National Geographic : 1964 Nov
As excavations continued in the area, we did find some relics of Indians and Eskimos. The sagas tell that the Norse traded with the natives as well as fighting them. Later Indians and Eskimos must also have camped many times in this inviting site by the brook. We hope to know more about the climate of the days of Norse settlement when our pollen analyst, Kari Henningsmoen, has worked over her material. Present-day graz ing is good for cattle, horses, and sheep. George Decker told me that one fisherman used to keep cows outside much of the winter. This checks with the Saga of Leif Ericson: "The nature of the land was so choice, it seemed to them that none of the cattle would require fodder for the winter...." Simple Sailing Directions Led to Vinland There is grim logic in the disappearance of Norse New World settlements. "In colo nizing, as in campaigning," says American historian John Fiske, "distance from one's base is sometimes the supreme circumstance." The chain of communication between Vin land and Norway gradually disintegrated. Yet, while it lasted, the traffic to America was considerable. We know that at least four expeditions reached Vinland. Leif would not sell his dwellings there to Thorfinn Karlsefni, only lend them. Obviously he was thinking of their permanent value. The route to Newfoundland was evidently considered straightforward. The sagas give few details. The natural features that showed the way must have been considered unmis takable-as indeed they are. Apparently Leif Ericson could sit in his hall in Greenland and, in the concise way of speech that is re flected in the sagas, tell one of the sea captains by what landmarks, and on what schedule, he would reach Vinland. Icelandic annals inform us that Bishop Eric left Greenland for a trip to Vinland in 1121. Was the bishop going to a Norse com munity still existing there? The same annals tell us that in 1347 a ship came from Mark land to Iceland. Markland (Labrador) ap parently was a familiar name at that time, perhaps like California to a New Yorker. From a study of old documents of the mid 14th century, the learned Icelandic Bishop Gisle Oddsson wrote in 1637 that the Norse inhabitants of Greenland had "turned to the people of America" (ad Americae populos se converterunt). These Norsemen in the New World were in a much more dangerous situation than Co 734 lumbus and his companions. Columbus had firearms. The Norse had to fight with hand weapons against an enemy superior in num bers. Their disappearance repeats the Green land mystery. One summer day last year a plane droned over L'Anse au Meadow and landed in the bay. A fisherman rowed two visitors ashore. I welcomed the well-known American arche ologists Henry Collins of the Smithsonian Institution and Junius Bird of the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Collins, an expert on primitive cultures of Arctic Amer ica, had come to evaluate our findings for the National Geographic Society. I waited eagerly to hear what our guests would have to say. But I asked no questions. Henry Collins's first declaration was prompt, brief, and precise: "These sites are definitely not Eskimo or Indian." One day Dr. Bird and I were sitting on the hillside digging with our trowels like moles. We weren't finding anything, but suddenly Dr. Bird stopped work, looked out over the site, and said, "You've got it, all right." All that he had seen, plus his knowledge of the carbon dates, led Dr. Bird to sum up in this way his satisfaction that the site was Norse. Dr. Collins strongly supported him. After three years of digging, the field work is done. At my suggestion, the Government of Newfoundland has built shelters to protect the most important foundations. Viking Ghosts Stalk L'Anse au Meadow On our last day I walk around all the exca vations. They speak to me, intimately now, about a brave and simple people. I look at the smithy with the broken anvil, the great hall with the hearth and ember pit, and all the other mementos of these people of the past. L'Anse au Meadow is rippling gold in the sunset. Northward, Belle Isle looms like a fairy castle. Farther off, day dims along the Labrador shore, where the Vinland voyagers came coasting south almost 1,000 years ago. I easily visualize the scene. I can see the smoke rising from the smithy and hear the rhythmic sound of hammering. Groups sit around fires in the houses, talking about the new and amazing land they have come to. Think of the courage of those Norsemen, setting out to sea in open boats, wives on some voyages, compasses on none; driven by lust for adventure, and by the need to find good new land where families could settle and live. Thus it was that young sailors stood once under a square sail gazing wonderingly across the water where a strange coastline rose from the sea-the New World.