04 December 2012

Medieval artifacts found on crannog

Discovered this past summer in Northern Ireland during construction of a new roadway, this crannog site (Crannog - an artificial island in the middle of a lake; found throughout Scotland and Ireland) promises to yield a wealth of Norse and medieval Irish artifacts from approximately 900AD. (Ed.)


Medieval artifacts found on crannog

The site of the Drumclay Crannog in Fermanagh

Published on Thursday 29 November 201221:15
Pieces of a medieval board game and 1,000-year-old combs are among rare artefacts uncovered during an archaeological dig that is set to rewrite the history books.
Experts have hailed the finds in Co Fermanagh as internationally significant, claiming they shed new light on life in medieval Ireland and its connection with the wider world.
Iron, bronze and bone ornaments have been discovered at the crannog just outside Enniskillen, along with the chess-like pieces believed to have been part of the game.
Parts of log boats, leather shoes, knives, decorated dress pins, wooden vessels and a bowl with a cross carved on its base have also been unearthed during the six-month dig.
The style and design of the antler and bone combs suggest influences from northern Europe and indicate that the Fermanagh settlement had international links 1,000 years ago.

The Drumclay Crannog, which is an artificial island built in a lake, is the first of its type to be excavated in the north of Ireland since 1870.
Archaeologists believe people may have lived there from 600 AD to 1600 AD, and it was probably the home of a noble family, with perhaps four or five houses inhabited at any time. Parents, grandparents, children and servants would all have stayed on the crannog.
The artefacts uncovered so far date back to 900 AD but there are still a number of layers of settlement yet to be excavated.
Stormont Environment Minister Alex Attwood visited the site today and announced plans for an open day this Saturday to allow the public to tour the crannog and talk to the archaeologists.

“On my two visits to date, I have found the site, the dig, and the archaeology beyond my imagination, enormously exciting and changing my view of our history and Irish life,” he said.

“This is the first substantial scientific excavation of a crannog in Northern Ireland. What has been found has the potential not only to be internationally important but ultimately to lead to a reassessment of life in Ulster in early Christian and medieval times.”
The site was excavated during the construction of a new road on the outskirts of Enniskillen.
Mr Attwood placed a temporary exclusion zone on the area to facilitate the dig, which is due to finish at the end of December.

Dr John O’Keeffe, principal inspector of historical monuments with the Department of the Environment, explained that the site is right in the middle of the proposed route of the Cherrymount Link Road.
He said all the remains from the dig site would have been removed before construction work advanced.
“By the time the archaeological work is finished the site will not be here anymore,” he said.
Dr O’Keeffe said scientific advances made in the 140 years since the last time a crannog was excavated in the north had facilitated a greater understanding of life in such a settlement.

“It has enabled us to find out much more about diet, economy, agriculture and social structures here,” he said.

The expert said many of the finds had been unexpected and were similar to those unearthed at Viking sites in Dublin and York.
Some of the wooden artefacts have survived 1,000 years or more as a result of being submerged in water.
The settlement at the crannog has provided new evidence of living conditions in medieval Ireland.
It shows people lived in houses that would have been little bigger than a large modern living room, cooking and sleeping in the same space.
The walls were insulated with heather and other plants.
The objects found indicate that people were very sophisticated in their tastes, living as farming families, butchering their own animals and ploughing the land for crops.
They were very skilled at metalworking and woodworking, excelling at carpentry to construct the houses and crafting and decorating wooden containers of all sizes.
They played board games probably around the fire on cold evenings.
They wove their own cloth, having spun the wool from their own sheep.
“Archaeology is a fragile and finite resource,” said Mr Attwood.
“Once sites such as this have disappeared, we can never get them back again. Such sites have the ability to teach us a great deal and we owe it to future generations to rescue and to safeguard what we can.
“It will further enrich the fascinating fabric of our history and I am sure bring even more tourists to our shores. Anyone who visits on Saturday will simply have an unprecedented opportunity to see how our forefathers lived and to see history revealed before our very eyes.”
The minister added: “This is why I felt the need to open this spectacular excavation to the public.
“The Northern Ireland Environment Agency and Fermanagh District Council have been working in partnership to hold this open day between 9.30am and 3pm this Saturday and allow the public this unique opportunity to see the artefacts found, look down on the site of the dig and meet the experts behind this archaeological dig. It is an opportunity not to be missed and one likely not to be experienced in our lifetime again.”
The Drumclay Crannog open day will comprise a series of talks that will take place at the Fermanagh County Museum, followed by a guided tour of the archaeological site.
Access to the site for this tour can only be obtained via an official coach.
Booking is advisable on 028 6632 5000 or 048 6632 5000 in the Republic of Ireland.

27 November 2012

Vikings in Canada?

This interesting installment from an article published by Jane Armstrong on MCCLEANS.CA details ongoing archaeological work by Dr. Patricia Sutherland that I posted in a previous blog. Her work this past summer has caused her to suffer a great deal of stress and recrimination from her colleagues who cannot accept new findings that will prove their theories regarding the Greenland Norse as erroneous. As I stated before, I believe her field work will eventually bring complete vindication and finally answer the nagging question about what happened to the Norse settlers of medieval Greenland that is the focal point of my Axe of Iron series of novels. (Ed.)

