Land Under the Pole Star
The Vinland Sagas
The Viking Explorers
The Vikings and their Western voyages have been more in the news recently than at any time since the eleventh century. The main quickeners of public interest have been the announcement by the Norwegian Helge Ingstad that evidence of Norse occupation around the year 1000 has been found at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, in northern Newfoundland, and the acquisition and publication by Yale University of the Vinland Map, the first known map (pre-Columbian at that) to delineate any part of the American continent. But these two events and the sometimes heated discussion they have provoked are not the whole of the story. The poignant drama of the life and death of the Norse settlements in Greenland is receiving increased attention, sometimes for its own sake, sometimes as a preliminary to the Norse voyages to America. The tumbled houses and mouldering bones of Eirik the Red’s settlement at Brattahild in Tunugdliarfik in southwest Greenland are a tourist attraction; and rare is the traveler who hasn’t, almost literally, dropped in at the excavation of the first Christian church to be built anywhere in the world west of Iceland, i.e., Thjodhild’s turf-walled church at Qagssiarssuk. And something is happening all the time. At one end of the time-scale the Danes have raised five ships of the period 1000-1050 from the shallow waters of Roskilde Fjord; at the other the Icelanders have secured a twelve-mile fishing limit, a new volcanic island, and a much-challenged promise that they will receive from the Royal Library and the Arnamagnaean Collection in Copenhagen the most precious of their ancient literary and historical manuscripts. The year which marks the nine-hundredth birthday of the Norman Conquest has naturally drawn attention to the Norwegians who lost at Stamford Bridge and those ex-Danes, Nordmanni, Northmen, who won at Hastings. As I write, the exhibition of Swedish Gold at the British Museum, alongside the treasures of Sutton Hoo, shows on one level the close relationship between even the remotest Scandinavian nation and the English kingdom of East Anglia, and on another reminds us that the Vikings were not only sailors, soldiers, pirates, and destroyers, but splendid artists and craftsmen. And, not least significant, the Vikings are in paperback.
BUT L’ANSE-AUX-MEADOWS and the Vinland Map are not only less than the whole story. They are not even a closed chapter. To take L’Anse-aux-Meadows first: We need to know a lot more than has yet been revealed before we can fully subscribe to Mr. Ingstad’s claim that “Here on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland, we had discovered the first proven remains of a Norse settlement in the Americas.” The last thing any one wants to do is throw doubt on that word “proven”—one longs to see it substantiated, which means we long for a scientific report, and more particularly for a preliminary report that will settle questions nagging many scholars. The walls of the so-called “Long House,” for example, according to at least one trained archaeologist …
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