Sunday, May 29, 2016

Vikings: A land without kings

History Extra

A view of Þingvellir National Park in western Iceland. It was here, in AD 930, that Viking settlers established the first pan-Icelandic assembly – possibly the oldest parliamentary body in the world. © Dreamstime

About 50 years after their raids first spread terror along the coastlines of north-western Europe, the Vikings struck westward. This time some of them sailed not in search of treasure or slaves but as land-hungry warriors seeking safe havens in which to found colonies away from increasingly powerful Scandinavian kings.
Using the Faroe Islands as a stepping stone, the Vikings could reduce the risks of long voyages across the open waters of the Atlantic. By the 830s a territory in the North Atlantic had been discovered by pioneers including Flóki Vilgerðarson, who dubbed it Ísland (Iceland), in memory of the chilly winter he spent there.
However, these were strictly exploratory voyages. The first successful colonising expedition arrived later, in AD 874, led by the Norwegian Ingólf Arnarson. The following decades saw streams of settlers from Norway and the Viking colonies in the British Isles arrive in a great landnám (‘taking of the land’), and within 60 years almost all of the available territory had been claimed.
Free from the direct control of the distant Norwegian monarchs, who were much too preoccupied with their own struggles against rival magnates to interfere with the new colony, the Icelandic Vikings were able to dispense with the authority of kings. Left to their own devices for three centuries, they created a unique form of society that came to be known as the ‘Icelandic Commonwealth’.
Much about Iceland was familiar to the settlers: it was indented with fjords, at the heads of which they could establish farms. Yet it was not as fertile as the Scandinavian lands they had left behind. Much of the interior was uninhabitable, studded with volcanoes and covered with great glaciers such as the Vatnajökull, and too cold for much of each year to support agriculture.
Though there were swathes of woodland, mostly native birch, these were soon felled for firewood and building, resulting in erosion that reduced the soil’s fertility still further. The minimal agriculture possible was, therefore, pastoral, mainly cattle herding, supplemented by fishing and seal hunting.
These settlers lived at the edge of subsistence, and a cold or wet summer could lead to famine. Population density was low: Iceland’s first census, taken in 1106, counted 4,560 free farmers, which probably equates to a total population of around 10 times that number. Settlements comprised farms clustered around the longhouses of local chieftains. Farms were constructed largely with turf, and within them families cooked, ate and slept in a single long room.

A statue of Ingólf Arnarson, the Norwegian explorer who led the first successful colonising expedition to Iceland, in AD 874. © Alamy
This way of life bred a fierce independence. The Icelandic sagas tell that the original colonisers of Iceland fled the tyranny of the Norwegian king Harald Finehair. Though several of his successors planned to force the colony's obedience to the crown, the difficulties of launching such a venture to a far-flung island meant that nothing came of the idea for almost 300 years.
With no threat of invasion, there was little need to establish a central tax-raising authority to fund defence, and no Icelandic king arose to challenge his Norwegian counterpart.
Instead, power devolved to the level of local chieftains called gooar. There were 39 of these, spread across the four quarters (or várthing) into which Iceland came to be divided. But the gooar did not rule territorial domains in the manner of European feudal aristocrats; rather, their authority rested on the allegiance of retainers (or thingmenn) whose lands often intermingled with those owing loyalty to other gooar. If a thingmann found himself at odds with his chieftain, he could transfer his loyalty to another by declaring himself ‘out of thing’ with the first.

Notable deeds

This early period of ‘taking of the land’ is described in the Landnámabók, a 13th-century compilation of earlier sources, which details the names, ancestry and notable deeds of the first settlers in each district.
Once this initial phase of settlement was over, territorial disputes inevitably erupted. The danger of uncontrollable feuds prompted the settlers to formalise what had, until then, been a somewhat haphazard political system – and so, in AD 930, they established the Althing: the first pan-Icelandic assembly.
The Althing has a good claim to being the world’s oldest parliament. It was modelled on smaller meetings held in Scandinavia, where all free men had a right of hearing.
The settlers chose a suitably spectacular setting for this assembly – a site on the Öxará river in the south-west of the island, fringed by a volcanic cleft. The location was as accessible as it was spectacular, and gooar and their thingmenn journeyed there from across the island when the assembly convened in mid-June each year.

