Vikings in America

3.8.2010
Words by Ian Watson
By now we all know that Scandinavian settlers reached Greenland in the late 900s and built settlements there that endured for more than four hundred years. Since the 1960s, we've known that the literary accounts of Greenlanders' voyages to America are at least broadly true: the remains of a settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland have been excavated and there is no question that it was of Scandinavian design.

Is that all to the story, though? Was Scandinavian interaction with North America limited to a few voyages between Greenland and L'Anse aux Meadows? Or, over the course of those four centuries, did the settlers in the Greenland colonies journey more widely in what's now Canada—trips which did not happen to get recorded on calfskin manuscripts back in Iceland?

Graeme Davis sets out to answer this question in this book. Davis has a Ph.D. from St. Andrews University and has previously written on Germanic linguistics and the early history of Orkney and Shetland. The book starts with a summary of Scandinavian expansion across the North Atlantic from roughly 800 to 1000 AD. Then Davis turns to his real questions —where did the Greenlanders travel to? He reviews the evidence of Greenlandic contacts with Newfoundland and “Vinland,” Ellesmere Island and the High Arctic, Hudson Bay, and with Dorset Culture and Inuit settlers.

His presentation is clear, forceful (to the point of being overconfident), set out in easy-to-read language, and relatively even-handed. The book is very well written, keeps the text down to 180 pages, and includes helpful maps and illustrations.

For me, among Davis's most interesting points were that there is evidence that the Greenlanders made summer visits to collect eider down far to the north on Ellesmere Island, where remains of Nordic-style cairns and eider duck shelters have been found. Another of his points is that L'Anse aux Meadows is probably not the settlement mentioned in the surviving saga literature, that the site itself gives evidence that voyages to America were more numerous and wide-ranging than the literary remains suggest, and that the Greenlanders' most pressing reason to sail to America was to collect timber.

Davis doesn't hesitate to plunge into controversial and speculative topics, such as the Kensington runestone (which came to attention in Minnesota in the late 1800s and bears an inscription allegedly left by Swedish and Norwegian explorers in the 1360s), the Newport Tower (a stone structure in Rhode Island that may well be from the 1600s but that some have thought pre-colonial) and the Vinland Map (an early European map which shows the North Atlantic continent but which many think is a hoax). Davis is scornful of the scholars who reject out of hand the idea that Scandinavians could have made it to Minnesota or Rhode Island, but demanding in the standard of proof he would require from those who want to argue for genuineness. He is, however, fanatically open-minded about the possibilities of finding more evidence of Scandinavian contact with North America—and given recent the history of discovery, that seems like a wise stance to me.

I would like to be able to praise his approach as critical and sceptical overall, but Davis himself goes a bit off the deep end in some of his speculations. I wasn't convinced by his suggestion that a year-round European settlement on Ellesmere Island survived after the end of the Greenland colony (page 101). His argument that the word America derives from the Scandinavian word merki didn't convince me either. His certainty that we will eventually find evidence that the Vikings reached Minnesota (p. 129) seems a little too open-minded to me. I also thought the idea that the Narragansett Indians of Rhode Island gained tuberculosis resistance by intermarrying with Scandinavian settlers (pp. 160-165) a bit more far-fetched than he does, and his figure of “tens of thousands” of Vikings who made the journey to North America (p. 5) seems a little high. However, I think Davis is right to urge us not to stifle research by rejecting such ideas in a knee-jerk way.

Davis footnotes his text, but not well enough. The reader who wants to confirm his assertions or do further reading on a given topic may feel frustrated. He mentions recent DNA studies of Victoria Island Inuit to see if they had partly Scandinavian ancestors (p. 127) but provides no actual reference. We are told that Columbus spent the winter of 1477-1478 in Ólafsvík on Snæfellsnes (p. 5), but the evidence cited for this assertion feels rather vague and I learned elsewhere that it is controversial. We learn about the apparent survival of Dorset Culture communities in Hudson Bay as late as 1902 (p. 134), but get incomplete suggestions for further reading. Davis cites explorers' reports of Scandinavian remains on Ellesmere Island, but no recent reviews. Despite his saying that he wanted to keep the book “free from a heavy critical apparatus,” the lack of references weakens his credibility. Davis is a linguist, not an archaeologist or anthropologist, and my confidence in his ability to make judgements from physical evidence is a little shaky.

Overall though, we can thank Davis for pointing out how patchy the archaeological work in northern Canada has been, how unreliable the sagas are as a historical source, and how little we can rule out about Greenlanders' contacts with the American continent. He convinced me that there's a distinct possibility that more evidence of contact will be discovered in the next decades, as it was in the last. He gets credit for trying to answer fascinating questions in a popular but critical way. It would be nice if Davis had worked a little harder to boost the credibility of the book, and some statements need to be taken with a grain of salt. Vikings in America should be balanced with other books on the Canadian Arctic (I liked Robert McGhee's The Last Imaginary Place). But I still recommend it to anyone with a casual interest in the medieval North Atlantic.



More info:
Author:
Graeme Davis
Publisher:
Birlinn (2009)

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