GO IN DEPTH

Viking Longhouse

Viking Longhouse Photo Credit: Penn State [CC-BY-NC 2.0], via Flickr.

If you ask most people who discovered America, they'll probably say Christopher Columbus. But the Vikings spent time in the new world long before the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria set sail. In this Science Update, you'll hear where these early explorers may have gone after their visit.


Transcript

A legendary longhouse. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

According to Viking legend, the first European to be born in the New World was Snorri Thorfinsson. His parents were part of the Viking settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, started a thousand years ago by Leif Erikson.

Native Americans chased the newcomers out and according to legend, the family settled at a farmhouse in Iceland called Glaumbaer. Now, archaeologist John Steinberg of UCLA and his team have evidence in Iceland that supports this ancient legend.

Steinberg:

We found a perfectly preserved 30-meter longhouse with dates that correspond to exactly when Gudrid, Thorfinn and their son Snorri should have been there.

The longhouse was made of turf, so it was hard to find underground. The team used a technique developed by Steinberg that measures how well the ground conducts electricity. Since soil conducts it well, and turf walls don't, the device revealed the outline of the longhouse.

Steinberg:

We only have just barely scratched the surface, enough to confirm that it was a longhouse. That was really our goal for this season.

Steinberg and his team expect to find out more as they continue their excavations over the next five years. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.


Making Sense of the Research

Icelandic sagas straddle the line between history and legend. Although they describe what seem to be real historical events, scientists have long debated whether the stories were true or merely symbolic tales meant to teach moral lessons. Since the sagas were written long ago, and many centuries after the events they describe supposedly took place, each element of these tales calls for independent scientific verification.

Here, Steinberg and his colleagues present evidence that corroborates an important part of the 13th-century "Vinland sagas": they've found the house where Snorri Thornfinnson probably lived. As the report suggests, finding it was no small feat. The geology of Iceland is difficult to study. Its early inhabitants overloaded the highlands with sheep, which caused soil from the highlands to loosen and blow toward the coastal regions. Between that and constant volcanic eruptions, most of the island's past is buried underground, though often not deep enough for some archaeological techniques, like ground-penetrating radar, to work.

To find the house, Steinberg used a system that sends alternating currents into the ground and then measures the resistance to the current in the ground below. This technique has been used in geology and archaeology for decades, but Steinberg's team tailored it specifically to search for buried turf walls. Since most early structures in Iceland are made of turf (a kind of airy soil that comes from the top layer of peat bogs), this adapted system may help other scientists study Iceland in the future.

To figure out the age of the house, Steinberg used two benchmarks. The first was the layering of volcanic sediments that covered the house's frame. The main house is sandwiched between two layers of volcanic debris: one from 1000 A.D. and another dating to 1100 A.D. That puts the occupation of the house somewhere in that time frame, just as legend suggests. Moreover, the layer from 1100 A.D. reveals a domino-like pattern of toppled turf blocks, suggesting that the house had been abandoned by that time. The other benchmark is the jawbone of a young cow, which was found alongside the remains of the house. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of the cow in that same critical period.

Although this evidence can't prove for certain that Snorri and his family lived in this house, it certainly lends support to the sagas that say they lived there at that time. Steinberg says he hopes to find personal artifacts from the family that will further corroborate the centuries-old legend.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is significant about Snorri Thorfinnson?
  2. How did scientists identify the structure that may have been his home?
  3. What challenges made this search especially difficult?
  4. How do the researchers' techniques take advantage of the geology of Iceland?

For Educators

UCLA's Costen Institute of Archeology hosts the official Web page for this research.

Vikings in Vinland is a New York Times Learning Network lesson plan in which students study and map the Vikings' travels.

L’Anse aux Meadows is Parks Canada's site devoted to the earliest known European settlement in the New World.

Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga is an online exhibit by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.


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