What went on at L'Anse Aux Meadows, and what happened to the inhabitants?
The Viking sagas record how Leif Erikson sailed from Greenland to a land which they named Vinland. In the 1960s, Helge Ingstad set out to look for the settlement. He discovered L’Anse Aux Meadows at Epaves Bay, Newfoundland, about 100m inland.
Ingstad and his wife uncovered eight buildings during the excavations, located in three discrete groups, each with its own longhouse. The buildings survived as the remains of turf walls and were dated to approximately 1000. Analysis suggests that the turf was cut from the immediate area and that the wood used in construction was primarily driftwood, although the area was probably forested at the time.
Two of the longhouses were exceptionally large. Only chieftains had large halls, but at L’Anse Aux Meadows the smaller of the two halls was double the size of Erik the Red’s hall in Iceland. A third hall was more typical in size and had fewer rooms. The total number of sleeping places available suggests that the buildings could house between 70 and 90 people at one time, whilst the diversity of the buildings suggests social complexity.
The smaller buildings included two pit houses (sunken-floored buildings) and a round building of a style which, in Scandinavia, was usually reserved for slaves. One of the sunken-floored buildings may have been a weaving shed, as loomweights were found inside. Another of the huts was used for iron-smelting and there was a pit for making charcoal nearby. The artefacts included boat rivets (nails used in Viking boat building), wood chips and around 50 discarded wooded objects, so it seems probable that boats were being repaired here.
Evidence of Travel and Hunting
The presence of butternuts on the site suggests that the Norse inhabitants must have travelled further south in order to obtain them. There is also evidence of caribou, wolf, fox, bear, lynx, marten, a variety of birds and fish, seal, whale and walrus. The game animals are not found in the area today and imply that either the winters were less harsh, or that these animals were hunted elsewhere.
The buildings were only in use for a short period of time, perhaps as little as ten years. It has also been suggested that the artefacts associated with men dominate the assemblage, and that there were few women there. There is also a lack of obvious farm buildings. The settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows may therefore have only been occupied seasonally, or operated as a base for repairing boats and carrying out exploration further south. Alternatively, the local Native American population may have made life too uncomfortable for the Vikings: Leif’s brother Thorwald was killed in a skirmish with people whom the sagas referred to as “the skraelings”.
Parks Canada operates a visitor centre containing exhibits of the site and its artefacts. There are reconstructions of three of the dwellings and a reconstruction of the iron furnace hut, at some distance from the original remains. The replica buildings are populated with “Viking” re-enactors.
Nearby, there is a privately-owned interpretation of a Viking village, called Norstead. Costumed interpreters tell Viking tales and forge iron and there is also a replica Viking ship. Visitors can take part in forging iron, learn about navigation, make clay pots, and try spinning, dyeing and weaving.
1 VRC Road, L'Anse aux Meadows, P.O. Box 70, St. Lunaire-Griquet, NL, A0K 2X0