Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.
For the past 50 years—since the discovery of a thousand-year-old Viking way station in Newfoundland—archaeologists and amateur historians have combed North America's east coast searching for traces of Viking visitors.
It has been a long, fruitless quest, littered with bizarre claims and embarrassing failures. But at a conference in Canada earlier this month, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland announced new evidence that points strongly to the discovery of the second Viking outpost ever discovered in the Americas.
(Read the new National Geographic magazine feature "Vikings and Native Americans: Face-to-Face.")
While digging in the ruins of a centuries-old building on Baffin Island (map), far above the Arctic Circle, a team led by Sutherland, adjunct professor of archaeology at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, found some very intriguing whetstones. Wear grooves in the blade-sharpening tools bear traces of copper alloys such as bronze—materials known to have been made by Viking metalsmiths but unknown among the Arctic's native inhabitants.
Taken together with her earlier discoveries, Sutherland's new findings further strengthen the case for a Viking camp on Baffin Island. "While her evidence was compelling before, I find it convincing now," said James Tuck, professor emeritus of archaeology, also at Memorial University.
Archaeologists have long known that Viking seafarers set sail for the New World around A.D. 1000. A popular Icelandic saga tells of the exploits of Leif Eriksson, a Viking chieftain from Greenland who sailed westward to seek his fortune. According to the saga, Eriksson stopped long enough on Baffin Island to walk the coast—named Helluland, an Old Norse word meaning "stone-slab land"—before heading south to a place he called Vinland.
In the 1960s two Norwegian researchers, Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered and excavated the Viking base camp at L'Anse aux Meadows (map) on the northern tip of Newfoundland—the first confirmed Viking outpost in the Americas. Dated to between 989 and 1020, the camp boasted three Viking halls, as well as an assortment of huts for weaving, ironworking, and ship repair.
As reported in the November issue of National Geographic magazine, Sutherland first caught wind of another possible Viking way station in 1999, when she spotted two unusual pieces of cord that had been excavated from a Baffin Island site by an earlier archaeologist and stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.
Sutherland noticed that the strands bore little resemblance to the animal sinew Arctic hunters twisted into cordage. The cords turned out to be expertly woven Viking yarn, identical in technique to yarn produced by Viking women living in Greenland in the 14th century.
The discovery prompted Sutherland to scour other museum collections for more Viking artifacts from Baffin Island and other sites. She found more pieces of Viking yarn and a small trove of previously overlooked Viking gear, from wooden tally sticks for recording trade transactions to dozens of Viking whetstones. (Also see "Viking Weapon Recycling Site Found in England.")
The artifacts came from four sites, ranging from northern Baffin Island to northern Labrador, a distance of a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers). Indigenous Arctic hunters known as the Dorset people had camped at each of the sites, raising the possibility that they had made friendly contact with the Vikings.
Intrigued, Sutherland decided to reopen excavations at the most promising site, a place known as Tanfield Valley on the southeast coast of Baffin Island. In the 1960s U.S. archaeologist Moreau Maxwell had excavated parts of a stone-and-sod building there, describing it as "very difficult to interpret." Sutherland suspected that Viking seafarers had built the structure.
Clues Etched in Bronze, Brass, and Iron
Since 2001 Sutherland's team has been exploring Tanfield Valley and carefully excavating surviving parts of the mysterious ruins. They have discovered a wide range of evidence pointing to the presence of Viking seafarers: pelt fragments from Old World rats; a whalebone shovel similar to those used by Viking settlers in Greenland to cut sod; large stones that appear to have been cut and shaped by someone familiar with European stone masonry; and more Viking yarn and whetstones. And the stone ruins bear a striking resemblance to some Viking buildings in Greenland.
Still, some Arctic researchers remained skeptical. Most of the radiocarbon dates obtained by earlier archaeologists had suggested that Tanfield Valley was inhabited long before Vikings arrived in the New World. But as Sutherland points out, the complex site shows evidence of several occupations, and one of the radiocarbon dates indicates that the valley was occupied in the 14th century, when Viking settlers were farming along the coast of nearby Greenland.
In search of other clues to help solve the mystery, Sutherland turned to the Geological Survey of Canada. Using a technique known as energy dispersive spectroscopy, the team examined the wear grooves on more than 20 whetstones from Tanfield Valley and other sites. Sutherland and her colleagues detected microscopic streaks of bronze, brass, and smelted iron—clear evidence of European metallurgy, which she presented October 7 at a meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology in St. John's, Canada.
Norse-Native American Trade Network?
Sutherland speculates that parties of Viking seafarers travelled to the Canadian Arctic to search for valuable resources. In northern Europe at the time, medieval nobles prized walrus ivory, soft Arctic furs, and other northern luxuries—and Dorset hunters and trappers could readily stockpile such products. Helluland's waters teemed with walruses, and its coasts abounded in Arctic foxes and other small fur-bearing animals. To barter for such goods, Viking traders likely offered bits of iron and pieces of wood that could be carved into figurines and other goods, Sutherland says.
If Sutherland is correct, the lines of evidence she has uncovered may point to a previously unknown chapter in New World history in which Viking seafarers and Native American hunters were partners together in a transatlantic trade network. "I think things were a lot more complex in this part of the world than most people assumed," Sutherland said. James Tuck agreed. "It's pretty convincing that there was a much larger Norse presence in the Canadian Arctic than any of us thought."