A researcher says she’s found evidence that Norse sailors may have settled in Canada’s Arctic. Others aren’t so sure.
by Jane Armstrong on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 11:15am 

Patricia Sutherland
If Patricia Sutherland’s hunch was right, she was staring at evidence that could rewrite the early chapters of Canadian history books. It was a piece of incredibly old cord, dug up on Baffin Island in the eastern Arctic. The year was 1999, and something about the cord’s texture gave her pause.
It didn’t look like other indigenous artifacts unearthed in the Arctic. It looked European, like the spun yarn she’d once seen on a medieval Norse farm in Greenland. If the cord, several metres in length, was indeed Old World technology, it meant that Vikings may have settled in Canada’s eastern Arctic as early as 1000 CE, hundreds of years before Samuel de Champlain’s fur-trading exploits.
Sutherland, then an archaeologist with the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., sent a piece of the cord to a Norse textile expert in England to examine. The answer? The material was indeed comparable to spun yarn from 14th-century Greenland.
So launched a 13-year odyssey to sift through hundreds of artifacts in existing Arctic collections that has sent Sutherland back to the Arctic several times in search of more clues of a Norse presence there.
Sutherland’s findings have sparked international media interest. But controversy has dogged the soft-spoken 63-year-old researcher. Earlier this year, the museum let her go, though the circumstances of her departure remain unclear. Meanwhile, her sudden popularity—National Geographic profiled her work this month, and an upcoming episode of CBC’s The Nature of Things will also focus on her research—has sparked complaints from academic critics who say she hasn’t proved her case.
Ever since archaeologists discovered a Viking outpost in 1960 near L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland’s north, others have scoured the eastern seaboard for clues that Norse seafarers pushed deeper into Canada.
Sutherland thinks Norse sailors made friendly contact with the Arctic’s Dorset hunters who roamed the region until the 15th century. The Norse wanted walrus ivory and furs, prized in Europe. The indigenous hunters needed metal and wood.
There were other clues. Sutherland and her team identified whetstones used to sharpen metal tools, finding traces of bronze and smelted metal on the rocks. Ancient Aboriginal people “weren’t smelting iron,” she notes. And the team identified notched wooden sticks similar to the tally sticks the Norse used elsewhere to record trade transactions.
Sutherland’s theory paints the ancient Arctic in a whole new light, casting the frozen North as a hub of commercial trade.
“The Arctic was not this isolated, marginal place as is often assumed,” says Sutherland. “In the centuries around 1000 CE, it was really a nexus for the people from the Old World meeting with people from the New [World]. The picture that is coming out of the work we’re doing is that trade was taking place much earlier than the fur trade and the time of Champlain. We’re beginning to find what could be interpreted as the beginning of early globalization.”
Not all Arctic experts are convinced Sutherland has proved her theory. William Fitzhugh, the director of the Arctic studies centre at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, says Sutherland’s idea is intriguing, but apart from a 2009 paper, she hasn’t published enough. “So there are a lot of tantalizing statements made that are not backed up by evidence . . . and this is kind of typical,” Fitzhugh says. “The fact is, we’d just like to see more responsible publication of information before you run off to the press and make a lot of claims that attract a lot of attention but aren’t resolved.”
In fact, Fitzhugh thinks the cord at the centre of Sutherland’s “eureka” moment is a Dorset artifact. “We have very good evidence that this kind of spun cordage was being used hundreds of years before the Norse arrived in the New World, in other words 500 to 600 CE, at the least,” he says.
Earlier this year, when the museum let Sutherland go, it effectively cut her off from her research files. Neither Sutherland nor the museum will say why she was terminated, though she’s hinted that political forces were at play.
Sutherland’s supporters—including James Tuck, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Newfoundland’s Memorial University—speculated that her revised Canadian narrative might not jibe with the museum’s new mandate. Indeed, the Conservative government has announced plans to change the name of the museum to the Canadian Museum of History, with a new focus on showcasing prominent historical figures.
“There is some jealousy,” Tuck says, referring to Sutherland’s critics. He thinks her research, though still a work-in-progress, is promising. “It’s certainly become more and more convincing over the last decade,” he says. “I don’t think the case is 100 per cent proven, but then nothing is in archaeology or anthropology.”
Sutherland says she expected skeptics, but was dismayed at their “negativity.” “Anything new is controversial in science. And anything new is subject to scrutiny.”
For its part, the museum says it hasn’t blocked Sutherland. Its vice-president of public affairs, Chantal Schryer, said the museum is negotiating with the archaeologist about gaining access to the research materials and her files. Some artifacts may be returned to Nunavut. Schryer also denied that Sutherland’s new take on Canada’s Arctic didn’t fit with the museum’s changed mandate. “This is complete nonsense,” she says. “The museum continues to be interested in the Arctic.”
Sutherland wants the issue resolved. She needs access to her research files to publish her latest findings, which, at the very least, would allow her to take on her skeptics. “I’ve spent 13 years working on this project,” she says. “We want to do more work and we want to be able to bring this new knowledge to the people of Canada.”

