View From Space Hints at a New Viking Site in North America
A thousand years after the Vikings braved the icy seas from Greenland to the New World in search of timber and plunder, satellite technology has found intriguing evidence of a long-elusive prize in archaeology — a second Norse settlement in North America, further south than ever known.
The new Canadian site, with telltale signs of iron-working, was discovered last summer after infrared images from 400 miles in space showed possible man-made shapes under discolored vegetation. The site is on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, about 300 miles south of L’Anse aux Meadows, the first and so far only confirmed Viking settlement in North America, discovered in 1960.
Since then, archaeologists, following up clues in the histories known as the sagas, have been hunting for the holy grail of other Viking, or Norse, landmarks in the Americas that would have existed 500 years before Columbus, to no avail. Read more.
“The farmhouse in Herjólfsdalur is a prototype of what might have been the oldest human habitation signs in Iceland.
The remains of the farm was discovered in 1924, when the first director of the National Museum was doing excavation work in Herjólfsdalur valley. He discovered 3 ruins; one long-house and two smaller houses. It seems like it was the long-house of Herjólfur Bárðarson, the first settler of Vestmannaeyjar islands. So the old remains might date back to the early 9th century.”
Segment of the Grœnlendinga saga, Chp. 2:
Description from Flickr (see link above)
Old Norse and English text from Grœnlendinga saga in Jesse Byock’s Viking Language 1: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas, Lesson 1, pg. 46.
For most of the Viking age, Hedeby was Scandinavia’s largest town. The settlement at Hedeby was greatly enriched when King Godfred settled a colony of merchants there in 808, helping to develop the town into an international market center. There was a mint there, considered now to be the first town in Scandinavia to have a mint, as well as the remains of what may have been a toll station. Overall, little information is known as to how the town was administrated, but there existed a wide range of manufacturing activities including: metal, bone, amber and glass working, pottery, and ship repair. Definitely a lot more to their development than simply raiding barbarians.
The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, John Haywood. Part II: Scandinavia in the Viking Age, page 42 and 43.
A Concise History of Medieval Iceland - Lesson 1: A Unique Settlement.
“Medieval Iceland is an almost unique instance of a community whose culture and creative power flourished independently of any favoring material conditions, and indeed under conditions in the highest degree unfavorable. Not ought it to be less interesting to the student of politics and law as having produced a Constitution unlike any other whereof records remain, and a body of law so elaborate and complex that it is hard to believe that it existed among men whose chief occupation was to kill one another.” (James Bryce)
The society of Iceland has long perplexed scholars. It was a land settled by Vikings, yet the authority in Iceland was not fixated on warlords, warrior chieftains, or regional lords. Instead, it was a man skilled in law that was regarded as a great leader. Here are the opening lines from a saga (a history mixed with fiction) called Njal’s saga, for an example:
There was a man named Mord whose nickname was Fiddle. He was the son of Sighvat the Red, and he lived at Voll in the Rangarvellir district. He was a powerful chieftain and strong in pressing lawsuits. He was so learned in the law that no verdicts were considered to be valid unless he had been involved. (Njal, 3)
It is this aspect of Icelandic society that has made it such a unique settlement. Not only were the respect leaders men of knowledge, but there also lack a kingship. During the medieval period, this was an uncommon structure for a society. Even Scandinavia was moving towards this direction with kings such as Harald Bluetooth in Denmark.
Another aspect that makes Iceland’s settlement unique, is that these Norsemen did not come according to a planned migration, political movement, or upon any organized request. They were not claiming territory for kings like many European explorers would later do. Instead, they were independent undertakings, with the story of Iceland being just a large chapter of a three hundred year period of expansion called the Viking Age (800-1100).
Next Time: Lesson 2: Landnámsmenn.
Skál og ferð vel, — Steven T. Dunn.
Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland. (London: Penguin, 2001), 5-8.
Robert Cook trans., Njal’s Saga. (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 3.