Roughly 1,000 years ago, the story goes, a Viking trader and adventurer named Thorfinn Karlsefni set off from the west coast of Greenland with three ships and a band of Norse to explore a newly discovered land that promised fabulous riches. Following the route that had been pioneered some seven years before by Leif Eriksson, Thorfinn sailed up Greenland’s coast, traversed the Davis Strait and turned south past Baffin Island to Newfoundland—and perhaps beyond. Snorri, the son of Thorfinn and his wife, Gudrid, is thought to be the first European baby born in North America.
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Thorfinn and his band found their promised riches—game, fish, timber and pasture—and also encountered Native Americans, whom they denigrated as skraelings, or “wretched people.” Little wonder, then, that relations with the Natives steadily deteriorated. About three years after starting out, Thorfinn—along with his family and surviving crew—abandoned the North American settlement, perhaps in a hail of arrows. (Archaeologists have found arrowheads with the remains of buried Norse explorers.) After sailing to Greenland and then Norway, Thorfinn and his family settled in Iceland, Thorfinn’s childhood home.
Just where the family ended up in Iceland has been a mystery that historians and archaeologists have long tried to clear up. In September 2002, archaeologist John Steinberg of the University of California at Los Angeles announced that he had uncovered the remains of a turf mansion in Iceland that he believes is the house where Thorfinn, Gudrid and Snorri lived out their days. Other scholars say his claim is plausible, although even Steinberg admits, “We’ll never know for sure unless someone finds a name on the door.”
The location of Thorfinn’s family estate in Iceland has surprisingly broad implications. For one thing, it could shed new light on the early Norse experience in North America, first substantiated by Helge Ingstad, an explorer, and his wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, an archaeologist. In 1960, they discovered the remains of a Viking encampment in Newfoundland dating to the year 1000. But the only accounts of how and why Vikings journeyed to the New World, not to mention what became of them, are in Icelandic sagas, centuries-old tales that have traditionally vexed scholars struggling to separate Viking fantasy from Viking fact. Steinberg’s find, if proved, would give credence to one saga over another.
By Steinberg’s admission, he found the imposing longhouse— on the grounds of one of northern Iceland’s most visited cultural sites, the GlaumbaerFolkMuseum—“by dumb luck.” For decades, visitors had gazed upon the field in front of the museum, unaware that evidence of one of the grandest longhouses of the Viking era lay just beneath the grass.
Steinberg did not start out trying to insert himself into a debate about Viking lore, but to survey settlement patterns during Viking times. With his colleague Doug Bolender of NorthwesternUniversity in Chicago, he had developed a method for using an electrical conductivity meter to detect buried artifacts. The tool—a cumbersome, 50-pound apparatus usually used to identify contaminated groundwater and locate pipes—sends alternating current into the ground. The current induces a magnetic field, and the tool then measures how the magnetic field varies according to the makeup of the soil and the objects buried in it. The two men fitted the electronic equipment into a 12-foot-long plastic tube and trekked around fields holding the apparatus by their sides, looking for all the world like slowmotion pole vaulters getting ready to vault.
The two first worked with Icelandic archaeologist Gud- mundur Olafsson, who was excavating the site of Erik the Red’s farmstead in western Iceland and had identified it as the place from which some of the explorers of the New World first set out. There, Steinberg and Bolender charted magnetic anomalies—possible signatures of buried walls and floors of turf houses. Then, Steinberg says, “Gudmundur would draw upon his knowledge of ancient Norse houses to imagine possible configurations underground so that we could refine the search.” By the end of 2000, Steinberg and Bolender could survey a field as quickly as they could walk.
An 18-person team they put together then settled on Skagafjord, on the north coast of Iceland, as the most promising place to conduct their studies. The area is dotted with rills, rivers and thousand-year-old fields green from the abundant rain and long, soft sunlight of summer days in the Far North. The territory was ideally suited to their technology, layered as it is with known volcanic deposits that coincide with important historical events, enabling the archaeologists to get a good fix on the ages of objects they found. “See, the soil reads like a book,” Steinberg says, standing in a trench on a farm near Glaumbaer that was the site of northern Iceland’s most powerful estate during Viking times. He points to a green layer that marks a volcanic eruption in 871, a blue layer from one in 1000 and a thick, yellow layer from yet another in 1104.