Vikings, Baking Powder And Poets: Boston’s Long And Confusing History With Leif Erikson
If you were to believe a small plaque on the grounds of Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, you’d think there was a time when the Vikings sailed the Charles River.
But there’s a reason you didn’t read that story in your American history books.
The plaque, which can be found if you walk along Fresh Pond Parkway with Gerry’s Landing Road to the left, reads, “On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland.” One of our readers asked why the marker is there, and it turns out the plaque is not the only nod to the renowned Viking explorer that Greater Bostonians could spot across the region.
So we set off to break down the long timeline of Massachusetts’ complicated, largely unproven and definitely unorthodox infatuation with Erikson and Viking heritage.
Was the Vikings’ Secret to Success Industrial-Scale Tar Production?
Evidence suggests that the ability to mass-produce tar bolstered their trade repertoire and allowed them to waterproof and seal their iconic longships
The Vikings are often viewed as brutish, destructive village-pillagers, but their knack for innovation is perhaps overlooked. Viking-age Scandinavia was kind of the Silicon Valley of shipbuilding in the early medieval period. Their iconic longboat designs, advanced navigational skills, and perhaps even legendary sunstones gave them the ability to raid, trade and establish settlements as far away as Russia, Italy and North Africa. A new study adds another bit of technology to the list of things that gave Vikings a leg up on their adversaries: they may have been capable of making industrial scale quantities of tar, according to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity.
Tar was probably essential to the Vikings’ lifestyle since each longship would have required about 130 gallons of tar to coat all of its wooden elements, the study suggests. Tar was also needed to coat the ships’ wool sails, and the boats would need to be regularly re-tarred between voyages as well. Multiply all that to fit the needs of a fleet and we’re talking about a lot of tar here.
However, little was previously hypothesized about how they would have been able to produce the sticky substance en masse. The new study, authored by Andreas Hennius, an archaeologist from Uppsala University in Sweden, proposes a possible outline of how small scale tar production in the early centuries of the first millennium gave rise to potentially industrial use of tar by Vikings.
“I suggest that tar production in eastern Sweden developed from a small-scale household activity in the Roman Iron Age to large-scale production that relocated to the forested outlands during the Vendel/Viking Period,” Hennius writes in the paper. “This change, I propose, resulted from the increasing demand for tar driven by an evolving maritime culture.”
Read the whole thing. It’s interesting how many historians don’t tend to consider technology like this; thank goodness there are people who are willing to.
From my former student Laura Craig, news of something I had not known about:
The moon-eyed people are a race of people from Cherokee tradition who are said to have lived in Appalachia until the Cherokee expelled them. They are mentioned in a 1797 book by Benjamin Smith Barton, who explains they are called “moon-eyed” because they saw poorly during the day. Later variants add additional details, claiming the people had white skin, that they created the area’s pre-Columbian ruins, and that they went west after their defeat. Barton cited as his source a conversation with Colonel Leonard Marbury (c.1749-1796), an early settler of Georgia. Marbury, a Revolutionary War officer and a Congressman in the Second Provincial Congress of Georgia (1775), acted as intermediary between Native American Indians in the state of Georgia and the United States government…
The Cherokee tradition may have been influenced by contemporary European-American legends of the “Welsh Indians”. These legends attributed ancient ruins to a Welsh pre-Columbian voyage; some versions specifically connect this voyage to a prince named Madoc. In an 1810 letter, former Tennessee governor John Sevier wrote that the Cherokee leader Oconostota told him in 1783 that local mounds had been built by white people who were pushed from the area by the ascendant Cherokee. According to Sevier, Oconostota confirmed that these were Welsh from across the ocean. Historian Gwyn A. Williams notes this is “a beautiful example of the way minds were working in the late eighteenth century – and of the power of suggestion which white minds could exercise over red”.
Author Barbara Alice Mann, who identifies herself as Ohio Bear Clan Seneca, suggests that “moon-eyed people” were Adena culture people from Ohio who merged with the Cherokees around 200 BCE.
The article does not deal with the connection between the purported expulsion of the Moon-Eyed People and Cherokee Removal in the 1830s, although I would be very surprised if no one brought it up at the time. “You expelled white people, now white people are expelling you. Just desserts!”
I was pleased to see yesterday this reference to another historical myth, on the side of a U-Haul:
The Kensington Runestone is a nineteenth-century forgery, but it has not prevented Alexandria, Minnesota, from constructing Big Ole, a twenty-five foot tall statue of a Viking, complete with spear, winged helmet, and “Alexandria: Birthplace of America” on his shield.
