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The Norse in Newfoundland: L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland

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The Norse in Newfoundland: L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland
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  The Norse in Newfoundland:L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland BIRGITTA WALLACE O  NE THOUSAND YEARS AGO , the Old World and the New stood face to face in theStrait of Belle Isle. The landing of the Norse on the shores of North America wasnot the result of a sudden journey but the endpoint of a step-by-step expansionstretching over two centuries. This expansion began in southwestern Norway,where chieftains and minor kings jostled for power over a growing population. Insuchacompetitivecontext,migrationacrosstheNorthSeatotheScottishIslesandtheFaeroeswasanattractivealternativetostayinghome.Thecontemporarydevel-opment of seaworthy ships, capable of safely crossing open oceans and transport-ingpeople,theirworldlybelongingsandlivestock,madeemigrationpossible.Notethat the term “Norse” refers to all inhabitants of Viking Age and medieval Scandi-navia,notjustthoseofNorway(Webster1988).DanesandSwedeswerepartofthemigrations of this period, aptly named the Viking Age (c. 750-1050). AlthoughtheydrasticallyaffectedthemapofEurope,theirroleintheNorseventurestoNorthAmerica was minor, and is therefore not discussed here. The term “Norse” is pre-ferred here to the more popular “Viking”, which really refers to pirates or raiders.AlthoughmanymenoftheVikingPeriodwouldhavebeenvikingsatsometimeintheir lives, women and children were not.TheexistenceofIcelandmayhavebeenknowninEnglandandIreland,andthe Norse probably learned about this land from tales of Irish hermits, who were sup- posed to have made their way there in the eighth century. 1 The Norse colonizationof Iceland began shortly after 870, according to the  Book of Settlement  . This datehas recently been confirmed by the date  AD  871 ±2 for volcanic ash ( tephra ) fromthe Landnam layer, also found in the Greenland ice cap. 2 The new settlers camefrom Norway and Norse Scotland, where the Norse were mixed with Celts andPicts through intermarriage and slavery. 3 The distinctive genetic makeup of Ice-  NEWFOUNDLAND STUDIES 19, 1 (2003)0823-1737  land’ssettlerpopulationisstilltraceabletodayin A-B-O systembloodgroups,inoc-currence of the recessive disease phenylketonuria ( PKU ) (Donegani et al. 1950:47-52, Fegersten 1977) and in  DNA  markers, each of which differ from mainlandScandinavian populations.The old romantic view of Norse history, inspired by nationalism, coupled alltoo easily with the spirit of nineteenth-century emigration to America and theoverly positive view of Nordic peoples common in Germany in the 1930s saw themigration to Iceland as a democratic venture, pioneers leaving their homelands insearch of freedom and a better life (Iversen 1996). Modern research gives another  picture. Migration was initiated and led by disgruntled chieftains and well-to-dofarmers who sought to maintain the comfortable lifestyle they had enjoyed, beforecompetition created difficulties. To this end, they needed a labour force of tenantfarmers,domesticworkersandslaves,aswellassupportersamongthefreefarmersarankortwobelowthemselves.Theleadersclaimedlargeandchoicetractsofland,establishing their new estates in the best places, granting select locations to sup- porters of rank, and parcelling out peripheral lands to their tenants (OrriVésteinsson2000).Theearlymagnates,about430ofthemaccordingtothe  Bookof Settlement  ,werethusinafavourablepositionovertheirpoorersubordinates,asitu-ation that was perpetuated and maintained for centuries (Orri Vésteinsson 1997,1998, 2000).According to  Erik’s Saga  and  The Greenlanders’ Saga , Erik Thorvaldsson,nick-namedEriktheRed,andhisfatherThorvaldAsvaldssonwereamongthelater emigrantsfromsouthwesternNorway,settlingatDrangarinnorthwesternIceland,oneofthepoorerspotsintheland. 