The Vikings: A Memorable Visit to America

The Icelandic house of what is likely the first European-American baby has scholars rethinking the Norse sagas

Vikings sailing to Iceland (H. A. Guerber)
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In the summer of 2001, Steinberg and his colleagues scanned the low fields in Glaumbaer. The work proceeded uneventfully until late August, when the team was about to pack up and leave. (“You always find the most important things in the last week of a field season,” says Steinberg.) When two undergraduates probing spots that showed low conductivity in earlier scans pulled up their first plug of earth, they looked in the hole and saw a layer of turf—consistent with a turf house—below a yellow layer that marked the eruption of MountHekla in 1104.

Excited, Steinberg returned in 2002 to dig a series of trenches. By the end of that season, the team had uncovered parts of what appeared to be an extensive longhouse, 100 feet by 25 1/2 feet. By the end of 2004, the team had plotted the direction and length of one of the walls. The house was so large that it evidently belonged to someone with wealth and power. But who?

All the detail about Norse trips to Vinland (as the Norse called North America) comes from two accounts: The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders. These epic Viking tales were probably first written down around 1200 or 1300 by scribes who either recorded the oral stories of elders or worked from some now-lost written source, says Thor Hjaltalin, an Icelandic scholar who oversees archaeological activities in northwest Iceland. The two sagas give similar accounts of Thorfinn’s trip to the New World, but they differ on some significant details about his return to Iceland. In Erik the Red’s saga, Thorfinn moves back to his family estate in Reynisnes, while in the Greenlanders’ saga, Thor-finn settles down in Glaumbaer, after his mother proves less than welcoming to his wife. In a key passage from the Greenlanders’ saga, Thor-finn sells some of his Vinland spoils in Norway, then comes to “north Iceland, in Skagafjord, where he had his ship drawn ashore for the winter. In the spring he purchased the land at Glaumbaer and established his farm there.” It goes on: “He and his wife, Gudrid, had a great number of descendants, and a fine clan they were. . . . After [Thorfinn’s] death, Gudrid took over the running of the household, together with her son Snorri who had been born in Vinland.”

Apart from the grand scale of the longhouse, which ties it to someone of Thorfinn’s stature, other evidence links it to the North American expedition, Steinberg claims. Its straight-walled design differs from the bowed-wall construction typical of Icelandic longhouses of the era, and it bears a strong resemblance to structures that have been uncovered in L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. And finally, Steinberg says, it’s unlikely that any other chief could build one of the grandest longhouses of the Viking era and not be mentioned either in the sagas or other sources.

Before Steinberg’s find, conventional wisdom held that Erik the Red’s version was more credible and that the reference to Glaumbaer in the Greenlanders’ saga was merely a flourish, added years after most of the saga was written, to improve Gudrid’s image and perhaps that of a Glaumbaer chief. There are still many points of dispute about which Norse did what and where in North America, but if Steinberg’s find is indeed Thorfinn’s house, the long-discounted Greenlanders’ saga, which names Thorfinn as a primary source, becomes the more accurate version—at least on the matter of where Thorfinn and company ended up. So after he found the longhouse, Steinberg called Olafsson—who had identified Erik the Red’s farmstead as a jumping-off place for the New World—and blurted, “I think I’ve found the other end of your story.”

Vikings spread out from Scandinavia and settled in Iceland, which Steinberg describes as “one of the world’s last large inhabitable islands to be inhabited,” in 874. They were led by local chiefs who did not like taking orders from, or paying taxes to, Harald Finehair, a Norse king then consolidating power in Norway. As the celebrated Norwegian anthropologist Vilhemmer Stefansson wrote in 1930, the Viking expansion was perhaps “the only large scale migration in history where the nobility moved out and the peasantry stayed home.”

At first, Iceland offered a paradise to these ruggedly independent Vikings. The lowlands had forests of birch and other trees that had never felt the ax. In just 60 years the population jumped from zero to 70,000. By 930, the Norse had established one of the world’s first parliaments, the Althing, where chiefs met to settle disputes.

There was just one sore point to this idyllic life. Settled and organized though they might have been, the Vikings were also some of the toughest warriors who ever lived. A slighted Norse was not the type to turn the other cheek. The resulting bloody duels reverberated far beyond Iceland. As Stefansson put it in 1930, writing during Prohibition, “The eventual discovery of North America hangs upon a fashionable practice of the day, that of man-killing, which, like cocktail shaking in the later America, was against the law but was indulged by the best people.” He was referring to a few unreconstructed manslayers like Erik the Red, who overtaxed even the Norse tolerance for conflict and was exiled more than once by his fellow chiefs. Erik was first forced to relocate to Iceland’s west coast and was then banished from the island altogether.


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