The Viking Discovery of America

The Viking Discovery of America

by Helge Ingstad, Anne Stine Ingstad

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According to Icelandic sagas, around 1000 A.D. a small group of Norsemen, led by Leif Eiriksson, travelled from Greenland across the ocean to a new land, which Eiriksson named Vinland. Intrigued by this legend, archaeologists Helge Ingstad (1899-2001) and his late-wife, Ann Stine Ingstad drew from the old Viking sagas, existing research and their own theories to piece… See more details below


According to Icelandic sagas, around 1000 A.D. a small group of Norsemen, led by Leif Eiriksson, travelled from Greenland across the ocean to a new land, which Eiriksson named Vinland. Intrigued by this legend, archaeologists Helge Ingstad (1899-2001) and his late-wife, Ann Stine Ingstad drew from the old Viking sagas, existing research and their own theories to piece together the mystery of these Viking explorations. This text provides a detailed account of seven expeditions the Ingstads made to the L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland between 1961 and 1968, where they located and excavated the remains of several house sites. Findings from the site were carbon-dated to around year 1000 A.D., leading the researchers to conclude that the Norsemen discovered America 500 years before Columbus.

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Chapter One


The Viking Age developed with an almost explosive force in the Scandinavian countries somewhat before A.D. 800. Young men hoisted sail, and made for many countries in Europe, and also for lands further east. The Swedes tended to go east, to Russia and other regions, while the Danes made for the North Sea coast, for England, France and the south. Norwegian Vikings also went south, as far as the Mediterranean, but most of their voyages led across the North Sea, to the British Isles. One route, however, they plied almost alone, except for the Icelanders once Iceland had been discovered and settled: this was the route west, over the northern part of the Atlantic. This was entirely natural, seeing that the homelands of these Norsemen faced that ocean.

And thus, in the course of time, Norse seafarers gradually sailed further and further west. First they came to Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides and the Faeroes, to Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. Conflict and fighting were often involved, and many Norsemen settled in these lands. Towards the end of the ninth century, Iceland was discovered, an event which led to a veritable tide of emigration, especially from Norway, but also from the Norse settlements in the Western Isles. From Iceland, Eirik the Red discovered Greenland, and the west coast of Greenland was colonized. And finally, in about A.D. 1000, came the natural consequence of these events: Leif Eiriksson discovered North America. The westward main had been sailed to its very end.

There may have been many and diverse reasons for these Viking Age voyages. One of them may well be overpopulation, but no less important were a desire for profit and a craving for adventure. We know perfectly well that the people of the North could be ruthless, but this must not be permitted to eclipse the fact that they also engaged in trade, and that in their voyages of discovery for new lands hard work meant more than the brandishing of swords. For centuries the Norsemen crossed the enormous northern ocean from the west coast of Norway to North America; in their open ships with square sails they sailed here in all kinds of weather, often through masses of drift-ice. Such long and demanding, often perilous voyages could not have been carried out without a high standard of ship-building and brilliant seamanship.

In this field Norway had ancient traditions. There were various kinds of ships. The men-of-war, the so-called long-ships, were fairly narrow in the beam, their sides were low, and the deck covered the entire length of the ship. There were oar holes along the whole length of the ship. It seems likely that the normal number of oarsmen was forty, but there could be up to seventy. Then there were the merchant and cargo vessels, a separate category. They were considerably broader in the beam, and had two half-decks with room for only one pair of oars in the bow and one in the stem. The entire midship was an open hold for cargo. To this category belong the knorr and the byrdingr, and such ocean-going types as the skúta and the karfi. Significant in this connection is the fact that a Viking Age type of craft, the fembøring, was still in use as a fishing vessel in northern Norway at the beginning of the present century.

