L’Anse aux Meadows

11th Century

L’Anse aux Meadows, discovered in 1960 by Helge Ingstad and his daughter Benedicte, is the earliest documented European settlement in North America, predating Christopher Columbus by 500 years. Located on Newfoundland's northern tip, the Norse site included sod houses and a blacksmith’s workshop. It was recognized in 1978 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

L’Anse aux Meadows, Landing of the Vikings, Illustration

This illustration depicts Vikings landing in North America. Image Source: This Country of Ours: the Story of the United States, Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, 1917.

L’Anse aux Meadows Facts

  • L’Anse aux Meadows is on the northern tip of Newfoundland Island.
  • It is pronounced “Lan-see Meadows.”
  • It is the site of one of the oldest known European settlements in North America.
  • The settlement was established by Norse explorers, around the year 1000 A.D., led by Leif Erickson.
  • It is believed they used L’Anse aux Meadows as a base for expeditions around the coast of Canada.
  • They may have sailed as far south as New Brunswick, Canada.
  • Historians believe the site corresponds to the legendary “Fjord of Currents,” or Vinland, described in the Saga of Erik the Red.
  • The settlement did not last long, likely because it was too far away from Greenland.
  • L’Anse aux Meadows was designated as a UNESCO Heritage site in 1978.
L'Anse aux Meadows Map, Norse Voyages
This map shows the location of Vinland and routes sailed by the Norse from Greenland. Image Source: Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, by William Fitzhugh and Elisabeth Ward, 2000.

Helge Ingstad, Anne Stine, and L’Anse aux Meadows

Norse Ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows

  • The ruins of the medieval Norse settlement, L’Anse aux Meadows, were found on the coast of Newfoundland in 1960.
  • L’Anse aux Meadows was a small coastal fishing village on the northern tip of Newfoundland.
  • The discovery helped prove Norsemen — also known as Vikings — explored portions of North America approximately 500 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World.

Helge Ingstad

  • Helge Ingstad (1899–2001) was a Norwegian lawyer and explorer.
  • He practiced law in Norway and worked as a trapper in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
  • Ingstad published a popular book about his adventures in Canada.
  • He lived in the Norwegian Arctic, serving as a local governor in Greenland and on Svalbard Island.
  • He became an expert in Norse history and the Viking Sagas.

Collaboration with Anne Stine

  • While living on Svalbard, Ingstad corresponded with Norwegian archaeologist Anne Stine.
  • They were both interested in Viking-era Norse history.
  • They studied the sagas, explored Norse settlements in Greenland, and acquired medieval maps.
  • They were particularly fascinated with the mystery of Vinland.
  • They eventually met, married, and had a daughter, Benedicte.
Helge and Anne Ingstad, L’Anse aux Meadows, Photo
Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad. Image Source: The Viking Discovery of America, by Helge Ingstad, 2001.

Norse Sagas and the Legend of Vinland

Norse and Viking — Interchangeable Terms

  • The term “Norse” refers to medieval Scandinavians from modern-day Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.
  • “Viking” originally referred to early medieval Norse pirates.
  • In this context, the terms “Norse” and “Viking” are used interchangeably.

The Norse Sagas and the Legend of Vinland

  • The sagas started as epic oral histories of the ancient Norse.
  • Saga tellers recited and passed down these epics for hundreds of years.
  • Roughly 30 major sagas survive today in written form.
  • The Greenlanders’ Saga and Erik’s Saga describe the journeys of the Norse from Greenland to Vinland.
  • Vinland is depicted as a land with forests, abundant game, and ample pasture.
  • The sagas indicate it was a 12-day journey from Greenland, southwest to Vinland.

The Debate on Vinland’s Location

  • Saga scholars debated whether Vinland was real and its location.
  • Based on his knowledge of the sagas, other historical sources, and his understanding of Viking shipbuilding and seamanship, Ingstad believed Vinland existed and likely lay on the coast of Newfoundland.
  • Other scholars argued that Vinland would be in an area where wild grapes grow, due to the saga’s mention of grapes.
  • Massachusetts was considered the northernmost area where grapes grow, leading some to believe the Greenlanders journeyed that far to the south.
  • Ingstad disagreed, suggesting the Vikings were unlikely to have traveled so far south.
  • He theorized the name “Vinland” derived from the Old Norse word “vin,” meaning “pasture or meadow,” not from a word meaning “wine.”
  • Ingstad believed the references to grapes in the sagas were not part of the original narrative and were added in later versions.

L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland

Ingstad’s Search for Vinland

  • In 1960, Ingstad and his daughter Benedicte explored the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador by air and sea.
  • They matched the geographic features of the land with those described in the sagas and ancient maps.
  • Ingstad’s calculations led him to L’Anse aux Meadows, which also matched the descriptions of Vinland.

