May 14th, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 19
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Thorvald, Eirik and Leif
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
John Kinnear photo
Sketch of Viking knarr off Iceland
Fifteen years ago in late 1999 I found myself pondering the spectre of the approaching new millennium. I decided to put the following reflective question to my wife. It was: "What do you suppose was going on in this country we call Canada at the start of the last millennium"?
To this fiesty Norsk (maiden name Tronsgard) the answer was quite obvious. She replied: "Why we were being discovered by my Scandinavian ancestors the Norsemen of course!" While we've known for some time that this is the case very few of us have had occasion to investigate the wheres and whens of this first European contact on our East Coast. So I did back then and it proved quite interesting. It turns out my Viking partner was pretty well spot on time-wise with regards to the Viking's arrival in Newfoundland. Carbon dating of artifacts at the now well documented site of L'Anse aux Meadows indicates their settlement there dates back to around 1000 A.D.
The site is now a national park and in 1978 was the first to be put on UNESCO's World Cultural List of sites "of outstanding universal value".
It was discovered and verified in 1960 by a Norwegian lawyer named Helge Ingstad. Ingstad answered what was known as the great grape question with regards to locating our first European contact.
The Greenlander's Saga, which is a 12th century document contains descriptions of the geography, climate and natural resources of the New World and refers to their settlement here as Vinland. Since vin with an accent over the i means wine it was always assumed the site had to be far enough south that grape vines could survive. Ingstad knew that "Vin" was an old Norse word for grassy fields or meadows and that this incorrect translation had led researchers to rule out the likes of Labrador and Newfoundland and be more inclined to look around the coast lines of Nova Scotia and Maine. Working his way north along the East Coast of Newfoundland he was eventually led by a fisherman to a low, grassed marine terrace on the northeastern spike of the island near the fishing community of L'Anse aux Meadows. There he found a group of mounds that formed vague outlines of foundations which were remarkably similar to the numerous Norse sites he'd seen in Greenland. Archeological excavation quickly verified it to be the first concrete evidence of what had been described in the saga 800 years earlier.
The Viking name most familiar to us in all this venture is of course Leif Eirikson but the whole story started with his grandfather. In case you were thinking it was wanderlust or a sense of adventure that led to the whole affair you would be mistaken. It seems Leif's grandfather, Thorvald, was involved in some killings back home (no surprise there) and was forced to "move on" so to speak, winding up in Iceland. Eirik, his son who could claim no higher motive, was eventually banished from Western Iceland after killing his neighbours in an argument over some furniture. No doubt the scarcity of wood in that country precipitated that scrap. Eirik took his wife and son Leif and sailed westward landing on the southern tip of another rocky mass which he deliberately named Greenland in order to attract other settlers.
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Around 985 A.D. Eirik's son Leif decided to check out the news from another intrepid Viking explorer named Bjarni who got lost on his way west from Iceland and reportedly observed some interesting landforms west of Greenland before finally finding his way back to Eirik's new home called Brattahlid. Retracing Bjarni's inadvertent discovery Leif sailed his knarr (Norse sailing ship) westward until he encountered the rock infested Baffin Island which he named Helluland (as in Hell, you land there and you'll starve). He then headed south along the Labrador Coast which he named Markland (land of forests). Eventually Leif and his gang put in to Sacred Bay on the northern tip of Newfoundland where the saga says:"the river was full of large salmon and the ground was covered in high grass, excellent fodder for livestock." These were apparently wonderful attractions and when added to the groves of hardwood and frostless winters made for a perfect site. Large rectangular sod structures were erected there by his crew who also spent that fall and winter exploring the coastline. They returned to Greenland triumphant with a cargo hold of wine berries and timber which prompted Leif's brother Thorvald to lead another expedition with a crew of 30 to Vinland. While exploring further west during his second summer there Thorvald came into contact with what the saga refers to as "skraelings" a term which roughly translated means wretches or more commonly to later European explorers as savages. They immediately slaughtered eight of them which led others nearby to avenge this act. They gave chase in skin boats and Thorvald was killed. They buried him there before returning to Leif's encampment at L'Anse aux Meadows.
The skraelings mentioned in the saga were in fact a prehistoric tribe known as the "Beothuk" who had been native to the island for as long as 2,000 years. Sadly the Beothuk, who refused to adjust their culture and life ways to the occupation of strangers (fisherman, sealers and settlers) century's later were obliterated. The last known full blooded Beothuk named Shanawdithit died of consumption (TB) in 1829.
While the Norse saga's are likely a blend of archives and embellished entertainment and probably "improved" in their telling and retelling before finally being written down there is an essential truth to them. It is that Norse entrepreneurs sailed west and south beyond Greenland and found the New World. A small cove on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland was the earliest known European settlement in the Western Hemisphere. Oh yeah, one more thing. Don't forget they did this 500 years before an Italian named Christopher got lost down south.
May 14th ~ Vol. 84 No. 19
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