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Vikings in North America: A Saga’s New Chapter

Satellite images have led archaeologists to a new excavation site in Canada, yielding more clues to Norse settlements in North America.

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Sarah Parcak’s team dig at Point Rosee, Newfoundland, unearthing a hearth where they believe Vikings roasted iron ore.
This story appears in the November/December 2016 issue of National Geographic History magazine.

Icelandic sagas tell how the 10th-century Viking sailor Leif Eriksson stumbled on a new land far to the west, which he called Vinland the Good. The 1960 discovery of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, caused a sensation, proving the sagas were not just fiction. Vikings had indeed reached the coast of America five centuries before Columbus.

Now those medieval sagas look ready for another endorsement, this time from space: National Geographic fellow Sarah Parcak, an expert in detecting buried structures from satellite images, has identified another likely Viking site on the southernmost tip of Newfoundland, and that could rewrite the story of the colonization of North America.

In summer 2015 Parcak and her team broke ground at Point Rosee near Channel-Port aux Basques, a windswept stretch of grassy coast overlooking the Cabot Strait. The dig unearthed remains of turf walls and an ironworking fireplace, yielding valuable information on the Vikings’ seafaring and metalworking techniques when on the move.

Parcak, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, has successfully used satellite images to detect evidence of looters at archaeological sites in Egypt. This spring, her images also revealed the spectral outline of a large, buried structure at the site of Petra in Jordan.

On turning her attention to Newfoundland, Parcak used remote-sensing tools to comb the area for clues of buried objects. Soil that contains hidden structures retains moisture in a different way from undisturbed ground, and the resulting patterning on the vegetation alerted her to the possibility of buried objects at the Point Rosee site.

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Restless in their exploration both westward and eastward from Scandinavia, the Vikings left artifacts, such as this 10th-century silver coin, along their trade routes spanning eastern Europe and Russia.

Nailing It

Parcak’s team is confident that the remains were most likely left by Norsemen, but she is not yet 100 percent convinced.

The island of Newfoundland bears traces of other cultures, such as those of Native Americans, or the Basque whalers from Spain who sheltered on the island from the early 1500s.

A point in the Vikings’ favor is that the two main features, the turf structure and the hearth, are common to Viking settlements. Another supporting piece of evidence is the nearly 28 pounds of slag found nearby which suggest the hearth was used for the roasting of iron ore, abundant in the bogs of Point Rosee. Once smelted, the iron produced would later be used for a key component of the Vikings’ maritime supremacy: the nails that held together their swiftly moving boats.

The excavations undertaken at Point Rosee are just the opening phase of an ongoing project that Parcak hopes will shed more light on the early history of European exploration of North America. If the 1960 discovery at L’Anse aux Meadows proves that the Vikings reached America, the find at Point Rosee will help historians build a picture as to when, and for how long, they explored this coast, and how far their wanderings took them in the New World.