Astronomical event dates North American Viking colony 1,000 years ago

ARCHEOLOGY – Using a new dating method, a team of researchers was able to locate at 1021 the cutting of several wood fragments dating from the Scandinavian occupation of L’Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland.

The Scandinavian grape variety from Vinland finally has its vintage. If nothing indicates that there ever existed a hypothetical Viking drink from across the Atlantic, the presence of these indefatigable sailors on the American continent is not the slightest doubt in the eyes of historians and archaeologists. The most famous site of this Scandinavian establishment, L’Anse aux Meadows (Newfoundland and Labrador), can vouch for it. The remains of the former Norse colony had, for several decades, corroborated the written sources dating from the North American settlement at the beginning of the XIe century. They have now provided researchers with extremely precise absolute dating: Vikings occupied L’Anse aux Meadows exactly one thousand years ago, in 1021.

The date does not necessarily correspond to the beginning or the end of the Scandinavian occupation of L’Anse aux Meadows, but confirms the presence of human activity. And the felling of a tree, in this case. A work carried out using a metal tool, which was not part of the panoply of the natives of Newfoundland, and which was identified on three portions of wood collected in an archaeological context attributed to the Viking presence.

This new dating does not arise, however, from a traditional carbon 14 analysis. Used and re-used for more than 50 years on these fragments as on other organic remains of the site – charcoal, whalebone,… – this The usual method quickly proved imprecise for dating the elements of L’Anse aux Meadows. A team of international researchers led by the Dutch University of Groningen thus had to use trickery to refine this chronology. Turning to the heavens.

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From the cosmos to the Vikings

In Europe, no major cataclysm comes to disturb the year of grace 993. In the country of the Franks, Hugues Capet strengthens the royal power while the second wave of Scandinavian attacks falls on the ports of the continent. In the same year, no one noticed that a major cosmic ray event hit the Earth with full force. Its origin, unknown, could have been caused by a solar storm or a supernova explosion. The contemporaries of the first Capetian ruler see only fire, but not the forest cover of the blue planet. Because they are sensitive to the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere – whose natural formation is influenced by cosmic particles – trees have recorded an abnormal concentration in their annual rings, from Poland to Japan. Forming, by the way, a magnificent landmark for archaeologists around the world.

It was still necessary to find the indirect trace of this astronomical event on a site likely to have kept track of it. A site such as L’Anse aux Meadows. Founded at the beginning of the XIe century, this base camp which was to link several secondary Viking settlements in Newfoundland, or in the St. Lawrence valley. The traces of its occupation were sufficiently close to the fateful date to make the researchers dangle very happy analyzes. The result of their study published on October 20 in the scientific journal Nature , is as sharp as the carbon peak observed in medieval rings. “The discovery of the traces of the solar storm at 29 rings of the bark allowed us to conclude that the cutting activity took place in the year 1021 of our era”, summed up, in a statement from the University of Groningen, archaeologist Margot Kuitems, head of the Dutch research team and main signatory of the scientific publication of the study.

Icelandic explorer Leif Ericson (c. 975-c. 1020) son of Eric the Red, sighting Vinland. Painting by Christian Krohg (1852-1925), dated 1893 and kept at the National Museum of Art, in Oslo (Norway). FineArtImages/Leemage

The stake is not insignificant, since the date of 1021 would now represent the earliest and most reliable chronological marker concerning the Scandinavian presence in North America. It could be related to the Norwegian coin minted with the effigy of King Olaf III (1066-1093) discovered in the United States, in Maine, although its authenticity is not unanimous. Apart from such markers, artistic vagueness surrounds the expeditions which venture into distant Vinland, this land with abundant vines discovered in the wake of the colonization of Greenland, from 985. One certainty: this American settlement of the Scandinavians , narrated from the Nordic sagas to the chronicles of Adam of Bremen, did not last. It would have been cut short due to the extreme remoteness of the site (some 2,300 kilometers separate it from present-day Reykjavik, on the west coast of Iceland) and complicated relations with the indigenous populations.

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For the thirteen international researchers involved in the Dutch university study, the discovery in any case confirms the dating method used. “Along with other cosmic-ray events, this distinctive feature will allow us to accurately date many other archaeological and environmental contexts.», they note.

Until other events and sites lend themselves to this exercise in scientific xylomancy, L’Anse aux Meadows continues to enjoy its status as the only firmly established Viking settlement in North America. A quality distinguished by its inclusion in 1978 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The modest Norse establishment, which used to consist of half a dozen buildings, now enjoys a fine and solid reputation, just consolidated by the Dutch study, which is definitely a landmark.