The 'Norse Encampment' is the collective name given to a series of living history programs, which illustrate daily life in the Viking Age. Historic interpreters, employing replica objects, bring the past to life through typical activities of the Norse, and portraying historic styled characters. Throughout the series exceptional care was taken to ensure everything involved in a presentation was reflective of current archaeological research. One cornerstone of all the presentations was reference to the Vinland voyages by the Norse, circa 1000 AD.
A Teacher's Guide to the World of the Norse
A brief overview - part two
The primary written documentation for the Norse exploration of North America is found within the Icelandic sagas. These tales were originally part of a rich oral tradition that flourished long before the stories were recorded on parchment. Specific references to "Vinland" are found in sagas written down in the late 1000's and early 1100's, within a generation or two of the events they describe. Portions of two of these, the Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga , deal specifically with the colonisation of Vinland. There is no doubt that these sagas have been edited and embellished over the centuries, and no original version of either text survives. (The oldest surviving text of the Graenlandinga Saga is a copy made between 1382 and 1395. The oldest version of Eirik's Saga dates to the early 1300's.) Not only do various versions of each tale sometimes differ, but these two sagas sometimes conflict with each other on details, even though they often describe the same events.
For all these reasons, care must be taken when applying the information contained in the sagas. The major figures in these tales, Eirik the Red and his son Leif the Lucky, are well authenticated historically. The facts of their travels and landfalls and the rough chronology of these events agree with other period sources, and are further confirmed by modern archaeology. These also conform closely to the chronology of events and individuals documented by other contemporary sources.
The sagas record four (1) separate voyages to North America. The first of these was in the fall of 985 *, when Bjarni Herjolfson was blown off course while attempting to travel to the Greenland colony. Although he and his crew sailed up the east coast for several days, they did not make a landfall, and returned to Greenland.
The second voyage was a planned exploration of this unknown land, and was made by Leif Eirikson some time about 995 *. Leif and his crew of 35 sailed west from Greenland and worked their way south. They made several landfalls, naming the various areas they found according to the character of the country. These were Helluland ('Flat Rock Land') and Markland ('Land of Forests'), thought to be upper and lower Labrador, and finally Vinland. Speculation based on the geographical descriptions in the sagas suggests his final destination was SE Newfoundland, but this has not been confirmed by archeology.(2) Wherever the actual site was, we are told the Norsemen "built some large houses" and spent the winter there, half the crew laying in a cargo of timber and the other half exploring. It was during these investigations that the wild 'grapes' that gave the country its name were discovered. (There has been considerable debate between historians and linguists as to whether the term 'Vinland' refers to vines, 'wine berries', or grass lands. Perhaps it was only another exaggeration, like Leif's 'Greenland', for real estate purposes.)
The next voyage, again one of exploration, was lead by Leif's brother Thorvald a few years later (998*). He took 30 men with him, and they remained at the same camp for two winters. This voyage was notable in that it marks the first confrontation between native Indian tribes, referred to as Skraelings, and the Norse. It was to set the tone for further interactions between the two groups. The Vikings slaughtered the first group of Indians they found. In the second encounter they were able to battle against superior numbers with only one casualty. Ironically this first death was that of Thorvald himself.
The next voyage recorded in the sagas was mounted by Thorfinn Karlesfni a few years later. It was a larger party, with 60 men and 5 women; unlike the others, the intent was to form a permanent colony. To this end they brought 'livestock of all kinds'. This expedition was marked by the birth of the first European child in North America, born to Thorfinn's wife Gudrid, a son named Snorri. Again there was contact with the native peoples, which this time started with trade. The Norse exchanged narrow strips of red cloth and cups of milk for furs, quickly inflating the value of their goods. By the second visit the Skraelings realised that they were being cheated and broke off the trading. Expecting the next visit would be an attack, the Norse planned and executed an ambush. Again the combat was completely one-sided, with no losses recorded among the Norsemen. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) Thorfinn decided to return home to Greenland the following spring, after a stay of two years.
The last expedition the sagas tell of took place a year later. It was mounted jointly by two brothers from Iceland, Helgi and Finnbogialong, with a second ship led by Eirik's daughter Freydis. The arrangement was marked by treachery from the start. Although the agreement was to crew each ship with 30 men (women not being included in the count), Freydis hid an extra 5 men on her ship. On arrival at Leif's houses, Freydis refused to shelter the second crew, who then had to construct a new house for themselves. All the while Freydis' crew was preparing timber for the return trip. As winter deepened, the relations between the two groups became increasingly strained, leading to forced isolation. The tale goes on to tell how Freydis falsely accused Finnbogi of 'shaming' her, convincing her husband to put the two brothers, and their whole crew, to death. When the men refused to kill the women as well, Freydis took an axe and committed those murders herself. In spring, Freydis lead her crew home to Greenland, covering up the murders by claiming the other crew had decided to stay on in Vinland.
