Jerry Amernic: Helge Ingstad and Canada’s Viking history

L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland was officially designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978
The American Viking boat Snorri, built in Maine, heads past an island near L'Anse aux Meadows, Nfld. on Thursday, July 27, 2000. Andrew Vaughan/CP Photo.

Today Europe is embroiled in its biggest war and refuge crisis since 1945 and all because Russian leader Vladimir Putin believes Ukraine has never been a real country. Perhaps before this horrendous tragedy occurred it would have been good for Vlad to get out in the streets of Kyiv himself, not to mention read a few books. Some of the darkest chapters in the annals of the human race can be directly traced to misled followers of historical revisionism. Unfortunately, some of them wielded enormous power.

I once attended a conference in Jerusalem commemorating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There was a session that focused on the mountaintop fortress of Masada and the legendary mass suicide of more than 900 Jewish Zealots who had resisted the Roman army in a siege said to have taken place in 73 A.D. According to Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, the Zealots poisoned themselves instead of giving up to the Romans. A movie made for TV called simply Masada tells the tale. At one time, human remains were found in a cave near Masada and in 1969 it resulted in a formal state funeral in Israel. The bones were deemed proof of said events.

The session I took at that conference was conducted by two Israelis—an anthropologist and an expert on forensics—who said there was no evidence the mass suicide ever happened, which would be anathema to great numbers of Jews around the world. Their conclusion after extensive analysis was that the remains were those of Roman soldiers which would mean the Israeli government had given a Jewish funeral to Roman pagans!

I may now be in hot water with some readers, but that is my point. A popular old Western starring James Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance concludes with a newspaper reporter commenting that when you can write about the legend or the fact, go with the legend. Indeed, that’s the problem Helge Ingstad ran into when he proved beyond any doubt that Christopher Columbus did not discover America.

Ingstad was a Norwegian who lived to 101, but the year before his passing I spent an afternoon with him at his home outside Oslo. His remarkable life spanned three centuries—he was born December 30, 1899, and died March 29, 2001—so he left us just over 21 years ago. Ingstad is the explorer who along with his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine, led a series of excavations at the old Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Those excavations took place in the 1960s, and in 1978 L’Anse aux Meadows was officially designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.1L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

Go to L’Anse aux Meadows today—it’s also a National Historic Site in Canada2L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site—and you see a bronze statue of the Ingstads honouring them for their painstaking work. The word “painstaking” would be an understatement.

Ingstad was born in Bergen, Norway and studied to be a lawyer, but a lawyer’s life wasn’t for him. In 1926 he packed in his legal career and went to the Canadian Arctic. There is a saying about love at first sight and it must have been like that for him. He lived with Indigenous tribes, became a hunter and trapper of note, and later wrote books about it. The Land of Feast and Famine3 chronicled his four years as a trapper in the area beyond Great Slave Lake in the Canadian North. Another book called East of the Great Glacier4 was about his time spent as governor in east Greenland, and these books became popular with schoolchildren in Norway. East Greenland just happens to be where Eric the Red once lived.

The Norwegian who greatly admired our Indigenous people—he spared no details telling me this when I saw him—went on to immerse himself in the old Viking sagas. One hundred years old, frail, his voice failing, Ingstad might have been only a shadow of his younger self when I was privileged to spend time with him, but up on the walls of his home—absolutely everything in it made of wood—were the results of hunting exploits. A large moose head stared at me from above the door.

The two Viking sagas that came down through the ages are The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eric the Red. Both have been translated into English from the original Old Norse. The first, the Grœnlendinga saga, and the second, Eiríks saga rauða, are said to have been written in the 13th century about events that allegedly took place between the years 970 and 1030.

Ingstad was convinced the Vikings had alighted somewhere on the east coast of North America long before Columbus. Some five hundred years before. He spent years searching for a place the sagas called Vinland, and then one day in 1960 he found himself in a small fishing village at the very top of the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland. He had been following the route taken by Leif Ericson, as written in the sagas. Ingstad asked the locals if there were any ruins about and was told of old “Indian” ruins.

The native Scandinavian saw them and knew better. Said Ingstad: “They were very much like the ruins I had seen on the west coast of Norway.”

Over the next few years, he and his wife led excavations with Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Icelanders, and Norwegians digging up the foundations of the turf houses, the smithy, the kiln, and the row of boathouses on the creek that runs through the meadow. The land and the waterways were just as described in the old sagas.

One of the Norwegians on a 1968 dig, then a young student, was Sigrid Kaland who would go on to become a respected archaeologist at the University of Bergen in Norway. I saw her when I was there.

“People said the Ingstads were forging evidence,” she told me. “They said they had brought these things over from Norway. Who were they? Historians. Well-known historians. Once at a conference I was told to my face that these objects were fake.”

What really set her off was a small ringed pin made of bronze, just like pins Vikings had used to fasten their robes so they could draw their swords. She found it on the dig herself. It would be one of 2,000 artifacts unearthed at the site.

Kaland said Ingstad set the record straight because of his familiarity with the Canadian North and because, well, he must have had Viking DNA in his blood; he looked for Vinland not from the seaside but from the landside. The way a Norwegian would. And that was how he found L’Anse aux Meadows.

Ingstad also told me about the difficulties he had. “A number of archaeologists accepted that this was a Viking settlement from around the year 1000 but quite a few people did not accept it. There were many with fixed opinions about this but we were always certain.”

He did acknowledge that the governments of Canada and Newfoundland were always very cooperative, and he left me with this: “You have something nobody else has. Now L’Anse aux Meadows is known all over the world. Canadians have a gift in their hands.”

Christopher Columbus did indeed sail the ocean blue in 1492. In fact, the Italian explorer who sailed for Spain made four trips across the Atlantic, but the furthest north he got were islands now known as the Bahamas. He never touched down on the continental landmass of North America, and even if he did he was a Johnny-come-lately. About five hundred years late. The Vikings had beaten him here.

Ingstad took his last cross-Atlantic trip the same year I saw him, when he was 100. He was guest of honour at the opening of an exhibit in Washington, D. C. called “Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.” He even made a speech at that event. He had a frigate of the Royal Norwegian Navy named in his honour. He held several honourary doctorates including one from Memorial University in Newfoundland, and there is also The Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad Building on the St. John’s Campus of that same university. What’s more, a small river that flows into Great Slave Lake is called Ingstad Creek while a mountain in the Brooks Range of Alaska is Ingstad Mountain. There is even an asteroid discovered in 1980 with his name on it.

When he died The Economist ran an obituary titled “Champion of the Vikings.”5 But back in 1981, the National Film Board of Canada released a documentary about him called The Man Who Discovered America.6 That he was, but with apologies to Chris.

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