Have the Vikings reached China?

When the Vikings were in America

Something is wrong with these strings. Patricia Sutherland notices that straight away. They look rough and yet feel very soft. The tapes come from an abandoned settlement on the northern tip of Canada's Baffin Island, far north of the Arctic Circle. It was found in the ruins by a Catholic missionary in the 1960s, along with hundreds of other artifacts. The thread consists of the short fur of an arctic hare and differs significantly from the tendons from which polar hunters once twisted thread. How did it get here? At a loss, the priest packed the woolen fibers and other finds into boxes and sent them to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, where Sutherland works.

It is in 1999 that the polar archaeologist examined the cords under the microscope. She is particularly amazed at their structure. The indigenous people of Baffin Island could neither spin nor weave. They sewed their clothes from animal skins and furs. Then where did the spun wool come from?

A few years earlier, Sutherland had helped excavate a Viking farm in Greenland. The researchers found similar remnants of ligaments there. The archaeologist contacts a Danish colleague. A few weeks later, she learns from a Viking clothing expert that the Canadian fibers are similar to the material from Greenland. “It took my breath away,” she recalls.

The discovery raises exciting questions that have preoccupied Sutherland ever since. Had a group of Nordic sailors landed on the remote island coast and made friendly contact with the indigenous people? So are the strings the key to a little-known chapter in the early common history of Europe and America?

Northmen in the New World

In the Middle Ages, the Vikings were the best seafaring explorers. Their carefully constructed, solidly built sailing ships make an impression to this day. The Northmen set out to sea from their Scandinavian homeland on forays into land, gold and other treasures. In the 8th century they reached England, Scotland and Ireland. Medieval manuscripts tell of brutal attacks on monasteries and cities. Many Vikings traded with distant lands; in the 9th century their merchants ventured as far as the Black Sea. They founded settlements on the important Eurasian trade routes and exchanged the finest goods: glass from the Rhine Valley, silver from the Middle East, mussel shells from the Red Sea, silk from China.

The most daring sailed far west across the harsh North Atlantic. In Iceland and Greenland, they established peasant colonies and filled warehouses with Arctic luxury goods, especially walrus ivory and narwhal teeth, for European markets. Some of the seafarers fearlessly ventured into the unknown and maneuvered between icebergs as far as America.

Sometime between 989 and 1020, Viking ships landed on the coast of Newfoundland. Several dozen men and women built three community houses and a few sod houses, which among other things served as a weaving mill, forge and workshop.

About 50 years ago, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, the archaeologist Anne-Stine Ingstad, discovered the overgrown ruins of this camp in L’Anse aux Meadows and began excavations. Canadian archaeologists later found iron ship nails and other items that were believed to have come from a sunk Viking ship. The following years, however, brought little new knowledge about the presence of the Northmen in the New World.

Out and about in "Steinplattenland"

Patricia Sutherland now works at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, but has never let go of the Baffin Island settlement. In the soft morning light, she and her team walk single file down a stony path into the Tanfield Valley. The strong wind from the previous evening has subsided, the heavy clouds have cleared. Blue sky. The Vikings called this area Helluland: "Steinplattenland". Long before they arrived, indigenous people had built a settlement here known as Nanuk.

Sutherland carefully searches the coast for polar bears. Nobody shows up today. She walks between two ponds and smiles. “This is the greenest valley far and wide,” she says. "There is plenty of peat for house building."

Below us is a sheltered bay, a natural harbor for a small sea-going Viking ship. In boggy places, oily-looking microbe sludge indicates the occurrence of turf iron stone. The Vikings were masters in processing these ore deposits. When Sutherland climbs a small hill to the excavation site, her mood changes. The water in the pits is still 20 centimeters high after the storm the previous evening. It will take hours to empty them. “We're running out of time,” complains the researcher.

Silver-gray curls, a girlish voice and just 1.52 meters tall - Patricia Sutherland is a rather unusual expedition leader. But a whirlwind. The 63-year-old archaeologist is the first to get up in the morning and the last to crawl into the sleeping bag in the evening. During the day she is everywhere at the same time. She bakes pancakes, prepares lunches for Inuit elders and checks the electric fence that is supposed to keep bears away. She feels responsible for every decision, no matter how small. She had a shoulder operation three months ago; now, after four weeks in the excavation camp, her left arm is so swollen that she has to carry it in a cloth. Nevertheless, she is full of energy.

After the scientist was curious about the thread a decade and a half ago, she went to the depot of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in search of artefacts from the nomads of the Arctic known as the Dorset culture. Archaeologists had excavated these things in different sites. The hunters lived on the Arctic coasts for nearly 2,000 years until they disappeared at the end of the 14th century.

Sutherland examined several hundred objects believed to have come from the Dorset culture, many of them under the microscope. She found more spun fibers from the four important sites Nunguvik, Tanfield Valley, Willows Island and the Avayalik Islands. They are all located on the 2,000 kilometer coastline between northern Baffin Island and northern Labrador. The researcher found even more unusual matches.