In general, the sagas have a kind of 'matter of fact' realism to them when describing everyday events that makes them invaluable when seeking to picture the lives of the ancient Norse. Although the absolute dates and dramas described in the sagas may be questioned, there is no doubt it was the same manner of people who stepped onto the beach of Epaves Bay circa A.D.1000.
In 1960, after a summer exploring the Atlantic coast, Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine examined the ruins of several ancient buildings at L' Anse aux Meadows, along the shores of Epaves Bay on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Over the next seven summers, excavations revealed the first indisputable Norse remains in North America. The site is comprised of eight buildings; three are large houses of varying sizes, accompanied by their respective outbuildings, along with several boat sheds. Of special note are the remains of a blacksmith's foundry and a charcoal kiln. The main buildings were all a timber-framed construction with thick turf walls, similar to the type that was built in both Iceland and Greenland. Few small artifacts were found, but several of these are indisputably of Norse origin. Carbon-14 dating of wooden remains yields dates that lay somewhere between 890 to 1060 AD. The lack of domestic animal remains and small garbage mounds suggests a relatively short occupation period, perhaps only a few years.
The physical geography of this settlement is quite different from the saga descriptions of the terrain around Leif's houses. The flat coastline at L' Anse aux Meadows is covered with adequate pasture land, but the trees in the area are stunted at best. In the winter months fierce winds off the ocean sweep the shallow beaches. There is no clear evidence as to why such a marginal site was chosen for settlement, although the commanding location at the mouth of the St Lawrence may be the reason. Despite the considerable effort expended in constructing the buildings, they were soon abandoned. As well, there have been no graves found in the areas excavated. If these are in fact the houses that were the 'real' home of Freydis and her murderous crew, we should expect to find evidence of the mass burial of 35 adults nearby.
Some experts believe the site may have served as a temporary ship repair station. The gradually shelving beaches would make it easy to haul ships from the water for maintenance. The forging and iron smelting facilities at L' Anse aux Meadows, although necessary for ship refitting, would not normally be required for a short domestic habitation. Evidence from Greenland (based on timber types, dates and quantities), indicates numerous westward voyages were made over the 400 year life of the Greenland settlement to acquire lumber. As well, hunting expeditions to the Labrador coast in search of whale, seal, fish and walrus were common. It is likely that a number of camps were used for these short term expeditions over the centuries. As in the saga tale of Thorfinn, perhaps choice of this location was forced upon a crew late in the season when winter preparations could wait no longer. The current interpretation of the archaeology of the L' Anse aux Meadows site is that it was utilised as a main staging area for resource gathering on a seasonal basis. Crews would arrive here from Greenland in the spring, then smaller groups would disperse down the coasts to the south to gather timber and other valuable raw materials. Recent finds such as beechnuts prove that these voyages extended at least as far south as New Brunswick. At L' Anse aux Meadows, these materials would be consolidated and prepared for shipment back to Greenland. It is likely that the Norse would have returned home to Greenland after only a short stay, and never made any serious attempt to colonise.
The Norse Encampment is a living history styled display centred on the Norse settlement of Vinland circa 1000 AD. Interpreters are dressed in period clothing, and demonstrate the daily life typical at the settlement at L' Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Some 200 reproduction artifacts are used to create a snapshot of the Viking Age. The Encampment was originally developed for the Orange Medieval Festival in 1993.
The basic program was extended to create "the Viking Encampment" which is now a regular daily feature of the L' Anse aux Meadows NHS. Four historic interpreters re-create the Viking Age daily at the site, using the three reconstructed turf buildings just metres from the ruins of the original Norse houses. The presentation utilises some 175 artifact reproductions and is open during the regular operating hours of the site (mid June to Mid October).
* All dates determined from the saga evidence are suspect, but are included to indicate the relative sequence of events, and roughly correlate with the archaeological evidence.
(1) The 'Greanlendinga Saga' details these four voyages. 'Eirik's Saga' combines many of the details of the last three expeditions into one. This larger party is said to have been comprised of 160 people in 4 ships.
(2) See 'West Viking' by Farley Mowat for a discussion of this interpretation.
This handout was originally produced for the use of teachers as a resource for use in Medieval studies. It is offered here free of charge*, and may be reproduced for educational use only, as a service by the Wareham Forge. Any other reproduction, by any means, is allowed only with the specific permission of the author. Researched and written by Darrell Markewitz (© 1993, 1996,1998, 2001).
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