Interview with Graeme Davis – Vikings in America

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One of the most fascinating aspects of Norse society was their ability to explore and branch out from their base in Scandinavia.  Norse sailors and colonists spread out across parts of Europe between the eight and eleventh centuries, going as far as Iceland, Greenland and North America. In his recent book, Vikings in America, Dr. Graeme Davis examines the evidence for Norse settlements between the High Arctic and east coast of the United States. We interviewed Dr. Davis by email:

1. How did you become interested in the Vikings and their settlements in North America?

The idea for Vikings in America came in 2003 while I was working on a British Academy funded syntax study at the University of Iceland. Icelanders have an enormous admiration for their Viking founders, and I guess respect for the Viking achievemnet rubbed off! By contrast in the British Isles we seem to have relegated our Viking heritage to the history books while in North America the story is presented as little more than a footnote. I’ve travelled to all the Viking North Atlantic stepping stones: Norway, Orkney, Shetland, Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and Canada – and become aware of how the Viking voyages have influenced all these lands. The story of the Vikings in America needs to be told.

2. You make two claims in your book: first, that Vinland is not located in Newfoundland, but rather in the New England area; second, that the name America did not get its name from the explorer Amerigo Vespucci – instead it is derived from the Old Norse word merki. Neither of these theories have much acceptance from scholars, but they to deserve to be talked about. Could you outline your theories?

Vinland is certainly not Newfoundland. Here we have an area where popular accounts and more thoughtful scholarship diverge. In popular writing on the Vikings the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement on Newfoundland is indeed often equated with Vinland and an assertion made that archaeology has proved the Saga story. It hasn’t; rather archaeology has proved that the Vikings settled one part of America while the Sagas indicate that the Vikings made a settlement in a completely different part. We can be absolutely sure that L’Anse aux Meadows is not the Leifsbudir settlement in Vinland. L’Anse aux Meadows is later than the Vinland settlement described in the Sagas while no-one could equate Newfoundland’s severe winter with the mild winters described for Vinland in the Sagas. In saying that Newfoundland is not Vinland I don’t think I have said anything that any serious scholar would disagree with. Rather Newfoundland may correspond with the Markland of the Sagas. Vinland is somewhere further south, plausibly New England, and may be a term used for a vast area of land rather than a single location. The specific settlement of Leifsbudir in Vinland described in the Sagas must have been somewhere on the American east coast and if we are very lucky we may one day discover it.

That America takes its name from Amerigo Vespucci is a story that has been taught at school to generations of American children. It is hard to challenge because it is so well established, yet it is based solely on a curious piece of marginalia on a single copy of an early world map. Were the map discovered today I doubt any scholar would take seriously the map-maker’s assertion that America is named after Amerigo Vespucci. Rather the map-maker had locked himself into a framework which required him to identify the person after which each continent was named and appears to hit on Amerigo out of desperation. In the sixteenth century a man was referred to by his surname with few knowing his first name; Vespucci’s first name is Amerigo not America; in view of the enormous publicity given to the 1492 Columbus voyage no-one interested in America could be unaware that Columbus was the discoverer. In saying that America is categorically not named after Amerigo Vespucci I think I am on firm foundations. I also know I am inviting controversy by criticizing what has become an American national myth, yet very many people have rightly doubted this myth. The follow up question has to be “why is America called America?” One possibly answer is of course “we don’t know.” I’ve had a go at answering this question by treating the name as an Old Norse word, one that the Vikings frequently used to describe tracts of unfarmed land – merki. While the derivation of America from Amerigo Vespucci is impossible, my proposed derivation is at least possible. I’m aware that other derivations have been suggested, from either Old Norse or English, and at least some of these alternative derivations are also plausible. But of course I prefer mine!

3. Since you wrote this book, an important research project has evaluated the Vinland Map, and concluded it to be genuine (see http://medievalnews.blogspot.com/2009/07/vinland-map-is-authentic-expert.html). Your own book devotes several pages to the document, but says “the jury remains out” on whether or not it is authentic. With this new evidence available, how does it alter your ideas on the Vikings in America, or are you still unconvinced that is a genuine medieval map?

