Sarah Parcak at archaeological site

Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak on the site of a possible Viking settlement on the southern coast of Newfoundland in July 2015.  

Credit:

Freddie Claire/ BBC 

Newly discovered ruins offer tantalizing, if preliminary, evidence that Vikings may have ventured farther south into North America than previously thought.

Evidence at an archaeological site in southern Newfoundland suggests it may once have been inhabited by a group of the seafaring Scandinavians. If borne out by further research, this would be only the second Viking site in North America, and the first uncovered in more than 50 years.

“You can explain away one site,” said Sarah Parcak, the archaeologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham who led the discovery. “It’s a one-off. But I think if there’s two, there’s definitely more.”

Parcak first discovered the ancient ruin in a thoroughly modern fashion: through satellite images taken hundreds of miles above earth. Her team scanned the coastline of eastern Canada and northern New England using Google Earth to search for evidence of past human settlements.   

When the team found areas where plant growth seemed disrupted, they ordered high-resolution satellite imagery for a closer look. That led them to the southwestern corner of Newfoundland and a site researchers are now calling “Point Rosee.”

“We definitely did not think it could be Norse initially,” Parcak said.

Scientists know of only one other Viking site in North America, found on the very northern tip of Newfoundland in Canada, at L’Anse Aux Meadows. 

In the 1960s, archaeologists there uncovered the evidence of 1,000-year-old Viking buildings and signs of metalworking. The discovery confirmed historical sagas that had long suggested the Vikings had made it to America.

Viking specialist Douglas Bolender and Sarah Parcak near a newly uncovered patch of Viking-style turf walls in southern Newfoundland. 

Credit:

Greg Mumford, University of Alabama at Birmingham

After identifying the site with aerial imagery, Parcak led a 2.5-week excavation there in June of 2015.

The dig revealed a hearth, Viking-style turf walls, evidence of iron ore that would have been used to make ship nails, and carbon-dated material from the early ninth century through the late 13th century.

Archaeologists tellingly found no shards of ceramic or flint, which would have pointed toward English, French or indigenous communities at the site.

“All the data put together suggests that the site could potentially be Norse,” Parcak said.

There have been many false alarms in Norse history recently. Sites thought to bear evidence of Vikings later turned out not to be confirmed. Parcak says it may take years, and more physical evidence, to confirm if this site really belonged to the Norse.

“If we find all those things, then I think people will be a lot less sceptical,” Parcak said.

Parcak’s discovery is featured in a NOVA documentary airing on PBS next week.

Sarah Parcak’s work was funded by the BBC and PBS/NOVA. PRI's The World is a co-production of the BBC and WGBH, which produces NOVA. 

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