A Viking amulet in the shape of a cross, now in the National Museum of Iceland. © Bridgeman Art Library

Local courts

At the Althing, the chieftains gathered with their retinues, serving as lawmakers – reviewing existing laws and making new ones – and as judges, presiding over cases that could not be decided in local courts.
The gathering was overseen by the lögrétta, the legislative council led by a lögsögumaor or lawspeaker who recited one-third of the Commonwealth’s laws from a great rock at the centre of the assembly site each year. It was a very public form of parliament and judiciary.
The requirement for all the gooar to attend meant that, though feuds – often bloody – did arise, the Althing acted as a safety valve, a neutral arena where settlements could be negotiated before conflict got out of hand.
By the 12th century, Icelandic society had begun to change, swayed by external nfluences – most notably Christianity. Missionaries had earlier attempted to preach in Iceland, though with little success until a concerted effort by the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason led Thorgeir Thorkelsson, the lawspeaker of the Althing, to declare in AD 1000 that Iceland should be Christian.
As money and land was bequeathed to the church, much of it came under the control of local landowners, and the go␣ar grew in wealth, consolidating their power. A number of chieftaincies fell into the hands of just a few families or even single individuals so, by about 1220, political power had become the exclusive preserve of just six families.
The remaining gooar ruled over what were effectively mini-kingdoms and, as the rewards of power grew, so did the violence the gooar employed to preserve and enlarge their territories. From the late 12th century, Iceland was riven by civil wars, characterised by large- scale pitched battles quite unlike earlier feuds.
Loose alliances coalesced around two powerful families, the Oddi and the Sturlungar. The latter had close ties with the royal family of Norway, whose authority had grown far stronger in the previous three centuries and now had the resources to meddle in the Icelandic civil wars.
The long reign of King Hákon Hákonarson (1217–63) saw the Norwegians gradually increase their influence in Iceland as the Sturlungar and Oddi tore the Commonwealth apart. Among the casualties of the conflict was the great Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson, murdered in 1241 on the orders of King Hákon, reputedly for his part in a conspiracy to depose him.
Battle-weary, despairing and seeing in continued independence only continued bloodshed, the Icelandic chieftains pledged their allegiance to the Norwegian king at the Althing in 1262. It was an ignominious end to the Icelandic Commonwealth, and brought to a close the experiment of rule without kings.
So it happened that, four centuries after their ancestors had fled Norway to escape the oppression of Harald Finehair, the Icelanders found themselves firmly under the thumb of his royal descendants.

The sagas of Iceland

What can epic tales of war and exploration tell us about Viking Iceland?
Among the key sources for Viking history are the sagas, tales of heroism, feuding and exploration that probably began in oral form before being written down, mainly in Iceland, around the 13th century.
Some of the sagas have a historical core, such as the Orkneyinga Saga that tells the history of the earls of Orkney, or the Vinland Sagas recounting Viking voyages of exploration in North America. Even these are distorted by the demands of storytelling and the interest of the authors in glorifying one family or group’s deeds over that of another. So, for example, it is almost impossible to determine from the evidence in the sagas exactly which parts of the Americas were visited by the Vikings.

The 14th-century manuscript Flateyjarbók shows the exploits of Olaf Tryggvason. © Bridgeman Art Library
The largest group of sagas are the Íslendingasögur, ‘Icelandic family sagas’ set mainly in the first century of the Viking colony in Iceland. They tell of conflicts between Iceland’s major families, and the often tragic outcome of feuds between larger-than-life personalities over seemingly trivial slights, with the events often unfolding over several generations.
Njál’s Saga tells how Njáll Thorgeirsson sucked into the feuds sparked by the murderous behaviour of his friend Gunnar Hámundarson. Njáll was burnt to death in his farmstead by a posse bent on revenge for the murder of one of Gunnar’s cousins by Njáll’s son.
The sagas provide a vital source of evidence about the organisation of Viking society, and offer us a unique window on those elements within it that are overlooked by more conventional history.
For example, Saga of the Greenlanders documents the story of Freydís, daughter of Erik the Red (discoverer of Greenland), who organised and led a voyage to North America; this gives us an insight into the powerful role some women played in trading missions. The role of Gunnar’s wife, Hallgero, in provoking the saga’s central feud also shows that Viking women did not play a purely passive role in the quarrels of their menfolk.
Philip Parker is a writer and historian specialising in late antiquity and early medieval Europe.

