Stretching between Gros Morne and the township of St Anthony, a distance of about 350km, the Northern Peninsula is a rugged, sparsely populated finger of land separating the Gulf of St Lawrence from the Atlantic. Its interior is dominated by the spectacular Long Range Mountains, a chain of flat-topped peaks that are some of the oldest on Earth. Rte-430 trails along the western edge of the peninsula, connecting the small fishing villages of the narrow coastal plain, but the region’s most remarkable sight is the remains of the Norse colony at L’Anse aux Meadows, at the tip of the peninsula some 50km beyond St Anthony.
In 1960 on the far northern tip of Newfoundland, a local named George Decker took Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian writer and explorer, to a group of grassed-over bumps and ridges beside Epaves Bay; the place was L’Anse aux Meadows and the bumps turned out to contain the remnants of the only Norse village ever to have been discovered in North America. Ingstad dug up the foundations of eight turf and timber buildings and a ragbag of archeological finds, including a bronze cloak pin (which provided the crucial carbon dating for the site), a stone anvil, nails, pieces of bog iron, an oil lamp and a small spindle whorl. The Norwegian concluded that the remains were left behind by a group of about a hundred Viking sailors, carpenters and blacksmiths who probably remained at the site for just one or maybe two years, using it as a base for further explorations.
Begin at the visitor centre, where the Norse artefacts appear alongside exhibitions on the background to the site as well as Viking life and culture. From here it’s a few minutes’ walk to the cluster of gentle mounds that make up what’s left of the original village, and another short stroll to a group of full-scale replicas centred around a longhouse – costumed role-playing interpreters enhance the experience with demonstrations of traditional activities such as cooking, weaving and boat building.
Just 2km from the original Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, Norstead is an impressive replica of a Norse port replete with full-scale Viking ships, a touristy but extremely entertaining glimpse into Viking life a thousand years ago. Costumed interpreters lead hands-on activities, tell stories in the chieftain’s hall and demonstrate ancient crafts like spinning and pot making.
By 870 AD the Vikings had settled on the shores of Iceland, and by the start of the eleventh century there were about three thousand Norse colonists established in Greenland. The two Vinland sagas – Eirik’s Saga and the Graenlendinga – give us the only extant account of further explorations west, recounting the exploits of Leif Eiriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni, his merchant brother-in-law, who founded a colony they called Vinland in North America around 1000 AD. Crucially, the Norse settlers failed to establish reasonable relations with their Aboriginal neighbours – whom they called skraelings, literally “wretches” – and the perennial skirmishing that ensued eventually drove them out of Vinland, though they did return to secure raw materials for the next few decades; it seems likely that L’Anse aux Meadows is the result of one of these foragings.
The Norse carried on collecting timber from Labrador up until the fourteenth century, when a dramatic deterioration in the climate made the trip from Greenland too dangerous. Attacks from the Inuit and the difficulties of maintaining trading links with Scandinavia then took their toll on the main Greenland colonies. All contact between Greenland and the outside world was lost around 1410 and the last of the half-starved, disease-ridden survivors died out towards the end of the fifteenth century – just as Christopher Columbus was eyeing up his “New World”.