l’Anse aux Meadows World Heritage Site

With two days left in Quirpon NL…we just had two remaining Fun Stuff© things to take care of…so on Monday we took care of the first of them…a visit to the Viking…or more properly Norse…settlement site…or more properly base camp…at l’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site…which is also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 10 klicks northwest of Quirpon on the coast…I’ll discuss both of those “more properly” statements in a bit. Then on Tuesday we’ll do laundry as our hamper is getting full…when it’s cold you need to wear more clothes and most of the time we’re in a jeans with a t-shirt covered by a sweatshirt/rugby shirt and then a hoodie over the top of that…it’s not the temperature as much as the wind and the wind chill it causes. After laundry…we’ll head back down in late afternoon for a return visit to Fisherman’s Point where we were yesterday to attend the Viking Dinner Theater.

Ok…let’s talk about first those two “more properly” things and then about the settlement a bit.

First up…Norse versus Vikings…let’s straighten that out first. As the guy in the movie at the l’Anse aux Meadows (it’s pronounced like lance ah meadows…hey, it’s French) World Heritage site said…Vikings sounds so much more cool than Norsemen that the term Vikings is generically used. But here’s the deal…they were Norsemen first and Vikings second. Norsemen…and Norsewomen of course…are a Germanic strain of European stock that populated the Scandinavian countries. Most people think that they’re Norse because they come from Norway…but they actually inhabited Sweden and Denmark as well as Norway…and like most people everywhere…they were farmers, herdsmen, hunters, smiths, ironworkers and all the other occupations a culture needs to survive. However…they also invented the famous Viking longboat with the dragon prow, shields on the sides, and red and white striped seals in about the year 850AD or so…and like a lot of people back at that time they went on raids…and called themselves Vikings when they were on their raiding trips. They pillaged along all of the northern coastline of Europe and the UK as well as the Baltic Sea and into the Mediterranean all the way to the Middle East…while others went on first exploration journeys and then settlement journeys to Iceland about a week or so’s travel from Norway, then on to Greenland, and eventually on to North America as I’ll talk about in a bit. So Norse was their nationality and Viking is kind of a period term for what we would call SEAL Teams today I guess…they were raiders but also explorers and traders. So that’s the first “more properly” taken care of…you should use either term for them depending on what portion of their culture and activities you’re referring to.

The second “more properly” is whether the building site here at l’Anse aux Meadows is a settlement or not…and there it’s really a matter of semantics. Settlements are intended to be long term colonies with a permanent presence and hence have fields to farm, livestock, women and children and all the other accoutrements of what one would call home. A base camp is a temporary living arrangement so you don’t have to sleep on the ground while you’re temporarily in a location for whatever reason.

So…why in the heck would anybody want to settle here in northern Newfoundland…it’s cold and windy…but we know the answer to that question now. After the successful establishment of colonies on Iceland and the southwest corner of Greenland…the guy in charge of the Greenland was a guy you’re probably heard of…his name was Erik Thorvaldsson…also known as Erik the Red. Turns out that the colony in Greenland was short of a few things they really needed…wood for one and iron for another. Wood to make structures and boats and iron to make most importantly nails for doing boat repairs and secondarily weapons to defend the colony. So Erik the Red decided that instead of the long voyage back to Iceland…which had some wood but no iron…or back to Scandinavia…which had both…to undertake a voyage to the west to see what he could find. Old Erik mounted, manned, and equipped an expedition…but then on the way down to the pier to leave his horse stumbled. He decided this was a bad omen…why no one is really sure as by this time most of the Norse had become Christians but they still devoted a lot of time to pleasing Odin and the other gods I guess…anyway as it was a bad omen he decided not to lead the expedition but to send his son instead…another guy you might have heard of named Leif Eiriksson. His last name was different because he was Erik’s son…hence Eiriks-son or Eiriksson…don’t ask me why dad’s first name and son’s first name are spelled different…it’s just because. The Old Norse spelling is Eirikr…so that explains the son’s spelling but dad’s name has been Anglicized over the years I guess.

So old Leif headed out with the expedition…and since the Norse mostly operated along the coastline and followed currents…and since he didn’t really know what was to the west of Greenland at all…left port in Greenland and proceeded up the west side of Greenland a bit until they saw land to the west according to the Norse sagas anyway…but the land is about 300 miles away so he must have had an inkling it was there…anyway they went up the Davis Strait a bit then west to what is now known as Baffin Island…and turned south along the coast. At the southern end of the island he continued south across to the northern tip of what is now Labrador and continued south until about even with the north end of Newfoundland. There was plenty of timber available on Labrador…but they could see land across the sea to the east and wondered what was there…so they crossed over to Newfoundland and landed somewhere around 1,000AD.