The archaeologists had found pieces of wood everywhere - but the landscape consists of treeless tundra. Sutherland also identified the remains of slide rules on which the Vikings had apparently documented business deals, as well as woolen spindles and wooden parts with angular nail holes and stains that may have come from iron. One of the wooden parts dates from the 14th century, which resulted in the so-called C-14 dating. At that time the time of the Northmen in Greenland was already coming to an end.

The further Sutherland got into the old Dorset collections, the more evidence she found that Vikings had landed on this coast. For example, almost 30 traditional Nordic whetstones that were standard equipment for the Northmen. In addition, carvings with European-looking faces.

The objects point to peaceful relationships between Dorset hunters and the Vikings, but Sutherland wanted more evidence. That would require excavation, and the Tanfield Valley looked particularly promising. In the 1960s, the American archaeologist Moreau Maxwell uncovered parts of a building made of stone and sod. It was difficult for him to classify the remains, but he concluded that Dorset hunters had built shelter here.

Sutherland finds the theory unconvincing. The Dorset built small houses, barely larger than your average bedroom today. But the outside wall of the house in Tanfield Valley is twelve meters, and the building must have been a lot bigger.

A cold afternoon in the Arctic

In one of the mysterious ruined houses, Sutherland leans over a square piece of earth. With the tip of her archaeological trowel, she loosens a small piece of whale bone and picks it up. As she brushes away the earth, two drill holes come to light. The people of the Dorset culture were unfamiliar with drilling instruments. They chiseled holes in objects. The Vikings, on the other hand, had wood drills, among other things for shipbuilding, in which they also used wooden dowels.

Sutherland puts what she finds in a plastic bag. She says that extensive excavations were carried out here in the past. You and your colleagues would therefore have to look for inconspicuous, previously overlooked traces. For example, they found tiny pieces of fur in sediments from the walls. The analysis showed that they belonged to a European rat species. The rodents were probably brought to the Arctic by ship.

Elsewhere in the ruins, the researchers found a shovel made from whale bones that is very similar to those from Greenlandic Viking settlements. It is “the same size and made of the same material as the spades that were once used to cut the peat sod for houses,” explains Sutherland. As if to prove it, her team also discovered the remains of peat blocks that Vikings used to insulate the walls of the house.

They also found a foundation made of large stones, apparently sculpted by someone skilled in Nordic stone carving. The size of the building, the type of walls and a stone-lined drainage channel correspond to the furnishings of Greenland Viking buildings. At one point it still smells like a latrine. On the ground, an archaeologist uncovered hand-sized pieces of moss that the Vikings used as toilet paper. "The people of the Dorset culture never stayed in one place for long and therefore didn't build toilets," explains Sutherland.

But why did the Vikings linger long enough on this windswept corner of Helluland to erect buildings? Apparently because they found valuable trade goods.

The real business people of the polar region

Towards the end of the 9th century, a wealthy Viking merchant visited King Alfred the Great's court in England. The stranger, who called himself Ohthere, wore precious clothes and told of his long journey to the White Sea. Then he gave the king walrus tusks. At that time, shiny chess pieces and other exquisite works of art were carved out of their ivory.

Ohthere wasn't the only Viking to serve the European demand for fine goods from the cold north. Every spring men from the settlements of West and East Greenland moved to the fertile hunting area of ​​North Setur on the north coast and hunted down walruses and other arctic animals. They loaded their boats with animal skins, furs, ivory, and even live polar bear cubs to trade with. But only two or three days' journey west, on the other side of the Davis Strait, were even more productive hunting grounds. The glacier-covered mountains of Helluland were anything but inviting, but walruses and narwhals frolicked in the freezing waters, and the land was teeming with caribou and small fur animals.

Like Ohthere, the Vikings who explored the North American coast a thousand years ago were probably looking for trading partners there. In what they called Vinland in Newfoundland, the newcomers were met with hostility. The aborigines were well armed and viewed the strangers as intruders. But in Helluland, the small nomadic groups of Dorset hunters saw an opportunity and welcomed the strangers. They had few combat weapons but were master walrus hunters and trappers. They caught fur animals, from whose soft fur hair the finest yarn could be spun. Some scholars believe that the people of the Dorset culture were passionate traders. "They can be seen as the true business people of the polar region," says Sutherland.

The Vikings had little to fear from the indigenous people. Apparently they set up a seasonal camp in the Tanfield Valley. There were plenty of snow foxes in the region. The strangers had two extremely attractive goods in exchange for the furs: pieces of wood for carving and small chunks of metal that could be made into knives. The trade in furs and other luxury goods apparently flourished. Archaeological findings show that some families lived just a stone's throw from the Viking settlement and prepared animal skins there.

There is still a lot to do for Patricia Sutherland. So far, only a small area of ​​the Tanfield Valley has been explored. The archaeologist's new evidence of peaceful relationships between Nordic seafarers and North American natives, as well as the discovery of what is probably the earliest fur trade by Europeans in America, have sparked an intense debate. Archeology is always about the interpretation of finds. As with the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows four decades ago, the path to recognition will be difficult and lengthy this time too. But Patricia Sutherland is determined to convince the doubters.

She pulls the mosquito net over her face and continues digging. "We'll find a lot more here," she says and smiles.

(NG, issue 11/2012, page (s) 74 to 87)