06 November 2012

Medieval Norse Trappers

This interesting blog on follow-up archaeology work by Dr. Patricia Sutherland and her team at the Tanfield site on Baffin Island's south coast brings out some new data for those of us with an interest in the Greenland Norse people and their connection to the Dorset culture of what is now the Canadian Arctic. As you may know the Dorset culture were the indigenous natives of the Arctic long before the arrival of the Inuit from the West. I have long held that the Greenland Norse began assimilating with these people from the earliest days of the Greenland Norse settlements because of the chronic shortage of Norse women for the male population. A catalyst always begins migration and/or assimilation between cultures; the age old desire for a mate would certainly provide such impetus. (Ed.) 

Posted by Martin R on October 31, 2012

Near Cape Tanfield, Baffin Island, on Hudson Strait, Canadian Arctic

Icelandic sagas and a single archaeological site in Newfoundland document a Viking Period presence of Norse people in the Americas. Now National Geographic’s November issue has a piece (here and here) on new work in the field, lab and museum collections by Dr. Patricia Sutherland. It deals with a group of additional and somewhat later sites that may expand that evidence. Dr. Sutherland, of the Memorial University in Newfoundland, kindly answered some questions of mine via e-mail.

The best site is near Cape Tanfield on the south coast of Baffin Island. Dr. Sutherland emphasizes the following evidence as suggesting the presence of people with life-ways set apart from the local Dorset culture.

· Cordage spun from of hare and fox fur, not the locally common sinew.

· Whetstones with traces of iron and copper alloy on them.

· Wooden tally sticks.

· Remains of Old World rats.

· Wooden details with nail holes.

· Cut building stone.

· Foundations of unusually large and sturdy stone-and-turf buildings.

Note that while NatGeo’s writer calls the Tanfield settlers “Vikings”, Dr. Sutherland wisely calls them “Norse”. The sites are post-Viking Period, and even during the Viking Period, most people were never Vikings. That was a part-time men-only occupation, not an ethnicity.

To me, the absence of woolen textiles among the finds suggests that these sites were the permanent homes of Norse-speaking colonists, not temporary hunting stations in continual contact with the colonies on Greenland or Iceland. But the sites also have typical Dorset culture phases, and there is no reason to believe that the two groups avoided each others’ company.

As for the possibility of sourcing the spun cordage using stable isotopes, she says,

aDNA and stable isotope work has been considered and, in some cases, initiated for samples that have been microscopically identified as “exotic” for Baffin Island. The cordage from the Helluland sites that is made from hare fur has not been analysed in terms of stable isotopes. Cordage made from Arctic hair fur and woven textile fragments made with cordage from Arctic hare fur are rare in the assemblages from the excavated sites in Norse Greenland. But, in the Baffin sites, most of the cordage is made from the fur of Arctic hare and fox and clumps of fur have also been recovered. It seems quite unlikely that our finds are from Arctic hare from other regions. Also, in terms of determining origin using stable isotopes, it is my understanding that it can be problematic using hair or fur from animals that shed their pelts.

Dr. Sutherland describes the situation for radiocarbon dating as rather tricky due to factors ranging from destructive earlier fieldwork to the marine reservoir effect. But she appears quite certain that all the foreign influences are High Medieval and centuries later than the one Viking Period site mentioned above – Jellyfish Bay, L’Anse aux meduses, L’Anse aux Meadows.

So what we have here is High Medieval Christian Norse-speakers gone native in Arctic north-east Canada. Interesting stuff! But as so often – don’t believe the headlines.

Update same evening: Dr. Sutherland wrote me some corrections and clarifications, and she also kindly gave me permission to put a 2009 paper of hers on-line for anyone who wants to delve deeper into her work.

The Dorset culture people did not speak the Inuit language. If the aDNA analysis is correct, they were most probably related to northeastern Siberian peoples, and probably spoke a language related to those of that area. No woven textiles were found at the Helluland sites. The wood with nail holes is not building-material. “Trappers”? I would say more likely traders and/or hunters. … it is my view that these early Europeans did not “go native” and they did not establish permanent residence on Baffin Island.

31 October 2012

Ancient Skeleton-Vikings in Wales

This interesting article from WalesOnline, regarding the discovery of five male skeletons in Wales, that have been identified as Viking in origin, sheds new light on our understanding of the early history of Wales insofar as the Vikings are concerned. (Ed.)

      Oct 24 2012

LYING crookedly in a shallow grave, its bones have existed undiscovered for more than 1,000 years.
But the discovery of this ancient skeleton could shed new light on the history of the Vikings in Wales.