Now the climate was warmer 1,000 years ago…and the land here at l’Anse aux Meadows was lower as it hadn’t finished rising back from being depressed by the last ice age…so the beach was a little farther inland than now and the bay was a bit deeper than it is now. What they found was a nice little bay protected by a couple of islands offshore…and to the west was what they thought was a fjord that was closed by land at the southern end. This body of water is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence which connects…unbeknownst to the Norse…to the Atlantic at it’s southern end. They named this area Vinland after wine…but since wild grapes have never grown on Newfoundland they must have had another reason for the name. Between that and the remains of butternuts that they found in the what I’ll call the base camp as it’s currently understood…the Norse must have explored further south into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

There’s another story about the discovery…in the second one Leif sailed back to Norway in 999AD and converted to Christianity…and was given the mission of taking Christianity to Greenland where he lived. On the return voyage he was blown off course and came into Newfoundland from the east…sighting the entrance to what he thought was a fjord at l’Anse aux Meadows and landing there…naming the area Vinland. From the scholar’s interpretation of the two sagas…the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders…these were written down in about 1,200AD after being passed down as oral tradition for about 200 years…and from what Neil understands about the prevailing winds and currents in the Davis Strait…which are basically north to south…and based on the fact that Baffin Island off he mainland is about 300+ miles from Greenland and hence out ofd sight…the later explanation makes more sense. According to the most literal translation of the two sagas…a merchant named Bjarni Herjólfsson sighted land to the west of Greenland at an earlier date…but he didn’t land as he was hurrying home for Yuletide ale. Like much of ancient history…it’s a lot of tea leaf reading and using a very few actual facts, a few more generally supported ideas without factual evidence to back them up, and general cultural and technology capabilities to come up with a most likely scenario. According to the sagas…Leif landed first on a land he named Helluland or Flat Rock Land, likely Baffin Island, then proceeded south to a forested place he named Markland, likely Labrador, and then on to a location with a milder climate and abundant salmon he named Vinland, definitely l’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.He wintered over where he landed then headed home with knowledge of the discovery and a cargo of timber and grapes…the grapes had to have come from New Brunswick so he know he explored that far at least…and the sagas talk of explorations to the south.

So Leif and his band of probably 3 ships as there are 3 houses and Norse usually lived with one crew per house…established a base camp here to gather wood to take back to Greenland and sell…and to make at least one batch of iron to make nails to repair their ships. They were here for for awhile…long enough to build buildings at least…before sailing back to Greenland. Subsequent voyages were also made by other Norse merchants…perhaps as many as 4 in total over a period of approximately 10 years although the exact number is undetermined except for analysis of levels in the middens or garbage dumps…at which point the Norse abandoned the settlement permanently. They continued to harvest timber from Labrador for about 300 more years but the sagas talk about relations with the local indigenous people souring…in any event they left and their structures were burned…it’s not clear whether they were burned by the Norse or the natives and the sagas have no information on that.

Along in the early 1960s…a Norwegian fella had an interest in proving that the first Europeans to set foot on North America were Norse and not Christopher Columbus some 500 years later. He sailed up the Atlantic coast asking anybody who he could if they knew of any ruins in the area. He found nothing until he got to the small village of l’Anse aux Meadows…we’ve been there and it’s really small…and he found an old local man who offered to take him to what the locals called the “old Indian camp”. On arrival and seeing the remains…he immediately recognized them as Norse in character and he and his archeologist wife spent the next 7 years excavating the site to try and prove it was a Norse site.

They eventually found several artifacts that confirmed this was a Norse settlement…first up was the remains of an iron forge and since the local natives didn’t have any iron that proved it was Europeans…and then they found a Norse style cloak clasp and Norse metal tools…thus providing convincing evidence that this was a Norse settlement and it must be Leif Eiriksson’s as the sagas indicate.

The site has been completely excavated and then the original buildings reburied…3 of them have been reproduced using period Norse techniques and construction methods. It was named a World Heritage Site in 1978 and was the first Cultural World Heritage site designated…that requires a bit more explanation…don’t worry…Ima getting to photos eventually.

Some 250,000 years ago Homo Sapiens developed in central Africa and about 150,000 years ago they started migrating northwards through Africa. Once north of the Mediterranean Sea they ended up migrating in both directions…those that went east eventually populated Mongolia, China, Asia and then across the land bridge into North and South America and became the indigenous peoples of those areas. Those that went west eventually became Europeans but the Atlantic Ocean prevented humans from encircling the earth until Leif Eiriksson came along. Somewhere along these shores…probably not at l’Anse aux Meadows as although it’s been occupied for the last 6,000 years or so there were not indigenous people in this area during the time the Norse were here. They were north and south of this area…and since the Norse were both north and south of this area somewhere along the line the eastward migrating people from Africa eventually met the westward migrating European people and finished the task of humans encircling the planet.

Probably didn’t happen right at the settlement…but since it’s the first known Norse settlement in North America…it happened somewhere around here…hence the first World Cultural Heritage Site designation.

