Vinding, Niels. The Viking Discovery of America, 985 to 1008: The Greenland Norse and Their Voyages to Newfoundland.

Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press, 2005.

When I was a freshman in college, a friend gave me a copy of Michael Boland’s newly-published book, They All Discovered America. I’d read about the supposed voyage by Leif Erikson to the New World but Boland took the position that the Norse Icelandic Greenlanders (who were not “vikings,” a completely inaccurate label, being only a job description and not an ethnic or national designation) were only one group among many. He made interesting cases for the Phoenicians, Romans, Irish, Portuguese, Venetians, Chinese, Africans, and Arabs, not to mention English fishermen from Bristol. (I’ll ignore the Eurocentric issue of whether one can “discover” a continent already filled with native inhabitants.)

I became intrigued by all these possibilities and, having just begun the serious study of history, I began reading everything on the subject I could lay my hands on. I built up a working bibliography of some hundreds of books and journal articles (on hand-scribbled index cards, in those pre-computer days) and I still read in the subject as new titles become available. Though I’m now pretty much familiar with anyone worth mentioning in this field, I’d never heard of Vinding, so I went looking for this book by Inter-Library Loan (which I strongly recommend to anyone who doesn’t want to take out a second mortgage to feed their book habit). It turns out he wasn’t a professional historian but a retired Danish businessman (with a master’s degree from Stanford, so he’s no dummy) who had an intense interest in the Scandinavian people’s colonization of Iceland and Greenland. When the author died a few years ago, his sister undertook to translate this not-lengthy study from Norwegian and also to extend his search for specific artifacts on the Newfoundland coast. Because Vinding came up with appears to be an original notion: Look for the ballast stones from the trading ships. It has to be remembered that, according to the three relevant sagas that have survived, Leif, son of Erik, the promoter of the Greenland settlements, wasn’t an adventurer. He was a businessman and he was looking for a source of hardwood for building homes and ships in nearly treeless Greenland and Iceland. He had heard of such a source from Bjarni Herjolfsson (son of one of the leaders among the Greenland settlers), who had gotten lost in a storm on his journey to Greenland and had bumped into a richly forested coastline not that far to the southwest. Bjarni acted as Leif’s navigator and they apparently worked their way down the coast of Labrador to Newfoundland (maybe, or maybe not, with a stop on Baffin Island). The site of an early settlement, almost certainly Norse, was discovered and excavated by Helge Ingstad at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland back in the 1960s, but Vinding rejects this as Leif’s work — which is okay because his wasn’t the only voyage from Greenland, his most prominent successor being Thorfinn Karsefni — and instead places Leif’s first landfall at Trinity Bay, three hundred miles farther down the coast. And his arguments for this, whether correct or not, are certainly reasonable.

The thing is, the Scandinavian knarr, an oceangoing freight-carrier that was slower and beamier than the better-known dragon-headed warship, required a fair amount of ballast in its bottom to provide stability when it was sailing empty on the way to pick up a cargo — such as those trees on the Newfoundland coast. It has long been known that the secondary ballast, which had to be easy to shift when adjusting the ship’s trim, was mostly loose stones weighing a few pounds each. But the primary ballast, which usually stayed where it was at the bottom of the ship, consisted of larger shaped stones (so they wouldn’t roll around out of control in heavy weather) that still could be manhandled when necessary by two men. If the cargo was bulky but not heavy, as with hides, the primary ballast remained where it was throughout the voyage, but if it had great mass, like hardwood tree trunks, it could be pitched overboard and replaced at low cost back at the home port. Vinding believes, with pretty fair reason, that this is what Leif and those who followed him did, the lumber being so valuable that they would have completely filled the knarr with it. So, somewhere along the coast of Newfoundland, there ought to be a heap of ballast stones that came from elsewhere and showing signs of being worked sufficiently to make them fit the inside of the hull. Vinding made several trips to see what he could turn up and he appears to have been successful, as the photos in the book confirm.

It’s all quite an interesting proposition and the author’s style is straightforward and convincing. He summarizes the historical events surrounding the voyages, as well as what the sagas themselves have to say, and he includes enough footnotes to encourage further study. One hopes professional historians and archaeologists will swallow their academic pride and follow up on the author’s hypotheses.

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