The Unexpected Gift

We overcome the imprecision of previous age estimates
by making use of the cosmic-ray-induced upsurge
in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations in AD 993.

Or, as NPR says in slightly more colloquial language:

It’s long been known that the Vikings were the first Europeans to make the long journey to the Americas, arriving in what is now Canada sometime around the end of the first millennium.

But a new article in the journal Nature is the first to pinpoint a precise date: 1021, exactly 1,000 years ago, beating the arrival of Christopher Columbus by nearly 500 years.

The research comes from the only confirmed Norse archeological site in the Americas outside of Greenland, a settlement on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland called L’Anse aux Meadows.

In 2009 I was in L’Anse aux Meadows on an on-and-off-and-on rainy day, typical for the area in September, I think. I trudged through wet grass to look at underwhelming archaeological sites that didn’t make the not-very-high grade for me to take a photograph. To be fair, the sites were underwhelming because of my overwhelming lack of knowledge. Unlike trained archaeologists, I can’t look at slight depressions in a hillside and a few stones, chipped or otherwise, and draw any conclusions about the people who lived there: whether, when, and how.


Clockwise from top: Welcoming shoreline; sod house as inferred by archaeologists; re-enactor with cleaner hair, better teeth, and a longer lifespan than the original enactor.

But now, given “the cosmic-ray-induced upsurge in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations in AD 993″ that I’m sure you also learned about in school, and the foresight of someone who threw some wood samples from the site into refrigerated storage 45 years ago, we can say with confidence that Vikings were here and hacking down trees and off branches with metal tools 1,000 years ago. That’s “exactly 1,000 years ago” — in what they might have called the Year of Our Lord 1021 — not the “thousand years ago” hand-waving we do to indicate “a long time.” Although, as one researcher said helpfully,

“As an archaeologist, I might interpret this as one stage of the occupation activity, not necessarily the first or indeed the last.”

So, OK, they were here exactly 1,000 years ago and around-about a thousand years ago. I’m glad we cleared that up.

But more broadly, well, OK, but so what? After all, they didn’t stick. They went back to Greenland (sic) or Iceland (yay, truth in advertising) or wherever and built a nation and had descendants there, not here. But I find it interesting for a personal reason.

My mother grew up in a Danish farming community in Alberta: her heritage was equal parts English (mother) and Danish (father). Although she traced her genealogy on both sides and wrote a book about her maternal grandmother, the English side was like the Vinland Vikings: It didn’t stick. She didn’t feel English. She cooked red cabbage and frikadeller, not Yorkshire pudding. Each Christmas, she arranged for a special delivery of Danish kringler. She wore a silver pendant of a Viking ship, not the Golden Hinde. She visited L’Anse aux Meadows, but not Plymouth Rock, you know?

And the older she got, the more Danish she felt.

As for me, I never think about my English forebears, I occasionally think about my Danish heritage (triggered mostly by the need to cook red cabbage for Christmas or the opportunity to eat kringler), but I always feel my Scottish connection. Even so, it’s more than just academic interest for me to know that folks in my general gene pool were at L’Anse aux Meadows not just around-about a thousand years ago, but exactly 1,000.

The way to a woman’s heart
is the unexpected gift
at the unexpected moment.
– Sean Connery, “Finding Forrester”

Maybe the way to everyone’s heart is the same. The ins-and-outs of our connections to our human family are impossible to predict and even hard to explain, but the connections are real and bolstered at unexpected moments by the unexpected gift of the oddest bits and pieces of knowledge.

This entry was posted in Appreciating Deeply, Feeling Clearly, You are Here and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Unexpected Gift

  1. Mary Gibson says:

    Very nice. In a similar way (although perhaps for better reasons) ‘my’ kids identify solely with their Irish heritage and not at all with the Danish or the Scottish.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – It *is* funny, although not entirely unpredictable, at least after the fact. 🙂 Whatever other connections there are, our last name also helps define how others see us so the rest of the world can reinforce that understanding of who we are.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Of course, those of us who make potato pancakes and love clotted cream would insist that St. Brendan beat the Vikings by almost 500 years. Probably not to Newfoundland, though — which would never qualify as “flat, verdant and warm.”

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – LOL – “Flat, verdant, and warm.” No, 0 for 3, as they might say. There’s a reason its nickname is the Rock. For those wanting to know more about Brendan, here’s Wiki.

  3. Call me greedy, but I have mined and cheerfully appropriated all the connections on my largely English father’s side and on my mother’s Swiss-French (Alsatian), Paris-French, Scottish, and Irish sides. Since an ancestor took the trouble to research the English “pedigree,” it’s fun to know there are renegade additions of Spanish, Prussian, and Russian. I am sure my mother’s heritage was the richer one in culinary matters but she embraced variety, reaching far beyond the traditions that were so limiting for some people of her generation. Now, I am the one who feels limited, as the influences from India and the Far East seem to dominate the contemporary, youthful palate.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – 🙂 Cheerful appropriation isn’t greed – it’s appreciation. Not everyone cares where they came from, or whom. IMO your ancestors would be pleased you embraced their legacy.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – thoughts on why the Vikings didn’t “stick” at L’Anse aux Meadows. There were many sound and still existing reasons why the Vikings established a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, but I am only going to focus on one that no longer applies.

    One thousand years ago that area of Newfoundland had stands of tall straight evergreens as much as 4 inches or more through the butt. Those evergreens were ideal for replacing broken ship masts and spares. When I was at L’Anse in 2015 all I saw were stunted twisted alders. I asked the tour guide about it and he said that that area of Newfoundland was several degrees warmer a thousand years ago and there were real trees based on the stumps that they had found. That was all thanks to the Medieval Warm Period, which also meant that harbours and inlets were ice free more of the year.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Wow, it’s hard to imagine that landscape under heavy tree cover – and a good reminder that warmer-than-now wasn’t all bad. Thanks!

Comments are closed.