Thursday, December 23, 2010

Report from the International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago, Part Four

The fourth paper presented at the International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago on October 16 was “L’Anse aux Meadows and Vínland” by Birgitta Wallace. A specialist on Norse expansion into North America, Wallace studied Scandinavian archaeology and anthropology at the University of Uppsala. Her early excavation experiences were on Iron Age sites in Sweden and Norway, and she conducted a systematic survey of all (alleged) Norse sites in North America for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History prior to becoming Senior Archaeologist for Parks Canada. She eventually assumed responsibility for analyzing archaeological work at the L’Anse aux Meadows excavation. She has lectured and published widely on the Norse voyages to North America and served as a consultant and curator for high-profile television productions and museum exhibits.

Wallace began her talk with a friendly salute to Gísli Sigurðsson, saying that she took his work on the Vínland sagas as a starting point, adding modern historical research and archaeological discoveries.

The focus of Wallace’s presentation was on conclusions from her years of archaeological study of the Norse encampment at L’Anse aux Meadows, built on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland by sixty crew members in two months around the year 1000 CE. According to Wallace, all buildings at the site are “typically Icelandic.” Archaeologist Kevin P. Smith has traced jasper stones (used like flint) found at L’Anse aux Meadows back to Greenland and Iceland, further solidifying that this was, indeed, a Norse encampment.

Wallace argues that the two main North American sites in the Vínland sagas are actually one site; a base camp would have taken a great deal of effort to create, and it is unlikely that the work would have been duplicated. Based on naming discrepancies in the two different Vínland manuscripts, Wallace argues that the woman in the Freydís breast-slapping episode (see “Report from the International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago, Part Two”) is actually Guðríð, pregnant with baby Snorri. She went on to connect this problem with naming to the idea that one camp may have had different names in the sagas.

Saga texts and archaeological evidence suggest that the Vínland journeys were not colonization voyages. In Wallace’s words, “a handful of families cannot colonize a continent.” There was plenty of open land in Greenland, and the Greenlanders had no pressing need to expand westward. Both of the Vínland sagas state a profit motive and describe how lumber is brought back to Greenland from the New World.

In addition, the buildings and artifacts unearthed at L’Anse aux Meadows are not normal for a settlement. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of eight buildings in four complexes at the site. They have determined that three buildings were dwellings and that one (on the other side of a brook) was for the manufacture of iron. There are no barns for animals, structures for the storage of hay, or evidence of any cultivation whatsoever. The sod buildings were built close together; they would have been farther apart if this was meant to be a permanent settlement.

The largest hall at L’Anse aux Meadows measures 1700 square feet (three times the size of Eirik the Red’s house in Iceland) and was clearly intended for the leader of the expedition. The middle-sized house would have been for the crew. The third dwelling is also large, and has two smaller houses close at hand – a mid-sized one for servants and a small one for “low servants” or slaves. The slaves would have been from European slave markets, war prisoners, or poor people who volunteered for slavery in order to be given shelter and provisions.

Excavation work has uncovered specific metal artifacts associated with specific buildings; a settlement would show even distribution of artifacts. Wooden artifacts have also been discovered, preserved by water and tannic acid in a bog. Nearly one hundred iron nails have been found that were crafted for the repair of ships (the original nails rusted and needed replacement) – this explains why the camp had an ironworks. Butternuts have been found at the site, although these nuts grow much farther south. Wallace argues that this is evidence that the camp was a base for southward summer excursions.

Weather studies show that L’Anse aux Meadows would have had snow-free winters around 1000 CE – as described in the Vínland sagas. The sagas also report that the skrælingar (Native Americans) encountered by the Norse explorers rode skin-covered canoes. This further helps to place a specific northern region for the saga events, as more southern tribes used hollowed-out logs as canoes.

The camp at L’Anse aux Meadows was eventually abandoned, also as described in the Vínland sagas. The Greenlanders did not need more land and did not have the resources necessary to maintain an expansion to new settlements.

At the end of her presentation, Dr. Wallace addressed the question of whether the North American lands were originally called Vinland (“grass-land”) or Vínland (“wine-land”). “Vin” was used before the Viking period to refer to grass. “Vín” is actually written “viin” in one of the Vínland saga manuscripts, underscoring the long “I” and clearly referring to wine. The “grape-trees” of the sagas were, according to Wallace, hardwood trees covered with grape vines. Wine was associated with wealth, power, and religious leadership. The ability to make wine would have solidified the power of the expedition’s leader. Grasslands were not uncommon in Greenland, but wine was special.

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