Katherine Kornei, New York Times, October 20, 2021
Six decades ago, a husband-and-wife team of archaeologists discovered the remains of a settlement on the windswept northern tip of Newfoundland. The site’s eight timber-framed structures resemble Viking buildings in Greenland, and archaeological artifacts found there — including a bronze cloak pin — are decidedly Norse in style.
Scientists now believe that this site, known as L’Anse aux Meadows, was inhabited by Vikings who came from Greenland. To this day, it remains the only conclusively identified Viking site in the Americas outside of Greenland.
But many questions remain about L’Anse aux Meadows: Who exactly settled it? Why? And, perhaps most importantly, when was the site occupied? Pinning down the settlement’s age has been a challenge — radiocarbon measurements of artifacts from L’Anse aux Meadows span the entire Viking Age, from the late eighth through the 11th centuries.
But in results published Wednesday in Nature, scientists presented what they think are new answers to this mystery. By analyzing the imprint of a rare solar storm in tree rings from wood found at the Canadian site, scientists have decisively pinned down when Norse explorers were in Newfoundland: the year A.D. 1021, or exactly 1,000 years ago.
Getting a more precise handle on when the Vikings inhabited L’Anse aux Meadows is important, said Michael Dee, a geoscientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and an author of the study.
“It was the first time the Atlantic Ocean was crossed,” he said, adding that establishing exact dates helps mark a turning point in the history of human movement around the planet.
To determine when the site was occupied with greater precision, Dr. Dee and his colleagues analyzed three pieces of wood collected from L’Anse aux Meadows in the 1970s. Each piece, originating from a different tree and still bearing its outer bark, had been cleanly cut with a metal tool, perhaps an ax. That’s a giveaway this wood was cleaved by Vikings, said Margot Kuitems, an archaeologist at the University of Groningen, and a member of the team.
“The local people didn’t use metal tools,” she said.
Until now, estimates of when L’Anse aux Meadows was occupied have very much been “guesstimates,” said Sturt Manning, an archaeologist at Cornell University and the director of the Cornell Tree Ring Laboratory, who was not involved in the research. “Here’s hard, specific evidence that ties to one year.”