4 ThatlateimmigrantstoIcelandcouldnotchal-lenge a system in which choice of settlement depended on the favours of powerfulmagnates, soon became obvious to the headstrong young man. Neither his status,nor his land-holdings, placed him among the elite. His marriage to Thjodhild,step-daughter of the chieftain Thorbjorn of Haukadal, was a first step up. 5 Thorbjorn granted Erik land on the outskirts of his estate on Hvammsfjord, about100 kilometers north of present-day Reykjavik. The Icelandic archaeologist whoexcavated what is believed to be Erik’s house has pointed out that Erik’s farm wasthe least productive on the estate (Guðmundur Ólafsson 1998, 2001).WhenErikwasbanishedfromIcelandforthreeyears,followingabloodfeud,he spent his time exploring Greenland “bestowing place-names far and wide”, as Greenlanders’ Saga  tells us, and naming the country itself. 6 (Greenland had beenknown to exist for at least 50 years, at that point. 7 ) When his banishment was over,Erik chose to move his household to Greenland. Again, this emigration involved astructured group of people rather than unassociated individuals. Erik convinced anumber of free farmers and chieftains from his area in Iceland to move with him,and they in turn brought their labourers and tenants. Archaeologists have shownthattheIcelandicsettlementpatternwasrepeatedinGreenland(Keller1991).Erik andhismostfavouredsupporterskeptthechoiceareasforthemselves;theworking 6 Wallace   Norse in Newfoundland 7  Figure1.Greenland,Helluland,MarklandandVinland.B.Wallace,forParksCan-ada.   poorgotthemarginallands.Atthetime,therewerenoAbsrcinalpeopleinthear-eassettledbytheNorse.TheDorsethadretreatedtothehighArctic,andtheThule,ancestors of the Inuit, did not arrive in southern Greenland until the late thirteenthcentury or later (McCullough 1989, Schledermann 1996: 113). Demographershavesuggestedthatitrequiresatleast400to500peopletosuccessfullyestablishasettlementinapreviouslyunoccupiedarea,oronepopulatedbypeoplewitharadi-cally different lifestyle (Dyke 1984). Erik seems to have had about that number of  people with him. 8 Within a couple centuries these immigrants had multiplied to atleast 2000 and the colony survived until about 1450 (Lynnerup 1998: 113, 116-118). 9 TheNorsesettledthewestcoastofGreenland.Duringthenearlyfivecenturiesthey were there, they inevitably came into contact with North America. This hap- pened, apparently, the very year the Greenland settlement was founded. To reachthe western settlements, ships had to round Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland (Figure 1). Here, the cold Greenland Current meets the warm Gulf Stream. As a result, fogs and unruly weather are common, easily blowing even themost experienced sailor off course. According to  Greenlanders’ Saga , this is pre-cisely what happened to Bjarni Herjolfsson. Arriving in Iceland from Norway andfinding that his father had emigrated to Greenland with Erik, he set sail from Ice-land,lateinthesailingseasonof985or986. 10 Afterthreedaysofsail,Bjarniandhiscrew met with inclement weather and were storm-tossed for many days. When theskycleared,theyfoundthemselveswithinsightofland.Realizingthatthislandwastoo far south to be Greenland and anxious to reach the Norse settlements there be-fore more storms descended upon them, Bjarni turned north along the coast, ob-servingchangesinthelandscape,untilhereachedtherightlatitude,thenturnedeastto his father’s new home. The experiences of Bjarni and his crew caused a stir inGreenland, but it was another 15 years before the Norse colony there was suffi-cientlyestablishedtosupportexplorationofnewareas.Predictably,thisexpansionwasledbyLeif,oneofErik’sthreesons,forthiswasthefamilywiththemeansandauthority to launch such an expedition. 