This new evidence is fascinating! It is from a team led by René Larsen of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and is the result of a substantial study which has been well funded. To date Larsen’s actual report has not been published; rather we have a press release and several presentations. Larsen is very careful not to say the map is genuine – rather he says there is no evidence that it is a forgery. In the absence of his formal report we still don’t know precisely what tests were conducted but I think we can now say that from the perspective of the discipline of manuscript conservation there is no evidence of forgery. This simplifies the often complex arguments around the Vinland Map as we are left with just one substantial objection to the map being genuine – the presence of twentieth century synthetic anatase within the ink. Larsen has put forward the view that the anatase may come from sand used to blot the ink and repeats an existing view that the anatase may be an unusually regular natural formation rather than being synthetic, specifically suggesting that it may possibly be found in certain Swiss sands. The debate on Larsen’s findings has been taken up in an article and forum by Scientific American with a reasonably clear consensus that the anatase is certainly synthetic and that anyway it could not have been introduced in the way Larsen sets out.

Larsen has not solved the disputes around the Vinland Map. Rather he cut through many of the spurious objections to the map being considered genuine and so left us with a situation where the presence of synthetic anatase is the only objection that truly remains. But this single issue is an enormous objection! The two disciplines of conservation and chemistry are producing incompatible results, yet both are certain that they are right.

What we are left with is a logic puzzle! I wonder if in the light of Larsen’s work it may be that we can now speculate on a solution to this puzzle. I think a logical chain of events can at least be advanced, one which explains the apparently conflicting evidence we have. The key I believe is in the character of Ferrajoli, the dealer who presented the map to the world. Ferrajoli was later convicted of manuscript theft. He dealt in manuscripts acquired as war loot and sourced through disreputable intermediaries and was motivated by profit, not considerations of scholarly integrity. One thing there is consensus about is that he didn’t himself forge the Vinland Map – not because he would not have done such a thing but because he did not have the necessary academic skills. My thought is that it is plausible that he acquired from war loot a genuine fifteenth century mappa mundi showing the New World, effectively an ur-Vinland Map. Without provenance (or at least without a provenance that Ferrajoli was going to confess to) such a manuscript was all but worthless. In the days before carbon-14 dating it is hard to see how such a genuine map without a provenance have been accepted as genuine. Rather without provenance it would have been dismissed as a probable forgery. We can imagine Ferrajoli would have found this most frustrating! The idea of creating a context by copying it onto two pages within a genuine manuscript is one that may have occurred to him, as may the idea of letting the scholarly world first see the map alone and then, when (as was inevitable) doubts were raised, producing the rest of the volume as a context for the Vinland Map. Copying something is far easier than forging from scratch, and this is within the competence of Ferrajoli and his associates. My thought is that in the Vinland Map we have a 1950s copy of a genuine fifteenth century map. Very many features of the Vinland Map are right – cartography, paleographic style, the mediaeval Latin complete with a mistake – and Larsen’s key contribution is to stress this, cutting through the spurious objections. All these things are right because the map is a competent copy, and because it has been contextualized within a genuine manuscript of the right date But Ferrajoli or his copyist had to resort to a modern anatase based ink to imitate an aged mediaeval ink, and the development of techniques of analysis have revealed this deception.

Curiously another early map showing Viking North America, the Skalholt Map, is known only from copies. These are honest copies in that they own up to what they are and although copies they are nonetheless important documents. By contrast the Vinland Map in this scenario is a dishonest copy masquerading as genuine. Notwithstanding if a case can be built for the Vinland Map being a 1950s copy of a genuine map it is evidence of a genuine ur-Vinland Map and therefore an important document. Trying to call the Vinland Map either fake or genuine may be seeking to answer a question which is not appropriate.

4. You devote a good section of your book looking at the Viking presence in the high arctic, which includes several archaeological discoveries (see http://medievalnews.blogspot.com/2009/06/archaeological-discovery-of-norse.html for another recent find). Considering the harsh climate of that region, what does this reveal about Norse society that they were able to inhabit these places and make a living there?

