Everybody, welcome turnstyles history. You know, I love maritime history, I love the collection of Scandinavian seafaring peoples that we refer to as the Vikings, you'll have to forgive me if you object to that term.
The Vikings, as we've done a recent podcast with this cat, German, travelled all the way into the great trading routes of Eurasia, the silk routes from Asia to the Middle East and Europe, travelling down the great rivers of Russia and Ukraine, possibly establishing those states as they did so. So we know that at least let's not forget they headed west. Britain and Ireland was the near abroad for the Vikings. They settled Iceland, one of the last great land masses on planet Earth, to be settled by humans.
And they went further. Greenland. Yes. And even Canada, as you'll hear in this podcast, we think we've identified one site in Newfoundland, also Meadow, which is a Viking site, but it looks like it was just a place where Vikings stopped off. On the very tip of Newfoundland for making the long journey over to Baffin Island or Greenland. Where were they going beyond there to the west and the south? We don't know, but one day, one day we may find out as our guest on this podcast tells me.
Gordon Campbell, emeritus professor in Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has written a book about the Vikings in North America. And he just rekindled my fascination with that story. Are we one day going to find the missing Viking sites in New Brunswick, the St. Lawrence, Maine. New England. Maybe even Manhattan. Well, probably not Manhattan. It is so exciting. So it's lovely to have Gordon on the podcast talking about the Vikings heading west.
If you want to listen to Cat Jarman's previous podcast on the Vikings, the best place to it's probably on our new relaunched history hit app for your phone or your computer or your TV. You get a history at DOT TV. It sort it all out there. You take out a very small subscription. You subscribe allowing us to make lots of wonderful podcasts and TV shows. We're launching some new podcast soon. Thanks to you guys subscribing. We've been able to do that.
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Come check out the autumn tour around Britain history at dot com slash tour. But in the meantime, everyone here is the brilliant Gordon Campbell talking about the Vikings in the West.
Gordon, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. It's good to be here with you. The north expansion west across the Atlantic. I've been to north churches in Greenland. I've been the settlement in Greenland. But as we get into Canada, North America. Are we entering a world where archaeology myth sagas here say, are they in alignment?
They're not at all. There are too many holes in the evidence and gaps. For example, if you think of the sagas, the protagonists of the sagas, that gives you a list of names. If you look at surviving inscriptions in Greenland, that gives you another list of names. They don't overlap in any way. And so there is no Soga character whose historicity is confirmed by archaeological evidence. But it's also the case that archaeology in the Canadian eastern Arctic is an awfully big place, and the archaeology is far from giving a coherent picture, partly because carbon dating in areas in which the objects under analysis are frozen for half the year excuse dates in all kinds of ways.
We have trouble with phonology, and there's also a difficulty that when sites are discovered, there are various reasons why they can't be followed up at present. The site that shows the most promise is on the south coast of Baffin Island. But for various reasons, the archaeological investigation has been suspended. So there may or may not have been a trading station there. Until somebody gets back there, we won't know.
It's so exciting and tantalizing. I went on a completely hapless adventure around Newfoundland a few years ago, looking for Viking sites with various satellite archaeology and things like that, remote sensing. We've dive straight to the point where everyone will come to the narrative in a second. But where are you on the also medo the very tip of northern Newfoundland excavated and then reconstructed with great excitement. There's some argument about the historicity of that. Well, the evidence is, again, complicated.
It was lots of Americans that got me interested in all of this in the 1960s when the shots first uncovered the site, it seems to be genuinely Knauss, which is to say the iron objects there are made by methods not available to the locals. It is on a site that was previously occupied by indigenous people. But there's no evidence of contact. There are no burials. There's no church. What there is is three longhouses, three boat crews, perhaps, and three storage huts where they could keep supplies and possibly accommodate slaves.