History Trivia - Charles II arrives in London

May 29

 1660 Charles II arrived in London from exile in the Netherlands to reclaim his throne. Charles II was also born on this day.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Why did the Vikings' violent raids begin?

History Extra

The ‘holy island’ of Lindisfarne, just off the coast of Northumberland. A savage raid on the island’s monastery in 793 heralded the start of England’s Viking era. (Steve Boote)

On a clear day, a Viking longship at sea could be seen some 18 nautical miles away. With a favourable wind, that distance could be covered in about an hour – which was perhaps all the time that the monks at Lindisfarne had to prepare themselves against attack on one fateful day in 793. This was the raid that signalled the start of the violence associated with the onset of the Viking age. 
“We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly 350 years, and never before has such an atrocity been seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of a pagan people. Such a voyage was not thought possible. The church of Saint Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans – a place more sacred than any in Britain.”
The extract is from a letter, written in the wake of the attack, to King Æthelred of Northumbria by Alcuin. Alcuin had been a monk in York before accepting an invitation in 781 to join Charlemagne at his court in Aachen, where he became the Frankish king’s leading spiritual advisor. 
Historians have been inclined to take Alcuin’s astonishment at the raid at face value, and supposed the Vikings to be 
a wholly unknown quantity. Yet in the 
same letter Alcuin rebuked Æthelred and 
his courtiers for aping the fashions of the heathens: “Consider the luxurious dress, hair and behaviour of leaders and people,” he urged the king. “See how you have wanted 
to copy the pagan way of cutting hair and beards. Are not these the people whose terror threatens us, yet you want to copy their hair?” 
The obvious conclusion is that, at the time of the raid, the Northumbrians were already familiar with their Norwegian visitors. What was new was the violence. 
Lindisfarne turned out to be the start of 
a wave of similar attacks on monasteries in northern Britain. Alcuin, with his local knowledge, warned the religious communities at nearby Wearmouth and Jarrow to be on their guard: “You live by the sea from whence this plague first came.” 

A picture stone depicting the Lindisfarne attack. (Getty)
In 794, Vikings “ravaged in Northumbria, and plundered Ecgfrith’s monastery at Donemuthan”. The 12th‑century historian Symeon of Durham identified this as the monastery at Jarrow, and reported that its protector, Saint Cuthbert, had not let the heathens go unpunished, “for their chief was killed by the English… And these things befell them rightly, for they had gravely injured those who had not injured them.”
Shetland and Orkney were probably overrun during this first wave of violence, and the indigenous population of Picts wiped out so swiftly that local place names and the names of natural phenomena such as rivers and mountains vanished, to be replaced by Scandinavian names.
Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland suffered, too. The Annals of Ulster report the burning in 795 of the monastery at Rechru, and the Isle of Skye “overwhelmed and laid waste”. Iona was attacked for a first time in 795 and again in 802. In a third raid in 806 the monastery was torched and the community of 68 wiped out. Work started the following year on a safe refuge for the revived community at Kells in Ireland. 
In 799 the island monastery of Noirmoutier off the north-west coast of France was attacked for the first time. By 836 it had been raided so often that its monks also abandoned the site and sought refuge in a safer location. It soon become clear, however, that there was no such thing as a safe refuge.

Charlemagne is crowned by Pope Leo III in a 14th-century French manuscript. The emperors’s violent subjugation of heathens may have provoked the Viking raids. (Getty)

