May 12, 2000

Vikings: the Arctic's first European visitors

An exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington displays a wealth of evidence showing more than 400 years of contact between Vikings and Inuit.

JANE GEORGE
Nunatsiaq News

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A huge exhibition that opened last week at the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of Natural History is rekindling the debate over the Norse presence in the eastern Arctic.

The exhibit, called "Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga," is intended to honor these Scandinavian seafarers' arrival in North America 1,000 years ago, and features more than 300 artifacts remaining from their voyages to Greenland and down the coast to Maine.

But questions about exactly where the Vikings went and who they met on their travels are still cloaked in mystery, and are still subjects of disagreement and discussion.

The Vikings used the word "Skraelings" to name the aboriginal peoples they met in North America and according to their sagas — or histories — the Skraelings were a fierce people.

In 1978, Norse — or Viking — objects, ranging from a tantalizing piece of chain mail to scraps of material and a carpenter's plane, were first found on what's called Skraeling Island, located off the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island, not far from Greenland.

There, over the course of 15 years, archeologists excavated clusters of 800-year-old Thule Inuit winter houses built of sod, stone and whalebone, and uncovered a mixture of well-preserved Norse and Thule artifacts.

What kind of contact?

Over the years, these startling finds, and others, have sparked increasingly heated speculation over what kind of contact occurred between Vikings and Inuit, both Dorset and Thule, between 1000 and 1450 AD.

"Is it trade? Or was it a simple expedition that went awry?," asks William Fitzhugh, the curator of the Viking exhibit. Fitzhugh is known in Iqaluit for the several summers he spent excavating English explorer Martin Frobisher's abandoned mining camp on Kodlunarn Island.

"When you see this figure, you know there was direct contact," Fitzhugh says, referring to a famous artifact known as "The Bishop of Baffin."

It was found near Lake Harbour, and made by Dorset Inuit around 1200 AD. But the tiny wooden man appears to be dressed in a long, split-front robe with trim, bearing marks resembling a cross on his chest.

For many, it's an undeniable and striking piece of evidence demonstrating the existence of direct — and prolonged — contact between Inuit and Vikings in North America from 1000 AD to 1450 AD.

And this figurine isn't the only convincing trace of Inuit and Viking contact over time and space in the eastern Arctic.

There's the skein of yarn found at the Ningurvik site near Pond Inlet. In the early 1980s, Pond Inlet's resident priest and archeologist, Father Guy Mary-Rousselière, found the yarn and other Norse artifacts alongside Dorset Inuit materials at a site dating from between 800 to 1300 AD.

It was recognized as Norse earlier this year by archeologist Pat Sutherland as she combed through the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

A fragment of a bronze pot of European origin was found on Devon Island at a Thule site from 1200 AD, while a pendant of an older age and made from reworked Norse copper was found at a Richmond Gulf site, not far from Inukjuak.

Cultural exchanges?

Some also see signs of cultural exchange in the remains of Norse walrus-hunting rituals in Greenland, in Inuit polar bear stone traps and nesting places for eider that resemble those in the Farøe Islands, or in cairns similar to inuksuks found in the High Arctic.

Due to these tokens of trade or contact, many archeologists now maintain that Vikings had an ongoing relationship with the Inuit and other aboriginal peoples they met in Helluland, Markland and Vinland — Norse place names for Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland.

"These hints point in a consistent direction: towards a suggestion that over a period of centuries these people knew one another and knew of both the dangers and the benefits of meeting with strangers whose cultures had developed on opposite sides of the world," writes Pat Sutherland in the massive catalogue that accompanies the Viking exhibit.

But some who have uncovered Norse artifacts in the Eastern Arctic still aren't convinced that Inuit and Viking knew each other well.

Peter Schledermann, a researcher at Calgary's Arctic Institute who first excavated the sites on Skraeling Island, believes "people are overstating the contact business a lot."

Schledermann does view the contact between Inuit and Vikings as significant, and he has, in fact, written a novel, Raven Saga, on this event, which will be available in June.

But while Schledermann can accept that Vikings may have spent a winter, perhaps even alongside Inuit, on Skraeling Island, he's not sure their contact was prolonged, or based on trade.

It might not even have been particularly friendly.

On Skraeling Island a small carving was found under a floor with slivers in its head and its face stretched into a terrible grimace.

Many Norse items were abandoned at Skraeling Island, and Schedlermann feels Inuit looked at these as curiosities, without any particular value, even for trade.

For example, one of the most remarkable finds on Skraeling Island, a small Norse hand plane of Greenlandic birch, was found without its blade.

Norse had most to gain

The Thule, says Scheldermann, would have considered the blade a treasure, but not the plane. A Viking, however, wouldn't have willingly left the plane behind. Schledermann attributes artifacts found in other locations to a "trickle effect" from Norse sites.

Most agree the Vikings probably had more to gain from contact than Inuit. The two were both in search of iron and wood, but Inuit were much better adapted to life — and the cooling climate at the time — in the eastern Arctic.

"What the Inuit gave to the Vikings was their knowledge of native people in the North, and that they were able to defend themselves — and that's one reason they decided not to stay. It was a very powerful message," Fitzhugh said.

According to Fitzhugh, the main significance of whatever contact did occur between the two groups may have been the truly amazing realization that they were not alone in the North Atlantic.

The Viking exhibit will be coming to the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Hull in 2002, but for more information, consult the Smithsonian Institute's web site at www.mnh.si.edu/vikings.