On the trail of Vikings: Latest search for Norse in North America

An archeological dig for traces of the Vikings in southwestern Newfoundland this summer has been equal parts hope and heartbreak for an international team of experts.

3-week summer dig in Point Rosee, N.L., turns up no hard evidence, but scientists aren't giving up hope

A team of 14 international experts spent three weeks digging into the dirt of Point Rosee, in N.L.'s Codroy Valley, taking samples and searching for evidence of Vikings. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

On a meadowy spit of oceanfront land in southwestern Newfoundland, a team of scientists spent part of the summer of 2016 working to both uncover history and make it, modern explorers trying to track down ancient ones.

"This is not a bad place to spend a couple weeks outside, playing in the dirt. It's special here," said Sarah Parcak, the co-director of the midsummer dig at Point Rosee, in the Codroy Valley, about 50 km north of Channel-Port-aux-Basques.

It's a spot that could easily vie for the the title of most beautiful workplace in the world, but with cliffs that tumble into the sea, the only way in is a long hike or an ATV ride not designed for the faint of heart, or stomach.

The archeologists have uncovered evidence that Point Rosee was once a wooded peninsula, and are working to determine when it was deforested. Locals say the area has been used as sheep pasture or for growing vegetables. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Searching for the elusive Norse presence in North America isn't for the faint of heart either.

This is Parcak's second season at Point Rosee. Last June's dig, a cold and rainy affair, turned up enough tempting clues, such as nine kilograms of bog iron that looked to have been roasted in a hearth, to lure her back.

2016 Excavation Work at Point Rosee

7 years ago
Duration 0:46
2016 Excavation Work at Point Rosee

Slag, the waste product from smelting iron, is the holy grail of Norse archeology in Newfoundland and Labrador. Only Vikings, not the Aboriginal peoples of their time, had the knowledge base to transform bog iron into nails and other items.

In 2016, Parcak, a National Geographic fellow and archeologist based out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, came accompanied by 13 other specialists whose expertise ranged from Norse settlements, to surveying, to ancient pollen, all there to extensively sample the 2015 areas and turn up more turf for evidence. Part of the work comes from a grant from the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council.

A good chunk of their days was spent hunched over, sifting though the dirt in an attempt to confirm a long-held theory that the Viking settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows, more than 600 kilometres north of Point Rosee, isn't the westernmost landing of Norse in North America.

Soil and ore is carefully being bagged and catalogued for testing back at the team's lab in Alabama, with most results expected in by the end of 2016. (Lindsay Bird/CBC )

Uncovered in the 1960s, L'Anse Aux Meadows — on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland — took years of digging to become the only proven Viking site on the continent, and remains so to the present day.

Travelling from L'Anse Aux Meadows

But material uncovered there points to explorations further south, most convincingly in the form of butternuts, a species not found anywhere north of New Brunswick.

Material from the Viking Sagas — tales that blend myth and history — also contain descriptions that align with a route down Newfoundland's west coast.

"For sure, there are other Norse sites out there. L'Anse Aux Meadows was not it. I'm confident that, as we continue to refine our methods and our approaches within the next couple years with new images, new satellites, I think we've got a much better shot of finding it," said Parcak.

Archeologists widely believe Vikings sailed down Newfoundland's west coast from L'Anse aux Meadows, eventually making it to northern New Brunswick and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Google Maps)

A little help from outer space

New images and new technology is exactly how Parcak and her team were lured to the Codroy Valley in the first place.

Parcak is a leader and pioneer in the field of space archeology — the use of satellite imagery and remote sensing to glimpse what lies beneath seemingly undisturbed soil, a technique she has put to use with much success at other archeological sites.

"With the human eye, there's a lot we can see, but we're restricted to the visible part of the light spectrum, and the great thing about satellites is they record information in the part of the light spectrum we can't see," said Parcak.

Sarah Parcak's main research up to now has been in Egyptology, where she's used space technology to map such finds as the ancient city of Tanis - famously featured in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

That spectrum includes thermal infrared and radar, which Parcak can capture from orbiting satellites and examine in her university laboratory to reveal human impact upon the earth.

"All of a sudden you see these vibrant colours and signatures showing individual plant species, or particular kinds of rocks, that all look the same to us. And that's really the magic of remote sensing: it allows us to manipulate the data, and see things as they actually are."

Norse expert Karen Milek says Vikings usually chose settlements that had good landing sites for ships. Point Rosee's beaches are filled with large, unnavigable rocks and steep cliffs. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

And Parcak's team needs all the technological help it can get.

Elusive Norse presence

"Looking for the Norse in North America is like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Karen Milek, an archeologist specializing in the Norse, and a member of the 2016 dig.

Oskar Sveinbjarnarson, left, and David Gathings survey the site with a resistance metre, sending electronic pulses into the earth and measuring how easily those currents pass through the ground, potentially signalling objects or features underneath. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

But with the help of the remote images that haystack has become a lot smaller, and that needle a lot bigger. Parcak used such images to scour the Labrador coastline and then Newfoundland's western edge, and at Point Rosee, one buried feature jumped out to her — what looked like a wall, 22 metres by seven metres, the exact same dimensions as a longhouse discovered at L'Anse Aux Meadows.