The unearthing skeleton in at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey has given historians important new clues on the impact of both Anglo-Saxonsand Vikings operating around the Irish Sea.
Archaeologists from the National Museum Wales said the burial find is an unexpected addition to a group of five – two adolescents, two adult males and one woman – discovered in 1998-99.
Originally thought to be victims of Viking raiding, which began in the 850s, this interpretation is now being revised.
The unusual non-Christian positioning of the body, and its treatment, point to distinctions being made in the burial practices for Christians and other communities during the tenth century.
Analysis of the bones by Dr Katie Hemer of Sheffield University indicates that the males were not local to Anglesey, but may have spent their early years – at least up to the age of seven – in North West Scotland or Scandinavia.
“The new burial will provide important additional evidence to shed light on the context of their unceremonious burial in shallow graves outside the elite fortified settlement in the later tenth century,” said Dr Hemer.
The recent excavations also suggest the presence of a warrior elite thanks to the discovery of seventh-century silver and bronze fittings on swords and scabbards.
They suggest the recycling of military equipment during the period of rivalry and campaigning between the kingdoms.
According to history, the borderlands between the Welsh and English were a target for Northumbrian intervention between AD610 and the 650s. The Northumbrian king Edwin subjugated Anglesey and Man, until Cadwallon in alliance with Penda of Mercia invaded England and killed Edwin in AD 633, to rule north-east Wales and Northumbria for a year.
The Llanbedrgoch site, considered one of the most intriguing settlement complexes belonging to this period, has been the subject of 10 summer seasons of fieldwork by the museum’s Department of Archaeology & Numismatics.
“The results have changed our perception of Wales in the Viking period,” said museum spokeswoman Lleucu Cooke.
“ The site was discovered in 1994 after a number of metal detector finds had been brought to the Museum for identification.”
These included an Anglo-Saxon penny of Cynethryth, struck in AD 787-792, a penny of Wulfred of Canterbury, struck around AD 810, 9th century Carolingian deniers of Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald, and three lead weights of Viking type.
Past excavations by the department, between 1994 and 2001, revealed much about the development of this important trading centre during the late ninth and tenth centuries, but the development of the site during the preceding period had remained less clear.
Excavation director and Acting Keeper of Archaeology, Dr Mark Redknap, said, the recent finds have revealed valuable new data on the pre-Viking development of the site.
“The 2012 excavations have revealed not only surprises such as the additional burial, bringing with it important additional evidence on this unusual grave cluster, but also valuable new data on the pre-Viking development of the site.
“Beneath a section of its 2.2m wide stone rampart, constructed in the ninth century, our team of students and volunteers uncovered an earlier buried land surface and a number of ditches, over which an early medieval midden full of food refuse along with some discarded objects had formed.
“Other finds from the excavation, which include semi-worked silver, silver casting waste and a fragment of an Islamic silver coin (exchanged via trade routes out of central Asia to Scandinavia and beyond), confirm Llanbedrgoch’s importance during the tenth century as a place for the manufacture and trade of commodities.”

25 October 2012

Dr. Patricia Sutherland, archaeologist, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada, has made a very important follow-up discovery of Norse settlement on Baffin Island. If you have been reading my blog or my Axe of Iron series of historical fiction novels on the Vikings of Greenland, you know that my contention has always been that the Norse settlers of Greenland began to assimilate with the natives of North America from the beginning of their presence on Greenland. As I have written, the Norse did not disappear from Greenland, they migrated to North America. It seems that archaeology may be on the way to offering tangible proof for my case for assimilation with the Dorset culture and the pre-historical Indians of Canada. Take special note of the discussion on 'sharpeners' as they are called, or Norse whetstones. (Ed.)

Sharpeners may be smoking guns in quest for New World's second Viking site.
Archaeologist Patricia Sutherland (orange jacket) excavates a potential Viking site on Baffin Island.

Photograph by David Coventry, National Geographic

Photograph by David Coventry, National Geographic

Heather Pringle
for National Geographic News

Published October 19, 2012
Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

For the past 50 years—since the discovery of a thousand-year-oldViking way station inNewfoundland—archaeologists and amateur historians have combed North America's east coast searching for traces of Viking visitors.

It has been a long, fruitless quest, littered with bizarre claims and embarrassing failures. But at a conference in Canada earlier this month, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland announced new evidence that points strongly to the discovery of the second Viking outpost ever discovered in the Americas.

(Read the new National Geographic magazine feature "Vikings and Native Americans: Face-to-Face.")

While digging in the ruins of a centuries-old building on Baffin Island (map), far above the Arctic Circle, a team led by Sutherland, adjunct professor of archaeology at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, found some very intriguing whetstones. Wear grooves in the blade-sharpening tools bear traces of copper alloys such as bronze—materials known to have been made by Viking metalsmiths but unknown among the Arctic's native inhabitants.

Taken together with her earlier discoveries, Sutherland's new findings further strengthen the case for a Viking camp on Baffin Island. "While her evidence was compelling before, I find it convincing now," said James Tuck, professor emeritus of archaeology, also at Memorial University.

Archaeologists have long known that Viking seafarers set sail for the New World around A.D. 1000. A popular Icelandic saga tells of the exploits of Leif Eriksson, a Viking chieftain from Greenland who sailed westward to seek his fortune. According to the saga, Eriksson stopped long enough on Baffin Island to walk the coast—named Helluland, an Old Norse word meaning "stone-slab land"—before heading south to a place he called Vinland.

In the 1960s two Norwegian researchers, Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered and excavated the Viking base camp at L'Anse aux Meadows (map) on the northern tip of Newfoundland—the first confirmed Viking outpost in the Americas. Dated to between 989 and 1020, the camp boasted three Viking halls, as well as an assortment of huts for weaving, ironworking, and ship repair.

(Related: "American Indian Sailed to Europe With Vikings?")