11 It was in Erik’s interest to have Leif asleader, as the first explorer would be entitled to claim any new lands discovered, just as Erik himself had claimed Greenland. According to the sagas this took placeshortly after the year 1000, although one saga scholar maintains that it could nothave happened much before 1020 (Ólafur Halldórsson 1978: 382). T HE  W RITTEN  E VIDENCE : T HE  S AGASThe Norse in North America have attracted an inordinate amount of popular atten-tion; “Vikings” enjoy a romantic appeal in North America and their landfalls have been the subject of hundreds, possibly thousands, of lay and scholarly studies. 12 Such speculation has been based on documentary evidence, the so-called Vinland 8 Wallace  sagas. These consist primarily of   The Greenlanders’ Saga  and  Erik’s Saga , com- plemented by smaller passages in Adam of Bremen’s  Gesta Hammaburgensis  (c.1075),  Olaf Tryggvason’s Saga  in  Heimskringla  and  Kristni Saga , as well as Gripla , a fourteenth-century geographical treatise preserved in the  Greenland An-nals . 13 LikeallmedievalIcelandicfamilysagas,theVinlandsagasarewritteninde-ceptivelydirectandclearterms,withlucidobservationsofnatureandpeople.Inthenineteenth century the sagas were viewed as accurate, objective, historical ac-counts, but recent research has shown that they are far from it (Úlfar Bragason2000, Helgi Þorláksson 2001, Adolf Friðriksson and Orri Vésteinsson 2003). Thewritingofhistorynormallyhasapurpose,andtheVinlandsagaswerenoexception.Even though based on actual episodes of the early eleventh century, they werewrittentoservethirteenth-andfourteenth-centurypoliticalends.Anthropologicalfindings provide a context in which one can begin to sort fiction from fact. 14 Ar-chaeological research has likewise vastly added to our knowledge of the situationin Greenland. 15 By the same token, the archaeological data from L’Anse auxMeadows in Newfoundland can assist in interpreting the Vinland sagas.There are two major versions of the Vinland sagas,  Greenlanders’ Saga  and  Erik’sSaga. BothwerebasedonoraltraditionsandwritteninIceland,  Erik’sSaga in the thirteenth century and  Greenlanders’ Saga  some time after 1310 and before1387 (Ólafur Halldórsson 1978: 398-400, 452; Helgi Þórláksson 2001: 66).  Erik’sSaga  is known in two adaptations,  Skalholt Book   and the somewhat later   Hauk’s Book. 16 These are copies of the same srcinal, but  Hauk’s Book   was heavily edited by Hauk Erlendsson, an Icelandic law speaker, using a now lost srcinal, c.1306-1308(Karlsson1964:114-121).Inspiteofthisediting,orratherbecauseofit,  Hauk’s Book   is considered the more accurate version (Jansson 1945: 82, HelgiÞorláksson 2001: 73-74). Greenlanders’Saga describestheaccidentaldiscoveryoftheNorthAmericanAtlantic coast by Bjarni Herjolfsson and five subsequent expeditions launched 15years later, first by Leif Eriksson, then by his siblings or, in the case of GudridThorbjarnardottir,byasister-in-lawandhernewhusband,ThorfinnKarlsefni.Oneof these expeditions, led by Leif’s brother Thorstein, never reached its goal:Thorstein’sshipwasstorm-tossedontheAtlantictheentiresummer,findingitsre-turn to Greenland only in October. 17 In  Greenlanders’ Saga  Leif Eriksson is themain explorer who establishes his base,  Leifsbúðir  , “Leif’s Booths”, from whichfurther explorations take place. The base also serves as a transshipment stationwhereresources,especiallylumberandgrapes,areassembledtomakeupthecargodestinedforGreenland.AllexpeditionsuseLeifsbúðirastheirbase,butLeifmain-tainscontroloverit:“Hewouldlendthehouses,”heisreportedassaying,“butnotgive them” ( Greenlanders’ Saga , in Jones 1986: 200, 202).In  Erik’sSaga ,Leif’srolehasbeenreducedtothatoftheaccidentaldiscoverer of Vinland. All subsequent successful expeditions are combined into onemega-expedition, led by the Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid  Norse in Newfoundland 9
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