So all the evidence points to some kind of transit place for voyages further to the south where they might be. The most tantalizing clue is butternut nutshells, one of which was carved. And Bernhardt's don't grow in Newfoundland and have never grown in Newfoundland, but they grow in the St. Lawrence Valley. They grow New Brunswick. They grow in New England. The currents don't go in the right direction to carry them there to Newfoundland. Therefore, they were collected and we don't know where.
So Lonesome Meadows appears to be a transit point for a Short-Lived colony somewhere we're better not screw, but that's as far as you can go. Oh, God, it's so exciting.
Let's go back to the sagas. What do they say about that Norse expansion to the West? We Iceland first one of the last great islands on the planet to be colonized by humans. Yes, yes. Although the Irish monks appeared to be the first. Let's get me started on that. You know, there's all kinds of things in Iceland. There's a national museum. There are some Roman coins. I mean, how do they get there? The archaeology throws up all kinds of anomalies.
The difficulty is that the sagas aren't history books. They're literature. They're read as log books by the literalists who say if you go for so many hours directly to the West, you will encounter so-and-so. And then they confirm what they're seeing with a detail in the sagas. I don't believe any of it. I think the soldiers are family history. Essentially, they're designed to glorify certain people with tales of their ancestors. There's an analogy, if you think of Schliemann, Troy Freeman decided the Iliad was true.
It wasn't a made up story. So he went to this site on the coast of Turkey and he dug and he dug and he found some burnt wood. So that showed a fire. That was it. It was burnt. He found various treasures, gold pieces, which he assembled and said Prem's treasures and therefore the story of the Iliad is true. Now, if you believe that you believe anything. In the case of the soldiers, we have characters like The Red Life is his son we know.
Is Leif the lucky that they exist? Well, I suppose there could have been a chieftain called Erik. He might have had a son called Leif, but I very much doubt it. In other words, you have a series of tales that reflect real discoveries because the Norse did go to Greenland. They lived there for almost five hundred years. And various fjords that you visited are named after the founding settlers that are named in the Soga. So there's an Eriks fjord now and that kind of thing, but there's no reason to believe any of that.
The real evidence, the hard evidence is the archaeological evidence, not the literary accounts of early discoveries, which I think are almost entirely fictional. Let's just very briefly, why do the North how are they able to travel, perhaps the Romans as well, to these great islands of the North Atlantic, because there's something about the climate or their boat building the navigational skills, that means that they are able to span this extraordinary stretch of ocean? Well, the Viking ships can cope with the North Atlantic, even though there were open boats in terms of navigation, they could do latitude quite accurately, navigating both from the stars.
But there were very good at picking out appropriate landmarks and that kind of thing. They could do latitude. But like everyone else, they couldn't do longitude very well and they didn't do maps. There's no such thing as a Norse map. So they navigated in ways that were different from us. There isn't a national museum in Copenhagen. Half of what seems to be a compass, precisely how it worked isn't entirely clear, but it took readings from the sun and enabled them to tell what latitude they were on in terms of why there was farmland available in Norway.
But there are any number of reasons. The new religion, Christianity came along. A lot of them thought that was a thoroughly bad idea and wanted out. There were feuds between chieftain's that made people leave and migrate to find a new place. And there's a series of staging posts across the North Atlantic from the pharaohs to Iceland to Greenland. But there's no destiny in America. There's nothing drawing them to the great American dream. And part of my interest is that whereas the Norse going west become thinner and thinner, Greenland didn't have more than two and a half thousand people living in the settlements.
Lots of meadows didn't have more than 60 people living there. So it's a case of overextended supply lines, if you like, so that if they did touch the coast of North America and encountered unfriendly locals, they didn't have the capacity to stay, even though they had the navigational skills and the ships that would enable them to go back and forth.
Yes, denseness history got Professor Gordon Campbell on talking about the Vikings in North America. More after this.
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And they just happened upon wonderfully productive, rich farmland. I mean, it's Newfoundland, you kind of farm, of course, and Greenland and Newfoundland, but the vagaries of the Gulf Stream means that it's just a different climate at a very similar latitude.