Viking Yarn

As reported in the November issue of National Geographic magazine, Sutherland first caught wind of another possible Viking way station in 1999, when she spotted two unusual pieces of cord that had been excavated from a Baffin Island site by an earlier archaeologist and stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.

Sutherland noticed that the strands bore little resemblance to the animal sinew Arctic hunters twisted into cordage. The cords turned out to be expertly woven Viking yarn, identical in technique to yarn produced by Viking women living in Greenland in the 14th century.

The discovery prompted Sutherland to scour other museum collections for more Viking artifacts from Baffin Island and other sites. She found more pieces of Viking yarn and a small trove of previously overlooked Viking gear, from wooden tally sticks for recording trade transactions to dozens of Viking whetstones. (Also see "Viking Weapon Recycling Site Found in England.")

The artifacts came from four sites, ranging from northern Baffin Island to northern Labrador, a distance of a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers). Indigenous Arctic hunters known as the Dorset people had camped at each of the sites, raising the possibility that they had made friendly contact with the Vikings.

Intrigued, Sutherland decided to reopen excavations at the most promising site, a place known as Tanfield Valley on the southeast coast of Baffin Island. In the 1960s U.S. archaeologist Moreau Maxwell had excavated parts of a stone-and-sod building there, describing it as "very difficult to interpret." Sutherland suspected that Viking seafarers had built the structure.

Clues Etched in Bronze, Brass, and Iron

Since 2001 Sutherland's team has been exploring Tanfield Valley and carefully excavating surviving parts of the mysterious ruins. They have discovered a wide range of evidence pointing to the presence of Viking seafarers: pelt fragments from Old World rats; a whalebone shovel similar to those used by Viking settlers in Greenland to cut sod; large stones that appear to have been cut and shaped by someone familiar with European stone masonry; and more Viking yarn and whetstones. And the stone ruins bear a striking resemblance to some Viking buildings in Greenland.

Still, some Arctic researchers remained skeptical. Most of the radiocarbon dates obtained by earlier archaeologists had suggested that Tanfield Valley was inhabited long before Vikings arrived in the New World. But as Sutherland points out, the complex site shows evidence of several occupations, and one of the radiocarbon dates indicates that the valley was occupied in the 14th century, when Viking settlers were farming along the coast of nearby Greenland.

In search of other clues to help solve the mystery, Sutherland turned to theGeological Survey of Canada. Using a technique known as energy dispersive spectroscopy, the team examined the wear grooves on more than 20 whetstones from Tanfield Valley and other sites. Sutherland and her colleagues detected microscopic streaks of bronze, brass, and smelted iron—clear evidence of European metallurgy, which she presented October 7 at a meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology in St. John's, Canada.

(Related: "Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade.")

Norse-Native American Trade Network?

Sutherland speculates that parties of Viking seafarers travelled to the Canadian Arctic to search for valuable resources. In northern Europe at the time, medieval nobles prized walrus ivory, soft Arctic furs, and other northern luxuries—and Dorset hunters and trappers could readily stockpile such products. Helluland's waters teemed with walruses, and its coasts abounded in Arctic foxes and other small fur-bearing animals. To barter for such goods, Viking traders likely offered bits of iron and pieces of wood that could be carved into figurines and other goods, Sutherland says.

If Sutherland is correct, the lines of evidence she has uncovered may point to a previously unknown chapter in New World history in which Viking seafarers and Native American hunters were partners together in a transatlantic trade network. "I think things were a lot more complex in this part of the world than most people assumed," Sutherland said. James Tuck agreed. "It's pretty convincing that there was a much larger Norse presence in the Canadian Arctic than any of us thought."

09 October 2012


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.)
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-Méduses, 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

01 October 2012

Inside the Viking Mind: Cosmology, the After-life, and the Self

Mr. Chaisson has penned an excellent article here. If your interest lies in Viking Mythology or Viking mysticism involving sorcerers and shamans, beliefs regarding the final battle, Ragnarök, the afterlife in general, or underlying reasons for the Viking Age in the first place, you will find some titillation herein. (Ed.)
Inside the Viking Mind...
By Bill Chaisson
Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:00 am

This is the full text; a shortened version appeared in print. The full transcript of the interview is also available.
This year’s Messenger Lectures will be delivered next week on September 25, 26, and 27 by Prof. Neil Price of the department of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. (Translator A.E. Stallings will give an additional Messenger Lecture on October18.) Price’s research focuses on Viking culture and is notable for using material evidence to draw conclusions about the Viking state of mind. His first lecture will address their cosmology; the second will explore their ideas about the afterlife; and the last will outline the place of the individual in Viking society. All events will take place in Lewis Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall at 4:30 p.m.

In 1913 Cornell received a bequest from alumnus Hiram J. Messenger, a professor and insurance company actuary, to begin a series that would “provide a course of lectures on the evolution of civilization, for the special purpose of raising the moral standards of our political, business and social life”

How does Price’s work address moral standards? “My research is essentially concerned with the human condition,” wrote Price from his home in Uppsala, Sweden, where he lives and holds a second appointment at the university, “the familiar age-old questions about life and its meaning that we all ask ourselves at some point – but placing this in a specific historical context and trying to recapture the Vikings’ own perspective on mortality. Every culture seeks its own answers to the eternal questions, including matters of morality, and I think we can always learn from reflecting on others’ attitudes to these same things that we still puzzle over today.”