Best form of defence

Why was there such hatred in the attacks, and why did they start in 793, rather than 743, or 843? To look for a triggering event we need to examine the political situation in northern Europe at the time. 
At the commencement of the Viking age, the major political powers in the world were Byzantium in the east; the Muslims, whose expansion had taken them as far as Turkistan and Asia Minor to create an Islamic barrier between the northern and southern hemispheres; and the Franks, who had become the dominant tribe among the successor states after the fall of the Roman empire in the west. 
Charlemagne became sole ruler of the Franks in 771. He took seriously the missionary obligations imposed on him by his position as the most powerful ruler in western Christendom, and expended a huge amount of energy on the subjugation of the heathen Saxons on his north-east border. In 772, his forces crossed into Saxon territory and destroyed Irminsul, the sacred tree that was their most holy totem. In 779, Widukind, the Saxon leader, was defeated in battle at Bocholt and Saxony taken over and divided into missionary districts. Charlemagne himself presided over a number of mass baptisms. 
In 782, his armies forcibly baptised and then executed 4,500 Saxon captives at Verden, on the banks of the river Aller. Campaigns of enforced resettlement followed, but resistance continued until a final insurrection was put down in 804. By this time Charlemagne had already been rewarded for his missionary activities by Pope Leo III who in Rome in AD 800 crowned him imperator – emperor not of a geographical area nor even of a collection of peoples but of the abstract conception of Christendom as a single community. 
With their physical subjugation complete, the cultural subjugation of the Saxons followed. Death was the penalty for eating meat during Lent; death for cremating the dead in accordance with heathen rites; death for rejecting baptism. 
Several times, in the course of the campaign of resistance, Widukind sought refuge across the border with his brother-in-law Sigfrid, 
a Danish king. News of Charlemagne’s depredations, and in particular the Verden massacre, must have travelled like a shock wave through Danish territory and beyond.
How should the heathen Scandinavians react to the threat? For, whether they knew it or not, they were on Alcuin’s list of peoples to be converted. In 789 he wrote to a friend working among the Saxons: “Tell me, is there any hope of our converting the Danes?” 
The question for the Vikings was: should they simply wait for Charlemagne’s armies to arrive and set about the task? Or should they fight to defend their culture? 
A military campaign against the might of Frankish Christendom was out of the question. However, the Christian monasteries – such as Lindisfarne – dotted around the rim of northern Europe were symbolically important and, in the parlance of modern terrorist warfare, ‘soft targets’. So, with an indifference to the humanity of their victims as complete as that of Charlemagne’s towards the Saxons, these first Viking raiders were able to set off on a punishing series of attacks in the grip of a no-holds-barred rage directed at Christian ‘others’.
The Christian annalists who documented Viking violence insistently saw the conflict as a battle between religious cultures. A century after the first attack on Lindisfarne, Asser, in his biography of Alfred the Great, continued to refer to the much larger bands of Vikings who had by now established themselves along the eastern seaboard of England as “the pagans” (pagani), and to their victims as “Christians” (christiani).

A 10th-century vellum shows Viking warriors disembarking in England during the second wave of migration. (Bridgeman)

Clash of faiths

Attacks such as those mounted by Vikings were almost impossible to defend against, and long before Asser’s time the raiders had discovered how easy it was to plunder what was probably the richest country in western Europe. In 851 a fleet of 350 ships sailed 
up the Thames to attack London and Canterbury then, instead of sailing home, spent the winter encamped at Thanet. It was a prelude to the arrival in 865 of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called the “Great Heathen Army” – a force that, after 15 years 
of warring against the demoralised kingdoms of Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia, had gained control of England from York down to East Anglia. 
By 927 much of the lost territory had been regained by the Wessex king Alfred the Great, his son Edward and grandson Æthelstan, but by that time the achievements of the Great Heathen Army had became part of the cultural history of young Viking males. 
Large-scale Viking violence returned to England during the reign of King Æthelred 
in the 990s, under the Dane, Swein Forkbeard, and the Norwegian, Olaf Tryggvason. The policy of the ‘danegeld’ – protection money paid in return for being 
left alone – was practised with a punishing regularity. It was with wealth gained in this fashion that the Viking Olaf Tryggvason financed his successful bid for the crown of Norway in 995. 
In 1012 the archbishop of Canterbury was captured and, when the ransom demanded for him was not forthcoming, was murdered for the sport of a drunken group of men under the Viking earl Thorkell the Tall. They pelted him with bones, stones, blocks of wood and the skulls of cattle before finishing him off with the flat of an axe.
The loss of its spiritual head brought the faltering Anglo-Saxon monarchy to its knees, and within two years a Danish king, Swein Forkbeard, was on the throne of England. By 1028 Swein’s son Cnut was ruler of a North Sea empire that included Denmark (with Skåne in Sweden), Norway, and all England. 
In name, at least, the heathens were now Christians but their pride in themselves 
as conquering warriors remained strong. 
A poem in praise of Cnut – composed by his Icelandic court poet, Sigvat – invoked the memory of the Northumbrian king Ælla of York, defeated in battle by Ivar the Boneless during the first surge of the Great Heathen Army: “And Ivar, who dwelt in York, carved the eagle on Ælla’s back.”
Remarkably, Cnut’s triumphs figured in Sigvat’s literary imagination as the successful resolution of a conflict that had been going on for over 150 years, beginning as a series of gestures of cultural self-defence and soon after developing into dreams of conquest.
Alcuin had foreseen the ultimate consequences of the first Viking raid of 793 with visionary precision. “Who does not fear this?” he asked King Æthelred of Northumbria. “Who does not lament this as if his country were captured?” In his distress, he was overlooking the fact that the Vikings were only doing what his own Saxon forefathers had done to the Britons and Celts of the kingdoms of England some three and 
a half centuries earlier, conquering “this 
fair land” by the same means – violence – 
as the Vikings. 
Cnut was unlucky with his sons, and Danish rule in England lasted less than 30 years. Fifteen years on and the memories of King Cnut and his North Sea empire were all but wiped out by the greater drama of Duke William of Normandy’s conquest of 1066.  
King Cnut depicted in a stained-glass window at Canterbury Cathedral. (Alamy)

