|Not much to look at|
It’s a two-mile trudge through forested, swampy ground to reach Point Rosee, a narrow, windswept peninsula stretching from southern Newfoundland into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Last June, a team of archaeologists was drawn to this remote part of Canada by a modern-day treasure map: satellite imagery revealing ground features that could be evidence of past human activity.
Just one word: satellites!
To date, the only confirmed Viking site in the New World is L’Anse aux Meadows, a thousand-year-old way station discovered in 1960 on the northern tip of Newfoundland. It was a temporary settlement, abandoned after just a few years, and archaeologists have spent the past half-century searching for elusive signs of other Norse expeditions.Basically, the changes soil height and drainage caused by the old human works cause changes in the vegetation that can be seen on satellite images, looking at certain color bands.
“The sagas suggest a short period of activity and a very brief and failed colonization attempt,” says Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist specializing in Norse settlements. “L’Anse aux Meadows fits well with that story but is only one site. Point Rosee could reinforce that story or completely change it if the dating is different from L’Anse aux Meadows. We could end up with a much longer period of Norse activity in the New World.”
The site of the discovery, hundreds of miles south of L’Anse aux Meadows, was located by archaeologist Sarah Parcak, a National Geographic Fellow and “space archaeologist” who has used satellite imagery to locate lost Egyptian cities, temples, and tombs.
Parcak led a team of archaeologists to Point Rosee last summer to conduct a “test excavation,” a small-scale dig to search for initial evidence that the site merits further study. The scientists unearthed an iron-working hearth partially surrounded by the remains of what appears to have been a turf wall.While of great historical interest, the Viking colonization of North America didn't amount to much. It left no substantial settlements, no genetic traces in the native populations that anyone has been able to find. Ultimately a dead end. But maybe it was a useful way to get rid of some malcontents.
The archaeologists don’t yet have enough evidence to confirm that Vikings built the hearth. Other peoples lived in Newfoundland centuries ago, including Native Americans and Basque fisherman. But experts are cautiously optimistic.
“A site like Point Rosee has the potential to reveal what that initial wave of Norse colonization looked like not only for Newfoundland but for the rest of the North Atlantic,” says Bolender.
The Norse didn’t do much mining. Most of their iron was harvested from peat bogs, and their very way of life depended upon it. Metal nails held their ships together as they sailed west—expanding their realm across the North Atlantic—and south, establishing trade routes throughout Europe and the Far East. A modern-day reconstruction of a Norse longship, built by the Viking Ship Museum in Denmark, required 7,000 nails made from 880 pounds (400 kg) of iron—which means that a blacksmith would have had to heat and process 30 tons of raw bog iron ore.
Bog iron prospectors knew what telltale signs to look for, such as an oily looking microbial slick on the surface of stagnant water. In fact, three historians authored a study making the case that iron was a prerequisite for Viking settlements. L’Anse aux Meadows, they observe, was a site used for iron production and ship maintenance, providing evidence “that the explorers, knowing their ships needed repair, actively sought out a location where they could acquire bog iron and produce new nails.”
Awe, come on, we know they used it to make swords, axes, hammers and spear points, and only used the scraps to make nails.
Was Point Rosee a Viking outpost a thousand or so years ago? The evidence thus far is promising. The turf structure that partially surrounds the hearth is nothing like the shelters built by indigenous peoples who lived in Newfoundland at the time, nor by Basque fishermen and whalers who arrived in the 16th century. And, while iron slag may be fairly generic, “there aren’t any known cultures—prehistoric or modern—that would have been mining and roasting bog iron ore in Newfoundland other than the Norse,” says Bolender.So it seems likely. Was it close to a real settlement, or was it just a defensible place to collect and do the first step in preparing the iron ore for smelting?
Wombat-socho has "Rule 5 Sunday: Time Begins on Opening Day" and "FMJRA 2.0: Headhunter (Egg Salad Remix)" ready for sampling at The Other McCain.