Almost five centuries before Christopher Columbus was born in the early 1450s, a ship led by Viking explorer Leif Erikson crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It dropped anchor in present-day Canada, and the sailors built a temporary settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland, complete with dwellings, a forge, and a carpentry workshop.
The site was abandoned after only a few years. Archaeologists discovered its 1000-year-old ruins in 1960, and called it L'Anse aux Meadows. For decades, it was the only known Norse settlement in North America outside Greenland. Now, National Geographic reports that researchers may have found evidence of a second Viking site in southern Newfoundland—a find that, if verified, could rewrite the timeline of European exploration in the New World.
The potential outpost is in Point Rosee, a remote spot 300 miles south of L’Anse aux Meadows. The area was identified as a potential Viking hotspot by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak.
Parcak uses satellite images taken by cameras 400 miles above Earth to find ancient cities, temples and tombs in Egypt. Last November, Parcak was awarded a $1 million TED Prize, which she is using to develop a platform called Global Xplorer. The citizen science initiative teaches individuals to scan satellite images for undiscovered—and potentially important—archaeological finds.
In 2015, Parcak used the same technology to examine the Canadian coastline. Satellite images hinted at potentially human-made shapes lurking underneath vegetation, and Parcak and her team visited one promising site to take a closer look. Magnetometer readings at the site revealed elevated iron levels. Subsequent digs uncovered an ancient fire-cracked stone hearth, scraps of iron, and Viking-style turf walls.
While there isn’t enough definite evidence to state that these finds are remnants of the seafaring Scandinavians, The New York Times reports that radiocarbon tests have dated the relics to the Norse age (late 8th century through the mid 11th century). Also, the site’s relics aren’t characteristic of any other cultures that might have existed in the area, Parcak told The Washington Post. Archaeologists didn't find any flint scraps, pottery shards, or iron nails left behind by later European colonists or indigenous Canadians. Plus, the only other known pre-Columbian iron processing site in North America is L’Anse aux Meadows.
“Either it’s … an entirely new culture that looks exactly like the Norse and we don’t know what it is,” Parcak said to The Washington Post. “Or it’s the westernmost Norse site that’s ever been discovered.”
Nobody knows whether the site was merely an iron smelting site or part of a larger settled community. Experts will continue to excavate and analyze the find, which will be featured in a two-hour PBS documentary called "Vikings Unearthed" airing on April 4. If it’s a true Viking site, Parcak says it might help researchers find additional Norse relics in the area. These discoveries could provide new evidence that these sailors had explored more of North America—and possibly arrived there earlier—than historians had previously thought.
[h/t National Geographic]