The recent Baffin Island find is exciting! This is the second confirmed year-round Viking settlement in what is now Canada (or the third if the Ellesmere Island finds are interpreted as year-round.) Now with a second or even third confirmed Canadian settlement site we have the Vikings firmly established in America west of Greenland. Furthermore the location of the Baffin Island site on Hudson Strait supports the idea of Viking exploration of Hudson Bay, suggesting Viking presence in the heart of the North American continent.

Human habitation of the High Arctic says a lot about human societies. Very many peoples have inhabited the arctic and high arctic regions. Greenland alone has a six-thousand year history of settlement, with all those settlements before the Vikings being by Stone Age peoples. Human societies demonstrate time and time again that they can flourish even in these northern latitudes and the Vikings are by no means unique in settling there. But each arctic society has to make special adaptations to the environment, and it is in the Vikings’ special adaptation that we can glimpse something of the special qualities of their society.

The special adaptation of the Viking society that emerged in Greenland and elsewhere in the arctic is that it used trans-oceanic trade to provide materials lacking in the arctic. Trade with Europe was essential for survival. We have to envisage communities in Greenland where every summer season a ship set off for a round trip to Europe and back again. Within those communities most – women as well as men – would at some time in their life make the trip and perhaps make it many times. It is this ceaseless voyaging that is the dominant feature of the society that emerged in Greenland and the arctic. We have a mobile population with everyone an ocean voyager.
The experience of trans-Atlantic voyages in open boats must have been central to the shared experience of the Greenland Vikings. Most voyages from Greenland back to Europe were direct (avoiding the “taxes” that would have been payable through stopping en route) requiring a two to three weeks or more in a small vessel, and for much of the time out of sight of land, and with very real risks of shipwreck. This is the heroic ethic in action.

5. In the end how do you think that the Viking presence in North America should be judged in history textbooks – as a footnote or something more important?

The Apollo moon missions show human beings pushing a technology to the very limits to get men to the moon. We did it! Similarly the Vikings pushed their ship technology to its utter limits in order to voyage the North Atlantic. The story of the Vikings in America is one of the great stories of human achievement and human heroism and should be celebrated as such.

There is a long but unbroken chain from the Vikings in America to the English in America. We sometimes forget that England is a Viking nation, as much the heirs of Viking King Canute as English King Alfred and Celtic King Arthur. John Dee, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, saw England as the heir to the Vikings and on the basis of the Viking voyages set out an English legal claim to North America, in opposition to the papal division of the New World between Spain and Portugal. England explored in the footsteps not of Columbus but of the Vikings. Without John Dee and without the Vikings it is likely that the USA would be the United States of Columbia, speaking Spanish and have Roman Catholicism as its dominant religion. History would have been different. Today Canada’s sovereign claim to the Canadian High Arctic rests on inherited British claims to the area which go back through John Dee to the Vikings.

Right now we don’t have the evidence to know whether there is a continuous settlement from the Vikings through to the Colonial period – but we may soon have it. DNA studies may provide solutions if they are carried out – we would need DNA samples from early Native American burials, which is both problematic and controversial but in theory possible. Linguistic studies of some Native American languages may show borrowings from Old Norse – there are already some intriguing possibilities within the Algonquian group. Archaeology always has the potential to surprise. The Newport Tower clearly needs a re-assessment in view of some pre-colonial carbon-14 dates from its mortar, while the number of disputed Viking finds in Minnesota may give grounds for hope that one day a find may come to light that gains general acceptance. The recent Baffin Island finds make it that much easier to believe that the Vikings came to Hudson Bay, and at least credible that they came further south. There is every reason to anticipate more finds. We have now found a scatter of Viking artifacts from Baffin Island and Labrador, an immense area which has had relatively scant archaeological attention and may reasonably have much more. We may soon have to conclude that the Vikings in America are a pre-Columbian people, with all the legal and constitutional conundrums this presents.

Viking North America is no footnote. It is one of the greatest stories of human achievement. And the legacy of Viking America touches the day to day life of every American and every Canadian.

We thank Dr. Davis for answering our questions.

Sharan Newman