a few (at Yale) as a genuine 15th century document but thought by almost everyone else to be a 20th century creation.

Affirming the Viking Legacy in North America

Although none of these theories or claims have withstood scientific study, discovery of a Viking coin dating to the reign of Olaf Kyrre (1 065-1 080) at the Goddard site, an Indian village on the
coast of Maine occupied during the Viking period, leaves open the possibility of startling new Viking finds. So far, no true runestones and no other Viking settlements than that found in Newfoundland have been uncovered. That site, which was excavated by Birgitta Wallace for
Parks Canada after the Ingstads worked there, seems likely to have been the camp established by Leif Eriksson and perhaps also by Thorfin Karsefni and his wife Gudrid, whose child, Snorri, has the honor of being the first European born in the the New World.

The Viking legacy of discovery and exploration in America, of pioneering new adaptations in the rigorous North Atlantic, and of artistic and literary creations that have enriched humanity is a story that has been too long hidden in archives and beneath the soil.

Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga brings these and many other tales of the West-Vikings to prominence in a beautiful and dramatic exhibition that will tour North America for two years after its opening at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The exhibition
has been planned since 1997 in collaboratiog,with the Nordic Council of Ministers, Volvo, and other sponsors as a millennium program to commemorate the Viking expansion across the North Atlantic. A catalogue will be available, with a preface by Hillary Rodham Clinton and contributions from more than 30 Viking scholars.

Certainly we have not heard the last cry of the Vikings in North America! While this exhibition will no doubt contribute to a more informed recognition of the Vikings'role in North America, the Viking icon in Europe and America seems certain to remain a powerful symbol of this dynamic culture for years - if not centuries - to come.


William W. Fitzhugh is Senior Curator of Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga, and Director of the Arctic Studies Center of the National Museum of Natural History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He edited the exhibition catalogue with Elisabeth I. Ward.

1 comment:

American Archaeologist said...

I think it is pretty well accepted that Norse explorers discovered North America way before Columbus. The really interesting question is what sort of impact did they have on Native populations - trade took place but beyond that the evidence is primarily conjecture.