Identifying the Location of Vinland

  • A local fisherman showed Ingstad grass-covered mounds and depressions in a pasture near the village of L’Anse aux Meadows.
  • Behind the village is Épaves Bay, with a gently sloping marine terrace covered with meadowland and a freshwater brook.
  • The ruins are located on the terrace and were similar to Greenland farm sites Ingstad had visited.
  • Ingstad believed it was a likely site for a Norse settlement — and Vinland.

The Norse and Greenland

The Norse Greenland Colony

  • Greenland, the world’s largest island, was colonized around 986 by Norse adventurers from Iceland.
  • The climate is harsh, with long, dark winters and short, cool summers.
  • A significant portion of Greenland’s surface is covered with ice year-round.
  • The sea ice pack surrounds the island in winter, making sea travel difficult.

Norse Society in the Greenland Colony

  • The Norse had to utilize various subsistence methods to survive, including trapping, gathering wild plants, berries, and eggs, fishing, and hunting.
  • They also managed small farms, practicing agriculture, and raising livestock.
  • Coastal grasslands along the fjords are the northernmost arable lands, crucial for survival in Greenland.

The Norse and Dorset Eskimo

  • Medieval Norse technology was similar to that of the Dorset Eskimo, ancestors of the modern Inuit.
  • Both groups used snares and spears for hunting and small animal-hide kayaks for fishing and hunting seals and walrus.
  • The Norse established settlements, where they forged iron and spun and wove wool into cloth.
  • The Inuit were more mobile, skilled in traveling over ice, and adept at using kayaks to hunt and follow migrating animals.
  • The Dorset adapted better to the harsh Arctic climate than the Norse.

The Norse and the Skraelings

  • The Norse Greenlanders referred to the Dorsets and the native people of Vinland as “Skraelings,” a derogatory term meaning “screamers.”.
  • The Norse feared the Skraelings and likely believed they were supernatural, and there were frequent engagements between the two factions.
  • The sagas say the Skraelings, who had more warriors than the Norse, retaliated with weapons similar to those of the Vikings.

Decline of the Norse Greenland Colony

  • Scholars believe the Norse Colony on Greenland lasted until around 1500.
  • The reason for its disappearance is unknown.
  • Some scholars believe the Norse may have emigrated, possibly to Iceland, after years of population decline.

Archaeological Investigation at L’Anse aux Meadows

Uncertainty of the Origins of the Ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows

  • Initially, it was unclear if the ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows, located 700 miles southwest of Greenland, were of Native American or Norse origin.
  • The answer was determined through archaeological excavations led by Anne Stine.

Determining the Inhabitants

The archaeological team, led by Stine, uncovered ancient house sites made of sod, a building material common to both Native Americans and Norse Greenlanders. However, key artifacts and characteristics helped identify the village as having Norse origins.

  • Several Norse items were found at the site, including — Viking-era bronze and iron artifacts; A stone spindle whorl used for spinning wool; and Fragments of bone from a domestic pig.
  • The hearths and cinder boxes were similar to those in Norse Greenland settlements.
  • One house was identified as a blacksmith’s workshop, which was unknown to Native American cultures at the time.

Determining the Start of the Settlement

  • The condition of the ruins and the style of artifacts suggested the settlement was intermittently occupied around 1000 A.D. by as many as 100 people.
  • Radiocarbon tests confirmed the date.

Determining the Length of Occupation

Despite the climate, which was more favorable than Greenland, Stine concluded the occupation was short based on:

  • Shallow middens, no more than 10 centimeters deep.
  • The sod houses showed no evidence of being rebuilt, indicating natural collapse 20-30 years after being built.
  • Evidence pointed to conflict with Native peoples as a reason for the short occupation.
  • Native artifacts at the site indicate that the Beothuk people and Dorset Eskimos occupied the L’Anse aux Meadows area after the Norse, between 1000 and 1500.

Historical Significance of L’Anse aux Meadows

Earliest European Settlement in North America

  • The Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows is the earliest documented European settlement in North America, predating Columbus by roughly 500 years.
  • Unlike Columbus, the Norse received neither fame nor lasting wealth from their discovery, and they were likely unaware they were on a different continent.

Recognition of Norse Contribution

  • The Norse contribution to the settlement of America was lost for nearly 1,000 years until the Ingstads brought it to the world’s attention.
  • In 1978, the historical importance of the Norse village at L’Anse aux Meadows was officially recognized, and the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Learn More About L’Anse aux Meadows

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

  • Clausen, Birthe L. Viking Voyages to North America.
  • Fitzhugh, William W. and Ward, Elisabeth. Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga.
  • Johansen, Bruce E. and Pritzker, Barry M., Encyclopedia of American Indian History.
  • Helstad, Anne Stine. The Discovery of a Norse Settlement in America.
  • Ingstad, Helge. The Viking Discovery of America.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title L’Anse aux Meadows
  • Date 11th Century
  • Author
  • Keywords L’Anse aux Meadows, Norse, Vikings, Greenland, Vinland
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 21, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 14, 2024