Three other explanations for Viking violence

Faster ships, internal strife and new trade links may also have helped trigger the raids
1) Technological advances that encouraged piracy
The onset of the Viking age coincided with the appearance of the technologically advanced, sail-powered longship – the stealth bomber of its time. Longships such as the Oseberg ship (built 820) replaced giant man-powered vessels like the Storhaug ship, found on Karmøy (buried 779), opening up the seas to young Scandinavian pirates as never before.
2) Poverty and overpopulation
In his history On the Customs and Deeds of 
the First Norman Dukes (995–1015), Dudo of Saint-Quentin wrote that, in former times in the Scandinavian homelands, quarrels over land and property were resolved by “the drawing of lots”. Losers were condemned to a life abroad where 
“by fighting they can gain themselves countries”. 
3) A flood of riches into Scandinavia
Trading led to an influx of silver bullion into Scandinavia from the Islamic world, creating elites around which ambitious young men gathered. Leaders had to reward these men for their military support and loyalty, and did so by plundering abroad on the grand scale.

The etymology of the word ‘Viking’ 

It is not even certain that ‘Viking’ is Scandinavian in origin. It occurs several times in the Old English poems Widsith, usually dated to the end of the seventh century, and in the eighth-century Exodus, in which the tribe of Reuben are described as “sæwicingas”, meaning ‘sea-warriors’, as they cross the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt. 
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle uses the term only four times before 1066, in the native English forms wícenga or wícinga, in 879, 885, 921 and 982. Some linguists believe it derives from the Latin vícus, meaning ‘camp’ or ‘dwelling-place’. Others suggest it comes from an Old Norse verb víkja, meaning ‘to travel from place to place’. 
A simple and persuasive theory is that it originally denoted people from the Vik, the name for the bay area of south-east Norway around the Oslo fjord that also denoted the inland coastal region, and included the coast of Bohuslän in present-day Sweden. There is support for the suggestion in the frequency with which the waters of the Vik appear in saga literature, suggesting it was the most heavily trafficked maritime area in the region at the time. 
Robert Ferguson has been a leading scholar and exponent of Scandinavian culture and history for over 30 years. He lives in Oslo and on the Isle of Cumbrae.

History Trivia - Battle of the Eclipse

May 28

585 BC A solar eclipse occurred, as predicted by Greek philosopher and scientist Thales, while Alyattes was battling Cyaxares in the Battle of the Eclipse, leading to a truce. This was one of the cardinal dates from which other dates can be calculated.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Book signing - meet Author Brenda Perlin at Book Soup on Friday August 5th at 7pm!


Book Signing for PUNK ROCKER & unreleased L.A. PUNK SNAPSHOTS at Book Soup Friday August 5th at 7pm!

8818 W Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA · (310) 659-3110

Punk Rocker is the much anticipated sequel to “L.A. Punk Rocker”: top author Brenda Perlin’s best-selling punk anthology. Here you will find a collection of short stories from those who were there in the early days. Hard core musical anarchists who saw it all, heard it all, did it all - and survived to tell their stories.  Along with Brenda and the West Coast punks, Punk Rocker features rebels, writers, commentators and street kids from all over America – talking about the music, the fashion, the attitude, the passion, the lifestyle and, of course, the bands who made it all happen. Meet people who discovered punk’s new dawn – and those who were there for its sunset, in the ramshackle mausoleum of the Chelsea Hotel. Backstage, in the clubs, in the gigs, in hotel rooms with the band, on the streets –Brenda was there. She saw it all. And so did her friends.  Punk Rocker. If you missed it…what are you waiting for?
Available in print and digital formats