Price has been studying Viking culture since his undergraduate years over 30 years ago. At that time the view of medieval Scandinavians as barbarians was fading. Price himself found both the archaeological record and literature of Northern peoples to be sophisticated, full of complex ideas and symbolism.

A basic question about medieval Scandinavia is “Why did they go ‘viking’ in the first place?”

“For nearly 200 years now,” wrote Price, “scholars have tried to find reasons why the Viking raids began, looking for an explanation as to why Scandinavians started to leave their homelands in significant numbers around the end of the eighth century. Over-population and climate change have been suggested, as have restrictive inheritance laws that left large numbers of young men landless and without prospects. Some scholars think that developments in Viking ship design, the creation of the perfect fast raiding vessel, made such activity inevitable; others argue that the Vikings’ alleged pagan mindset of aggressive violence was a contributory factor. It is obvious that there was no single cause, but simple opportunism played a part, and over time the rewards became ever more attractive in relation to the relatively minimal risks.”

The Norse believed in predetermination; one’s path through life toward any one of several after-life destinations could not be changed. Their emphasis was on meeting that end with dignity. It is one of the few cultures with no idea of an eternal afterlife. Everything – the living, the dead, the gods and all matter – will vanish into a void in the fire and ice of Ragnarök, the final battle.

Written records make it clear that shamanic practice of communicating with the spirit world, so central to pagan Norse religion, was primarily the realm of women.

“Foremost among these sorceresses,” wrote Price, were the völur, which means ‘staff-bearers’, who used their skills mainly to see the future. It has proved possible to tentatively identify many graves of such women in the archaeological record, buried with their metal staffs, unusual clothes and a variety of charms, amulets and even hallucinogenic drugs.”

Since the 19th century the interpretation of Viking sagas has swung from acceptance of them as literal history to treating them as historical fiction to a nuanced view that mines them for information that corroborates what is known from contemporary written sources (Arab accounts being among the more reliable) and archaeological evidence.

“Archaeology brings us close to the Vikings,” wrote the archaeologist, “telling us how they dressed, what they ate, where they lived, and how they embellished their environment with decoration, symbols and magnificent art over almost every surface: their world was intensely visual. Perhaps the most unexpected side of the Vikings is their poetry, of which much has been preserved, painting their ideas and aspirations in imagery of astonishing beauty and complexity – different Vikings indeed.”

28 August 2012

Bornais finds shed light on Iron Age and Viking life

This recent BBC article about significant Iron Age and Viking archaeological discoveries on South Uist, an island of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, British Isles, is especially important because it may be the largest Viking town known in Scotland. Ed

19 August 2012 Last updated at 04:20 ET

By Steven McKenzie BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

Animal bones used in games and potentially in rituals to predict the future were found at Bornais

Powerful figures from the late Iron Age through to the end of the Vikings were drawn to a sandy plain on South Uist, according to archaeologists.
Bornais, on the west side of the island, has the remains of a large farmstead and a major Norse settlement.
The area has produced large numbers of finds, including what have been described as exotic items from abroad.
Green marble from Greece, ivory from Greenland and bronze pins from Ireland have been among the finds.
A piece of bone marked with an ogham inscription, an ancient text that arrived in Scotland from Ireland, was also found.
Archaeologists said the items provided a detailed picture of life in the first millennium AD.

Archaeologists spent 10 years excavating a complex of mounds at Bornais

The universities of Cardiff and Sheffield have been involved in a long-term project to record South Uist's history, from the initial prehistoric colonisation through to the Clearances of the 17th and 18th centuries.
A complex of mounds on the wide sweep of machair at Bornais was excavated between 1994 and 2004.
What was uncovered is now being explained in a series of books.
The latest published by Oxbow Books for Cardiff University details the late Iron Age history of Bornais. A later volume will explore the area's Viking past.
Bornais is the largest Viking settlement known in Scotland, certainly outside of the towns” Prof Niall Sharples Cardiff University
Prof Niall Sharples, head of archaeology and conservation at Cardiff, said Bornais had provided the island's best record of settlement activity from the 5th and 6th centuries to the 13th and 14th centuries.
He edited the new book, A Late Iron Age farmstead in the Outer Hebrides: Excavations at Mound 1, Bornais, South Uist.
Prof Sharples said the large sizes of the area's settlements, and the quality of the finds recovered, suggested that people of significance had lived there.
He said: "From the late Iron Age there are the remains of what is called a wheelhouse. This is not uncommon, but what is interesting is the house burned down and a new home was built over the top of the collapsed roof, preserving the carbonised roof timbers and items on the floor beneath it."
The relics from this house included a decorated animal bone called an astragalus and a bone dice which had been pushed into the floor of the rebuilt house.
Prof Sharples said: "These bones are thought to have been used in gaming and the dice is marked with numbers one, four, six and three. But they may also have been used in trying to predict the future. After the fire, they may have been used to help the occupiers to decide whether the fire was a bad omen, or if the house's future was safe."

