We anchored in the bay at St. Anthony on the morning of August 12. It was chilly and gray. We were anchored a good way from the town in this large harbor, with the red & white lighthouse at the entrance to the rocky bay the most interesting sight nearby.
We tendered into town but didn’t stay there. St. Anthony is a small town (fewer than 2,500) with little to see, so we signed up for an excursion to the real reason for coming here, L’Anse aux Meadows. This is an archaeological site of a 1,000 year old Norse village, the first (and only, so far) actual proof that the Vikings reached North America 500 years before Columbus.
The Icelandic Sagas tell of Leif Eriksson (whose statue we saw in Reykjavik) leading a group on a voyage to the west of his home in Greenland to a spot he called Vinland. The Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red (Erik was Leif’s father and the leader of the first Viking settlement in Greenland) are both pretty short and make good reading for anyone interested in this stuff. The Sagas indicate that the settlement lasted only a few years & was abandoned because of internal fighting among the Vikings and conflict with the locals, who the Norse called Skraelings.
But the Sagas are not real history in the modern sense and the idea that another European had reached America before Columbus was dismissed by most people. A Norwegian named Helge Instad read the Sagas, however, and concluded that Vinland was real and was probably located in Newfoundland. He went to northern Newfoundland and began asking around about any mounds in the area. One of the locals told him about some mounds thought to have been Indian remains. Instad and his wife, Anne Stine Instad, excavated the mounds in 1960 and found remains that turned out to be a Viking settlement. Anne led excavations there from 1961 to 1968, and proved that the settlement was Norse by finding a bronze Viking cloak pin among the ruins. As a result, today it is accepted that L’Anse aux Meadows was an 11th Century Viking settlement and that Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas.
We boarded our bus and headed out with our knowledgeable and very engaging guide Chris. This is a remote area with no modern tour busses so we made the trip in school busses, which were less than comfortable.
The archaeological site, now a Canadian national park, has a reconstruction of how the village most likely would have looked. But about a mile away is a redundant reconstruction run as a private business, sort of a Disney-like “Vikingland” (although a lot smaller & without the rides & concessions). For reasons that are beyond me (unless they involve monetary incentives) we went first to the private site where we spent too much time on an entirely unnecessary visit. The time would have been better spent in the visitor center at the national park where we had insufficient time to review all the exhibits. Both of these sites, however, are located on a lovely bay that shows why the Vikings would have found it a good place to settle.
We drove the mile or so to the national park and walked to the visitor’s center. There was Viking themed artwork along the path, including busts of the Instads. In the visitor’s center we saw a film then had a little bit of time to look at the exhibits & the gift shop. From the porch of the visitor’s center was a great view of the whole area around where the Vikings settled.
Walking down the boardwalk path to the site we first came to a two part sculpture called Meeting of Two Worlds. It is a rather abstract representation of the first encounter between Europeans on one side with Americans on the other.
After each year’s excavations the site was buried again to protect the remains from the elements. Today all you can really see of the actual remains is a series of grassy mounds outlining the foundations of the original Viking buildings. Each has been identified but I can’t identify which buildings are in most of these pictures. The first one is where iron was smelted and worked (it’s obvious since it’s labeled) but apparently only enough iron for a few hundred nails was produced here. The multi-roomed structures were Viking longhouses, which generally housed several people and had connected outhouses for animals and work. Three longhouses have been recovered on the site. There are also a few smaller one-room huts, probably housing slaves or crew of low status, although one had weights suggesting it might have been a weaving workshop for women.
We visited the reconstruction of what the Viking buildings probably looked like. There were a couple of tents near the shore that looked like they might have been for storage. The other buildings had turf roofs over wooden walls with turf outside of them that made the building look like a hill from a distance. The exposed walls were covered with piled up peat rectangles which we were told would have an insulation value in modern terms of about R-100. I imagine that kind of insulation would be pretty welcome during the winter this far north. There were costumed people demonstrating the crafts that would have been practiced here by the Norse. When the Norse lived here this area was thickly wooded so that wood was plentiful for building. You will recall from earlier episodes that the opposite was true in Greenland, where trees are pretty much nonexistent. The Sagas say that Leif loaded his ships with wood each time he returned to Greenland, which must have been a very valuable cargo to sell there.
There were a lot of what looked like wildflowers in this area, although since these are carefully reconstructed sites who knows whether they were planted here initially.
Current thought is that this site was more of a way station for exploration further south than a village intended as a permanent settlement. But in any event, the Vikings only used this site for a few years & burned it when they left, presumably to deny its use to others. But its historical importance is not diminished by its relatively short duration.
So the Vikings left this spot and we did too, driving back to St. Anthony in time to permit just a quick look around. It seems to be a nice town with nice people. On the road to the Viking site we passed several very large piles of cut wood, some with vehicles parked nearby. Chris told us that no one ever steals wood from someone else’s cache and that they often leave the keys in their vehicles. But if anyone is in need of wood (or other supplies) they only have to ask and people are glad to share. There are Just a few modest buildings in the harbor area. Chris informed us ruefully that there isn’t even a place in town where you can sit down and have a beer! Perhaps the largest building in the area is the hospital, just up the hill from the harbor, which has a 360 degree ceramic mural by a well known Canadian artist named Jordi Bonet who was born in Spain. When we were returning from the hospital Chris was heading back to his car & he crossed the street to offer us a personal driving tour of the town, gratis. It was getting late, so we gratefully declined, but you see what I mean about the friendly folks here.