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A New Lead in the Search for Elusive Norse Settlements

Ancient Origins

By Tara MacIsaacEpoch Times

CODROY VALLEY, Canada – A story passed down in my family for generations may be the clue to finding a lost Norse settlement.
The only Norse settlement in the New World thus far confirmed by archaeologists is in L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada. But the Norse sagas tell of other colonizing expeditions.
Last summer, archaeologists announced they found evidence of a Norse presence–a hearth used for roasting bog iron ore, which is the first step in the production of iron–at Point Rosee in southern Newfoundland. My uncle, Wayne MacIsaac, was so excited he said he didn’t sleep for three days. He felt vindicated in his long-cherished, but long-ignored, theory that he had found an ancient Norse site in the nearby Codroy Valley where he lives.
His previous attempts to attract the interest of archaeologists to the site had met with failure, but that has now changed. An international team of archaeologists are due to investigate in July.
Wayne MacIsaac stands near what he believes may be the remnants of a Norse fortification wall.
Wayne MacIsaac stands near what he believes may be the remnants of a Norse fortification wall. (Tara MacIsaac/Epoch Times)

A Strange Boat

My great-grandfather, MacIsaac’s grandfather, used to tell of a strange boat that was found in the Codroy Valley when he was a child. A storm had shifted a sandbar at the mouth of the Little Codroy River, revealing a plank-built boat that did not match any shipbuilding style known to the locals.
Three tall human skeletons were found underneath it, along with a stone arrowhead.
In that day, no one considered preserving it as an archaeological artifact. But when MacIsaac took an interest in the Norse sagas, he began to see astounding parallels between the descriptions of a Norse settlement and the area the boat was found.
Three Norsemen at the settlement were said to have been killed by natives. MacIsaac wondered whether the three skeletons were those settlers. The stone arrowhead could suggest they were killed by native bowmen.
Local natives only made boats of animal hide or birch bark, suggesting the plank-built boat was of European origin. Yet it didn’t resemble anything known by the local French, Irish, Scottish, or English settlers of my great-grandfather’s time.
MacIsaac found that the sagas describe a mountain range extending north from the settlement. The Long Range mountains indeed extend north from the Codroy Valley. The sagas also describe a river that flows into a lake, which then flows into the sea, and a sandbar that could only be crossed at high tide.
All of this, as well as other details in the sagas, describe a part of the Codroy Valley. MacIsaac went to the spot he felt best matched the description and found what he believes could be remnants of the settlement.
The view from part of what Wayne MacIsaac believes to be a Norse settlement, looking out on a sandbar where a boat that may be of Norse origin was found by locals more than a century ago.
The view from part of what Wayne MacIsaac believes to be a Norse settlement, looking out on a sandbar where a boat that may be of Norse origin was found by locals more than a century ago. (Tara MacIsaac/Epoch Times)
The Little Codroy River, with the Long Range mountains in the background and the potential site of a Norse settlement visible in the middle-ground, to the left.
The Little Codroy River, with the Long Range mountains in the background and the potential site of a Norse settlement visible in the middle-ground, to the left. (Tara MacIsaac/Epoch Times)
MacIsaac has not disclosed the precise location publicly for fear that amateur archaeologists may disturb the site. But he took me there.
He first showed me what he believes may have been a fortifying wall mentioned in the sagas. After 1,000 years, it would be hard for my untrained eye to identify with any certainty a wall possibly built with organic materials.
What I saw was a long, narrow elevation in the ground that extended for dozens of yards, and was some four or more feet high. If it was once a wall, it has been covered with earth and vegetation to the extent that it was difficult to take a photograph of it that conveyed the shape discernible on site.
We moved to another spot, where MacIsaac had found mounds, and particularly a mound that appears unnaturally square in shape.
A square mound believed by Wayne MacIsaac to be evidence of a Norse structure.
A square mound believed by Wayne MacIsaac to be evidence of a Norse structure. (Tara MacIsaac/Epoch Times)
MacIsaac said that, while some of the mounds in the area could be natural, some, including this one, lead him to believe Norse structures existed there. He asked local elderly residents, in their 80s and 90s, whether they knew of any structures built in the area since the Scottish and French had settled there in the early 19th century.
They said the land hadn’t been used, suggesting any remnants of structures on the site are not modern.