As an example of the superb art of the Norwegian ship-builder during the Viking Age, we can do no better than to point to the famous Gokstad ship, which dates from c. A. D. 850-900. This ocean-going vessel, which was found in a barrow in southern Norway, is clinker-built of oak. The ship is about 23 m long, and the maximum beam is 5.20 m. From the bottom of the keel to the gunwale amidships the height is 2.02 m. The eight first strakes are lashed to the ribs, a method which makes for a light, supple ship. The mast was set in a sturdy mast partner, which was made in such a way that the mast could easily be raised and lowered. The Gokstad ship had a side rudder and a square sail; there were sixteen oar-holes, so that thirty-two oars men were required. When she was fully loaded, the ship drew no more than about one metre of water, which is of great advantage when sailing in unknown, perilous seas.

This vessel, an exquisite piece of craftsmanship, must have been a chieftain's ship. Her excellent ocean-going qualities were clearly demonstrated when Magnus Andersen, a Norwegian mariner, sailed a replica of the Gokstad ship across the Atlantic in 1893. Her speed was surprisingly high, an average of about 4-5 knots with an occasional maximum speed of 11 knots. And she rode off the storms.

The sight of this splendid craft, tall, supple and elegant, calls to mind the chieftain who set out to sea, be it for battle or for trade, about eleven hundred years ago. We have reason to believe that this chieftain may have been King Olaf Geirstad-alv. The skeleton of the man who was buried in the ship provides important documentation in this respect: this is the skeleton of an elderly, sturdy and unusually tall man. He suffered not only from pronounced chronic arthritis, but also from advanced muscular rheumatism. This syndrome corresponds well with an ancient source which states that Olaf died of `foot pains'. In Snorri's Heimskringla we read that in his youth he was a mighty chieftain and a great warrior, the most handsome, strongest and tallest of them all.

Materials for ship-building were an important matter for these people. While Norway had forests with oak as well as pine, Iceland and Greenland had only a scattered occurrence of wind-blown birches here and there, and there was much driftwood along the shore. These materials could at best be used for building small boats, but no more. All material for shipbuilding had to be imported from Norway; one might also purchase ships in that country. Ships were absolutely essential for the people of these two distant islands, Iceland and Greenland. True, they were farmers, but they could not live without fishing, hunting and catching, activities which often had to be carried out far from their homes. Below we shall see that once the Vinland voyages had led to the discovery of the great forests of Labrador and Newfoundland, the Greenlanders are likely to have obtained shipbuilding materials there.

The Norsemen's ability to find their way on the great oceans with the simple aids at their disposal is remarkable. We are reminded of the instinct for directions and distances which the Indians and the Eskimos possess. The firmament was divided into four cardinal points, hovudœttir, north, south, east and west, by axes perpendicular to each other. Four more points were inserted between the cardinals, so that there were eight in all.

They had no compasses, but possessed their own method of navigation by means of observations of the sun and the stars, the pole star being of particular importance in this connection. But during storms or long periods with fog, even the most accomplished of mariners might lose his bearings. Sometimes the sunstone, sølarsteinn, could be of help under such conditions. This may have been a piece of double-refractive feld spar able to catch polarizing light in overcast weather (Kult. Leks. XII: col. 261). The Norse seafarers must have possessed a highly developed sense of observation, which could be useful in various ways. They noted winds and waves and their direction, currents, the colour and temperature of the sea, the movement and form of the drifting ice, mirages, high and low tide, birds and whales.

It was of great advantage if the route was such that one could, by means of observations of the sun, one could stay on the same latitude all the time, for instance when sailing from Bergen to the southernmost part of Greenland. But when one sailed on the high sea in a southerly or northerly direction, it was very difficult to keep a steady course. The Norsemen had no facilities for using their observations of heavenly bodies to determine the longitude of their position. Sailing along the coasts would be given preference, unless the shorter route across the open sea was well known. The route of the Vinland voyagers included coasting as well as sailing with the current for almost the entire distance from Leif Eiriksson's home on the west coast of Greenland to Vinland in North America.

The Icelandic sources often give sailing times in terms of dœgr; this applies also to the Vinland expeditions. There has been considerable disagreement about the meaning of this term as applied to sailing. It seems likely that dœgr means twelve hours when applied to coastal sailing, and twenty-four hours when it refers to sailing on the high seas.

