L'Anse aux Meadows - The First Colony of Vikings in North America

What Evidence is there for Norse Landings in North America?

L'Anse aux Meadows is the name of an archaeological site that represents a failed Viking colony of Norse adventurers from Iceland, located in Newfoundland, Canada and occupied for somewhere between three and ten years. It is the first known European colony in the new world, predating Christopher Columbus by nearly 500 years.

Discovering L'Anse aux Meadows

Around the turn of the 19th century, Canadian historian W.A. Munn pored over medieval Icelandic manuscripts, reports by the 10th century AD Vikings. Two of them, "the Greenlander Saga" and "Erik's Saga" reported on the explorations of Thorvald Arvaldson, Erik the Red (more properly Eirik), and Leif Erikson, three generations of a rather cranky family of Norse mariners. According to the manuscripts, Thorvald fled a murder charge in Norway and eventually settled in Iceland; his son Erik fled Iceland under a similar charge and settled Greenland; and Eirik's son Leif (the Lucky) took the family westward still, and circa AD 998 he colonized a land he called "Vinland," Old Norse for "land of grapes".

Leif's colony remained at Vinland for between three and ten years, before they were chased away by constant attacks from the residents, called Skraelings by the Norse. Munn believed that the most likely site for the colony was on the island of Newfoundland, arguing that "Vinland" did not refer to grapes, but rather to grass or grazing land, since grapes don't grow in Newfoundland.

Rediscovering the Site

In the early 1960s, archaeologists Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad undertook a close survey of the coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador. Helge Ingstad, a Norse investigator, had spent the majority of his career studying Northern and Arctic civilizations and was following up on research into the Viking explorations of the 10th and 11th centuries. In 1961, the survey paid off, and the Ingstads discovered an indisputably Viking settlement near Epave Bay and named the site "L'Anse aux Meadows," or Jellyfish Cove, a reference to the stinging jellyfish found in the bay.

Eleventh-century Norse artifacts recovered from l'Anse aux Meadows numbered in the hundreds and included a soapstone spindle whorl and a bronze-ringed pin process, as well as other iron, bronze, stone, and bone items. Radiocarbon dates placed the occupation at the site between ~990-1030 AD.

Living at L'Anse aux Meadows

L'Anse aux Meadows was not a typical Viking village. The site consisted of three building complexes and a bloomery, but no barns or stables that would be associated with farming. Two of the three complexes consisted solely of a large hall or longhouse and a small hut; the third added a small house. It appears that elites resided in one end of the large hall, ordinary sailors slept in sleeping areas within the halls and servants, or, more likely, slaves resided in the huts.

Te buildings were constructed in the Icelandic style, with heavy sod roofs supported by interior posts. The bloomery was a simple iron smelting furnace within a small subterranean hut and a pit charcoal kiln. In the large buildings were sleeping areas, a carpentry workshop, a sitting room, a kitchen, and storage.

L'Anse aux Meadows housed between 80 to 100 individuals, probably up to three ship crews; all of the buildings were occupied at the same time. Based on the reconstructions accomplished by Parks Canada at the site, a total of 86 trees were felled for posts, roofs, and furnishings; and 1,500 cubic feet of sod was required for the roofs.

L'Anse aux Meadows Today

L'Anse aux Meadows is now owned by Parks Canada, who carried on excavations at the site during the mid-1970s. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978; and Parks Canada has reconstructed some of the sod buildings and maintains the site as a "living history" museum, complete with costumed interpreters, as shown in the photograph.


A great source of information about L'Anse aux Meadows is the Canadian Parks website, in French and English.