Around A.D. 1000, the legendary Viking chief Leif Eriksson led an expedition across the Atlantic Ocean to a distant destination known as Vinland, landing on the North American coast nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World. Ever since 1960, when archaeologists uncovered the remains of that settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland, they have been seeking evidence that Vikings spread further into North America, without success. Now, however, a satellite technology has led a team of researchers to what they believe may be a second Norse settlement, hundreds of miles further south than Vikings were previously thought to have traveled.
Penned in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Icelandic Sagas chronicle the exploits of the Vikings, seafaring adventurers and warriors who left their native Scandinavia starting in the 8th century and began traveling the world. Their journeys, preserved in earlier oral narratives before Icelandic monks recorded them in the written sagas, took them to the Middle East, Asia, North Africa and throughout Europe. The Vikings focused particularly on the British Isles and the North Atlantic, founding settlements in what are now Iceland and Greenland.
After visiting his ancestral homeland of Norway around A.D. 1000, Leif Eriksson converted to Christianity and began trying to spread the faith among the pagan settlers of Greenland, the Viking colony founded by his father, Erik the Red. According to the Icelandic Sagas, Eriksson then led an expedition west across the Atlantic in search of a strange land he had heard about from an Icelandic trader. His ship reached a rocky, barren shore in present-day Canada, which researchers believe may be Baffin Island. The Viking explorers then traveled further south, forming a large settlement in a region they dubbed “Vinland” (Wineland) for its abundance of wild grapes. Eriksson stayed only a winter before returning to Greenland, where he succeeded his father as chief. Other Vikings returned sporadically over the next few years, but the settlement was soon abandoned, perhaps due to violent clashes between the Norsemen and the local indigenous population.
In 1960, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad discovered evidence of the 1,000-year-old Viking settlement on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland Island. Excavations of the site turned up the remains of dwellings, an iron forge and a carpentry workshop, among other structures. Archaeologists also found the seeds of a butternut tree, which did not grow that far north. Such findings suggested that the Norsemen had traveled further afield, venturing at least as far as the milder climates around the Gulf of St. Louis.
In the more than 55 years since that first confirmed Norse settlement—dubbed L’Anse aux Meadows—was found, archaeologists have followed such tantalizing clues, as well as the stories chronicled in the Icelandic Sagas, in search of other Viking markers in North America. Their searches turned up nothing solid, however—until now.
Last week, a team of researchers led by noted “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak announced they have identified what they believe is a second Norse settlement in Canada using infrared images taken by satellites hovering some 400 miles above Earth. Located on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, on a patch of ground known as Point Rosee, the site is 300 miles south and west of L’Anse aux Meadows, indicating that Vikings may have traveled much more extensively in the New World than was previously known.
Parcak, an anthropologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has spent most of her career as an Egyptologist. She’s previously best known for using the innovative techniques of satellite archaeology, or space archaeology, to identify sites in Egypt for archaeological exploration. Late last year, she won a $1 million award from the non-profit conference organization TED for her work tracking the looting of antiquities from ancient Egyptian sites.
Along with her husband and fellow Egyptologist, Greg Mumford, and the Canadian archaeologist Frederick Schwarz, Parcak recently began using space archaeology to scan coastlines stretching from Baffin Island to Massachusetts. The researchers scanned the satellite images for variations in the landscape, including color changes in the soil or in the vegetation. Using high-resolution aerial photography, they narrowed down the hundreds of potential “hot spots” they found, finally zeroing in on a dark stain on the map containing what looked like a buried man-made structure.
Last summer, Parcak took a team to excavate the spot, a piece of exposed headland on the southwestern end of Newfoundland. After finding elevated iron readings using a magnetometer, the scientists dug trenches, uncovering turf walls built in the Viking style. One structure appeared to contain internal walls, and was the same size and shape as the Viking longhouses found at L’Anse aux Meadows. The researchers also found ash residue, fragments of cooked bog iron in a shallow hearth and a boulder with its face scorched by fire—evidence indicating a type of metallurgy not practiced by natives of the Canadian region. In fact, the only other pre-Columbian iron-processing site found in the New World is at L’Anse aux Meadows.
“Either it’s…an entirely new culture that looks exactly like the Norse and we don’t know what it is,” Parcak told the Washington Post. “Or it’s the westernmost Norse site that’s ever been discovered.” Parcak and her team are working with Canadian experts and the science series NOVA for a TV documentary, “Vikings Unearthed,” airing this week on PBS.
The researchers will need additional excavations and analysis to confirm that the Point Rosee site is definitively a Viking site, a process that will likely take years to unfold. Outside observers urge caution and skepticism, given that many past claims of Viking settlement have proved to be false. If confirmed, however, the new find would completely upend the known history of Vikings in North America, indicating a much more extensive presence and settlement than was previously known. As Parcak points out, a single Viking settlement may be easy to dismiss as a short-lived exploration. But a second confirmed Norse site would indicate something quite different—and could suggest there might be more settlements out there waiting to be found.