Keenly aware of their Norse heritage and aware, too, of the Leif Erikson legend, the Olsens financed and encouraged two archaeologists, Anne and Helge Ingsted. Their mission was simple enough: explore Leif Erikson’s route and find the evidence that Vikings had settled in America.
The Ingsteds hadn’t been the first to search for evidence, most of their predecessors focusing on Erikson’s reference to Vinland and searching farther south where grapes were more likely to grow. The Ingsteds re-interpreted ‘Vin’ as old Norse for meadow and consequently searched farther north. It also seemed logical. Northern Newfoundland is close to Greenland, where the Vikings were already established.
After a painstaking exploration of the coastline, studying sagas, and talking to locals and fishermen, they at last found their evidence. It stood on the northern tip of Newfoundland at a place called L’anse aux Meadows.
There are variations in the Saga accounts. One version has it that Leif Erikson was blown off course on a return trip from Norway to Greenland and discovered America largely by accident. Another account asserts, the whole thing was a planned expedition, that a previous Viking Bjarni Herjolfsson had similarly been blown off course, discovered an unknown coast and returned to Greenland with the story. According to this saga, Lief approached Bjarni, gathered a crew of 35 men and sailed in the direction Bjarni described. They landed, over-wintered and left a small settlement. Lief himself returned to Greenland for more supplies and men but never returned. Others did, including a tough old bird called Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, the widow of Lief’s brother Thorstein Erikson. She married Thorfinn Karlsefni, a powerful warrior, and in the New World gave birth to a son, Snorri Thorfinnsson—the first European child born in America.
Climate change saw both Greenland and Newfoundland become less clement; the Viking settlement, largely constructed of wood and turf, vanished from history until very recently. Arial photography and carbon dating of wood excavated at the site further reinforced the saga accounts.
Climate change, I could have done with some of that just then. It was bitterly, bitterly cold, and just a few steps away was comfort, hot coffee and warmth; what was I doing here, shivering on deck, staring at a few unremarkable bumps on the horizon in search of a few hairy has-beens?
Unworthy thoughts. Hot coffee could wait. We were sailing in the wake of heroes, trying to recapture the thrill of seeing land, now inhospitable and bleak but less so a thousand years ago. It took an imaginative squint, several imaginative squints to see these hazy whale-like lumps as a Viking might have done. New land, and the important question, what lay beyond?