Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, L'Anse aux Meadows historical site is the only authenticated example of a Viking (Norse) settlement in North America. Carbon dating of artifacts from the site dates it to approximately 1000 A.D.
Access and accommodation
The Park grounds are open from around April 2 to October 26 each year. The visitor's centre, a.k.a. the "Interpretation centre" is open from June 1 to October 14. (The other months, collectively called "winter", are unsuitable for visiting an outdoor site facing directly onto the north Atlantic!) The Centre is open from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Newfoundland time. During the peak summer tourist season evening hours are extended to 8 p.m.
The park is found at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula of the island of Newfoundland. To reach the park, a traveller on the Trans Canada Highway faces a 433 km trip north from Deer Lake along the "Viking Trail" (Route 430). This secondary highway is old but serviceable, however, its well-worn lane ruts hold an alarming amount of rainwater in inclement weather. On the other hand, local wisdom says that rain keeps the moose off of the roads ...
The nearest local settlement, L'Anse aux Meadows itself, is very small. Nearby St. Anthony is a larger town with restaurants, a service centre, a medical centre, and other services. Several of the surrounding communities have one or more bed and breakfasts.
History of the site
The L'Anse aux Meadows historical site was discovered in 1960 by Anne Stine Ingstad and Helge Ingstad. The Ingstads had been searching for evidence of Norse landings anywhere along the North American coast, from New England northward. They had been asking locals about unusual terrain features - patterns of ridges or low mounds - such as those discovered in Norway, Greenland, and Iceland. In those places, such features had sometimes proven to be the overgrown remains of Norse long house walls.
The Ingstads search had met with little success until they came to the small fishing village of L'Anse aux Meadows.
Local resident George Decker led Helge to a place near the village on Epaves Bay that matched his requirements. The locals had thought little of them - L'Anse aux Meadows had been home to French and first nations fishing and hunting camps, and no-one had thought these remains any different. But Helge Ingstad thought otherwise. Eight years of subsequent excavation by an international archaeological team yielded definitive evidence of a small Norse colony - the first and only such evidence in North America.
In all, the grass ridges were found to be remnants of walls of eight Norse buildings - three longhouses, some outbuildings and most tellingly a small smithy for extracting bog iron. Smelting bog iron was a technique widely practiced by the Norse, but not then known to the Inuit or other first nations peoples.
Excavation uncovered the remains of typical Norse settlement - sod laid over a wood frame to give a long, narrow building not unlike the dimensions of the Viking knarr, the most likely ship to have been used for an ocean voyage at that time. Very few artifacts were found - anything of value would have been taken when the site was abandoned, and the acidic soil would not preserve fragile items. However, a bronze ring pin for closing a cloak was found in an old fire pit. A distinctly Norse item, it was likely lost in the ashes by someone cooking or tending the fire. A few other stone and wood items were found as well, and also slag from smelting and numerous iron nails and rivets. Since one primary purpose of a camp such as this would have been ship repair, the evidence was compelling. Radiocarbon analysis of samples from the site have dated them at 1080 +/- 70 AD.
The experts think that this was a base camp for deeper explorations down to the St. Lawrence river. Perhaps there the Norse found the berries or even grapes that led them to the name Vinland. Certainly no such fruits grew at L'Anse aux Meadows. Butternuts were uncovered at the site, which are not native to Newfoundland; they likely came from northeastern New Brunswick. Most likely this camp was only used for a few years. There is one small building likely to be the first. One longhouse with narrower walls that the others was likely the first main building. The third and likely final longhouse has extra size and rooms, including a sheltered, roofless area that might have held a small launch. At least several seasons work went into this camp. In the end the Norse abandoned it, likely deciding that North America simply wasn't worth the effort. The old sagas tell of conflict with Skraelings, the native people of the region, which may also have been a factor.
The site today
The original dig has been fully covered over again, to protect the find. Nearby, a reconstruction of several buildings from the village gives visitors a hands-on feel for the site. All artifacts inside are reconstructions, so you can poke, prod, and touch them. The actual artifacts from the dig are housed safely uphill in the Visitor Centre. Parks Canada staff in authentic costume portray Viking settlers, answering visitor questions. (Poking and prodding the staff is not recommended.) The site is surrounded by a low wooden fence. This fence is not authentic, the Norse would not have had one. It serves to keep marauding moose and the village's sheep from eating the sod covering the buildings.
The longhouses are heated with gas fires which simulate the open wood fires of the Norse. The fires are smokeless, but in the original longhouses, the smoke would have escaped via small vents in the roof. The guides say that they used to have authentic wood fires, but a few fires in the building angered 'the gods above' (uphill in the Parks Canada centre) and so the gas fires were introduced. I'm sure the Norse would have appreciated that luxury!
The site is close to 'iceberg alley' where icebergs can be seen in June and even into July. The cold Labrador Current gives the site cool, wet weather yielding the coastal peat bogs which contain the bog iron the Norse used. The ground cover is mostly scrub and stunted conifers called tuckamore.
According to the Parks Canada guides, the site is experiencing a phenomenon called 'glacial rebound'1. Experts think that the land has risen as much as one to two metres (up to six feet) in the thousand years since the Norse visited, as the land slowly decompresses following the last period of glaciation. Certainly the original site does seem a bit too far from the bay's edge for ship repair - but a metre less of elevation would place it right at the shoreline.
Nearby, the commercial attraction Norstead is a reconstruction of a Viking settlement. It was created for the celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of Leif Eriksson’s journey, which took place in the year 2000. A replica knarr crossed the Atlantic to visit L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park as part of those celebrations.
- Gorgonzola says 'glacial rebound' is usually called 'isostatic rebound from the last glaciation'.
Sources: My recent visit to the site, and http://parkscanada.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/nl/meadows/index_e.asp