That's right. And the Greenland climate has changed, of course, just as it's been a warm period now. So when they arrived in the late 10th century, it was part of the medieval warm period, but it started to get cooler. And as it got cooler, the upland pastures became problematical and farming became more challenging. They could never do a lot. They appear not to have had bread, for example, in Greenland because they couldn't drove the appropriate grains to make it.
So it got harder and harder there. But that said, we have an image of Greenland as frozen all over. But as you well know, you have visited the summers are perfectly good for farming and the winters are more like Scotland than they are like New York or Toronto. They're not bitterly cold because of the Gulf Stream. As you say, what they did need on the North American mainland was timber. They had some driftwood in Greenland. There are references to going to what is presumably Labrador below the tree line to harvest wood, which they needed for their houses and which they needed for their ships.
But as yet another issue in the archaeology, there's not a single piece of wood in Greenland that has been shown to come from the Labrador coast because of the currents. The wood that is there has come from Siberia, from Siberian rivers.
Wow. It's a settled issue for you. Is it that they would whip across the Labrador and Newfoundland? I mean, this is not something that's controversial. We just don't have a huge amount of evidence for it. That's right.
The account of it, which is quite late, it's in the 14th century, just describing a voyage there in a completely matter-of-fact way, as if it had been going on forever. And on their way, they went to Markland and collected timber and came back. There was no sense of a discovery or a new resource or anything like that. So it would appear that that's not unlikely. And if you think of the distances, it's not very far across to the Labrador coast.
Certainly for people who had come from Norway and frozen Iceland, it wasn't a perilous or a particularly long journey.
The suggestion is it butternut that yes, yes, butternut. It implies they had knowledge of more temperate climes further south and west. Precisely. So do we know why they didn't attempt to. Did they colonize that? Why have we lost that evidence? And was it just too far? It's just not enough bodies and you couldn't get enough logistical support.
That may be the reason it didn't last. As to it being established, it seems that if Newfoundland lots of meadows was a transit site, it was a transit site somewhere. And the missing piece of the archaeology is somewhere on the eastern seaboard. There is an abandoned Norse colony which has not been discovered and much of that coast is forested. It would be looking for a needle in a haystack. There are various contenders that have been offered, but not a shred of archaeological proof.
So that's what remains to be found.
The place beyond Newfoundland where they tried to establish a colony and presumably failed and is part of the problem, political fragmentation in the north. Well, you won't approve of this, but I can't help comparing it to Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries and wondering what was different and what was similar. And obviously all sorts of differences, but particularly climate and latitude. But Spain as a kingdom had just been unified in the Iberian Peninsula. It was riding high.
There was quite established.
Aragon and Castiel had come together. The Moors had been expelled.
Yeah. In early modern terms, it's quite a functional state, right? It is. And is the problem that you don't get that ability to project force or imperialism colonisation in any states in the Baltic world at this time?
Well, it's a very interesting point, because Greenland, until the middle 13th century wasn't a state, it wasn't attached to Norway. It was simply a group of chieftains who weren't organized in a way that we could think of as a nation state that made it very poorly placed to do anything beyond feed themselves and bits of trading. But you're right that in the northern states we know that borders came very late, 16, 48, the Treaty of Westphalia, and until then, the only country that had borders, the only nation state that had borders in all of Europe was Iceland.
And it was because it happened to be an island in the middle of nowhere. So far everywhere except Iceland. Rulers didn't rule geographically defined places. They ruled peoples, including people who lived some distance from them. So it was a different notion of the nation from the idea of the nation state that we have now and in those kind of Proteau states that do form in Norway.
Have you found any discussion around, like, should we invest in a Western strategy?
You know, should we be trying to push colonists and push our reach in that direction?
If that doesn't happen until the Reformation, because there was an established church in Greenland, which was Catholic, and after the Reformation, people in Norway in particular said, I wonder if those people in Greenland have been converted to a new religion. Has anyone told them? And that's when a missionary ideas were born and when they were exported. Eventually what happened in the 18th century, that's when you get the sort of link up that you're talking about. But the wish to hold on to Greenland as part of a larger state, if you like, the beginnings of colonization.
