Quirks & Quarks

New research shows the Vikings were in Newfoundland exactly 1,000 years ago

Precision dating of artifacts from L’anse Aux Meadows pinpoints the earliest year that Vikings could possibly have been active in North America at 1021CE.

Precision dating puts the Vikings in North America no earlier than 1021CE

Vikings were active at L'anse Aux Meadows as early as 1021CE (Shutterstock)

Wood from three different trees cut by Vikings and found at L'Anse aux Meadows has been precisely dated to 1021 CE — or 1,000 years ago this year. 

The Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, located at the tip of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula, was discovered in the 1960s, but has never been precisely dated. Previous estimates about when the Viking crossed the Atlantic and made their way to present day Newfoundland and Labrador have been based on Norse sagas and radiocarbon dating that typically has an error margin of about 50 years. The best estimates put their arrival at around 990 at the earliest, and about 1050 at the latest. 

Activity from the sun provided the clue to Viking presence

But a new study by Michael Dee, an associate professor of isotopic chronology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, helps pinpoint an actual date that Vikings were active at L'anse Aux Meadows. A massive global solar storm was known to have occurred in 992. The storm of particles from the sun created a spike in radiocarbon that was absorbed by growing around the world trees over the following year. 

Microscopic image of a wood fragment from the Norse layers at L’Anse aux Meadows (Petra Doeve)

This fact became very important when excavations of what is referred to as the Viking layer at L'anse Aux Meadows turned up three different samples of wood from three different trees. One was a stump, one was a log, and the third was a branch. 

Metal blades and tree rings

These artifacts were significant finds for two reasons. One is that they showed cut marks made by metal blades, specific to Vikings, not Indigenous stone blades. The second reason is that all three artifacts still had the outermost layer of the tree intact. All exhibited 29 growth rings from that outer layer back to the previously known solar storm ring. That enabled the archaeologists to assign the year 1021 to all three artifacts, the earliest possible year Vikings were actively cutting those trees at L'Anse aux Meadows. 

Dr Kuitems prepares wood samples from L'anse Aux Meadows at the radiocarbon facility in Groningen (Ronald Zijlstra)

This new evidence does not provide any new information about how long they stayed, or if they returned home and came back. Evidence of non-native plants found at the site does suggest however that the Vikings had travelled further south at some point.

Reconstructed Viking building at L'anse Aux Meadows (Shutterstock)

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