Vikings in Newfoundland –Visiting L’Anse aux Meadows

Follow the ‘Viking Trail’ on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula to one of the most unique archeological sites in Canada, L’Anse aux Meadows. One thousand years ago Vikings sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to reach this spot on the northern tip of Newfoundland. What makes it so unique is that it the only known Viking site in North America.

At 270 km long the Great Northern Peninsula is the longest peninsula on Newfoundland. After visiting Gros Morne National Park, we followed the highway, called ‘Viking Trail’ all the way to the peninsula’s northern tip.

Even though it’s a long drive, there are a few interesting spots to visit on the way that help break up the drive. One of those is Arches Provincial Park. This small park is right beside the highway and allows visitors to see an interesting rock formation located just off the beach. Thousands of years of harsh waves hammering on the cliffs have created natural archways in the rock. There are three arches and apparently there used to be a fourth, but it collapsed years ago. The park is free and it’s a quick, worthwhile stop.

A little further up the coast is Flower’s Cove where you can walk along the beach to see massive thrombolites. These 650 million-year-old fossils look like large stone buns. What makes them unusual is that each mound contains a fossilized colony of cyanobacteria. If you remember your biology classes these bacteria are considered to be the first organisms to produce oxygen and created our oxygen-rich atmosphere. Thrombolites are very rare and can only be found in Flower’s Cove and in Western Australia. In Australia there are still living thrombolites.

As we drove further north the highway was bordered by dense boreal forests filled with fir, aspen and birch. Several times on the drive we passed huge piles of firewood, stacked along the side of the highway. Apparently, the firewood is used to heat homes in this area during the long, cold winters. Each woodpile belongs to a family and it remains on the side of the road until they can collect it. Trust is high in this community as none of these wood piles are guarded or protected. In most of Canada, homes have either central heating furnaces run by natural gas, or electric baseboards. Fires are usually considered a treat, not a necessity.

As we neared the end of the Great Northern Peninsula, not far from L’Anse Aux Meadow, we saw two adorable fishing villages in rugged, dramatic settings. St.Lunaire-Griquet is situated on the edge of a bay filled with mountainous islands. Colourful buildings spread along the shore add the finishing touch to the pretty scene. Further north we stopped at Noddy Bay. In the distance, steep cliffs mark the entrance to the large bay as if protecting a small cluster of homes.

Just before the most northern point in Newfoundland is a very interesting site in Canada’s history. At L’Anse aux Meadows the landscape appears very desolate and isolated. The name translates in English to The Bay with Grasslands, but there aren’t grassy meadows here. Instead thick shrubs and bushes cover the undulating land that surrounds a large peat bog. Even though we visited in early September there was a cold wind howling off the ocean. It seems like an inhospitable place and yet is the site of an important archeological find. The foul weather added to the site’s mystique.

The first known European settlement in North America came from the unlikely source of Greenland. Believed to be Vinland from Viking sagas about Leif Erikson and Erik the Red, the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was only discovered in the 1960s.

On this site, archaeologists excavated the remains of 8 Viking buildings that were built in a similar manner to those found in Norse Greenland and Iceland. Walls were built of sod and peaked roofs were made from timber and covered in sod. Recent research dates the wood from these homes to be from the year 1021 CE, 1000 years ago. That’s almost 500 years before the first voyage of Columbus.

The buildings found on this site were longhouse dwellings, small huts, workshops and a forge containing an iron-smelting kiln. Archaeologists believe there may have been up to 100 people at a time in the village including women. While excavating, they found supplies that women would have used. There were stones believed to hold wool for looms and needles made from whalebone.

Today the location of the original buildings appear as mounds of grass. It was these unusual mounds that led researches to investigate. Before excavation, these mounds were covered in dense brush. Considering the harsh landscape it’s quite miraculous that these buildings were ever found.

Not far from these mounds are re-creations of the Norse buildings. We walked between the three low-roofed buildings with walls made from mud and sod and roofs covered in grass. We even saw wild flowers growing on one of the roofs. One building is a typical longhouse with a carved pediment above a rustic wooden door. Another is a small hut and the last is an iron smelting hut.

We walked inside the longhouse to find a warm, cozy atmosphere. Wood covers the angled ceiling and animal furs are draped across long benches in front of an open fire. We were greeted by ‘Vikings’ dressed in 10th century costumes sitting around the fire. They described what life would have been like for the Vikings and retold some of the old sagas. In the corner of the room beautifully hand carved chairs and colourful Viking shields provide more details of how it may have looked. There are no windows, the only natural light comes from the smoke-hole in the roof. On the other half of the longhouse bunkbed style beds take up a lot of the space. This was considered the women’s side of the house as there are also looms with partially completed weaving.

In front of the longhouse is a small open hut with a crude kiln. Vikings collected iron from the nearby bog and used it to make nails. We were told they made at least 100 nails in a kiln similar to this replica.

Researchers believe that this site was used as a base for further exploration rather than as a settlement. Vikings most likely stayed only for a few seasons at time before returning to Greenland. Part of the reason they believe it wasn’t meant to be permanent is because the buildings’ foundations didn’t have footings. As well, researchers discovered pieces of wood and butternuts that grow only as far north as New Brunswick. Likely the Vikings used this base to explore the southern coast to New Brunswick and possibly even further.

The surprising fact for us was that Vikings only came to this site a few times over 10 or 15 years and then abandoned it. Not much is known as to why they stopped coming, but it makes it even more remarkable that anything at all was found.

Visiting L’Anse aux Meadows

L’Anse aux Meadow National Historic Site is operated by Parks Canada. There is a daily entrance fee or you can use your Annual Discovery Pass. Check the Parks Canada website for operating hours.

Tips for Visiting Newfoundland

  • The TransCanada Highway in Newfoundland is shaped like a horseshoe as it travels along the west, north and eastern edge of the island province. There are smaller highways leading to the various capes, but in order to get from east to west, you have to drive all around the northern edge. There are no shortcuts across the island. It will take a full day to drive from one side to the other. There are quite a few potholes across the province so drive with caution.
  • Watch for moose while driving, especially between dusk and dawn. With 125,000 moose on the island there are, on average 700 moose-car collisions per year.
  • If you’re planning to rent a car or RV, the best advice is to book early. Even when there isn’t a worldwide pandemic, there are not many available.
  • Newfoundland Standard Time is 30 minutes ahead of Atlantic Standard Time so do don’t forget to change your watch.
  • Don’t confuse St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital city with St. John in New Brunswick.

Getting to Newfoundland

Marine Atlantic ferries travel between Sydney, NS and western Newfoundland’s Port aux Basques (7 hrs) twice a day and to the eastern province’s Argentia a few times a week. If traveling to or from Argentia iis is a long 16 hour trip, usually overnight.  Another ferry travels from Blanc-Sablon, Quebec to St. Barbe on the Great Northern Peninsula. This ferry is much closer to L’Anse aux Meadow, however it is a long and difficult drive to reach the Quebec Port.

Most flights travel to St. John’s, but there are also international airports in Stephenville and Gander. Gander is famous for accepting planes from the US during 9/11.

Read more posts from Newfoundland – St. John’s, Signal Hill, Day Trips from St. John’s, Trinity, Western Newfoundland, Conception Bay.

Coming Next – Quaint Towns on Bonavista Peninsula, Newfoundland

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