At l’Anse aux Meadows stands a grass covered building, with multiple chimneys sprouting from the earthy roof. This is the only confirmed Viking settlement in Canada. There are no confirmed Viking settlements in the United States, and certainly none in Mexico. The nearest confirmed Viking settlements are in Greenland, a place with an even lower population than Canada.
L’Anse aux Meadows is a place that everyone in Canada can be proud of. But, according to the Viking sagas, it wasn’t the only place in Canada they visited. The sagas list three places were the Vikings landed; Helluland, somewhere in the far north, Markland, a forested area, and Vinland.
Where exactly were these lands located? And have we found any of them?
There is seems to be no doubt that Helluland was in Canada. It was recorded as the first place, west of Greenland, that the Vikings stopped. A land of flat stones’ that Leif Erikson, leader of the traveling Viking, deemed too inhospitable to make a permanent settlement it.
Dr. Patricia Sutherland believes she may have found Helluland. Where? On Baffin Island, part of Nunavut, the fifth biggest island in the world. It all started when Sutherland went to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and noticed, among the museums collection, several strands of yarn, found on Baffin Island.
Why was something as simple as yarn such a big deal? Because the people native to the island had never made yarn. Instead they made strong cords out of animal sinew. So how had this yarn wound up there?
Sutherland traveled to Baffin Island, and began digging. There she found whetstones, designed to be used on metal tools, and rat dung. There are no rats native to Baffin Island. No rats native to the Canadian Arctic.
So where had the rat dung come from? Analysis confirmed that this was the dung of an European rat. A rat couldn’t have swum across the Atlantic alone. Analysis suggested the dung was from 1000 AD. Which could only mean one thing; around 1000 AD a group of Europeans had arrived on Baffin Island, and stayed long enough for rats to escape their ship.
The yarn found proved to be made from the fur off an arctic hare. Which meant that these Europeans had stayed long enough to catch or trade for a hare, and spin it’s fur into wool. Long enough to damage their tools enough that they needed sharpening.
This is the farthest north that evidence for pre-Columbian Europeans has been found. Almost all researchers agree that Helluland was the most nothernly land the Vikings found. So is this Helluland?
Well, there’s one little problem. The Vikings arrived in Helluland around 1000 AD, but like I said before, they didn’t stay for long. Not long enough to make yarn out of hare fur. Which begs the question — who was on Baffin Island?
My theory? The Irish. Tales have been told for over a thousand years of the Irish sailing west, over the Atlantic, and discovering new land. There has been speculation for years about what land the tales might be referring to. Iceland? Greenland? Or a land that existed only in the minds of the Irish?
There isn’t enough evidence to come to a conclusion. But there is no doubt that, many, many years before Columbus arrived a group of Europeans stood on the cold shores of Baffin Island.
Most scholars agree that Markland was located south of Helluland, but north of Vinland. It’s described as a heavily wooded land. Leif Erikson gathered lumber from Markland and brought it back to Greenland, a place with a severe lumber shortage.
It seems Vikings were still harvesting lumber from Markland three hundred years later, when records from Iceland mention a ship bringing lumber from Markland to Greenland.
Many believe that Markland was located somewhere on the Labrador Coast, a place covered by taiga, also known as boreal forest. Sadly, no hard evidence has been found. Yet.
I grew up believing the story that Vinland could be translated as ‘Wine land’. I was wrong. What Vinland actually means is ‘land of meadows’. Disappointing, I know. Who doesn’t like the thought of a bunch drunk Vikings naming the land they’d discovered ‘Wine land’, after their favourite drink? Alas, it was not so.
Most researchers believe we’ve already found Vinland, none other than l’Anse aux Meadows, the only confirmed Viking site west of Greenland. The evidence seems to be everywhere — even in l’Anse aux Meadows name.
The word ‘meadows’ is not, like the rest of the name ‘l’Anse aux Meadows’, French. The site was originally called ‘l’Anse aux Médée’ — Jellyfish Cove. Then the Englush moved in, and corrupted the name as ‘l’Anse aux Meadows’, influenced by the fact l’Anse aux Meadows is full of, well, meadows.
The Vikings described Vinland as a land of many meadows — a description that matches the meadows of l’Anse aux Meadows perfectly.
The question that fascinates archaeologists — was l’Anse aux Meadows the Vinland or just a part of Vinland. After all, butternuts, hundreds of years old, were found at the site. And wild butternuts don’t grow in Newfoundland, where l’Anse aux Meadows is located. The nearest place where butternuts grow is New Brunswick.
Someone picked those butternuts and brought them to l’Anse aux Meadows. The question is, who? Were the butternuts picked by Vikings, journeying inland? Or did they somehow get them through trade?
Add the size of l’Anse aux Meadows — it’s not as big as one would expect a permanent Viking settlement to be. Could it be that l’Anse aux Meadows is merely the entrance to Vinland, a place where Vikings stayed during winter, when it was too cold to explore safely? A place where longboats landed and reloaded?
If that’s so, if l’Anse aux Meadows really was just the tip of the iceberg , how far into North America did the Vikings go? The St. Lawrence river? The great lakes? Maybe even America? No one knows — yet.
Learning about the Canadian Vikings is exhilarating — we know so much more than we once did , but countless mysteries still remain. I’ve considered becoming an archaeologist before, but decided against it. Helluland, Markland, and Vinland make me want to reconsider that decision.
In the meantime, Canadians can be proud of l’Anse aux Meadows — the only confirmed Viking settlement west of Greenland. The site America wishes it had.