CODROY VALLEY, Canada–A story passed down in my family for generations may be the clue to finding a lost Norse settlement.
The only Norse settlement in the New World thus far confirmed by archaeologists is in L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada. But the Norse sagas tell of other colonizing expeditions.
Last summer, archaeologists announced that they had found evidence of a Norse presence–a hearth used for roasting bog iron ore, which is the first step in the production of iron–at Point Rosee in southern Newfoundland. My uncle, Wayne MacIsaac, was so excited he said he didn’t sleep for three days. He felt vindicated in his long-cherished, but long-ignored, theory that he had found an ancient Norse site in the nearby Codroy Valley where he lives.
His previous attempts to attract the interest of archaeologists to the site had met with failure, but that has now changed. An international team of archaeologists are due to investigate in July.
A Strange Boat
My great-grandfather, MacIsaac’s grandfather, used to tell of a strange boat that was found in the Codroy Valley when he was a child. A storm had shifted a sandbar at the mouth of the Little Codroy River, revealing a plank-built boat that did not match any shipbuilding style known to the locals.
Three tall human skeletons were found underneath it, along with a stone arrowhead.
In that day, no one considered preserving it as an archaeological artifact. But when MacIsaac took an interest in the Norse sagas, he began to see astounding parallels between the descriptions of a Norse settlement and the area the boat was found.
Three Norsemen at the settlement were said to have been killed by natives. MacIsaac wondered whether the three skeletons were those settlers. The stone arrowhead could suggest they were killed by native bowmen.
Local natives only made boats of animal hide or birch bark, suggesting the plank-built boat was of European origin. Yet it didn’t resemble anything known by the local French, Irish, Scottish, or English settlers of my great-grandfather’s time.
MacIsaac found that the sagas describe a mountain range extending north from the settlement. The Long Range mountains indeed extend north from the Codroy Valley. The sagas also describe a river that flows into a lake, which then flows into the sea, and a sandbar that could only be crossed at high tide.
All of this, as well as other details in the sagas, describe a part of the Codroy Valley. MacIsaac went to the spot he felt best matched the description and found what he believes could be remnants of the settlement.
MacIsaac has not disclosed the precise location publicly for fear that amateur archaeologists may disturb the site. But he took me there.
He first showed me what he believes may have been a fortifying wall mentioned in the sagas. After 1,000 years, it would be hard for my untrained eye to identify with any certainty a wall possibly built with organic materials.
What I saw was a long, narrow elevation in the ground that extended for dozens of yards, and was some four or more feet high. If it was once a wall, it has been covered with earth and vegetation to the extent that it was difficult to take a photograph of it that conveyed the shape discernible on site.
We moved to another spot, where MacIsaac had found mounds, and particularly a mound that appears unnaturally square in shape.
MacIsaac said that, while some of the mounds in the area could be natural, some, including this one, lead him to believe Norse structures existed there. He asked local elderly residents, in their 80s and 90s, whether they knew of any structures built in the area since the Scottish and French had settled there in the early 19th century.
They said the land hadn’t been used, suggesting any remnants of structures on the site are not modern.
Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, investigated the Point Rosee site last summer and talked to MacIsaac at that time. He was intrigued by MacIsaac’s theory.
“There may be a Norse colony in the Codroy Valley (more work definitely needs to be done),” he wrote to me in an email. “But I wouldn’t base that on the saga descriptions. They’re too vague and contradictory,” he said.
MacIsaac said of the sagas: “There are several different versions and different translations, some of them have details the others don’t have.” The details he found to match the Codroy Valley site were picked out of various versions.
The settlement the sagas describe was started by Thorfinn Karlsefni (980–1007), who led a colonizing expedition to the New World following its discovery by Leif Eriksson.
Karlsefni’s settlement is described in the Saga of Eirik the Red:
Karlsefni headed south around the coast, with Snorri and Bjarni and the rest of their company. They sailed a long time, until they came to a river which flowed into a lake and from there into the sea. There were wide sandbars stretching out across the mouth of the river and they could only sail into the river at high tide. Karlsefni and his company sailed into the lagoon and called the land Hop (Tidal Pool). There they found fields of self-grown wheat in the low-lying areas and vines growing on the hills. Every stream was teeming with fish. They dug trenches along the high-water mark and when they tide ebbed there were halibut in them. There were a great number of deer of all kinds in the forest.
This passage is from the Keneva Kunz translation in the 1997 Hreinsson volume, Bolender said, which is the main account of Karlsefni’s secondary settlement.
“People have used this text to situate the colony almost anywhere on the American east coast,” Bolender said. “Carl Refn placed these spots in Cape Cod and Rhode Island back in the 1830s. Others have placed them near Boston, in Maine, Nova Scotia, and even on the Pacific coast in British Columbia!”
He also noted that the vines mentioned in the story refer to grapes, which don’t grow in Newfoundland.
I asked botanists at the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre what they thought of the grape reference. Could it have described a plant existing in Newfoundland 1,000 years ago, particularly in the Codroy Valley area?
Botanist David Mazerolle replied via email: “Our native grape (Riverbank grape, Vitis riparia) does not occur in Newfoundland and, in my opinion, it is highly unlikely that the species would have occurred there 1,000 years ago.
“A few months ago, I heard of a similar theory, concerning that same mention of a [Norse] settlement in a river valley which had ‘grapes.’ The theory was that this may have been in New Brunswick’s Miramichi River Valley, which does support Riverbank grape.”
Botanist Alain Belliveau added to Mazerolle’s response: “Groundnut (Apios americana) is another vine from Atlantic Canada that was an important food source for First Nations and would’ve been grown in river valleys, but its distribution is similar to that of Riverbank grape and it’s highly unlikely that it was in Newfoundland 1,000 years ago.”
MacIsaac awaits further investigation by archaeologists this summer. He would like to see satellite imagery used in the investigation. That is how the Point Rosse site was identified. TED awarded archaeologist Sarah Parcak a $1 million prize to use satellite surveillance to discover and monitor ancient sites.
I asked MacIsaac how he will feel if the Codroy Valley site turns out not to have been a Norse settlement after all. He replied: “I will be very disappointed, but I’m trying to be prepared for that, because it is possible it is not what I think it is–despite all the parallels in the sagas, despite the evidence that I see on the site itself, and despite its close proximity to what’s been pretty much confirmed as Norse iron-working.
“Maybe it is just natural formations, but I really don’t think it is,” he said.
If it turns out to be a Norse site, it would have a substantial impact on the Codroy Valley, a town of some 2,000 residents. Archaeological digs would certainly stir up this small town, and the find could draw tourists.
“I want to see all of that. I have no problem with that whatsoever,” MacIsaac said. “Archaeology is my main interest, but … this place could certainly use some economic spin-off from [tourism].”