The ocean whips around the boat as the wind takes them south. On the boat are 35 men, Vikings, explorers and sailors. Leif Eiriksson gazes toward the horizon. Behind them is land covered by glaciers and stone slabs, as well as a flat area of dense, impassable forest. The world is only 1000 years old.
Leif Eiriksson sees land far ahead. They find brown trout in the rivers, and cod in the ocean. There are bright green meadows, plains and generous forests. They can live here.
Past the tree tops
We visit Benedicte Ingstad at her house in Vettakollen in Oslo. An old forest path leads upwards and inwards. Among leaves and pine needles, the birds are singing. A slight chill reminds us of autumn creeping up on us. Here, just inside the Marka area, lawyer, author and explorer Helge Ingstad built his home with his wife Anne Stine. Later, their daughter Benedicte and her husband built a house right nearby when they got married. Three Icelandic sheepdogs greet us eagerly.
"We live a life of peace and quiet here, like in a national park. When I was little, there were black grouse playing by the side of the road,” says Benedicte, brewing two cups of coffee. Through the kitchen window, past the tree tops, we can see all the way to the Oslo Fjord. The snow is glittering.
"I’ve lived here all my life. Well, except for a couple of years in Africa, Botswana and Berkeley in the States. I’ve been gone for periods, in Gambia and Cambodia, for short-term jobs, but this is my home,” says Benedicte. After a long and eventful career as a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Oslo, she is now retired. The walls of her living room reveal a passion for people, art and culture. By her terrace door there is a spinning wheel. In her kitchen there are three glasses with a plant called woad, which she will use as a plant dye. It gives a vibrant blue color. Woad has been used for this since the Viking era.
“Some professors try to stick around when they retire, but I didn’t. I said ‘goodbye, I want to do something else now’, and started making things with my hands, plant dyeing and spinning wool. This gives me immense pleasure", says Benedicte.
Benedicte was 16 years old the summer that the great discovery was made. The year is 1960, and she and her father travelled along the northeast coast of Canada, up towards Newfoundland. Before this summer, her parents, Helge and Anne Stine, had spent several years studying the Icelandic sagas. These tell of Norsemen, Vikings, who settled down in Greenland, but suddenly disappeared after 500 years. The sagas also tell of voyages westward, and of the land areas they found there which were named Helluland, Markland and Vinland. This was what caught Benedicte’s parents’ attention. But as opposed to other researchers, they wouldn’t place Vinland in the wine districts, but much further north.
"My father thought that ‘vin’ had nothing to do with wine, but rather had to do with plains. As in Bjørgvin and Hovin. ‘Vin’ is a Norse word for a plain or a pasture", Benedicte explains.
The object for that summer was to cover as much of Newfoundland and the Labrador Coast as possible. The hypothesis was that if the Vikings really went there, they would have left traces.
"Based on the saga, we knew that they had built houses. So my father assumed that it may be possible to find ruins,” says Benedicte. Wherever they went ashore, the question was the same: Were there ruins? Traces of something that used to be there? Time and time again, the answer was no.
Until they reached the north end of Newfoundland. From the boat, Helge sees a flat, green area that might be interesting to have a look at. Happy accidents lead them to a man named George Decker, whom Helge asks the same question they keep asking: Are there any ruins here? To their great surprise, George says there are. He has heard of something like that over at L’Anse aux Meadows. Benedicte describes the moment when they first saw the ruins, in her book Oppdagelsen (“The Discovery”):
We went on and came to the small river, and there, on a half-moon-shaped terrace a little ways up from the shore, we saw clear signs of some elevated squares in the green grass. It was a beautiful place. Below was a beach that sloped down very gradually, just like the sagas describe it, the grass was exceptionally tall and lush, the river twisted idyllically down the hills toward the sea, and in the north, the mountain called Round Head formed a clear contour like the keel of a ship.
"It looked very promising. Old and run-down, just piles of turf left. The ruins were rectangular shaped, while the Indians’ and Eskimos’ houses were always round,” says Benedicte. There was not much they could do then and there, and the 16-year-old was instructed not to tell a soul about what they had found.
An old salvage vessel
A few years earlier, Benedicte’s mother, Anne Stine, had completed her education in archeology. With her husband and daughter’s discoveries in Newfoundland, she becomes the project manager for the excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows. The Ingstad family buys an old salvage vessel – a Colin Archer – and has it shipped to Montreal. From there, they go north past Quebec and the Labrador Coast to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and then on to Newfoundland. On board is a photographer, a skipper and Helge’s childhood friend, a doctor and chef in one. Then they start digging.
"It looked more promising the more they dug. They may not have found very many objects, but they came across fireplaces and pits used for cooking, and took home carbon dating samples which were then analyzed at home,” says Benedicte. The findings were dated to around the year 1000 CE, which was when Leif Eiriksson had gone on his journey.
Then comes the question on everyone’s minds: How was it, as a young teenager, to be a part of this journey? Benedicte smiles.
"It may not have been every 17-year-old’s dream to be on the north tip of Newfoundland, digging in the earth with a teaspoon. In retrospect I see it as much more exciting, but then and there it wasn’t exactly my dream activity,” she laughs.
The excavations last throughout the whole summer. During the following years, archeologists join them from Iceland and Canada. Eventually eight such summers pass. Benedicte is there for three summers.
"Eventually they find a smithy, and neither Indians nor Eskimos have been able to mine iron,» says Benedicte. There turned out to be lots of brown iron ore in the area, a gold mine of sorts for the Norse people since there was no brown iron ore in Greenland. The smithy made sense, the timing made sense and finally the archeologists found a piece of an old spinner. Benedicte gets up to find a small wooden object. It is elongated with a ball at the end.
"This is how they spun wool back then," she says. Again, neither Indians nor Eskimos had sheep or anything to spin. This also showed that women had come along on the voyage. The icing on the cake was a ring brooch that was found the next year. Now there was no doubt: L’Anse aux Meadows had to be a Norse area, and Helge was sure it was Leif Eiriksson’s Vinland.
“My parents had been sure for a long time, but now noone could refute my father’s theories,” says Benedicte.
The "wine" didn’t come from grapes. The «wine» was the abundance of the plains. The pastures. For a Greenlander, this new world must have been like a promised land. The Vikings were not just warriors, they were fishermen, hard-working farmers and explorers, and Vinland is their discovery that lives on today. Not only through the Icelandic sagas, but also in becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Every year, 30-40,000 tourists visit the ruins and the museum at L’Anse aux Meadows.
“The ruins and the museum have meant a lot to the local community. My parents were worried that the discovery would be destructive, but just after the excavations, the cod population declined and cod fishing became prohibited, which it still is today,” says Benedicte. Without the ruins, the whole coast would probably have become unpopulated. Instead, the ruins brought opportunities for employment. Bed and Breakfast, Viking snack bar. Along the whole coast, you can see the effects of Helge Ingstad’s discoveries.
"It’s nice that it had such positive consequences," Benedicte smiles.
Benedicte looks forward to joining Hurtigruten. She is comfortable at sea and on boats. She especially likes that the MS Spitsbergen is not some giant cruiseship with thousands of passengers. The informal, local atmosphere on the boat allows people to get to know each other. She looks forward to that. She also looks forward to her reunion with Newfoundland. The rocks that dive into the ocean. The wind-swept landscape. The point where the Vikings went ashore. The blue irises covering the green plains. The people who live there. Friends of her family.
"I always look forward to coming back to L’Anse aux Meadows.”