From the Guardian:
Peter Sawyer, who has died aged 90, was perhaps the most influential scholar of the Vikings and their activities in the last 70 years. His book The Age of the Vikings (1962) radically challenged the current orthodoxy, presenting the Vikings as “traders not raiders”. Peter did not deny their destructiveness, but he challenged its scale by looking hard at the question of Viking numbers, and at their ships, and by pointing to the destruction carried out by their contemporaries.
The debates opened up by the book have lasted through to the present, and while the position set out by Peter in 1962 has been modified, there has been no going back to the earlier image of destruction. As the runologist Ray Pagenoted in his review: “The Vikings will never be the same again.” Peter himself made further major interventions in his Kings and Vikings (1982), which looked more closely at the political structures of the Viking age, and in work published jointly with his second wife, Birgit (Bibi), notably Die Welt der Wikinger (The World of the Vikings, 2002).
More at the link.
From the National Post. Alas, for now it seems just a collection of circumstantial evidence; no actual artifacts of Viking settlement have yet come to light.
Why this retired archeologist is convinced New Brunswick is home to a lost Viking settlement
If confirmed, it would be only the second Viking settlement in Canada, the other being L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland
March 15, 2018
In the Saga of Erik the Red, a 13th century Icelandic story, intrepid explorer Thorfinn Karlsefn travels to a land called Hóp. There he finds grapes, plentiful supplies of salmon, barrier sandbars and natives who use animal-hide canoes.
The Viking colony of Hop has long been lost to history, but Birgitta Wallace, a retired Parks Canada archaeologist, is convinced it was located in modern day New Brunswick.
In a new article for Canada’s History, she described all the evidence that points to the Miramichi-Chaleur Bay area in particular.
Wallace said that knowledge of such Viking settlements was largely passed down through oral history, with no locations being documented until centuries after the Viking’s travels.
“Going south one summer, (the Vikings) come upon Hóp which has more resources than they can count, great lumber, masses of salmon, halibut, and grapes growing in the woods,” said Wallace, who noted that the description of Hóp in Erik the Red’s Saga matches New Brunswick’s eastern shore.
“The only area on the Atlantic seaboard that accommodates all the saga criteria is northeastern New Brunswick,” she said in an email.
Scholars have theorized for years that Hóp could have been located in New England, New York or Maine. However, Wallace discredited those theories, one reason being salmon were not commonly found in New England, but were plentiful in New Brunswick.
“Salmon has always been rare in New England and has not been found at all on pre-contact sites south of New Brunswick, while they do occur throughout the Atlantic region,” Wallace said. ” The Miramichi and Restigouche river areas have been especially rich in salmon.”
Both the Vikings (around the year 1000) and the Spanish (from 1492) were Europeans who set foot in the New World. But a majority of the people in the New World now speak Spanish as their native language, while virtually no one speaks Old Norse. What explains the Spanish success at colonization?
This question uses language as a gauge of colonial success, but does it deserve to be? A fuller picture involving law, religion, technology, music, clothing, and other folkways might be more useful. There may, after all, be something “recessive” about some languages. As we learned in class, everywhere the Vikings settled, whether northern England, Ireland, Normandy, or Russia, saw them lose their language within a generation – often without them losing their fighting spirit! The only place this did not occur was Iceland, where there was no local population to get absorbed into. If the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was not abandoned, it is entirely possible that John Cabot, when he arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, would have been surprised to meet blonde-haired Beothuks employing Viking technology. That might indicate some colonial success. Similarly, in Latin America, Spanish may have extinguished native languages, but many native customs continued unmolested.
Be that as it may, it is manifestly apparent that the Spanish colonial enterprise was more successful than the Viking by any number of metrics. L’Anse Aux Meadows was occupied for perhaps five years, and the two small Greenland settlements were abandoned in the fifteenth century, while much of the New World was “New Spain” from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. What explains the difference?
One explanation might be simple geography. Greenland and Newfoundland, even in the medieval warm period, did not have as much to offer in terms of exploitable resources as Central America and the Caribbean. Similarly, the Aztec and Incan empires were already civilized, and all the Spanish needed to do was replace the rulers at the top to win the whole thing; the conquering had already been done for them. Such conditions did not prevail in the extreme northeast.
