TO SET THE SCENE
The next port of call on my voyage around the east side of Canada is L'Anse aux Meadows - the Norse settlement at the north tip of Newfoundland. You can't pass within a couple of hundred kilometres of the site and not pay it a visit. It's the most important historical site in the whole of Canada.
And here I am at the Norse settlement of L'Anse Aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, and a more deserted, depressing and windswept corner of the Canadian coast you could never ever wish for (I haven't forgotten that Newfoundland wasn't part of Canada until 1948 or 1949).
Why on earth did the Norse pick this spot and not some of the sheltered bays on the Labrador coast such as Pinsent's Arm ? The wind is blowing off the Atlantic right into this bay just here and there's no protection at all from the blast.
And do you know what? I bet that you have already guessed, bearing in mind my usual experiences in important tourist places such as this whenever I travel anywhere. The blasted place is closed for the season. And me having travelled 300 kilometres out of my way too. Flaming hell!
And not even a helpful tourist guide or Canadian Government official or UNESCO delegation like we had at Red Bay yesterday lunchtime to ease the passage of Yours Truly "you never said anything about this" ...ed.
I can poke the Nikon through the railings and take a quick photo, but after all of this travelling and all of the perils that I've faced in order to come here (tarts' chintzy and lacy boudoirs being not the least of them) then I'm not setting for this.
Yes - take a look at the roof on the visitor centre. It looks quite low doesn't it? And someone has very kindly left a ladder lying around and it isn't chained up to anything like it ought to be either, to stop people taking it home, or simply moving it around.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
It's going to take more than a closed-up visitor centre to stop Yours Truly achieving his objectives. I just hope that I'm not caught in the act, though. I'd be likely to find myself out on my Anse.
And so while you are waiting for me to do the necessary in order to present myself on site, let me entertain you by telling you a little about the story of the Norse settlement in Newfoundland.
The Norse people popularised their adventures by the means of Sagas. These were, I suppose, adventure stories to keep people entertained during the long dark winter nights. The earlier ones were merely spoken, an oral tradition, and were not written down until the 13th Century. It's certainly true to say that, like most oral traditions, over a period of a couple of hundred years some departure from the facts may well have crept into the accounts, but that kind of thing does not call into question the underlying events that are recounted.
These Sagas became something of compulsory bed-time stories for young Scandinavians of a later generation or two, who grew up consider people like Eirik the Red, Thorfinn Karlsefni and Leif Ericsson as some kind of fictional hero in the same way that people like Davy Crockett or Robin Hood were regarded by children of a different epoch in a different geographic setting.
There are two Sagas in particular - the "Saga of the Greenlanders" and the "Saga of Eirik the Red" that recount how it was that the Norse came to discover a place called Vinland. And while these Sagas differ from each other in the detail, they have a common underlying thread that runs through both accounts, about how parties of Norse from Greenland went back and forth to Vinland, encountered natives, traded and fought with them, and each time that they returned to Greenland, they brought with them goods that could not be obtained anywhere in what was the known Norse world.
By the time that the Sagas became popular, the deterioration in the climate had led to contact with the settlements in Greenland being lost. And so it was not possible for later generations of Norse, or Scandinavians as they had by then become, to verify anything that was recorded in these two particular Sagas. But just as each of the other Sagas contains a mass of verifiable facts (as well as a mass of other, less verifiable detail), then there is no reason at all to single out these two Sagas and these two alone as being works of pure fiction.
However, when the Sagas were translated into a more-modern style of prose and grammar in the mid-19th Century, the translators and literary commentators came to the conclusion that these two Sagas made no sense in any kind of real setting and were nothing but works of fiction to keep the children entertained in the long dark winter nights. Vinland? The Land of Vines, or Grapes? It was absurd to think of such things in the inhospitable north.
This view prevailed for many many years and even I remember in my childhood back in the early 1960s being given a book that showed pictures of Norse, complete with horned helmets (which they never ever wore - that is a Hollywood invention) fighting half-naked savages of the Sioux or Apache ilk who were mounted on horseback (which were introduced into North America by the Spaniards some 4-500 years after the Norse had left).
But there were two major faults with the position adopted by the translators and literary commentators of the mid-19th Century.
