Thor Heyerdahl Believes Vikings Were the First Tourists~
From the New York Times Dec 19, 2000
Excavations prove that a few score Norsemen bumped ashore in northern Newfoundland 1,000 years ago, landing in America almost 500 years before Columbus. But scholars generally dismiss the event with an asterisk because they say it did not change the course of history.
Have they sold the Vikings short?
Dr. Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian anthropologist, thinks so, but then, he is no conventional scholar. He is best known for the perilous "Kon Tiki" raft expedition from Peru to Polynesia in 1947, made to illustrate that ancient South American Indians could have colonized the Pacific.
In interviews and a new book, Dr. Heyerdahl and Per Lilliestrom, a Swedish map expert, claim that thousands of their hardy Norse ancestors may have prospered in the land that Leif Ericson christened "Vinland" in A.D. 1000. In their view, the colonists spread as far south as today's New York City, fishing, tending farm animals and cutting timber for several hundred years under the solicitous eye of the Catholic Church in Rome.
"Vinland is more than most people think," said Dr. Heyerdahl, robust and combative at 86. "I would draw the boundaries of Vinland to include the area from Hudson Strait in the north down through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and all the way down to Long Island.
Why would they stop?"
Dr. Heyerdahl has an affinity with the tough Norsemen who ventured into water so foreboding that medieval map makers illustrated it with dragons and whirlpools. After gaining fame for "Kon Tiki," Dr. Heyerdahl sailed from Morocco to Barbados on a primitive-style reed vessel to promote the idea that ancient Mediterranean mariners could have paid visits to Central America. His theory of a Greater Vinland is nearly as daring, coming just as other prominent scholars have closed ranks around a minimalist account of the Norse journeys.
The view held by most established scholars is that the height of Norse civilization in America consisted of eight sod buildings and a blacksmith forge. They were excavated in the 1960's at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. A bronze cloak pin, iron rivets and other artifacts from the blustery site are part of "Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga," an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
L'Anse aux Meadows settlers almost certainly came from Greenland, where Leif Ericson's father, Eric the Red, founded a Norse colony in A.D. 987. But no more than 90 people seem to have occupied the Newfoundland outpost, and they left after a few years. The Greenlandic mother colony lasted half a millennium, then disappeared in one of anthropology's great mysteries. Its population reached a peak of 2,000 to 5,000 people in the 1200's.
In making their case that Norsemen wandered through much of the American Northeast, Dr. Heyerdahl and Mr. Lilliestrom cited medieval European writings and maps suggesting that the Greenlanders were on to something big. They also mounted a fresh scientific defense of "Norse" artifacts that most experts have dismissed as phony or misidentified: a rune stone from Minnesota, a mysterious stone tower in Newport, R.I., and Yale's "Vinland Map."
The result is a book, "Ingen Grenser," Norwegian for "No Boundaries." It will be revised and retitled before release in English in 2001, according to the publishing house J. M. Stenersens Forlag.
The unique approach of Dr. Heyerdahl and Mr. Lilliestrom was to cast a Roman Catholic glow over medieval Greenland and Vinland. They even called Leif Ericson "a Catholic missionary." The sagas say he was baptized at the royal court in Norway before converting Greenland to Christianity and discovering the new Western lands.
It was in the Vatican Library in Rome that Dr. Heyerdahl found the earliest reference to a land beyond Greenland, in Adam of Bremen's "History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen" from 1075.
"He also spoke of another island," Adam wrote, referring to his interview with King Svend Estridsen of Denmark, "which many have found in this great ocean, and which is named Vinland because grapes grow wild there, and yield the best wine. There is also an abundance of self- sown grain, as we know not from hearsay only, but from the sure report of the
Dr. Heyerdahl said, "I think few people are aware that 400 years before Columbus, the papal see knew there was land over there." He noted that 16 bishops were assigned to oversee Greenland and associated lands between 1112 and the demise of the Greenlandic colony around 1500.
The clearest suggestion that something transformative had taken place in North America came from the hand of a 17th century Icelandic bishop. Citing 14th century annals that have been lost, the bishop, Gisli Oddsson, wrote: "The inhabitants of Greenland, of their own free will, abandoned the true faith and the Christian religion, having already forsaken all good ways and true virtues, and joined themselves with the folk of America."
Scattered Norse finds in eastern Canada do suggest that the Greenlanders crossed the northern Davis Strait for centuries to trade with the Inuit or to cut timber, but there is no sign of wholesale resettlement. And the only undisputedly Norse object found in today's United States was an 11th century silver coin from Norway that turned up in Maine.
By contrast, the American scenario in "No Boundaries" is a rich one:
Settlers and traders from throughout the North Atlantic drifted west to escape the grasp of royal tax collectors and bishops demanding tithes. On becoming Vinlanders, they lived primitively, much as French trappers did centuries later, marrying Indian women and leaving few traces.
According to Mr. Lilliestrom, their numbers may have spiked around 1110. A reported 10,000 Norwegian crusaders returning from the Middle East sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar that year, but there is no record of a homecoming in Norway. Mr. Lilliestrom thinks they may have sailed or been swept westward on the current that would later bring Spaniards to America. On sighting land, he said, they would instinctively have turned north and found the Vinland farers.
Such an infusion would have raised Vinland's profile, accounting for later mentions of the place in Icelandic annals and even, Mr. Lilliestrom said, on the infamous Vinland Map.
In 1957, Yale bought the map, supposedly drawn before Columbus yet showing "Vinilanda Insula" in the Northwest Atlantic. When chemical analysis suggested the ink contained a 20th century synthetic version of titanium dioxide, the map was denounced as a fraud. But Mr. Lilliestrom denounced the denouncers after a chemistry experiment of his own:
From the Swiss Alps, where the Vinland Map was purportedly made, he acquired natural anatase crystals and ground them finely in accord with ink-making instructions from a 15th century German art book. The resulting titanium dioxide ink was, he claimed, identical with the chemical and crystalline structure of the ink on the Vinland Map.
For Mr. Lilliestrom, the significance of the map is its Latin notation stating that Vinland was visited in 1117 by "Henricus, apostolic legate and bishop of Greenland and the nearby areas.
"There must have been a Christian congregation in Vinland/America at that time, because otherwise the pope would not have sent a man so high up in the church's hierarchy," he said.
In his view, the Norse Vinlanders later dissolved so thoroughly into the Indian population that only their light skin and the occasional pair of blue eyes remained for European explorers to remark upon in the 16th century as they sailed along a coast identified on their maps as "Norumbega" or "Normanvilla."
When Dr. Heyerdahl discussed "No Boundaries" at the University of Oslo recently, more than 600 people crowded the hall. Skeptics said they feared the "Kon Tiki" adventurer could touch off a wave of uncritical Vikingmania in North America.
"This is farther out than anything he has ever done before," said Birgitta Wallace, a Parks Canada archaeologist who devoted 20 years of her career to L'Anse aux Meadows. "In my opinion, it's not much more than a fantasy."