The ice conditions in the waters around Greenland and in the Davis Strait, the regions of the Vinland route, made sailing particularly difficult. One had to have a ship constructed in such a way as to make rowing really effective. In the drift-ice, fast rowing could be essential if one was to save one's life, but sometimes the only way out was to pull the ship up on to the ice. The square sail was usually of wadmal. According to ancient Norwegian tradition, the sail was impregnated with an extract of boiled birch bark mixed with horse grease and a little red pigment. The grease was taken from under the mane of the horse, as it is particularly soft in this part of the body, and easily dissolved.

The Viking Age ships were quite swift. Some of them could attain a speed of about twelve knots. It is difficult to be certain about the average speed during long voyages, since so many factors must be taken into consideration—fog, storms, headwind and ice. An average speed of three to four knots may be reasonable. The voyage of the Gokstad replica shows that even with a square sail one can tack against the wind to some extent.

An important question to consider is the following: what is the best time of the summer to start sailing to Greenland, and from Greenland to Vinland? The ice conditions were the decisive factor in this connection. Several sources state that the best time for setting out from Bergen to Greenland was the beginning of August, and the same must indubitably apply also to the voyage across the Davis Strait from Greenland to Vinland. How late in the year could one sail in these western waters? In the King's Mirror (1945: 6) from about 1250 we read that one should not sail on the ocean after the beginning of October, for then the storms grew stronger. Some simple descriptions of sailing routes appear in the sources. In Hauksbók we read:

`Thus say knowledgeable men that from Stad in Norway it is seven dœgr's sailing to Horn on the east coast of Iceland, but from Snæfellsnes it is four dœgr's sailing to Hvarf in Greenland (near the southern point). From Bergen in Norway one must usually sail west to Hvarf in Greenland, and then one sails north of Hetland (Shetland) in such a way that one can just glimpse land when the weather is clear, but south of the Faeroes in such a way that one sees only half the height of the land, and so far south of Iceland that that country's seabirds and whales become visible ... '

A remarkable combination of sterling shipbuilding and excellent seamanship enabled the Norse seafarers to sail the great oceans and master their open vessels in storm, fog and icy waters on their expeditions to unknown and dangerous coasts, the White Sea, Greenland and North America. At times continuous bailing was a matter of life and death. One of the greatest hazards during voyages in the northern oceans was that of icing, which would add a crushing weight to both ship and rigging. Theirs was a life which demanded not only knowledge, skill and the ability to attend to sail and oars without delay, but also a will of iron and a character able to endure privation and pain without a murmur. Not infrequently there were women on board, they must have been cast in the same mould.

Nor did superstition make the times of peril any easier to bear. The Norsemen firmly believed in terrible sea trolls; the King's Mirror calls them hafstrambar and margýgjar. Then there were the fearful hafgerdingar, thought to hold all storms and all waves gathered into three mountainous swells that would crush any ship. And those who sailed far out on the high seas might be confronted with the greatest danger of all: they risked sailing over the edge of the world, only to plunge into the great abyss, Ginnungagap (cf p. 114).

The sources have sporadic accounts of shipwrecks, but they can no more than give us a slight idea of the actual number. We are only given a few glimpses of the sailors' tremendous hardships and their struggle for life. It is difficult to imagine the life of Viking Age seafarers sailing the northern oceans drenched to the skin in the biting cold, or when furious storms tore at the sail and the sea rushed into the ship. A small rune-stick from Greenland speaks for itself. It was found in a coffin when the Herjolfsnes cemetery in Greenland was excavated (Norlund 1924: 62). A huge boulder, weighing about a ton and a half lay on the grave, perhaps as a protection against evil spirits. From the inscription on the rune-stick it appears that this is not a burial but a cenotaph: `This woman, whose name was Gudveig, was buried at sea in the Greenland ocean.'

Excerpted from THE VIKING DISCOVERY OF AMERICA by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad. Copyright © 2001 by Checkmark Books. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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