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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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The Vinland Sagas

The first Europeans for whom there is convincing evidence of a presence in North America are the Norse. It has been known, since archaeologists uncovered a Norse habitation near the village of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, that the Norse came to North America a thousand years ago. By studying and interpreting this site, its artifacts, and what is already known about medieval Norse culture, archaeologists can draw conclusions about what these early visitors did, why they came, and how they lived. Our ability to attach names and personalities to this research, though, rests entirely on the literary heritage of the Norse, in the form of sagas composed in the early half of the last millenium. Two sagas in particular  --  the "Saga of the Greenlanders" and the "Saga of Erik the Red"  --  provided scholars with evidence of a Norse trans-Atlantic voyage long before the discovery of the remains of the habitation at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Photograph: Re-creation of Norse sod home

Sagas are, quite simply, stories. They were part of a Scandinavian story-telling tradition, memorized and re-told from one generation to another. Sagas might not be composed until years after an event, and they were certainly not written down until long after that. The Greenlander and Erik the Red sagas, for instance, were probably composed some two hundred years after the events they describe, and were not written down until the early 1300s. By then, the stories had been embellished many times, with fanciful details added and with other information, conceivably, deleted. By the time they were recorded on parchment, the sagas were a blend of fact and invention. This made it difficult, until the discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows, for scholars to argue with any certainty that the Norse had truly crossed the Atlantic to North America.

The challenge in using the sagas as accurate historical records becomes more obvious when we consider the Greenlander and Erik the Red Sagas; of all the many Norse sagas, they are the only ones to tell the story of how the Norse came to the North American coast  --  which they called "Vinland". Each saga tells the tale differently. In the Greenlander Saga, Bjarni Herjólfsson stumbles upon Vinland first and Leifr Eriksson then retraces Bjarni's voyage in order to explore the new land more thoroughly. In the Erik the Red Saga, Bjarni does not exist, and it is Leifr Eriksson who finds Vinland first. There are other differences, yet both sagas agree that once Vinland was found, several attempts were made to settle the new land. These were eventually abandoned in the face of resistance from Native peoples. Perhaps more importantly, the sagas had a ring of truth sufficient to inspire Helge Ingstad to search for Vinland on the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts during the 1960s, a search that led eventually to L'Anse aux Meadows. While most experts today do not believe that this habitation was Vinland, there is no longer any doubt that the Norse were the first Europeans to reach North America. Had it not been for the sagas, that realization might never have come.

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