And we should obviously finish the story of the Greenland colonization. There was the medieval cooling period, we're not up at the sort of 17th century catastrophe always, so there was a medieval cooling period and that just strangled their way of life.
So that's the most sensible. The abandonment of North Greenland isn't documented in any way. And the total lack of evidence, of course, has led many narratives to be put in when Hunsecker arrived in the region. There was nobody there as far as he could see. And then he found some Inuit. But where were the Norse? And that led to the story of the abandonment being framed as a kind of morissa mystery. Here was this society and suddenly it has disappeared.
We don't know what made them leave. It could be any number of things that fantasists, of course, want them to be moving to North America and establishing a colony that lasted for several hundred years. But it's a small population. And if there were, for example, some kind of catastrophe at sea, which has happened in villages in England and Scotland in the 19th century, where half the male population of the village was suddenly wiped out in a storm, an incident like that unrecorded because all of these things are unrecorded, could easily have made what remained of the settlements unviable.
So the evidence is of a methodical departure. There's no sense of abandonment. And they went home, whatever home was to Iceland and indeed to Norway, because the Black Death, which we in Britain exported to Norway, wiped out a large proportion of the population and left lots of farmland. So the North Greenlanders could easily have gone back to Norway. But nothing is recorded. So we don't know why they left and we don't know when they left. The last farmstead, which also appears to have been a trading post, had a huge cache of clothing and the clothing has been carbon dated as late as the fourteen thirties and may have been much later than that.
I mean, it's possible, but possibly stretching the evidence to think that Columbus arrives in the Caribbean in fourteen ninety two and the last north Greenlanders were just packing their bags to leave, passing the baton to him.
It's just so tantalizing. Exciting. Will we live to see that last Viking settlement found on the Eastern Seaboard? Who knows.
We have no idea. We do know that a huge number of Americans, often of Scandinavian origin, think that there's already proof and they have found all kinds of proof in the way of rune stones and ruins that they're convinced are Norwegian that simply demonstrate the Norse for their long before Columbus and established a colony there as it lasted for 300 years.
Some argue you don't sound particularly convinced. I think it's bonkers, but the interest is in why evidence should be misconstrued. I mean, there is, for example, a building in Rhode Island that is identified by true believers as a Norse church. In fact, it's a windmill. It's a copy of one near Leamington Spa. And there's a direct connection between that site and the site in Rhode Island. But evidence never gets in the way of true believers.
And, of course, if you're short of evidence, you manufacture your own.
And there's been a lot of that, I believe, nowadays, Gordon, we're calling these people ethno nationalists. Yes.
That's a term we normally use of people in the Balkans. But that is the case. It runs on a spectrum from the entirely harmless you know, my surname is Lazenby and therefore I must be of Norse extraction. And that's fine. I mean, family history is harmless, but then moves into ethno nationalism and at the other end it runs into a sense of racial superiority and a rather sinister form of racism. So all of these can be placed somewhere on that spectrum from the harmless to the deeply malevolent.
Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, talking about your wonderful book, God. What's it called? Telephone they about? Yeah, it is called North America The Story of a Founding Myth. Wonderful. Thank you very much indeed. OK, thanks, Don.
US to create a strong bond in the history of our country. Oh, my God. And. Hybridised, quick message at the end of this podcast on Kavi sheltering in a small, windswept building on a piece of rock in the Bristol Channel called Lundie. I'm here to make a podcast. I'm here enduring weather that frankly is apocalyptic because I want to get some great podcast material for you guys in return. A little tiny favor to ask if you could go to get your podcasts, if you could give it a five star rating, if you could share it, if you could give it a review.
I really appreciate that. But from the comfort of your own homes, you'll be doing me a massive favour. Then more people listen to the podcast. We can do more and more ambitious things and I can spend more of my time getting pummeled. Thank you.