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Do you want proof that the Vikings arrived in North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus and John Cabot? Then travel to L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site of Canada.

Leif Eriksson at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Located on Route 436, at the end of northern Newfoundland's Viking Trail, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is 39 kilometers (25 miles) north of St. Anthony. We arrived on an Adventure Canada Newfoundland cruise ship.

The archeological site and replica sod buildings sit on a windswept shore overlooking the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador.

Leif Eriksson

At the entrance, a larger-than-life bronze statue depicts Norse explorer, Leif Eriksson, who established the first European settlement in North America here in 1,000 AD.

It wasn't discovered until 1960 when Norwegians, Helge and Anne Ingstad found the remnants of eight buildings in what the Norse sagas called Vinland.

During eight years of excavations, they uncovered the lower portions of the Norse dwellings, as well as fireplaces and artifacts similar to those discovered in Greenland. Later, Parks Canada excavations unearthed bog iron, slag from iron smelting and a smithy for making nails to repair ships.

What to see and do

An orientation film in the Visitor Center described Norse sailing ships and Viking voyages to find timber and iron. We learned the reason why L'Anse aux Meadows was settled. (It was a base camp for explorations further south.)

How do archeologists know this? They discovered butternuts and butternut wood here. The trees only grow south of Newfoundland.

One exhibit described Viking encounters with Aboriginal people, whom they called Skraelings (probably ancestors of Newfoundland's Beothuk and Mi'kmaq people and Labrador's Innu). Another display explained the tools and techniques used in Norse woodworking.

Cross-cultural encounters display in Visitors Center
Cross-cultural encounters display in Visitors Center
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A map traced the route that the Vikings traveled in their ships from Greenland to Newfoundland. Models of Viking knarrs depicted the ocean-going traders used by Norse sailors.

Facts about Vikings

Especially interesting were the interactive displays that provided answers to questions about Viking life. One exhibit allowed us to listen to translated Norse sagas about Vinland.

A second exhibit explained how archeologists knew that women lived in L'Anse aux Meadows. They discovered a spindle whorl (soapstone donut used to spin wool into yarn) and a fragment of a bone needle. Both were only used by Norse women.

Another artifact that confirmed European settlement of L'Anse aux Meadows was a bronze ring-headed pin that Norse people used to fasten their cloaks. We saw these artifacts in the Visitor Center and handled replicas of them.

Why were so few artifacts found? When they left, the Vikings brought everything with them except worthless, discarded and lost items.

Boardwalk trail

After viewing a scale model of what L'Anse aux Meadows looked like 1,000 years ago, we joined a guided walk led by Parks Canada staff. (You can also take a self-guided tour with a L'Anse aux Meadows map and brochure from the Visitor Center.) The length of the hiking trail is 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles).

The trail passed under the Meeting of Two Worlds sculpture. Just past the location of the Aboriginal campsites, we reached the archeological site with the remains of the Norse sod huts. Today, the excavated buildings looked like grass-covered mounds.

Parks Canada sign depicts Norse settlement sod huts in 1,000 AD
Parks Canada sign depicts Norse settlement sod huts in 1,000 AD
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Norse buildings

A Parks Canada sign helped us visualize the eight turf-walled buildings that were built ten centuries ago. The large hall contained a small private room and a communal living and working section.

A smaller hut had a place to roast bog ore before smelting it. Nearby, a hut probably sheltered slaves. Inside the second hall, archeologists found a storeroom and evidence of woodworking. Two more huts were used as workshops or living quarters for crew.

The largest building, called the leader's hall, had a private room, a large central room for meals, two storage rooms and a boat repair shed.

A small smelting hut contained a furnace for producing iron from bog ore found in the peat soil. The amount and type of slag found here indicated that the Vikings made only enough iron to produce 100 to 200 rivets for ship repairs.

Reconstructed Norse sod buildings in L'Anse aux Meadows UNESCO Site
Reconstructed Norse sod buildings in L'Anse aux Meadows UNESCO Site
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Reconstructed dwellings

Just past the original structures, we found the timber-and-sod huts built by Parks Canada staff in 1979, using only materials available to Norse colonists. A wooden fence surrounded the four sod-walled replicas.

For authenticity, Parks Canada builders cut the wood with axes and held the round rafters in place with lashings and hand-hewn pegs. They covered the foundation with earth.

Population of L'Anse aux Meadows

In the Visitor Center, we learned that 65 to 90 people stayed at this site, based on sleeping spaces. It would have taken 60 men two months to construct the three dwellings, four workshops and smithy.

The reconstructed 33-meter (75-foot) long and five-meter (15-foot) wide hall has four chimneys in the roof to allow smoke from cooking fires to escape. Its turf walls are two meters (six feet) thick.

Hand-cut turf bricks frame wood door
Hand-cut turf bricks frame wood door
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Their gravel cores provide insulation, as well as drainage for run-off from the roof. On each side of the wooden doors, we saw how the walls were constructed with bricks of hand-cut turf sod from peat bogs.

Inside a Viking home

With four rooms in a row, the Norse home was long and narrow. The central fireplace, used for cooking, heat and light, kept the interior warm and cozy.

The main piece of furniture was a broad wooden platform for sitting and sleeping. It was covered with sheepskins. Viking shields hung on the wall behind it. Pelts, ropes and barrels lined the other walls. Wooden bowls and spoons filled a chest next to a butter churn.

A man and a woman, in Norse costume, sat by the hearth and invited us and other visitors to relax on caribou skin-covered benches on the other side. Two iron pots rested on the hearth in front of them.

Living history

The re-enactors started a conversation. "I was raised on goat's milk," said Bjorn, a heavy man with a grey beard.

"I got a girl as a slave from Ireland," he added. "She makes the best beer."

Norse foods and drinks

For now, he had to be content with Labrador tea. His wife, Thora, explained how she made it. "You boil the water, put the leaves in and let them steep," she said.

A visitor asked what she was cooking in the iron pot. "Caribou stew," she replied. She pointed to the chain that held the pot over the driftwood fire. "It's the temperature control. The lower ring is boil. The middle is simmer and the top is off."

Costumed interpreter plays a lyre
Costumed interpreter plays a lyre
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Bjorn invited his guests to rent bedding and spend the night. "You can make the payment with a couple laying hens."

He pulled out a wooden lyre and sang a song as he plucked the strings. Encouraged by the applause, he picked up a wooden flute and played a few notes.

"I'm going to get a whistle with more than one hole in it when I go back to Iceland, so I can play a lot more tunes," he quipped.

How long did the Norse stay here?

Visitor Center displays state that the Vikings stayed for no more than 10 years in L'Anse aux Meadows, based on the meager cultural deposits in the buildings and middens (waste piles).

Why did they leave? Vinland sagas give the impression that they abandoned the settlement after conflicts with the Aboriginal people, who vastly outnumbered them.

Viking Festival

You can experience life in L'Anse aux Meadows at the Westward Viking Festival (2018 dates: July 21-31). Visitors listen to Norse music and sample their foods, help a blacksmith make rivets and hear stories about how the Vikings traveled to Vinland.

The Norse men and women may be gone, but their spirits live on in this UNESCO-listed National Historic Site.


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Newfoundland Foods, Cuisine and Traditional Dishes