That, along with a 2014 site survey that pointed to signs of burning, were enough hints of man-made meddling with the landscape to lead to the 2015 dig, which expanded considerably in 2016 with equal parts hope and disappointment.

Greg Mumford, the dig's co-director and Parcak's husband, takes careful notes of rock placements as layers of the earth are uncovered. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

'This is a difficult site'

While the bog iron collected in 2015 was radiocarbon-dated to 1200 A.D. — well within the 1000 to 1400 A.D. timeline the archeologists have sketched out for Newfoundland Norse sites — the 22-metre strip that was thought to be a wall hasn't turned out to be as definitive as the archeologists hoped.

Despite interesting strips of sediment not found elsewhere at Point Rosee, suggesting a human hand, it appears too wide to be a wall, and each layer of soil is being carefully sampled to be tested later in a lab.

"This is a difficult site," Parcak admitted.

"I keep flipping my hats. I'm a skeptical scientist, but you have to be an optimist to be an archeologist. I mean, it's scraping bits of soil for hours at a time under the hot sun. If you're not an optimist, you're in the wrong field."

Renowned archeologist Birgitta Wallace worked on some of the initial digs at L'Anse Aux Meadows and has written a book about the site, which took years of excavation before it could be verified as the westernmost Norse site in the world. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Each time the evidence uncovered this summer sways towards more definitive Norse territory, it then appears to swing right back into vagueness — the archeological equivalent of being lost in the fog, a conundrum no doubt faced by the seafaring Vikings.

"You can't say, 'slam dunk, this is definitively a Norse site.' But I think it looks like there was human activity here, and it's going to require a lot more lab testing," said Parcak.

The Norse tendency towards tidiness has proved difficult for the excavators. They rarely left behind large volumes of artefacts, using sod instead of stone to build shelters and repurposing each valuable scrap of iron and carting it along their journeys. The spareness of what was found at L'Anse Aux Meadows — a spindle whorl, a bronze pin — shows that.

No such cultural artefact, not even a nail head, has been found during the 2016 dig.

Compared to some other cultural groups, Vikings left few artefacts in their wake, so the archeological team isn't fazed by the lack of objects at Point Rosee. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"If they had stopped for just a very brief while, say a few days, we'd never be able to prove that," said Birgitta Wallace, a renowned Norse archeologist who has done extensive work at L'Anse Aux Meadows, participating in some of the original digs in the '60s. 

Wallace made the trip from her home in Halifax just to examine what Parcak's team uncovered, and saw another stumbling block upon her arrival: the landscape of Point Rosee itself.

"That's one thing that bothers me most," said Wallace, pointing to the lack of a nearby freshwater source and sharp cliffs ending in rocky beaches, an opinion shared by other members of the team.

The team are careful to document the original placement of stones as they unearth sections of turf, checking to see whether they were naturally strewn across the peninsula by glacial activity or if a human hand played a role. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"It does not look like a logical place for the Norse to settle, because there isn't a good landing site. That was really key. All their settlements had very good landing sites, beaches usually," said Karen Millek.

Preliminary Thoughts on 2016 Point Rosee Dig

7 years ago
Duration 1:10
Preliminary Thoughts on 2016 Point Rosee Dig

'No doubt' of Vikings ... somewhere

Despite the odds, no one at Point Rosee is shutting the door on its possible Viking connections, or of the chance of a settlement nearby.

"There's absolutely no doubt that the Norse sailed around this coast, and probably stopped in many places," said Wallace.

Parcak said it's been invaluable to have so many Viking experts in the Codroy Valley at once. They were able to compare the landscape to their previous research and descriptions from the Sagas. As the team leader, she's unfazed by any present uncertainty.

The archeologists don't camp overnight on the site, instead hiking out 40 minutes to boarding houses, but use the tents during the day for shade, as the peninsula has no tree cover. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"If you're going to undertake this journey, as it were, you have to do it and be a skeptic. That's good science. When we first undertook this project, my hypothesis was that we wouldn't find anything."

In one way, Parcak has already found something: Through Point Rosee, she has created a new way to look for Vikings via a combination of space archeology and hands-on excavation.

"Ultimately, I'm most pleased that we've created what I think is a sound methodology to search for Norse sites."

From the bags of bog iron, soil and ash carefully carted from Canada to the university labs in Alabama, a host of experts will spend the next few months analyzing, testing and radiocarbon dating, and Parcak is managing to contain her buoyant optimism with a boundless patience.

"It's just the nature of science, and I think ultimately we just have to let the science speak for itself." 

You can watch Reg Sherren's full story on The National or by clicking the player below.

On the trail of the Vikings

7 years ago
Duration 12:31
Archaeologists are hoping to prove that a second Viking settlement existed in Point Rosee, Newfoundland.


Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is the producer and host of Atlantic Voice, a CBC Radio 1 show showcasing documentaries and storytelling from the east coast. She is based out of CBC Corner Brook.

With files from Reg Sherren and Warren Kay