The base camp was mostly men…but there were clearly some women involved as loom weight stones have been found in the ruins…and it was only temporarily occupied by each successive timber harvesting voyage until it’s eventual abandonment. From the excavations…the camp had a maximum population of 160 or so…given that the Greenland colony in 1,000AD had a population of only 2,500 or so…it’s unlikely that multiple base camps or additional settlements were made as they just didn’t have the people to do so.

Ok…another of that blather…let’s have some photos.

One of the excavated houses…it’s a typical Norse longhouse…what remains are the outlines of the foundation walls. The walls were 6 feet thick…2 feet of peat on the inside and outside with 2 feet of sand and gravel in between them. The roof was a layer of wood, then peat, then wood, then sod. There were generally 4 rooms…starring from the entrance there was the women’s work area, the men’s work area…both doubled as their sleeping area…then the kitchen, then the private sleeping quarters where leader and/or the women slept. You’re looking at about a 45 degree angle from the front, the stone plaque at the left side is about half way along the long dimension of the building.

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The larger longhouse…this one is differentiated ty a couple of things. This is more of a view down the length of the longhouse…the plaque is in the center of the short dimension and the grass humps leading back and to the left are the foundations. Off to the left side there’s a 3 sided attached boat house…you are looking at the back wall with the open end on the far side…and along the right side of the main building are storerooms. Since the storerooms would have been used to store the materials they were gathering to take back and sell…and since this is the biggest building…the archaeologists have concluded this was most likely occupied by Leif Eiriksson himself.

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Yeah…I know that the remains of them ain’t much to look at…so here are some rebuilt ones. They were built to the same dimensions inside and out as the originals and the top parts are constructed largely as the Norse settlements in Greenland and Iceland are constructed…all the buildings were burned so there is some divergence probably. They were built using original construction materials and techniques though…so they are as authentic as possible.

Leif’s house with a tent containing a bowl turning lathe inside it on the left. The guy walking towards us next to the building is dressed as a Norse of 1,000AD would be dressed…he was working on stripping the bark off of the log leaning against the building with a spokeshave.

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The smaller of he reconstructed houses in the back and the slave/servant quarters in the foreground.

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Connie doing her best Viking impersonation/reenactment…she’s of Swedish heritage ya know…so her ancestors coulda been here.

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Cooking and sleeping area.

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Period dressed woman doing some sewing.

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The bay where the longships entered and landed…the ocean is out of frame to the right, the beach to the left and there are a couple of islands sheltering the bay entrance offshore.

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Smithy and iron maker building…they smelted at least one batch of iron here to make nails…from the amount of slag remaining they produced about 5 pounds of raw iron which probably made 100 or so nails…including the one that was lost and found in the 1960s archeological dig.

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Inside construction…you can see the peat inner walls and the roof supporting structure.

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Couldn’t pass up a couple of small waterfalls on the creek that runs through the site and provided both drinking and bathing water for the Norse.

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After we finished at the National Historic Site…we headed a couple of clicks down the road to the end of the point where the little village of l’Anse aux Meadows is located. Nothing much to be found there, one craft shop, one restaurant and a couple dozen houses maximum. They did have a statue of old Leif situated looking out over the bay near the end of town…so Neil pulled over and Connie got some photos. The plaques to the left detail the origin of the statue…the original was sculpted for the Seattle Century 21 Exposition in 1962 and replicas were given to Trondheim in Norway (the ancient capital of the Nordic region) and Brattahild in Greenland (the location of Erik the Red’s farm)…followed by this one in 2013 which is dedicated all Nordic immigrants to North America. We’re glad ‘round these parts for Nordic immigrants…other wise we would have any blondes and in particular we wouldn’t have Connie…Neil wouldn’t like that.

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Interesting things found on the net.

Connie found this image of Carrigafoyle…which according to oconnorclans.com is “Carrigafoyle was the stronghold of the O’Connor Kerry. It was built in 1490 by Conor Liath O’Connor Kerry. It is made with limestone and stands in a strategic position on the edge of the Shannon Estuary, in an almost impenetrable position on what was originally an island. It is five stories high. One of its interesting features is the wide spiral stairs of 104 steps which leads to the battlements. The location enabled the O’Connor Kerry to intercept ships as they passed along the river and to extract a ‘tax’ in the form of a portion of their cargo. The castle was a target for the Elizabethan forces and was finally breached by Sir William Pelham in 1580 when all of the occupants were massacred.”

So what’s important about it? Neil is descended from the Connors…you remember his 5th great grandfather Richard Connor who founded Detroit from a couple years back and his 12th great grandfather Conor O’Connor who was born in the old country of Ireland in 1530 so about another 3 or 4 generations back you would find his something or other great grand father Conor Liath O’Connor Kerry who built Carrigafoyle. Pretty darned cool I think. So his ancestors basically built a toll booth on the estuary…which worked pretty good until they were massacred in 1580…but obviously either Conor Liath or one of his children survived or Neil wouldn’t be here.

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My kind of gun control.


Say this slowly and think about it.


Titles…well, they’re hard I guess.



About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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