09 October 2012

IN SEARCH OF VIKINGS IN THE MISTS OF TIME


I wrote this article for the Norwegian American Weekly; they will also publish it in the Leif Eiriksson edition of The Weekly on October 9, 2012, to honor the tremendous accomplishment of the Norse explorer. As many of you know, Leif Eiriksson, oldest son of Eirik the Red, landed on the northeast tip of the island of Newfoundland, Canada, sometime between 997 and 1002 AD. Shortly after the initial landing, while exploring the mainland itself, he forever secured a place in history for himself as the first European to set foot on the North American continent - almost 500-years before Columbus landed in Hispanola. (Ed.)
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IN SEARCH OF VIKINGS IN THE MISTS OF TIME
by J. A. Hunsinger

Most of us have an interest in the past. The people who lived before us, our own ancestors, who were they? I don’t mean the past three or four generations that most of us know anything at all about, I mean centuries before that. Each of us has a small piece of every person who begat our lineage; our ancient ancestors left a tiny piece of themselves in our DNA that defines who we are.

Have you ever been to a new place and realized that it seemed strangely familiar, although you knew with certainty that you had never been there before? Have you ever possessed descriptive abilities about places or things that cannot be explained rationally?

I have and it continues to happen. Let me take you on a short journey into the distant past, using archaeological sites that I have visited in northern Europe and Newfoundland, Canada to set the stage – you be the judge if there is a distant connection, a conduit to the past, if you will.

I have had a lifelong infatuation with the Vikings which finally focused on the Norse settlers of medieval Greenland. After reading everything available, I was left with a nagging question. What happened to them? It is difficult to study them because they wrote nothing down. Everything we know comes from archaeological research and the Norse sagas. The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red's Saga both tell stories about them, although centuries after the fact, but we know nothing about the people themselves.

I decided to tell their tale using fiction because I wanted to convey to my readers what a lifetime of reading and research has led me to believe regarding the abandonment of the two known Norse settlements on Greenland and the disappearance from history of every single settler. Nobody ever saw them again and nobody knows to this day, what happened to them. In spinning my Axe of Iron series of tales, I give my characters personalities, to make them as we are. One of my reviewers said it best, I think. Melissa Levine, IP Book Reviewers: “It’s the details that grab the reader’s attention in J. A. Hunsinger’s historical novel, Axe of Iron: The Settlers. The book is the first installment in a planned series of stories about the migration of the Greenland Norse to North America. From the introduction, which provides background information, to the brutal ending, Hunsinger uses his extensive knowledge of the history and culture of Norsemen to craft a story that exposes the lives of an ancient people with an admirable sense of adventure and value for community.” No other author has ever told their story as I do; but, I digress.

I visited L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada, while writing the first novel of my Axe of Iron series. Of course I had read all about it, so I knew of its importance as the only documented site in North America of a medieval Norse presence. For those unfamiliar with L’Anse aux Meadows, it is a corruption of the French, L'Anse-aux-M├ęduses, Cove of the Jellyfish.


View seaward from the Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows

I was not prepared for my reaction to a place that I had never before been. As I walked through the site, I felt a chill, the hair stood up on my arms. They were here. I feel them, I thought. Overactive imagination? I don’t know the answer to that one.


World Heritage site of Leif Eiriksson’s settlement, Leifsbudir, L’Anse aux Meadows, Canada

Leifsbudir, Leif’s Booths, the small hillocks and depressions became a settlement in my minds eye. A re-creation of the sod and timber structures favored by the Norse had been erected just across the road from the actual site. From a distance they blended perfectly with the environment, resembling a small hillock until I focused on the entry doorway.


Longhouse entry, note sod exterior of building

As I studied the structure, I had no difficulty visualizing a bustling Norse community: a ship and boats drawn up on the gravel beach

What is believed to be the landing beach of Leif’s settlement

for repairs, smoke rising from the smithy’s forge fire, hunters returning from an inland foray. I saw and felt it all to the depths of my soul. The chills that coursed through my body made it akin to a religious experience and one I shall never forget. Just writing about the experience brings it all back.


Longhouse interior construction details (re-creation)

The re-creation longhouse interior was well constructed and comfortable, including the smithy in which I am standing, capable of surviving the savage winter storms of the far north while providing the occupants with security and warmth.

The land inland from the site of Leifsbudir must have seemed like Valhalla to Leif and the 30 odd men with him on the voyage of discovery. From a treeless Greenland, to a verdant land of bountiful timber and other building materials, bog iron to fashion tools and weapons, all manner of berries, game beyond counting, streams teeming with fish, in short everything they did not readily possess on the southeast coast of Greenland.


Newfoundland, a verdant land of plenty

Did Leif and his band stay at Leifsbudir? Archaeologists say not, but given the extremes of the Mini-Ice Age that would soon savage the Arctic, I prefer to think they used it more frequently than we are told as they made forays along this new coastline. After finding that Newfoundland was an island they explored what is now the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Why do I make such a statement, because butternut shells were found in the Leifsbudir middens? They do not grow on Newfoundland, but are common along the St. Lawrence and its environs.

As I mentioned earlier in this missive, I have visited many Viking sites, ancient trading towns and museums all over Scandinavia. All were of intense interest to me, furnishing bits of knowledge and giving me a modern glimpse of an ancient culture, but one such place stands above the rest, on a level uniquely its own. The Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway, is a place where the visitor is given a glimpse into a people and an ancient culture that were much more than the savages portrayed in contemporary film and fiction.


The Gokstad Ship, Viking Ship Museum

I would have to tell you that the men who fashioned this magnificent vessel, a thing of beauty to behold, were much more capable than most of us will ever know. But, that is another story, I think.

Vinland Publishing, http://www.vinlandpublishing.com/, J. A. Hunsinger, ©2012, All Rights Reserved

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