Archeology Video

In many ways, the story of the Norse in Helluland and Markland is an archeological story, whereas the story of the Vikings in Vinland is mostly a saga story. Extensive archeological surveys in northeastern North America have pieced together a complex picture of diverse Native American groups. In this grand unfolding of history, the Vikings were but minor players. Archeological excavations in the Canadian Arctic and northeastern North America are the only reliable sources of information for understanding who the skraelings were, and for determining what the relationships between Norse and skraelings were like.

Richmond Gulf Pendant
Richmond Gulf Pendant
Archeological information shows that there were four or five different Native American groups occupying the regions of Helluland, Markland and Vinland: Dorset and Thule Inuit cultures in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland; Dorset, Thule, and Innu (Indian) in Labrador; and ancestors of the Beothuck and Micmaq in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and possibly the Iroquois in the lower St. Lawrence Valley.

While archeology has revealed a great deal about these native groups, very little archeological evidence has emerged of direct Native/Norse contact, so we are still not certain which specific group(s) living in the region were called skraeling by the Norse. The Vinland sagas tell of chance meetings with skraelings in Markland, but as in the case of Vinland, there is little archeological evidence for such contact. However, large numbers of Norse objects including a small carving depicting a Norseman have been found in sites in regions of arctic Canada which the Norse called Helluland and northern Greenland. Virtually all of these finds date to the four centuries after the Vinland voyages and are found in Dorset and Thule Inuit sites in the Canadian Arctic and northern Greenland.

Native American Archeology
In recent years archeologists have learned much about the Native cultures that occupied Eastern Canada, Greenland, and northeastern North America between ca. A.D. 985-1450. In addition to being able to identify the specific cultures or archeological "tribes," radiocarbon dates indicate when these sites were occupied, and the geographic distribution of sites shows their territorial status and relationships with their neighbors through time. By combining culture, time, and place, a region's culture history can be reconstructed.

Dorset Culture

Dorset Carving

Quicktime 1.5Mb
[Get plugin]
Dorset are an old arctic culture that preceded that of Thule and modern Inuit (Eskimo) culture. Dorset people living in the Eastern Canadian Arctic and northern Greenland during the early period of the Norse occupation in Greenland (1000-1200). Dorset people did not use dogs or dogsleds, or the bow and arrow, and for this reason they probably were not a major threat to Norse explorers. They lived in small settlements, hunted seal, polar bear, and walrus (but not whales), as well as birds, fish, caribou, and musk-ox. Dorset religion was shamanistic and is revealed in the elaborate carvings made of animals and animal spirits. A variety of Norse artifacts, including pieces of wood and iron, a bronze pot fragment, and a Dorset pendant made of Norse copper, and a piece of woven cloth containing fibers of sheep, arctic hare, bison, and goat have been found in Dorset sites in Hudson's Bay, Baffin Island, and northwestern Greenland. These may indicate direct or indirect trade between the Norse and Dorset people.

Thule Culture
After A.D. 1200, a new Eskimo culture named Thule expanded east from Alaska and colonized northern Canada and Greenland. Thule people had more efficient hunting and transport systems than Dorset people. They hunted large whales and walrus, used dogs and dog sleds, and lived in larger communities. Their Asian-style sinew-backed bows would have made them dangerous adversaries for the Norse as well.

Skraeling Island
Skraeling Island
Archeology tells us that the Norse had much more contact with Thule people than with the Dorset. A scatter of Norse artifacts have been found in Thule sites throughout much of the Eastern Arctic and northern Greenland, and a large trove of Norse materials has been found in 13th century Thule sites in northern Ellesemere Island and nearby in Greenland. Some archeologists believe face-to-face contact did not occur or was very rare, and that all of the Norse artifacts in Dorset and Thule sites could have come from a single Viking ship that was crushed in the ice. Others have suggested that sustained, organized contact occurred that resulted not only in trade for ivory, but in exchanges of ideas and inventions. What do you think?

Northeastern Indians
Norse explorers traveling in Markland would have met people of the Point Revenge culture, the ancestors of the modern Labrador Innu. So far no Viking artifacts have been found in their sites. However, an arrowhead similar to Point Revenge heads and made of a type of stone that probably originated in Labrador was found at the Norse cemetery at Sandnes, Greenland, the farm in the Western Settlement owned by Erik the Red. Was this arrowhead a Viking's souvenir from a trip to Markland, or is it evidence that the Norse and Innu fought with one another, as described in the sagas dealing with Vinland and Markland?

Ancestral Beothuck, Micmaq, and Iroquois
At least three other Native American groups had ancestors who lived in areas that were probably visited by the Norse. The Beothuck lived in small groups in Newfoundland, and hunted caribou and seals. The Micmaq lived in larger groups and were experienced sea-going fishermen as well as hunters of deer, caribou, and moose. Although more of a threat to the Norse than the Beothuck, the Micmaq would have been less troublesome to the Norse than the warlike Iroquois of the Lower St. Lawrence River area. To date, no Norse artifacts have been found in any Indian sites from the Vinland region, except for a Norwegian penny dated to the reign of King Olaf Kyrhe (A.D. 1065 to 1080) found at the Goddard site in Penobscot Bay, Maine.