New research from the Netherlands has more accurately dated a Viking settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, revealing that the seafaring people were active in North America by at least AD 1021.
Vikings are known to have sailing vast distances in their iconic longships, and forays into a mysterious foreign land out to the west were described in ancient sagas, but these stories were thought to be fantasy until the 1960s discovery of Norse buildings at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
A new study from the University of Groningen, Netherlands, published today in the journal Nature, has revealed the most accurate dating yet of the L’Anse aux Meadows site.
In order to accurately place L’Anse aux Meadows in history, the researchers studied three pieces of wood from archaeological contexts containing Viking materials. Each piece showed clear evidence of being cut with metal, a material First Nations Americans weren’t using at that time.
The accurate dating of these wooden pieces to an exact year was made possible by a lucky cosmic quirk: in AD 992 there was an epic solar storm that produced a clear radiocarbon signal in tree rings from the following year.
“The distinct uplift in radiocarbon production that occurred between AD 992 and 993 has been detected in tree-ring archives from all over the world,” says study author Michael Dee of the University of Groningen.
Each of the three wooden objects exhibited this radiocarbon signal 29 growth rings – and therefore 29 years – in from the outer edge of the bark.
“Finding the signal from the solar storm 29 growth rings in from the bark allowed us to conclude that the cutting activity took place in the year AD 1021,” adds Margot Kuitems, co-author of the study.
There are still many unknowns about Viking forays into the Americas. The data we have is sparse, suggesting the voyages occurred rarely, though there could be more sites that simply haven’t been found.
Botanical evidence from L’Anse aux Meadows demonstrates that the Vikings were exploring regions further south than their Newfoundland settlement, and the Icelandic Sagas – oral histories that were later written down – describe ancient encounters between Norsemen and First Nations people in America.
The trip to this distant site would have taken the intrepid explorers weeks of voyaging across potentially violent seas, which begs the question: why did they set out at all?
According to the Graenlendlinga Saga, Vikings already knew of the existence of the Americas by the time they set out to reach them – an Icelandic sailor named Bjarni Herjolfsson and his crew spotted North America while adrift in the North Atlantic several decades before notorious Viking sailor Leif Eriksson and his crew set out to reach its shores.
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