L'Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment

The Vinland migration represents the ultimate stage of Viking expansion, an expansion that stretched from mainland Scandinavia to new worlds where no Europeans previously had set foot. However, it was a settlement that left little trace except in literature. Lasting only a few years, it was an experiment quickly abandoned.

L'Anse aux Meadows, the Norse site in northern Newfoundland, was part of this ultimate Viking expansion. In this chapter I will argue 1) that the Viking westward expansion followed migratory patterns observed elsewhere, 2) that L'Anse aux Meadows was the Straumfj÷r­r, 'Fjord of Currents' of the Vinland Sagas, 3) that it was the base camp from which other localities, including the lands in and around the Gulf of St Lawrence, were explored, and 4) that the Vinland experiment never led to settlement but was abandoned as unprofitable after a few years.

David Anthony, in a 1990 article, complained that archaeologists generally deal with migration in a cavalier way because they have failed to understand the structure of migratory patterns (Anthony 1990). Anthony suggests that migration encompasses components that are applicable in all large movements of people. He emphasizes that migration is a process, not an event.

Migration across an ecological or cultural boundary requires planning. Migrants are not likely to move into areas about which there is no information. Migrants tend to be people who have migrated previously. Migration therefore increases the probability that further migration will occur. Farmers, who depend on focal subsistence patterns, are more likely to migrate long distances than broad-spectrum hunter-gatherers.

According to Anthony, the first stage in migration is a period of discovery, involving advance 'scouts':

  • The scouts are relatively few in number and form a work force. They tend to be single men, adults but young, who migrate to the new areas as mercenaries, merchants, craftsmen, and hired hands. These 'scouts' come for a limited period of time, then return home.
  • The settling takes place in a leap-frog pattern resulting in 'island' communities separated by vast expanses of unsettled territories.
  • The migrants proceed along well-defined routes to specific locations.
  • The migrants come from limited points of origin, and information about the new area filters back to their home communities. Studies have shown that the first 10% of migrants into an area can be used to predict the ethnic and geographical origin of subsequent migration.

The second stage of migration is the actual migration stream in which whole families arrive and establish permanent and sustainable households.

Anthony's rule that farmers are more likely to migrate than hunter-gatherers certainly applies to the Norse migration into Iceland and Greenland. The same is true for his rule that previous migration increases the probability of further migration as many of the Icelandic settlers were people who only a generation or so earlier had emigrated to the British Isles. In both Iceland and Greenland the migration was preceded by a certain amount of exploration. In Iceland this was probably more extensive than indicated in the written documents as can be gleaned from terse statements from sources such as Landnßmabˇk: 'The land looked to them more promising south than north' (Landnßmabˇk, Jones 1986, 161). For such a statement to be made, both the northern and southern areas must have been visited. As for Greenland the Greenlanders' Saga states that Erik the Red used his three years of exile to explore the area.

Anthony's 'scout' stage complements what Tom McGovern (1981, 293) has called the initial 'tramp stage' of the Greenland settlement, when new resources and avenues of sustenance are being explored and tried. It lasts only a decade or two, after which efforts narrow and the most favourable options become the norm. It is significant— and predictable—that the Vinland voyages took place in this 'scout' stage.

The posts established in Vinland were indeed 'island' settlements, points reached by sea from Greenland and separated by vast expanses of land. The Greenlanders' Saga names one specific post, Leifsb˙­ir, which I hereafter will call Leif’s Camp. Eirik 's Saga describes two settlements, Straumfj÷r­r, 'Fjord of Currents', and Hop, the 'Tidal Lagoon' site.[…]

The occupation of Vinland and L'Anse aux Meadows was short, a few years at the most, never evolving beyond the 'scout stage' of migration or the 'tramp phase' of resource exploitation. The reasons are clear:

  • The resources in and around L'Anse aux Meadows/Fjord of Currents were not attractive. With the exception of forests, they were the same as those in Greenland. The forests were softwoods and could be had from Labrador or Markland, closer to Greenland.
  • The desirable resources, hardwood, grapes, and nuts were so far away that they were not worth the labour and time required. The distance to L'Anse aux Meadows is about 1350 nautical miles (c. 2500 km). From there to the southern part of the Gulf it is another 700 nautical miles (c. 1300 km). The total is more than from Greenland to Norway. At the high latitude of the Norse settlements, Norway is only 1700 nautical miles (c. 3200 km) away. We know that it was a struggle to keep even this traffic going.
  • Vinland had little of interest compared to Europe. In addition to lumber, nuts, and wine, Greenlanders needed luxury items, various metals, spices, flour, as well as personal, religious, and political contacts.
  • The desirable parts of Vinland were inhabited by large indigenous populations. The Norse were outnumbered and, unlike later Europeans, had only minimally superior arms.
  • There was no population pressure in Greenland. Unlike the situation in Iceland, the population remained small throughout its existence, only a few thousand, possibly as little as two thousand, as recently suggested by Lynnerup (1998, 116-77).
  • Recent research suggests that the initial settlement in Greenland comprised no more than about four hundred to five hundred people (Lynnerup 1998, 115). It took about one-tenth of the entire population to run L'Anse aux Meadows and exploit the Vinland resources. Although some of the labour crew might have been Icelandic, the drain was hardly acceptable for a still-marginal, new settlement, especially as the Vinland crews consisted of people of prime working age. According to Lynnerup (1998, 118), an isolated settlement of less than about five hundred people is simply not viable. It is obvious that at least in the eleventh century, the Greenlanders would not have been able to operate more than one such gateway at a time. For this reason it is also virtually certain that L'Anse aux Meadows was the only substantial year-round Norse base in the New World.

The Vinland migration and the L'Anse aux Meadows settlement were logical consequences of an initial stage of migration. It did not take long for the migrants to find out that the resources available did not warrant the extreme efforts it took to collect them. Vinland offered no advantage. Wine and lumber could be shipped in from Europe with less labour, and contacts with Europe had to be maintained anyway to obtain goods that could not be found in Vinland. Thus Vinland and L'Anse aux Meadows became one of the most short-lived migrational episodes in Norse history.

Bibliography

Anthony, David, “Migration in Archaeology: The Baby and the Bathwater.” American Anthropologist vol. 92: 895-914.

Jones, Gwyn, 1986, The Norse Atlantic Saga. Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. New and enlarged edition, with contributions by Robert McGhee, Thomas H. McGovern and colleagues, and Birgitta Linderoth Wallace.. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Lynnerup, Niels, 1998,“The Greenland Norse: A Biological-Anthropological Study.”Meddelelser om Greenland, Man and Society, 24. Copenhagen.

McGovern, Thomas H. 1980/81, "The Vinland Adventure: A North American Perspective." North American Archaeologist, vol. 2, no. 4:285-308.

Source: Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, "L'Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment" in Contact, Continuit, and Collapse, The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic, James H. Barrett (Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2003), 207-208, 233-234.

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