Firstly the works had been translated using contemporary Norse. And that is all very well but this overlooked the fact that the Greenland Norse (from amongst whom Eirik the Red came) had been isolated from the mainland Norse for a couple of hundred years. They were more-than-likely speaking archaic Norse in the same way that the Québecois speak archaic French, having been isolated from France for 250 years.
The Québecois don't have words for more-modern inventions and have to make up their own words by translating English phrases word-for-word such as chien-chaud for hotdog, balle-molle for softball and the like. There aren't any immeubles in Québec, but edifices, and so on. The list is endless.
And if you consider how the meanings of certain words in the English language have changed over the last couple of hundred years - fantastic and brilliant being two prime examples, you can see just how easy it is to become confused
Secondly no-one back in the mid 19th Century knew anything about global warming. Map 196 in David Hill's magnificent An atlas of Anglo-Saxon England suggests quite clearly that there is evidence of vinyards in England as far north as Cambridgeshire, and the The Domesday Book records vines at Ely
. That is 52'40° north, and L'Anse Aux Meadows is at 51'38° north.
But this was during the period that is known today as the "Medieval Warm Period". Factors such as the Black Death changed all that.
Estimates vary but some say that as many as 40% of Europe's population (and no-one can even speculate about the situation anywhere else) died during the epidemic. An enormous amount of land was abandoned. Much of this land was marginal land that had recently been reclaimed from the forest to feed the growing population in those days, and after it was abandoned it quickly reverted to forest, becoming covered with young, fast growing trees (and if anyone doubts the speed at which this can happen, they should have seen my meadow - reclaimed from the forest in the 19th Century - after I had been away for four years). These young trees would absorb an enormous quantity of CO2 during their rapid growth and release enormous quantities of oxygen into the atmosphere which rapidly cooled the earth. And hence we had the start of the Little Ice Age that lasted for 500 years until the rapid industrialisation in the northern hemisphere released tonnes of CO2 back into the atmosphere and began the latest cycle of global warming.
The rapid cooling of the earth during the Little Ice Age pushed the vinyards out of Lincolnshire and then out of England, but they are slowly coming back north again. We can't say whether or not there were vinyards in Newfoundland in the 11th Cantury, but they have reappeared along the coast of North-East Nova Scotia, just 500 miles away from L'Anse aux Meadows.
But I am getting ahead of myself just here. In the mid-20th Century the idea occurred to a Norwegian, Helge Ingstad that the Norse sagas had been mistranslated into Contemporary Norse, and he then took the initiative to re-examine them using Archaic Norse. This significantly altered the translation of the accounts.
Add to this the fact that Vin can also mean "meadow" (and I'll discuss this further when I talk about the name of the settlement here), and also the fact that if the stresses on certain words are changed to stress other words in the same sentence then this can significantly alter the meaning of the sentence. And so all of this being taken into consideration, then Ingstad reckoned that he was on to something.
After much research, he fixed on L'Anse Aux Meadows as one possibility for the site of the Norse settlement of Vinland, given his new interpretation of the Sagas, and during a visit here he happened to enquire of the locals if there were any old sites that might have some possible historical significance.
He was told
"well, there's the old Injun camp up the road a way"
and the rest is history.
Well, not exactly.
Ingstad may well have been the first person to have put his spade into the soil at L'Anse Aux Meadows, but the idea that here was the site of the Norse encampment was far from being his and his alone.
L'Anse Aux Meadows had been first put forward as the site of the Norse encampment in 1914 by an insurance agent and amateur historian called William A Munn in his book "Wineland voyages;: Location of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland" and if anyone wants a copy of this book because I've had some printed.
And that's not all either.
Someone called VainoTanner undertook a geological expedition to Labrador in 1939 and incorporated in his notes the report of an expedition by a Finnish party in 1937. There's a discussion in his preface about Norse influence in the area, and a map included in the report, some 25 years prior to Ingstad's excavations, places Vinland in the approximate area of L'Anse aux Meadows, insofar as it can be interpreted given the small scale of the map.
Tanner makes no acknowledgement of Munn in his sources and so I'm now even more intrigued as to the source of Tanner's information. Who else was attributing the Norse presence to this area?
But anyway, whilst it's true that it was Ingstad's spade that was first to dig up any Norse artefacts, the presence of the Norse at L'Anse aux Meadows was hardly the startling discovery that it has been presented, with several others having previously made the connection.