But differences in time are probably more significant. The five-hundred year gap between Leif Erikson and Hernán Cortés saw the advent of a number of technological and cultural changes that gave an impressive advantage to the Spanish in their colonial endeavors. The medieval silk road that flourished under the Mongols gave Europeans a taste for Asian luxury goods, and the advent of the Ottoman Empire, which impeded this traffic, impelled Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia. Various technologies borrowed from the Arabs and/or developed through Mediterranean commerce allowed Europeans to sail longer distances out of sight of land, such as lateen sails and fixed rudders (allowing ships to tack against the wind, and obviating the need for galley crews), the astrolabe (for determining latitude), the magnetic compass (for determining cardinal directions when the sun or stars are occluded), or the traverse board (for plotting distance traveled). Such technologies allowed for a transatlantic voyage, something the Vikings were not capable of. That it was the Spanish who discovered the New World is also no accident – the union of Castile and Aragon, and its 1492 defeat of Grenada, completing the reconquista, gave it an overweening sense of self-confidence. God was on their side! The fact that Portugal was establishing a route to Asia down the coast of Africa make the Spanish fearful, and willing to gamble on a trans-Oceanic route. This is another difference between 1000 and 1500 – states were simply more powerful, and in competition with each other.
But perhaps the most significant event to occur in Europe between 1000 and 1500 was the Black Death. Europeans alive in 1500 were the descendants of people who had survived the plague (and other diseases like smallpox and swine influenza). They could still die from these diseases, of course, but they had a much greater chance of surviving them than did the native Americans, whose bodies were more evolved to counter parasites than microbes. This biological weapon (coupled with other weapons like firearms and steel swords, the other points of Jared Diamond’s triad, and domesticated fauna like attack dogs and ridable horses), gave the Spanish, and eventually other Europeans, an overwhelming advantage at conquest and colonization.
From Tim Folger in Smithsonian.com, an interesting article about a new theory on the fate of Greenland’s Viking community:
Archaeologists once assumed that the Norse in Greenland were primarily farmers who did some hunting on the side. Now it seems clear that the reverse was true. They were ivory hunters first and foremost, their farms only a means to an end….
When the Norse arrived in Greenland, there were no locals to teach them how to live. “The Scandinavians had this remarkable ability to colonize these high-latitude islands,” says Andrew Dugmore. “You have to be able to hunt wild animals; you have to build up your livestock; you have to work hard to exist in these areas….This is about as far as you can push the farming system in the Northern Hemisphere.”…
For all their intrepidness, though, the Norse were far from self-sufficient, and imported grains, iron, wine and other essentials. Ivory was their currency. “Norse society in Greenland couldn’t survive without trade with Europe,” says Arneborg, “and that’s from day one.”
Then, in the 13th century, after three centuries, their world changed profoundly. First, the climate cooled because of the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Sea ice increased, and so did ocean storms—ice cores from that period contain more salt from oceanic winds that blew over the ice sheet. Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market. “The fashion for ivory began to wane,” says Dugmore, “and there was also the competition with elephant ivory, which was much better quality.” And finally, the Black Death devastated Europe. There is no evidence that the plague ever reached Greenland, but half the population of Norway—which was Greenland’s lifeline to the civilized world—perished.
The Norse probably could have survived any one of those calamities separately. After all, they remained in Greenland for at least a century after the climate changed, so the onset of colder conditions alone wasn’t enough to undo them. Moreover, they were still building new churches—like the one at Hvalsey—in the 14th century. But all three blows must have left them reeling. With nothing to exchange for European goods—and with fewer Europeans left—their way of life would have been impossible to maintain. The Greenland Vikings were essentially victims of globalization and a pandemic.
Read the whole thing.
Something amusing from Facebook, via my friend Deb Salata:
Someone named Weirddave visits L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland. I am envious! This UNESCO World Heritage Site marks a New World settlement by the Vikings, five hundred years before Columbus.
An amusing observation from my friend Sasha Volokh:
We call English-speaking people “Anglophones”. But remember that Britain was settled in the 5th century not just by Angles, but also by Saxons and Jutes. Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia were Anglian kingdoms, Kent was a Jutish kingdom, and Wessex, Essex, and Sussex were the kingdoms of the western, eastern, and southern Saxons. (Those seven kingdoms together make up the so-called “Heptarchy“.)
Anyway, as you know if you’ve watched The Last Kingdom, the Vikings wiped out all the kingdoms except for Wessex in the ninth century. So if the last of the surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was the kingdom of the West Saxons, maybe that means we should be…
Actually, given the termination of the names of the three southern Saxon kingdoms, native speakers of English might be called “sexophones,” and speak “Sexish” (not “Anglish”). (Although let us not denigrate the subsequent influence of Danish and Norman French on the development of our great tongue!)