An ogham inscription was found at the South Uist site

Cattle bones found decorating the hearth in the rebuilt house may suggest the residents later went on to host a large feast to celebrate the rebuilding.
Prof Sharples said: "Between seven and 12 cattle would have been needed to provide the foot bones used, suggesting whoever occupied the house could afford to lose that number of livestock."
The Vikings later occupied Bornais, on a site a little distance away from where the Iron Age dwellers had lived in the 5th and 6th centuries.
Clues that a Norse of high status lived in the later settlement include a piece of green marble thought to have been quarried on a Greek island.
The same marble was used as building stone in Rome.
Prof Sharples said the fragment from Bornais was shaped as a slab and possibly brought as a Christian relic from Rome.
He added: "Bornais is the largest Viking settlement known in Scotland, certainly outside of the towns, and someone very important in the hierarchy of the Kingdom of Man and Isles is likely to have lived here."


16 July 2012

Lost Viking Military Town Unearthed in Germany?

Summer is so exciting: archaeological digs are in full swing and new sites are unearthed almost daily. Here is a very important Viking find from about the 8th century. Check it out if you've an interest in the lore of the medieval Vikings, more will be forthcoming. (Ed.)
Archaeologists may have found the fabled Sliasthorp.

Archaeologists excavate an eighth-century town in northern Germany. Photograph courtesy Andres S. Dobat, Aarhus Universitet

James Owen

for National Geographic News

Published July 11, 2012

A battle-scarred, eighth-century town unearthed in northern Germany may be the earliest Viking settlement in the historical record, archaeologists announced recently.

An amulet of Thor's hammer found at the site. Photograph courtesy Andres S. Dobat, Aarhus Universitet

Ongoing excavations at Füsing (map), near the Danish border, link the site to the "lost" Viking town of Sliasthorp—first recorded in A.D. 804 by royal scribes of the powerful Frankish ruler Charlemagne.

Used as a military base by the earliest Scandinavian kings, Sliasthorp's location was unknown until now, said dig leader Andres Dobat, of Aarhus University in Denmark.

Whether it proves to be the historic town or not, the site offers valuable insights into military organization and town planning in the early Viking era, according to the study team.

Some 30 buildings have been uncovered since excavations began in 2010. Aerial photographs and geomagnetic surveys indicate about 200 buildings in total.

Chief among them is a Viking longhouse measuring more than a hundred feet (30 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide.

The longhouse's burnt-out remains seemingly bear witness to a violent attack: Arrowheads found embedded in its charred wall posts suggest the communal building was at some point set on fire and shot at, Dobat said.

A caltrop—a type of small, spiked iron weapon that was scattered on the ground for the enemy to step on—was also found at the entrance.

"Maybe [the attackers] even laid out caltrops so people running out of the burning building would run into them," he said.

Other finds include precious jewelry, glass beads, and silver coins.

(See "Pictures: Mysterious Viking-era Graves Found With Treasure.")

"Lost" Town Key to Viking Defense

The town is dated to the same period as a nearby fortification known as the Danevirke, a 19-mile-long (30-kilometer-long) system of defensive earthworks built by the Danes in about A.D. 700.

"It's clear from the relation of the site to the Danevirke structure that [the newfound town] was of great military importance as well," Dobat said.

According to the A.D. 804 account, Sliasthorp was used as a base by the Viking king Gøtrik—also known as Godfred or Gudfred—who repaired and reestablished the Danevirke in the early 800s due to the threat posed by the northward-expanding Frankish Empire.

(Related: "'Thor's Hammer' Found in Viking Grave.")

"That's exactly the time that Scandinavia gets on the radar" of the Frankish scribes, Dobat noted.

Though the town itself wasn't fortified, the site is surrounded by water and wetlands, so access was limited to a narrow land bridge.

Small wood-and-earth dwellings, or pit houses, at the site may have served as accommodation for Viking fighters, Dobat added.

"At times it might have been a temporary garrison town," such as when the Danevirke had to be defended, he said.

The town may also have accommodated workers who built the huge Danevirke fortification.

"It was a major construction work, which involved massive investment of human resources," Dobat said.

(See "Huge Viking Hoard Discovered in Sweden.")

Viking Power Base

From the town, Viking kings or their chieftains would have controlled trade and access to the region, the study team suggests.

Hedeby, an international port and trading center in Viking times, lay just 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away. While the Füsing site is Scandinavian in character, the buildings down the road in Hedeby are German and Slavonic in style.

"We have the international traders and craftsmen at one place, and the Scandinavian elite a few kilometers away," Dobat said.

Füsing's strategic location likely means traders needed permission from Viking leaders to enter Hedeby.

The excavations are "giving us a lot of new perspectives on the character and anatomy of these early urban communities," Dobat added.

(See "Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade.")

Mads Dengsø Jessen, of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, added that the new discoveries are important to understanding the development of Viking-era trade centers like Hedeby.

"Prior to these excavations, we didn't really know what the background was to these rich cities," said Jessen, who isn't part of the study team.

The Füsing site shows "there's actually a significant settlement before the ports of trade start to gain significance," he added. "There is a very deep local foundation for these international ports."

"Local chieftains would control the area," he said. "There might have been some sort of taxation or rent that the traders paid to them."