Contradictory Interpretations

Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, investigated the Point Rosee site last summer and talked to MacIsaac at that time. He was intrigued by MacIsaac’s theory.
 “There may be a Norse colony in the Codroy Valley (more work definitely needs to be done),” he wrote to me in an email. “But I wouldn’t base that on the saga descriptions. They’re too vague and contradictory,” he said.
MacIsaac said of the sagas: “There are several different versions and different translations, some of them have details the others don’t have.” The details he found to match the Codroy Valley site were picked out of various versions.
The settlement the sagas describe was started by Thorfinn Karlsefni (980–1007), who led a colonizing expedition to the New World following its discovery by Leif Eriksson.
A statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (public domain)
Karlsefni’s settlement is described in the Saga of Eirik the Red:
Karlsefni headed south around the coast, with Snorri and Bjarni and the rest of their company. They sailed a long time, until they came to a river which flowed into a lake and from there into the sea. There were wide sandbars stretching out across the mouth of the river and they could only sail into the river at high tide. Karlsefni and his company sailed into the lagoon and called the land Hop (Tidal Pool). There they found fields of self-grown wheat in the low-lying areas and vines growing on the hills. Every stream was teeming with fish. They dug trenches along the high-water mark and when they tide ebbed there were halibut in them. There were a great number of deer of all kinds in the forest.
This passage is from the Keneva Kunz translation in the 1997 Hreinsson volume, Bolender said, which is the main account of Karlsefni’s secondary settlement.
“People have used this text to situate the colony almost anywhere on the American east coast,” Bolender said. “Carl Refn placed these spots in Cape Cod and Rhode Island back in the 1830s. Others have placed them near Boston, in Maine, Nova Scotia, and even on the Pacific coast in British Columbia!”
He also noted that the vines mentioned in the story refer to grapes, which don’t grow in Newfoundland.
I asked botanists at the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre what they thought of the grape reference. Could it have described a plant existing in Newfoundland 1,000 years ago, particularly in the Codroy Valley area?
Botanist David Mazerolle replied via email: “Our native grape (Riverbank grape, Vitis riparia) does not occur in Newfoundland and, in my opinion, it is highly unlikely that the species would have occurred there 1,000 years ago.
“A few months ago, I heard of a similar theory, concerning that same mention of a [Norse] settlement in a river valley which had ‘grapes.’ The theory was that this may have been in New Brunswick’s Miramichi River Valley, which does support Riverbank grape.”
Botanist Alain Belliveau added to Mazerolle’s response: “Groundnut (Apios americana) is another vine from Atlantic Canada that was an important food source for First Nations and would’ve been grown in river valleys, but its distribution is similar to that of Riverbank grape and it’s highly unlikely that it was in Newfoundland 1,000 years ago.”
MacIsaac awaits further investigation by archaeologists this summer. He would like to see satellite imagery used in the investigation.
That is how the Point Rosse site was identified. TED awarded archaeologist Sarah Parcak a $1 million prize to use satellite surveillance to discover and monitor ancient sites.
I asked MacIsaac how he will feel if the Codroy Valley site turns out not to have been a Norse settlement after all. He replied: “I will be very disappointed, but I’m trying to be prepared for that, because it is possible it is not what I think it is–despite all the parallels in the sagas, despite the evidence that I see on the site itself, and despite its close proximity to what’s been pretty much confirmed as Norse iron-working.
“Maybe it is just natural formations, but I really don’t think it is,” he said.
If it turns out to be a Norse site, it would have a substantial impact on the Codroy Valley, a town of some 2,000 residents. Archaeological digs would certainly stir up this small town, and the find could draw tourists.
“I want to see all of that. I have no problem with that whatsoever,” MacIsaac said. “Archaeology is my main interest, but … this place could certainly use some economic spin-off from [tourism].”
Top image: Norse explorers. ‘Summer on the Greenland coast circa year 1000’ by Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen (1841–1893) (public domain)
The article ‘A New Lead in the Search for Elusive Norse Settlements’ was originally published on The Epoch Times and has been republished with permission.

History Trivia - Procopius executed

May 27

366 Procopius, Roman usurper against Valens, and member of the Constantinian dynasty was executed.