L’Anse aux Meadows

Travel back 1000 years and explore the archaeological remains of a Norse Greenland outpost.

By Parks Canada

L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

Norse Journey, L’Anse aux Meadows (2022) by K KealeyParks Canada

In Search of Different Horizons

Around AD 1000, a group of Norse sailed the Atlantic Ocean from Greenland across to Baffin Island, then south to the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Historians believe that for 10-20 years they wintered at this base camp and explored the region called “Vinland.”

Norse Journey, L’Anse aux Meadows (2022) by K KealeyParks Canada

The Norse Greenlanders likely encountered Indigenous peoples during their time in North America. Many different nations, including pre-Inuit cultures and ancestors of the Innu and Beothuk peoples, have lived in the region for millennia.

The Encampment

The Norse built their encampment on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland, near the contemporary village of L’Anse aux Meadows. It’s roughly 1000 kilometers north-west from St. John’s.

The epic tales known as the Icelandic sagas say Leif Ericcson led the Norse expedition. They were likely seeking timber, but furs and other resources such as grapes would have been welcome finds.

Colorful Skies at L’Anse aux MeadowsParks Canada

When archaeologists discovered the site in 1960, they excavated the remains of eight timber-and-sod buildings. Only the lower courses of sod remained after 1000 years. The archaeological site is reburied, but there are no intact buildings as this seems to imply.

Today, visitors can explore a reconstruction of the encampment and the timber-and-sod buildings.

Uncovered by Norwegian Archeologists in 1960

Helge Ingstad, working with a team of archaeologists directed by Anne Stine Ingstad, uncovered the secrets of L’Anse aux Meadows, including several artifacts that could conclusively be linked to the Norse. The locals led the Ingstads to the mounds, Anne Stine was Helge’s wife.

Parks Canada continued the work after L’Anse aux Meadows was designated a National Historic Site in 1968.

Iron Nail, L’Anse aux Meadows Iron Nail, L’Anse aux Meadows (0990/1050) by Greenland NorseParks Canada

Nailing down some proof

Almost 1000 years after the Norse abandoned their North American settlement, a team led by Parks Canada archaeologist Dr. Birgitta Wallace made an incredible discovery: an intact iron nail. 

Despite initial appearances, it was not a modern-day nail.

This nail was one of the artifacts that proved the encampment was built by the Norse.

Iron Nail, L’Anse aux MeadowsParks Canada

This nail is over 1000 years old!

Today’s nails are typically made of steel - an alloy of iron and carbon. But this nail is different, it’s made from something called bog iron. The nail is evidence of the earliest known iron smelting in North America.

Bog Iron Nuggets, L’Anse aux MeadowsParks Canada

This is more than a pile of dirt

Let’s dig in...

This is a pile of bog iron nuggets

The Norse smelted bog iron ore to produce iron.  The smelting was followed by forging in which the iron was heated and hammered to remove further impurities. The iron could then be forged into nails - like the one found on-site by Dr. Wallace’s team.

Iron tests of the slag (smelting waste) found on site matched the iron in the nail, proving that the nail was made from bog iron harvested at L’Anse aux Meadows.

The Bog at L’Anse aux Meadows

Blacksmith Costumed Interpreter at L'Anse aux Meadows (2008) by Parks CanadaParks Canada

Norse Greenlanders Working With Iron

The Norse had been smelting iron from European bogs for about 1400 years before they came to Newfoundland and found bog iron at L’Anse aux Meadows.

Understanding Iron Work, L’Anse aux Meadows
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This is Darrell Markewitz, an artisan blacksmith from Ontario, talking about smelting bog iron. Darrell helped Parks Canada set up the metalworking recreations at L’Anse aux Meadows.

These nails enabled the Norse to sail their ships to faraway shores. The Norse also used wooden trenails which held up better in wetter conditions.

Bronze Cloak Pin found on site at L’Anse aux Meadows, Greenland Norse, 0990/1050, From the collection of: Parks Canada
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Bronze cloak pin, Parks Canada, 2008, From the collection of: Parks Canada
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There are also some other artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life at L’Anse aux Meadows- and also helped conclusively link the site to the Norse people. One example is this pin made of bronze. In the days before zippers, bronze pins were commonly used to fasten two ends of a cloak together. A wool cloak - like a short cape - draped over one’s shoulders was a great way to keep warm in cold climates.

