A thousand years ago, five centuries before Columbus set sail, a band of Norsemen left Greenland to explore mythical lands to the west. They landed their wooden boats in a lonely, windswept cove at the northern tip of Newfoundland, and established the first known European habitation in the New World, That lonely cove is now called L’Anse aux Meadows, and I paid it a long-awaited visit on my road trip to Canada’s east coast.
L’Anse aux Meadows had been on my wish list for many years. But I’d never visited, for a good reason: the cove is located at the tip of Newfoundland’s northern peninsula, a long drive from the main highway. But this time, my friend Dennis and I were determined to get there. And after four or five hours we reached St. Anthony, the town that’s the jumping-off point for this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On a sunny but windy morning, we drove up the country road to the spot where white men first set up camp in North America. True to its reputation, it is a remote spot, a marshy stretch of coastline covered with low vegetation called tuckamore.
But there’s a lot more there than meets the eye. Arriving, we were greeted by a monument to the Norse travellers, set on a hill near the entrance to the site. Further on, a statue of Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, who discovered the site in 1960, and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine, who excavated it and found artifacts proving it was a Norse settlement.
The monuments led us to a world-class interpretive centre that explains in great detail what L’Anse aux Meadows was really all about. The facts may come as a surprise. First of all, most of us know Leif Ericsson and the other Norsemen who visited North America as Vikings. But in fact, “Viking” is a Norse word meaning to raid or wage war. And the people who came to L’Anse aux Meadows were not there to wage war. They were Norse explorers — no Vikings here.
They were also not there to start a new colony in the New World. The party numbered somewhere between 60 and 90 people, mostly men. And they used this lonely cove as a base for exploring, and for collecting things that were in short supply back in Greenland, like wood, furs and wild fruit. The experiment lasted only 10 years or so. Then they left, burning their houses so no one else could use them.
The Norse artifacts that Ingstad and Stine found in the ruins are on display, as well as a model of what the encampment looked like back in the 11th century. In those days, it was right by the shore; today, the water line has receded, leaving the site a distance inland.
From the centre, we joined an entertaining guide who led us through the ruins themselves. Today, all that’s left are the foundations of the buildings. But they’re easily seen on the landscape, unmistakably square and European-looking. There are houses big enough to accommodate a dozen people. And there are buildings that were used for carpentry and even metal working: archaeologists found evidence that the Norsemen smelted a small amount of metal here, using “bog iron” found under the peat beneath their feet.
The path through the old buildings led to some new buildings: a replica of the original settlement, filled with houses made of sod, stone and wood. Inside, each was outfitted just as it would have been in Leif Ericson’s day. An open fire supplied heat and light, and also served for cooking. People slept in small bunks along the walls, with their belongings stored in wooden boxes or hung from the rafters.
Just to make the scene more realistic, there were actors playing the parts of the Norse voyagers, including a couple of women. The few women in the camp were probably the cooks, but wooden objects found in the buildings showed that they also spun wool — likely to make the warm clothing needed for life in the wilds of northern Newfoundland.
And being Norsemen, there had to be at least one Viking to show off the weapons of war that allowed them to invade a major part of Europe. (You probably didn’t know that Dublin, Ireland, was originally a Norse city.) And sorry to destroy another myth, but the Viking raiders didn’t wear the horned helmets we’ve seen in a hundred books and movies; they would have been impractical, even dangerous to the wearer.
While we’re explaining misconceptions, I may as well demystify the name: “Anse” means “cove” in French, so that’s no problem. But this isn’t a true meadow, and likely wasn’t one when the Norsemen were here. But French fishermen later plied their trade on these shores. And in those days, many owners named their ships after Medea, the heroine of a Greek tragedy. So “L’Anse aux Meadows” is likely an English distortion of the old French name, “L’Anse á la Médée” named after a fishing vessel that came here.
Other mysteries remain, though. One is the reason the Norsemen left after such a short time. Did they decide the resources of Newfoundland and nearby lands didn’t warrant the effort? Were the conditions too harsh? Or did they clash with the local Indians and flee to avoid attacks? No one knows. The voyages to eastern Canada are mentioned in some old Nordic sagas, but what’s fact and what’s fiction is a puzzle that may never be solved.
Still, a little mystery just makes the story better. Not that L’Anse aux Meadows needs any extra drama to make it more interesting. This is the place where Europeans made the first real incursion into the New World, a profound moment in human history. And their encounters with the local indigenous people represented the first new contact between two different branches of the human race in a thousand years. They completed the circle that started when humans left Africa and spread across the world, heading east and west to finally reconnect right here.
For me, L’Anse aux Meadows was a bucket-list trip. I had dreamed of visiting this lonely spot ever since I read about it 40 years ago. And now that I’ve finally seen it with my own eyes, it was everything I expected, and more. There’s another site nearby that dramatizes the story, and even a dinner theatre performance in St. Anthony. But for me, seeing the site itself was a watershed experience — I even bought the t-shirt.