Vinland: The Viking Homeland in America

Where Did Leif Eriksson Find Grapes in Canada?

L'anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada
Reconstructed buildings at L'anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. Rosa Cabecinhas and Alcino Cunha

Vinland is what the medieval Norse Sagas called the decade-long Viking settlement in North America, the first European attempt at establishing a trading base in North America. The recognition of the archaeological reality of Viking landings in Canada is largely responsible due to the efforts of two fanatical archaeologists: Helge and Anne Stine Insgtad.

Ingstad's Search

In the 1960s, the Ingstads used the 12th and 13 century Vinland Sagas to search for textual evidence of Viking landings on the North American continent and then conducted archaeological investigations along the Canadian coastline.

They eventually discovered the archaeological site of l'Anse aux Meadows ("Jellyfish Cove" in French), a Norse settlement on the coast of Newfoundland.

But there was a problem—while the site was clearly constructed by Vikings, some aspects of the site vicinity didn't match what the sagas described.

Viking Places in North America

Three place names are given in the Vinland sagas for sites the Norse inhabited on the North American continent:

  • Straumfjörðr (or Straumsfjörðr), "Fjord of Currents" in Old Norse, mentioned in Eirik the Red's Saga as a base camp from which expeditions left in the summers
  • Hóp, "Tidal Lagoon" or "Tidal Estuary Lagoon", mentioned in Eirik the Red's Saga as a camp far south of Straumfjörðr where grapes were collected and lumber harvested
  • Leifsbuðir, "Leif's Camp", mentioned in the Greenlander's Saga), which has elements of both sites

Straumfjörðr was clearly the name of the Viking base camp: and there's no arguing that the archaeological ruins of L'Anse aux Meadows represent a substantial occupation.

It is possible, perhaps likely, that Leifsbuðir also refers to L'Anse aux Meadows. Since L'Anse aux Meadows is the only Norse archaeological site discovered in Canada to date, it is a little difficult to be certain of its designation as Straumfjörðr: but, the Norse were only on the continent for a decade, and it doesn't seem likely that there would be two such substantial camps.

But, Hóp? There are no grapes at L'anse aux Meadows.

Search for Vinland

Since the original excavations conducted by the Ingstads, archaeologist and historian Birgitta Linderoth Wallace has been conducting investigations at l'Anse aux Meadows, part of the Parks Canada team studying the site. One aspect that she has been investigating has been the term "Vinland" which was used in the Norse chronicles to describe the general location of Leif Eriksson's landing.

According to the Vinland sagas, which should (like most historical accounts) be taken with a grain of salt, Leif Eriksson led a group of Norse men and a few women to venture out from their established colonies on Greenland about 1000 CE. The Norse said that they had landed in three separate places: Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. Helluland, think scholars, was probably Baffin Island; Markland (or Tree Land), probably the heavily wooded coast of Labrador; and Vinland was almost certainly Newfoundland and points south.

The problem with identifying Vinland as Newfoundland is the name: Vinland means Wineland in Old Norse, and there aren't any grapes growing today or at any time in Newfoundland. The Ingstads, using the reports of the Swedish philologist Sven Söderberg, believed that the word "Vinland" didn't actually mean "Wineland" but instead meant "pastureland".

Wallace's research, supported by the majority of philologists following Söderberg, indicates that the word probably does, in fact, mean Wineland.

St. Lawrence Seaway?

Wallace argues that Vinland did mean "Wineland", because Saint Lawrence Seaway could be included in a regional name, where there are in fact abundant grapes in the area. In addition, she cites the generations of philologists who have rejected the "pastureland" translation. If it had been "Pastureland" the word should have been either Vinjaland or Vinjarland, not Vinland. Further, the philologists argue, why name a new place "Pastureland"? The Norse had plenty of pastures in other places, but few seriously wonderful sources of grapes. Wine, and not pastures, had an enormous importance in the old country, where Leif fully intended to develop trade networks.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence is some 700 nautical miles from L'Anse aux Meadows or about half the distance back to Greenland; Wallace believes that the Fjord of Currents might have been the northern entrance to what Leif called Vinland and that Vinland included Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of L'Anse aux Meadows. New Brunswick has and had abundant quantities of the riverbank grape (Vitis riparia), the frost grape (Vitis labrusca) and the fox grape (Vitis valpina). Evidence that Leif's crew reached these locations includes the presence of butternut shells and a butternut burl among the assemblage at L'Anse aux Meadows—butternut is another plant species that does not grow in Newfoundland but is also found in New Brunswick.

So, if Vinland was such a great place for grapes, why did Leif leave? The sagas suggest that hostile residents of the region, called Skraelingar in the sagas, were a strong deterrent to the colonists. That, and the fact that Vinland was so very far from the people who would have been interested in the grapes and the wine they might have produced, spelled an end to the Norse explorations in Newfoundland.

Sources

  • Amorosi, Thomas, et al. "Raiding the Landscape: Human Impact in the Scandinavian North Atlantic." Human Ecology 25.3 (1997): 491–518. Print.
  • Renouf, M. A. P., Michael A. Teal, and Trevor Bell. "In the Woods: The Cow Head Complex Occupation of the Gould Site, Port Au Choix." The Cultural Landscapes of Port Au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gatherers of Northwestern Newfoundland. Ed. Renouf, M. A. P. Boston, MA: Springer US, 2011. 251–69. Print.
  • Sutherland, Patricia D., Peter H. Thompson, and Patricia A. Hunt. "Evidence of Early Metalworking in Arctic Canada." Geoarchaeology 30.1 (2015): 74–78. Print.
  • Wallace, Birgitta. "L'anse Aux Meadows, Leif Eriksson's Home in Vinland." Journal of the North Atlantic 2.sp2 (2009): 114–25. Print.
  • Wallace, Birgitta Linderoth. "L’anse Aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment." Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic. Ed. Barrett, James H. Vol. 5. Studies in the Early Middle Ages. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2003. 207–38. Print.
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Hirst, K. Kris. "Vinland: The Viking Homeland in America." ThoughtCo, Feb. 24, 2018, thoughtco.com/vinland-the-viking-homeland-in-america-173139. Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, February 24). Vinland: The Viking Homeland in America. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/vinland-the-viking-homeland-in-america-173139 Hirst, K. Kris. "Vinland: The Viking Homeland in America." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/vinland-the-viking-homeland-in-america-173139 (accessed April 22, 2018).