|West with the Vikings
||[Apr. 13th, 2016|01:02 pm]
On Sunday we caught up with The Vikings Uncovered, which we only picked up on because a friend tweeted about it. In many ways it was an infuriating programme: in particular, it did one of the things I most hate about television documentaries, which is that it assumes the subject matter is not inherently interesting, and that unless it is tricked out with illustrative footage and fake suspense, the audience will wander off. It also managed to run for an hour and a half, which is longer than I find comfortable for a pregramme whose structure is "Look at this! And now look at this!" It was like watching a ninety minute trailer for a series coming later in which each of the short sections would would be unfolded into a really interesting programme about a site associated with the Vikings, and what we could learn about them from that site.
The most interesting of all of these, the bean in the cake, was the discovery of what really does seem to be a second Viking site in Newfoundland, at Point Rosee near the southwestern tip of the island. The BBC, bless their pointed little heads, issued their press release on April 1st, which combines with their rather excitable tone to unfortunate effect - but reading carefully what they do and don't say, there is still something there to get excited about.
Two somethings, in fact: the site itself, and the way it was discovered.
Excavations at Point Rosee have uncovered evidence of iron working. That's all, and it is in itself pretty minimal: a boulder in front of a shallow pit, surrounded by smaller stones and sheltered by an L-shaped turf wall, traces of charcoal and a quantity of slag. It's not a Viking settlement, because if there is an associated settlement it hasn't yet been found, and there's no evidence that it is even Viking - except that it's a technology known to have been used by the Vikings, and by no-one else in the region at the time. So it seems reasonable to call it a second Viking site, and evidence that the Vikings didn't just touch down at L'Anse aux Meadows and then turn round and go home. This would be even more exciting if the programme hadn't let slip something that I hadn't previously known, that butternuts (I hadn't even heard of butternuts: it's a kind of walnut, apparently) found at L'Anse aux Meadows must have been brought back by explorers further south and west. So it is not entirely news that the Vikings travelled further in Vinland than just the most northeasterly tip. Still, sort of knowing is one thing; seeing traces on the ground is another.
Seeing those traces on the ground from 400 miles away in space is yet another. The excavation site was identified by space archaeologist Dr. Sarah Parcak - which has to be the best job title of the year. She doesn't, alas, go into space. Instead, what she is doing is the familiar exercise of identifying promising locations from the air, just from rather further up than traditional aerial photography. She uses satellite images (if we were told whose images, I missed that bit) and enhances them to pick out promising features. These are not always what she is looking for: the sheltering turf wall at Point Rosee had looked like a typical Viking longhouse (and similar traces on Auskerry turned out to be turf cuttings). Pretty amazing, all the same, to identify from hundreds of miles above something which, close up, even when the grass has been removed, looks like different shades of mud.
All in all, despite patronising me outrageously (it seems that everything I thought I knew about the Vikings was wrong, they didn't have horns on their helmets at all - and here's some footage of Up Helly Aa) the programme did tell me new and interesting things, and sent me off to the internet in seach of more. Links follow, for my own convenience: