Vinland - The Viking Homeland in America

Was Vinland the Land of Grapes?

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

In the 1960s, archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad used the medieval Vinland Sagas to search for evidence of Viking landings on the North American continent. They eventually discovered the archaeological site of l'Anse aux Meadows, 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.

In particular, the Norse sagas refer to the Norse settlement as "Vinland", which translates to "Wineland" in old Norse. Historically, there were no grapes anywhere near l'Anse aux Meadows. To resolve this issue, the Ingstads argued that the word actually meant "Pastureland"—but that is something that very few Norse philologists accept. Archaeologist Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, among others, also believes that the word does indeed refer to grapes, and argues that Vinland included a larger slice of what is today Canada than just Newfoundland: a slice that did contain abundant grapes.

Background to Vinland

Despite conflicting accounts in the Vinland sagas, it is widely accepted these days that a small band of Norse adventurers landed on the North American continent about 1000 AD. Archaeological evidence of that was discovered in the 1960s, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, at the site of L'Anse aux Meadows (Jellyfish Cove).

Tying the archaeological site to a specific place name in the sagas has been somewhat tricky.

Viking Places in North America

Three place names are given in the Vinland sagas for 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's 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 Ingstad, archaeologist and historian Birgitta Linderoth Wallace has been conducting investigations of the first European attempt at establishing a trading base in North America, part of the Parks Canada team. 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, Norsemen and a few women ventured out from their established colonies on Greenland about 1000 AD. 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.

Next: Is Vinland "Wineland"?

Wallace argues that Vinland meant "Wineland", because if you include bits of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the regional name, 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 was the northern entrance to what Leif called Vinland, and that Vinland included Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, neary 1,000 kilometers 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 and Further Information

Arnold, Martin. 2006. Atlantic Explorations and Settlements, pp. 192-214 in The Vikings, Culture and Conquest. Hambledon Continuum, London.

Wawn, Andrew and Þórunn Sigurðardóttir, editors. 2001. Approaches to Vinland. Proceedings of a conference on the written and archaeological sources for the Norse settlements in the North-Atlantic region and exploration of America, held at The Nordic House, Reykjavik 9-11 August 1999. Reykjavik: Sigurdur Nordal Institute. ISBN 9979-9111-4-F.

Wallace, Birgitta Linderoth. 2006. Westward Vikings: The Saga of L’Anse aux Meadows. St John’s, Newfoundland: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador in association with Parks Canada.

Wallace, Birgitta Linderoth. 2003. L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment. Pp. 207-238 in Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic, edited by James H. Barrett. Brepols Publishers: Trunhout, Belgium.