L’Anse aux Meadows, an archaeological site in Newfoundland, Canada, represents the first and only confirmed Viking presence in North America—proving beyond doubt that Vikings reached the Americas some 400 years before Christopher Columbus. Here are 10 facts about L’Anse Aux Meadows and some of its mysteries that are yet to be solved.
1. Vikings were not the first people to live at L’Anse aux Meadows.
Archaeological evidence of fireplaces, tent rings, and other artifacts suggest that several Indigenous groups lived at L’Anse aux Meadows before and after the Vikings occupied the site. They include peoples of the Maritime Archaic tradition from roughly 4000 to 1000 BCE, the Groswater tradition from 1000 BCE to 500 CE, and the Middle Dorset Culture from 400 to 750 CE. Historians believe there were no people present at the time of the Norse arrival, though.
2. Clues to finding the site appeared in Viking sagas.
Long before L’Anse aux Meadows was unearthed in the mid-20th century, archaeologists and historians suspected that the Vikings had explored North America. The major clues were contained in two Icelandic epic poems, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Erik the Red. Both poems derive from oral tradition but were written down in the 13th century, about 200 years after the events they describe took place. The sagas tell the story of a large Norse settlement founded on Greenland in the late 10th century, and it was from there that explorer Leif Erikson set sail, heading west. He was blown off course and landed at a place the sagas call Vinland, which modern experts believed was in North America. He set up a temporary colony before later traveling back to Greenland.
Some historians argued that the sagas were simply a mythical story, since—prior to the rediscovery of L’Anse aux Meadows—there was no hard evidence of Vinland’s existence. But others, including husband-and-wife archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, were convinced there must be traces of Erikson’s voyage.
3. Iron nails confirmed the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement was of Viking origin.
In the 1960s, the Ingstads began searching for Leif Erikson’s colony. They traveled along the coast of Newfoundland, visiting the villages and asking inhabitants if they knew of any local archaeological features or remains of ancient house foundations.
They finally hit the jackpot when they arrived in the remote settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows on the extreme northern tip of Newfoundland Island. They became intrigued by some overgrown ridges in the ground near Epaves Bay (now Islands Bay) that were similar in style to Norse settlements in Greenland, and they began digging.
Initial excavations continued for seven years. The team uncovered the foundations of eight houses thought to have been constructed from wood and covered in sod, along with several workshops, which all resembled Icelandic architecture. The archaeologists also discovered the remains of a smithy where iron nails were made with European techniques, indicating the site was of foreign origin.
Other finds during the first excavations included a bronze ring-headed pin of the type Vikings used to fasten their cloaks, a spindle whorl from a handheld spindle, and a stone oil lamp. These intriguing finds all served to confirm it was indeed a Viking settlement.
4. Peat bogs helped preserve the evidence.
The structures at L’Anse aux Meadows overlooked peat bogs, acidic, low-oxygen environments famous in Europe for preserving everything from butter to bodies. Discarded organic materials were similarly preserved at L’Anse aux Meadows. Rope made from twisted spruce roots, a birch bark cup, wooden nails, and planks of wood provided evidence of a carpentry workshop. The Vikings would have needed the lumber to build structures and panel the walls of their halls. Though most of the wood came from local trees, a few items were made from European tree species, suggesting the Norse settlers had brought them from home.
Another workshop littered with iron nails showed evidence of boat building and repair, which pointed to Vikings using boats to travel, fish, or explore away from the main settlement.
5. Women were likely among the settlers at L’Anse aux Meadows.
Small sewing scissors, a whetstone for sharpening needles, and a soapstone spindle whorl were found in a lean-to shed that was part of a larger hall. These objects are closely associated with work performed by women, strongly implying that the settlement included both men and women. From the size of the dwellings, archaeologists have estimated that the settlement could have been home to between 70 and 90 people.
6. Rare cosmic radiation helped put an exact date to the site.
When L’Anse aux Meadows was rediscovered, archaeologists used radiocarbon dating to estimate the settlement to the 11th century. In 2021, however, researchers were able to use dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) to arrive at an exact date of occupation: 1021 CE.
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The research, published in Nature, gathered the remnants of wood cut with metal tools—a sign that it was worked by Norse settlers, rather than by Indigenous people—and analyzed the tree rings. The anchor for their analysis was a rare burst of charged particles from space known to have happened in 993 CE. The radiation caused a spike in carbon-14 isotope production, which shows up in ancient trees all over the world. This baseline allowed the researchers to simply count the number of rings between the carbon spike and final ring to arrive at a precise date for when the trees were felled by metal tools—confirming that the site was occupied by Vikings at that time.
7. Butternuts provided evidence of the Vikings’ southward exploration.
The land settled by Leif Erikson, according to the Icelandic sagas, was known as Vinland (“wine land”) because of the wild grapes that reportedly grew there. So, when archaeologists began theorizing that Norse settlers had reached North America, they initially looked further south than Newfoundland because wild grapes don’t grow that far north.
The discovery of butternuts, the fruit of a tree (Juglans cinerea) that also isn’t found north of the St. Lawrence River, raised more questions. Researchers concluded that L’Anse aux Meadows was likely used as a base from which the Vikings explored farther south, and that they brought the butternuts back with them. This theory, along with the argument that L’Anse aux Meadows isn’t the Vinland described in the sagas, points to the tantalizing possibility that further Viking sites could yet be discovered south of Newfoundland.
8. The reasons for the site’s abandonment remain a mystery.
The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows didn’t last long: Some researchers suggest it was occupied for only 10 years or so. The absence of any burials, evidence of agriculture, or livestock pens certainly supports the idea that it was just a temporary settlement. The harsh climate and vast distance by sea from Greenland may have convinced the Vikings that it was not a feasible trading post, leading them to pack up and abandon the site. The full explanation may never be known.
9. People may have occupied L’Anse aux Meadows after the Vikings left.
A team from Memorial University of Newfoundland revisited L’Anse aux Meadows in 2019 to investigate environmental changes since the 10th century. But the researchers, led by archaeology professor Paul Ledger, were in for a surprise. As they dug into the layers of peat bog, they were amazed to find charcoal and woodworking debris that they carbon-dated to the late 12th or early 13th century—about two centuries after the Vikings left.
The researchers found no other artifacts at the site, and they didn’t think the evidence pointed to continued occupation by Viking settlers after they are believed to have abandoned the settlement. It wasn’t even clear which culture the findings related to, but the team felt certain they weren’t of European origin.
10. L’Anse aux Meadows is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1978, UNESCO declared L’Anse aux Meadows a World Heritage Site and confirmed its importance as the location of the first known Viking settlement in North America. A visitor center was built at the site in the 1980s, and several reconstructed sod houses contain an exhibition of the its history, enabling visitors to really get a sense of what this ancient colony might have looked like.