Stiching at L’Anse aux Meadows (2008) by Parks Canada photgrapherParks Canada

Women at L’Anse aux Meadows

Drop Spindle, Broken Bone Needle, and Whetstone at L'Anse aux Meadows (0990/1050) by Greenland NorseParks Canada

From what we know of the sagas and Norse culture, men probably made up the majority of the encampment, but there is evidence to suggest some Norse women came to North America as well.

The round metal item that resembles a donut is the weight of a drop spindle. The long thin rectangular rock is a small whetstone. The whetstone was used for sharpening needles or small knives belonging to women. The triangular item is a broken bone needle.

Both the spindle whorl and bone needle are tools that would have been handy for making and repairing sail cloth, as well as the clothes that made life in cold northern climates bearable…

...and since this was generally women’s work in Norse society at that time, it lends credibility to references in the sagas about women traveling to Vinland. In fact, one saga describes a woman, Gudrid, giving birth - possibly the first European baby born in North America.

Dr. Jenneth Curtis, an archaeologist with Parks Canada, studied the excavations of Indigenous sites at L’Anse aux Meadows and the surrounding areas. Different Indigenous cultures lived at L’Anse aux Meadows long before and after the period of Norse explorations.

Indigenous Artifacts

Many different Indigenous nations have lived on the coast of Labrador, the island of Newfoundland and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence for millennia. It seems likely that they may have encountered the Norse at some point.

Wooden harpoon shaft, L’Anse aux Meadows (-1000/0900) by Tim RastParks Canada

Dr. Jenneth Curtis, Parks Canada Archaeologist, L’Anse aux Meadows
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These items are currently on display at the L’Anse aux Meadows visitor centre.

The straight brown wooden shaft (bottom) is part of a harpoon that was used by the Groswater people. 

Above the original artifact is a recreation of what the harpoon would have looked like when it was made and used nearly 3000 years ago. 

This tool is an adze. Adzes are used as a cutting tool for woodworking and can also be used as a hoe for agriculture.

L’Anse aux Meadows, The Meeting of Two Worlds (2002-07-05) by Luben BoykovParks Canada

The Meeting of Two Worlds

Newfoundlander Luben Boykov and Swedish artist Richard Brixel created "The Meeting of Two Worlds". The sculpture symbolizes the probable meeting of the Norse and the Indigenous peoples of North America. 

Identify images carved into the sculpture

On the right-hand side of the sculpture are images of animals that sustained the Indigenous peoples of the area. See if you can find the shapes of a whale and other animals.

You can almost see the wind in the sail

Portraying the Norse world through the left side of the sculpture, the artists shaped a ship with a billowing sail.

Children at L’Anse aux MeadowsParks Canada

Visiting L’Anse aux Meadows

Children at L’Anse aux MeadowsParks Canada

Visitors can spend some quality time with the costumed Norse interpreters at a reconstructed version of the encampment, listening to tales from the Vinland Sagas in the main hall, and watching demonstrations of iron forging and textile weaving. 

L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site operates daily from June to October. Plan to spend at least 3 hours touring the archaeological site, the reconstructed village, and walking the loop trail past a very “ironic” bog.

Colorful Skies at L’Anse aux MeadowsParks Canada

To Learn more about L’Anse aux Meadows...

Link in credits

A big thank you to Loretta Decker, Darrell Markewitz, and Dr. Jenneth Curtis. An extra special thank-you to Dr. Birgitta Wallace for helping with this episode and for her lifelong contributions to Norse history and archaeology. Her tireless efforts have brought this fascinating chapter of history to the world stage, and in 2015 her work was recognized with the Smith-Wintemberg Award, from the Canadian Association of Archaeologists, their highest honour.

Also, a big thanks to the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador for the use of their archaeological collections and the National Film Board of Canada for the audio clips of Helge Ingstad.

To learn more about this history of the Norse Greenlanders in North America, we highly recommend reading Brigitta Wallace’s books and articles on the subject, or visiting L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site: https://pc.gc.ca/meadows

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