Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Geek Girl Travel: L'Anse Aux Meadows

By Marie Victoria Roberston
Did you know that “Vikings” are only called Vikings when they’re raiding and pillaging? Otherwise, the correct term is Norsemen and Norsewomen. If you drive up to northernmost Newfoundland, you will see the beautiful site of l’Anse aux Meadows—the historic, archeological site where Leif Eriksson and a group of Norsemen landed over a thousand years ago. L’Anse aux Meadows is especially significant since it is currently the only accepted site of a confirmed pre-Columbian expedition (take that, Christopher!) The site was explored in the 1960s by archeologists Anna Stine Ingstad and her husband, Helge. 
Earlier this August, we packed up the car and drove, ferried, then drove some more to Newfoundland (about a 5000km round-trip, for the curious), intent on seeing the archeological site and Norstead, the nearby historical re-enactment village (think Upper Canada Village, but with Norsemen.) Having read The Vinland Sagas, we were curious to see this piece of history for ourselves. It was a heck of a journey, but you haven’t seen Canadian natural beauty until you’ve seen Newfoundland and Gros Morne national park.
The only remaining evidence of the Norsemen's visit to Canada
The archeological site itself might be anticlimactic for those who don’t know what to expect. There are no walls, ruins, or foundations left; instead, we were invited to tour grass-covered mounds, the shapes of which suggest connecting houses and doors and fire pits. This is all that’s left of Leif Eriksson’s crew and their journey to a land they called Vinland-- possibly “Land of Wine”, though if they were hoping to find grapes growing in Newfoundland, they were out of luck. Historians seem to agree that the reason for the journey was partly to find Vinland, and partly to find lumber and ship it back home to Greenland. No one is quite sure why they left, though the leading theory suggests they encountered trouble with the aboriginal people who lived in the area. 
A re-created hut at l'Anse aux Meadows
It’s a bit surreal to stand on the unassuming mounds and picture how, 1000 years ago, twenty burly Norsemen were sitting and eating here. A visit to the nearby re-enactments might help one visualize the settlement. There are, in fact, two such places: the l’Anse aux Meadows site itself has recreations of the buildings suggested by the mounds a few dozen feet away, and there is Norstead Village a short drive away. Both villages are staffed by re-enactors who are as happy to tell you about ancient Norse life as they are to talk about growing up in l’Anse aux Meadows and nearby St Anthony. One of the coolest conversations we had was with the old Norse fisherman, who happily broke character to tell us about playing on the mounds as a child before anyone knew what they were (everyone in the area thought they were the remnants of an old “Indian” village), and how he helped with the archeological dig in the 70s before going to work as a re-enactor.
The Snorri, a replica of the ship that brought Leif Eriksson and his crew from Greenland to Newfoundland
 Norstead is where you want to go if you really want to see characters and learn about old Norse culture. At the entrance, we were greeted by Bjorn Blue-Eyes, the chieftain, who showed us the Snorri, a recreation of the ship that brought Leif and his crew to Newfoundland. In one of the common huts, a Norsewoman demonstrated nålebinding, a technique older than knitting and crocheting. A cheery blacksmith showed us how to make iron tools, while breaking character to lament that the nearest McDonald’s was five hours away. Norstead is right by the water’s edge, and on the day we visited, it was grey and windy—epic weather for learning about this fascinating old culture.  
Norstead is where you want to go if you really want to see characters and learn about old Norse culture. At the entrance, we were greeted by Bjorn Blue-Eyes, the chieftain, who showed us the
 A women's workroom at Norstead Village

I’d like to conclude with a neat piece of trivia. It was archeologist Anna Stine who led the archeological dig at l’Anse aux Meadows, and the artifact that alerted the team to the existence of a Norse settlement was a spindle-whorl, a weight that attaches to the bottom of a spindle used to spin wool. In other words, a woman’s tool. In other words, two women across the centuries were responsible for this hugely important archeological discovery. 

Marie Victoria Robertson is a published speculative fiction writer and playwright, as well as the board president of Jer’s Vision: Canada’s Youth Diversity Initiative ( When all the other girls wanted to marry Johnny Depp, she wanted to run away with Worf on the Enterprise. She enjoys giant robots, time-travel paradoxes, and forcing her son to watch Futurama.

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