The Icelandic Sagas are thrilling narratives, full of swashbuckling exploration, epic feuds, dazzling romances and poignant betrayals. Still, they are only stories, told hundreds of years after the fact by poets with a penchant for embellishment. To date, the sagas have only led archaeologists to one actual, verified Norse historical site in the New World — the 1000-year-old seaside settlement L’Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.
It would take 55 years and a view from space to track down a possible second one.
The new archaeological find, announced Thursday, offers tantalizing evidence of a Viking presence 300 miles from the only place in Canada they’d ever been seen before.
It doesn’t look like much — a fire-cracked stone and some mangled scraps of iron unearthed from a muddy patch of ground called Point Rosee. But lead archaeologist Sarah Parcak says the site is almost certainly only one of two things:
“Either it’s … an entirely new culture that looks exactly like the Norse and we don’t know what it is,” she told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “Or it’s the westernmost Norse site that’s ever been discovered.”
And although her team is still seeking definitive evidence — further excavations and analysis are required to prove that the site didn’t come from some other community — Parcak is feeling more and more optimistic that the latter possibility is the right one.
If her faith is borne out, researchers say that the discovery, which is the subject of a 2-hour documentary that will air on PBS next week, has the potential to rewrite the history of the Vikings in North America. It might confirm the belief that the Norse presence here was fleeting — just another short-lived expedition by a seafaring society. Or it could touch off a wave of discoveries of other Norse settlements in the region, proving that the Vikings strayed farther and stayed longer in the New World than anyone realized.
“With just one site, it’s easy to explain it away,” Parcak said, noting that the search for Viking settlements since L’Anse aux Meadows was discovered in 1960 has been so fruitless that some archaeologists concluded there might not be anything more to be found.
“But if there’s two, there might be more,” she continued. “There could potentially be a number of other sites out there that haven’t been found.”
Just as notable as its implications for the future is the backstory of how the Point Rosee discovery was made in the first place.
Sarah Parcak is not a Viking expert. The University of Alabama at Birmingham anthropologist has spent most of her career in Egypt’s sun-burnt deserts, looking for ancient cities, temples and tombs. But she is also something of a high-tech Indiana Jones, with a fellowship from National Geographic, a $1 million grant from the conference non-profit TED and an innovative new technique at her disposal: space archaeology.
Using satellite images taken by cameras 400 miles above the Earth, Parcak scans for telltale variations in the landscape — discolored soil, changes in the vegetation — that suggest something might be lying beneath them. With an infrared scanner, Parcak can even pinpoint hints of underground chambers and buried buildings. It’s not a substitute for schlepping out to a site and digging it up firsthand, but it does streamline the archaeological process quite a bit. Using this technique, Parcak has uncovered 17 pyramids, 1,000 tombs and some 3,000 forgotten settlements, not to mention helped track down antiquities looters.
Last year, Parcak, her husband and partner Greg Mumford and Canadian archaeologist Frederick Schwarz turned their eyes in the sky on North America. They weren’t explicitly looking for signs of the Vikings — there have been too many “interesting theories,” as Parcak diplomatically put it, about Norse relics on the continent over the years, many of which turned out to be hoaxes. Rather than get themselves worked up about what could be, the researchers would approach everything they saw with a critical eye. Sites would be presumed prosaic until proven otherwise.
“We approached this very scientifically and with a lot of skepticism,” Parcak said. “If, if, if this could possibly be a Norse site, then the eyes of history would be on us and we wanted to do this right.”
But after analyzing countless images of the Canadian coastline, Parcak couldn’t deny that one site looked promising: A bit of exposed headland on the southwestern side of Newfoundland where intriguing, almost-imperceptible patterns in the ground suggested that manmade structures once stood there. One of them seemed to have internal divisions and is almost the exact size and shape of longhouses uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows.
The spot “screamed” for further research, Parcak said, so last summer she and her team headed to Newfoundland for two and a half weeks of excavating. Initially, they didn’t even bring a Norse specialist with them, knowing it was far more likely that whatever settlement they uncovered belonged to Canada’s indigenous people or to later European settlers.
But when they uncovered turf structures and a shallow hearth littered with bits of cooked bog iron, they knew they’d found something important. There is only one other pre-Columbian iron processing site in all of North America — at L’Anse Aux Meadows. What’s more, they found no trace of either indigenous Canadians or later European colonists at the site — no scraps of flint, pottery or iron nails. Though further excavation, analysis and input from experts is needed to verify the time period and cultural affiliation of the finds, the evidence seems to point in one direction: this site was established by the Vikings.
Why they established it remains unclear. Those “turf structures” Parcak found could be anything — homes, storage facilities, or something else entirely. And very few other artifacts have been found at Point Rosee (which is pretty typical of the Vikings — their settlements tended to be “ephemeral,” Parcak said). The site could have been a lone outpost for iron smelting, or part of a larger settlement. It might be the southern and westernmost place the Vikings ever reached, or it could be just a stopping point on their explorations to other settlements still to be uncovered.
Despite five and a half decades of unsuccessful searching, the evidence from L’Anse Aux Meadows and elsewhere does suggest that the Norse ventured pretty far along the Atlantic coast. Excavations at the Newfoundland settlement uncovered seeds of the butternut tree, which doesn’t naturally grow north of New Brunswick, suggesting that inhabitants traveled south to obtain them. Meanwhile, the sagas tell of exploration in a body of water much like the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Parcak said; the site at Point Rosee would be an ideal waystation for such a journey.
Parcak hopes to keep scanning from the skies for other signs of settlements; meanwhile, she and her colleagues will return to Point Rosee this summer to continue their excavations.
The archaeologists are careful to hedge when they discuss Point Rosee and its implications. Parcak acknowledges there isn’t yet a “smoking gun” that absolutely confirms the site as Norse (in L’Anse Aux Meadows, archaeologists uncovered a bronze fastening pin and an iron smithy, among other things).
“This is going to take years of careful excavation, and it’s going to be controversial,” she said. “It raises a lot more questions than it answers.”
“But,” she added, her tone bright, “that’s what any new discovery is supposed to do.”