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.”