October-ganza Day 7: ‘Vikings’ in New England, part 1

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October 7, 2015 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

Professor Webb had been engaged, forty-eight years before, in a tour of Greenland and Iceland in search of some Runic inscriptions which he failed to unearth…

– The Call of Cthulhu


Pseudo-archaeology haVikingShipKingBostonHarbors long been a popular American pastime (though it is certainly no unique to this country) and one of the most enduring bits of (almost certainly) fantasy history is the belief that 10th century Vikings reached coastal New England.

Europeans have long-resisted accepting that the Native people they encountered in the Americas were capable of producing the monumental architecture we now recognize was their work – we see vestiges of this in the conviction that, say, the Mayan pyramids were built by (or at the behest of) aliens or Atlanteans or Elvisanyone but the Mayans.

The Viking Thesis

It was a Danish historian, Carl Christian Rafn, who provided the patina of historical plausibility of Viking settlement in New England. In his 1837 book Antiquitates Americana he proposed that the ‘Vinland’ of old Norse sagas was in fact New England.  (Even before Rafn there was widespread speculation that some of the mounds an other structures found in what became the United State were the work of a non-Native American people who had preceded the them and had likely been killed off later by these “savages”.)

The Evidence

Rafn, interpreted certain sagas that described voyages to sites beyond Greenland, such as ‘Helluland’, ‘Markland’ and ‘Vinland’, pairing the description of these places with the geography of coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Rafn never visited North America and relied upon local American scholars for details, including several examples of inscriptions thought to be of non-Native origins.

What evidence have the proponents of Viking explorers in New England offered?

Aside from these inscriptions, there are also pieces of physical evidence claimed as proof:

  • Newport Tower (Newport, RI).  The remains of a Colonial-era windmill that has become the focus of an entire pseudo-archaeological industry.  Demonstrably not 1000 years old or of Viking manufacture.
  • Edward Rowe Snow mentions in his guide to Boston Harbor that in the 1820s a skeleton with an iron sword was discovered on Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor, but he offers no source for that story or any further details. The ‘Skeleton in Armor‘ found in Fall River in 1832 (and which we covered last year) was claimed by some (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in particular, who popularized this interpretation) to be the remains of a Viking though this seems highly improbable.
  • The Vinland Map – A supposedly pre-Columbian (i.e. before Columbus) map showing parts of North America, based off of Scandinavian records.  Generally regarded as a fake.
  • Norumbega – Appearing on a number of early maps of North America (likely all copied from a 1529 map by Verrazano which included a city called Oranbega – no relation to Lou), was a mythological city called Norumbega.  Supposedly populated by “clever inhabitants, who trade in furs of all sorts… [and] use many words which sound like Latin… tall and handsome in form.”  Some 19th century Bostonians imagined that this place described was in fact a remnant of Viking settlement (as suggested by the ‘Nor’ part of the name) and that it had been in fact roughly where Cambridge MA.

Tomorrow – What evidence do we have for Vikings in North America beyond Greenland?  How could I use this in gaming?

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