The Vikings are known throughout history for their seafaring ways, having raided and traded their way to conquering wide areas of Scandinavia, Northern, and Central Europe. Yet their reach extended much further, at times touching on the Mediterranean and even North Africa. Despite having settled on the eastern coast of Greenland, they were not thought to have made significant inroads into North America, apart from a single village discovered in the far north of Canada.
But a new discovery could change all this. On a remote, windswept headland 645 kilometers (400 miles) farther south-west than the only other known American Viking site, archaeologists think that they might have uncovered another Viking settlement on the southern tip of Newfoundland, one which if confirmed will once and for all prove that the Vikings, and not Christopher Columbus, were the first Europeans to set foot on and settle the North American continent about 1,000 years ago.
While in the 1960s researchers discovered a site at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland that is thought to show evidence of Viking activity, it was all up in the air as to whether or not the Norse people actually settled the region, or were just there briefly. The difficulty with answering these questions lies with the ephemeral traces that the Vikings left behind. Their boats, buildings, and household objects were all made from organic material, and coupled with the exposed and open coastal landscapes they favored means that little evidence of any settlements would survive.
But settlements leave behind other traces, as buildings and activity leave behind chemical changes in the soil. While these can’t be seen with the naked eye, there are other ways to detect the differences. In steps space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who uses infrared satellite images to look below the surface and identify these tell-tale signs of human activity. After finding previously unknown ancient sites in Egypt and Rome, she turned her attention to seeing if she could identify any Norse settlements in North America.
By firstly looking at maps and seeing where would logically make a good site for a village, she then looked at the satellite images. By doing this, her attention was drawn to Point Rosee, which seemed to show that something had changed the chemical composition of the soil. This led her and a team to go out to the site and start excavations. And what they found could alter the history of the Vikings. Under the surface, blackened stones and piles of charcoal seemed to indicate a hearth, and within it they found cooked bog iron. This is indicative of smelting, a technique that no other contemporary culture in that region was doing at the time it dates to, roughly a millennium ago.
They have also uncovered what appear to be turf walls, like those seen in known Viking settlements in other parts of the northern Atlantic. If these findings are confirmed as more tests and excavations are carried out, it would be an incredible finding, and one that backs up the old Norse stories, which were until now thought only to be myth.
The discovery of the site has been documented for a television show, “Vikings Unearthed” in the U.S. and “The Vikings Uncovered” in the U.K., being broadcast on Monday, April 4 on PBS in the U.S. at 3:30 p.m. ET, and BBC One in the U.K. at 8:30 p.m. BST.