This is a two part series that looks at the mystery of the Vikings lost settlements in Canada.
PART 1: Vikings Cometh
This week the Canadian Museum of History opened a special exhibit called “Vikings” described in the promotional material as “engaging interactive displays and 500 outstanding artifacts from The Swedish History Museum”. It only seems natural the Canadian Museum of History would host such an exhibit that explores the fabled Scandinavian culture since Vikings have now been proven to be the first Europeans to land in Canada one thousand years ago. The exhibit displays artifacts and information that seeks to tell the truth about Viking lore and the various myths associated with them. (no they did not wear helmets with horns on them)
I was able to preview the exhibition before it opened and study the details of the exhibit to see if this collaboration between the Swedish History Museum in Sweden and MuseumsPartner in Austria would touch on the mystery surrounding Norse settlement in Canada. Many are skeptical about the Norse exploration of North America and I had hoped this exhibit would shed some light on the subject, but alas the only mention was a world map showing parts of Newfoundland where the only verified Viking settlement was unearthed in the 1960s.
I asked to speak with Gunnar Andersson, Senior Curator of the Viking exhibition from the Swedish History Museum about the Canadian Viking connection and he too had hoped the Canadian Museum of History would have contributed some material to exhibit. Andersson emphasized there is a rich Viking heritage in Canada which could have been tied into the exhibit.
Contacting Stephanie Verner, Media Relations Officer for the Canadian Museum of History about the absence of a Canadian Viking connection, Verner responded “The exhibition does mention the Viking expansion westward to Iceland and Greenland, but does not significantly address activities in North America. As this was a borrowed exhibition intended to help debunk modern myths concerning the Vikings, the Canadian Museum of History did not add content from its own collections.” Verner did however state that in 2017 “The Viking/Norse presence in North America will be covered in the new Canadian History Hall which will open on July 1, 2017. The new Canadian History Hall will tell the story of Canada and its people from the dawn of human habitation to the present day.”
Regardless, the exhibit explores the lifestyle of the Vikings, a term they used to describe themselves during the Viking Age, an era between 750 and 1100AD. Fascinating artifacts are well displayed including weapons, household/cultural items and of course the Viking technological prowess in metallurgy and ship building. The most stunning part of the exhibit is a Viking “ghost ship” that exhibits hundreds of original iron rivets that would have held a ship’s long decomposed planks in place, suspended from the air by fishing line to form the shape of the ship’s hull.
Other noteworthy items are rune stones that show the cryptic carvings left by Vikings on rocks during their journeys across lands in Europe and the North Atlantic. After wandering the exhibit I felt like I was teleported back in time, completely immersed in the life and times of a Viking, which is an amazing feat for a temporary exhibit. I highly recommend checking it out and the IMAX film “Vikings” that runs until April 17 2016 at the Museum Of History.
Leaving the exhibit one wonders if these daring adventurers from Scandanavia made it into Canada further than we have discovered. The idea of the Norse coming to Canada is nothing new, it was first the subject of legend, a tale of folklore in Scandanvia through the “Saga of Erik the Red” a tale preserved in two manuscripts; Hauksbók (14th century) and Skálholtsbók (15th century). In both there is a story describing the Norse exploration of North-America. This tale chronicled the events that led to Erik the Red’s banishment to Greenland as well as Leif Ericson’s discovery of a place called “Vinland” after his longship was blown off course and he journeyed to a distant land with trees, fish, grapes and riches beyond belief. It remained a fairytale for hundreds of years because how could anyone believe a bunch of barbaric warriors in wooden sailboats could ever cross the Atlantic ocean to another continent? Preposterous! The tales of Vinland and the journey made by the Viking explorers was long considered a myth.
The Norse traveling great distances was given credence when Viking settlements were found in Greenland. If they could make it to Greenland, then perhaps they could also make it to Canada. Ridiculous! said scholars of the time. Their wooden “Knarr” sailboats could never make the journey across the Atlantic to Canada! That was a task best left to explorers like Christopher Colombus, Jacques Cartier and Henry Hudson. Yet many did believe in the legend, and many tried to prove it true since most legends are usually based on a slice of fact.
I managed to find some newspaper clippings that showed Norwegian scholars tried to prove the fable as fact in 1884 when a Dr. George Lawson of Halifax was asked by Norwegian professors on the extent of wild grapes in Canada, since that would reveal some information on where possible Norse explorers found the grapes needed to call their newly discovered land “Vinland”: land of the grape vine. The old saga described a land of wild grapes from which the Norse made wine, a very important ingredient to any rowdy Norse explorer meal plan. Dr. Lawson placed an article in the Halifax newspapers of the time, and was soon inundated with replies about odd ruins, stones with carvings in them, old axes and burial sites, that may reveal the existence of Norse explorers in the Nova Scotia region.
The idea of the Norse coming to Canada conjured up grand fantasies and “Viking Fever” swept the nation into the 1920s and 1930s, with many Viking artifacts being uncovered, their origin and provenance unknown. Viking relics in the Maritimes, Ontario, New York State, and the New England Coast started popping up and even a Bank Of Montreal building constructed here in Ottawa in 1930 on Sparks Street got in on the action with a relief sculpture depicting a Viking first discovering Canada.
The conjecture and speculation continued for almost another hundred years until the legend was finally proven to be fact. In 1960 the seemingly impossible became possible: archaeological remains of a Norse village were discovered in Newfoundland by two Norwegians, the explorer Helge Ingstad and the archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, a husband and wife team who once and for all proved the enduring legend was actually real.
A site in northern Newfoundland was unearthed after the Ingstads asked local residents if there were any unusual ruins or features in the area. They had been studying old Norse maps that showed a peninsula labelled “Vinland” that seemed to match the shape of the upper peninsula of Newfoundland. The local residents pointed the Ingstad’s to some odd features that were once considered to be “old Indian ruins” but after excavation under the direction of Parks Canada in the 1970s a genuine Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was authentically dated to approximately 1,000 years ago, (carbon dating estimate 990 – 1050 CE). The Vikings were here.
Of particular interest in the excavation were many artifacts discovered that proved the Vikings had indeed landed, and stayed in Canada for about ten years. Iron smelting tools, household items, and dwellings were all found and verified to be those of the Vikings. Also found was an unusual nut, a butternut. Butternuts have not, and never did grow in Newfoundland. They exist only in regions much farther south than the LAM site. So how did a butternut get there?
One would assume the Viking explorers ventured elsewhere and brought it back to the LAM site which was determined to be a temporary base camp for further explorations. LAM was not a permanent settlement, but rather a place to repair their boats and re-supply expeditions venturing elsewhere. But where was “elsewhere”? Why haven’t we found evidence that shows where the additional Norse adventures took them? Why haven’t we as a country looked more into this important piece of our history? Why have we stopped at LAM and not explored the possibilities Vikings carried onward to other places yet to be discovered? It seems like the one site was enough for our history books to handle and that is enough. Case closed.
However, this is what we are going to do now…look at possible explorations further inland that took our Norse visitors into North America and objects discovered that could show these explorations existed. So buckle up, we are heading to uncharted territory, a place filled with skepticism, hoaxes and of course a mystery that is long overdue to be solved. I must also note that I am not in anyway an expert on any form of archeology, but as an artist I am a curious thinker whose job it is to have a creative mind which I will utilize to provide my own analysis on what I think is a Great Canadian Viking Mystery. Using two years of collected research that includes overlooked artifacts sitting in small museums, old newspaper articles and current technological applications, let’s uncover more information and solve the great Viking mystery.
NEXT WEEK: Part 2 – Viking Evidence in Canada or an elaborate network of hoaxes?