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News: L'Anse aux Meadows

Newfoundland Viking site remarkable
Jeff Lukovich , Special to The Sun

L'Anse aux Meadows likely marks the first European contact with New World -- 500 years before Columbus.

More than 1,200 years ago, Vikings from Norway set out on a series of daring voyages that would eventually result in their being the first Europeans to explore the east coast of North America. In stages they established settlements in the Shetland Islands, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and finally Newfoundland and Labrador.

Though we passed through an area around the capital of Nuuk, that would have been near the former Viking "Western Settlement," ruins or reconstructions were either not easily accessible or part of the itinerary.

The most famous Viking ruins can be seen at the former "Eastern Settlement" on the southwest tip of Greenland, near the present-day towns of Narsaq and Qassiarsuk. Here is found Brattahlid, the farm Eric the Red established in 986, as well as reconstructions of the bishop's residence at Gardar and Hvalsey Church.

Though these towns were not ports of call on our voyage, we did sail down the coast of Labrador, where Norse sagas report that Leif Ericson and other Viking explorers landed to harvest wood. But the main attraction for Viking buffs -- and a much more accessible one for Canadians -- is at the tip of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula.

L'Anse aux Meadows is the first and only authenticated Norse site on this continent. It was first brought to worldwide attention in 1960 by Helge and Anne Ingstad, a Norwegian couple who had searched for years to solve the puzzle of the sagas.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, L'Anse aux Meadows likely represents the first European contact with the New World, more than 1,000 years ago and 500 years before Columbus.

The site is remarkable. A stream flows through beautiful boggy and grassy areas with granite outcroppings. It all looks out over a scenic bay dotted with islands and enclosed by rocky headlands.

Excavations have uncovered the remains of eight buildings that formed the settlement and these have been restored to their pre-dig condition. Replica sod buildings have been constructed to give visitors as authentic an experience as possible. Interpreters, dressed in period costume, recreate what daily life might have been like at the Viking camp.

The visitor centre contains educational displays and artifacts found during the archeological dig. A video describes the work of the Ingstads to chart the exploits and travels of the Vikings from Norway to Newfoundland

Excellent guided tours are available in summer. Our guide described the significance of the site from an archeological point of view. She explained why the Vikings chose this particular spot for their settlement, how it was used, and why they likely eventually left.

It was all fascinating stuff, but after my brain had reached saturation point, the best part was to sit quietly on a rock, time-travel back 1,000 years in my mind's eye, and imagine a Viking sitting on this very rock, contemplating this very scene.

Just two kilometres away from L'Anse aux Meadows is Norstead: A Viking Port of Trade. This reproduction of a developed Norse trading settlement was created in 2000 as part of the millennial celebrations of Leif Ericson's journey across the North Atlantic.

It represents how the Viking settlement might have evolved had they stayed longer. As a Viking living history attraction, Norstead tries to depict daily life as it may have been in any of the Scandinavian countries from 790 to 1066.

Fifteen costumed interpreters take on roles ranging from chieftain to town gossip, while demonstrating a variety of workstations, including cooking, carving and pottery making. I practised axe throwing with a wild-haired "Viking" who also demonstrated a Norse game that looked like a cross between horseshoes and bocce.

Later I wandered into the boat shed and stepped aboard the full-scale replica Viking ship, Snorri, which re-traced Ericson's voyage from Greenland. Here a "mariner" explained how the Norse mastered the North Atlantic by using a simple notched stick to measure distance by the stars.

Both L'Anse aux Meadows and Norstead aim to make Norse history and culture come alive -- and succeed admirably.

Tags: archaelogy, canada, news, norse, viking
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