As for whether the newfound site is Sliasthorp, Jessen urged caution—but conceded it's "the best candidate we have for now."

03 July 2012

Rathlin’s Prehistoric Secrets-Northern Ireland

The reverse, inverted L-shape of Rathlin Island is seen in this NASA photo: the island is located off the Northern Ireland coast and is the most northerly inhabited island in Ireland. It is also the site of the first documented Viking raid-794-in Ireland. (Ed)



Tuesday 3 July 2012

New Book Surveys Rathlin’s Prehistoric Secrets

Dr Wes Forsythe, of the University's Centre for Maritime Archaeology at Coleraine, who led the project.

Published on Thursday 28 June 2012 14:54

A FIVE-YEAR survey of Rathlin’s archaeology by a University of Ulster team has shed important new light on the island’s earliest prehistoric human inhabitants.

Dr Wes Forsythe, of the University’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology at Coleraine, who led the project, said the quantity and quality of flint tools and ceramics unearthed during the survey have greatly exceeded the investigators’ expectations.

The survey, which was sponsored by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), is the most comprehensive ever undertaken into the archaeology of Rathlin Island.

In addition to the survey’s fieldwork on the island, researchers investigated artefacts that are held or documented in other museum collections on both sides of the Irish Sea

Dr Forsythe, speaking ahead of the launch of a major book that records the findings, said the survey located a number of prehistoric sites that had never previously been recorded. They vary in size, with the largest marking the location of a hut or enclosure.

‘Rathlin Island: An Archaeological Survey of a Maritime Landscape’, whose principal authors are Dr Forsythe and his University colleague Rosemary McConkey, will be launched at a ceremony on the island tomorrow (Friday).

The event is due to be attended by Leo O’Reilly, Permanent Secretary, Department of the Environment and Michael Coulter, Director of NIEA’s Built Heritage directorate.

The extensively illustrated volume describes new evidence about Prehistoric and Medieval settlement and later aspects of island life such as the kelp industry, fishing and agriculture, landing places and the numerous shipwrecks located in Rathlin’s notoriously dangerous waters.

Finds included a huge haul of flint tools, polished axe-heads, pottery, a bronze finger-ring and lignite jewellery. The survey has bolstered recent archaeological findings that Rathlin’s human habitation dates to the Mesolithic period around 5,500 BC, which is at least 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Dr Forsythe, who is a maritime archaeologist and lecturer, said of one major Mesolithic site: “Finding a flint in north Antrim is not surprising in itself but finding hundreds of worked flint tools in one area, scattered across three fields that we chose at random because they had just been ploughed for Spring seeding, is pretty remarkable anywhere. Rathlin had a real richness of prehistoric finds.”

Post-holes detected inside one cave during excavation are thought to be the first such examples in these islands. The discovery is important because it indicates the erection of a structure on poles, perhaps a protective screen or windbreak – an aspect of early human activity in caves not previously found here.

Dr Forsythe said: “For archaeologists, Rathlin has always been something of an enigma. It is always throwing up things that disrupt the pattern of how we understand prehistory, and it’s still doing it. I don’t think there is a parallel anywhere in Ireland or Britain for post-holes inside a cave.”

The Vikings’ first documented raid in Ireland was on the monastery at Rathlin in 795 AD and Dr Forsythe hopes that future excavation might unearth another link with the Norsemen, at a spot known as “the Dane’s Burial” in the north of the island.

“It is possibly a very rare example – and it would need to be tested by excavation – of a Viking ‘boat burial’. The site looks as if it has been damaged some centuries ago, maybe by people looking for gold in it. Nevertheless it is a mound which is boat-shaped, and which was never recognised before this particular survey.”

The project was the second in a programme of CMA-NIEA surveys around the Northern Ireland coast, the first of which was a survey of Strangford Lough.

As well as its historical importance, the survey will serve a modern practical function for the NIEA by being a data resource for consultation in the event of planning development applications on the island.

02 July 2012

Viking Boat Burial

Viking Boat Burial - Ardnamurchan, Scotland/. Archaeology Magazine, Volume 65 Number 1, January/February 2012 by Kate Ravilious

An artist’s conception shows how the burial may have originally looked.
(Sarah Paris)

A spectacular Viking boat burial was uncovered this year on the coast of Ardnamurchan, a remote region of western Scotland, the first such burial to be found on the British mainland. The Viking, who is thought to have perished over 1,000 years ago, was most likely a high-ranking warrior. He was buried lying in a 16-foot-long boat, with artifacts including a sword with silver inlay on the hilt, a shield, a spear, an ax, and a drinking horn. “The level of preservation of the objects and the range of grave goods make this one of the most important Viking burials found in the U.K.,” says Colleen Batey, a Viking specialist from the University of Glasgow.

Although the location is isolated today, at the time of the burial, it was right on the main north-south seafaring route between Ireland and Norway. No Viking dwellings have been found in Ardnamurchan, but Vikings are known to have inhabited the nearby islands of the Hebrides. “We don’t know why they chose this location for the burial, but the Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds there may have made it an important place for them,” says Oliver Harris, project co-director from the University of Leicester. Isotope analysis of the Viking’s teeth may eventually help the scientists pin down where he was from.