January 24, 2014






Possible Norse settlements Downeast explored
by Susan Esposito


    Is there a Norse settlement yet to be found in eastern Maine? Oral folklore proclaiming that the Norse settled in the area is especially strong in eastern coastal Maine. However, as yet, no substantial evidence to support this theory has been found.
     Harold Borns Jr., a professor emeritus of glacial and ice age geology at the University of Maine, has spent about 30 field seasons determining the ice age history of eastern coastal Maine as an ongoing project. Traveling throughout Maine for many years, he has become aware of widespread stories of Viking exploration and settling eastern coastal Maine. These stories seem to be particularly common knowledge among the older residents of Washington County.
     Two of the Icelandic sagas, written in about 1250 A.D., describe the "sighting of a new land and settling of a place called Vinland." In the late 1800s the sagas were translated from Old Icelandic into Latin. European scholars first realized that the Viking explorer's description of Vinland most likely located it along the northeastern coast of North America. In 1906, the Vinland sagas were translated into English, and it became widespread knowledge that the Norse had discovered and established short-lived colonies in this place they called Vinland. Evidence is firm regarding the discovery of North America, but the details of Vinland's exact location remains a mystery even today.
      Following sailing directions and observing landmarks that Leif Ericksson and others described in the sagas, many latter-day explorers have attempted to locate Vinland in the Northeast: on Mount Desert Island and in the Boston area, on Cape Cod, in Rhode Island and as far south as Virginia. However, no definitive evidence of a Viking colony was ever found until 1961 when the Norwegians Helge Ingstad and his wife Dr. Anne Stine (Ingstad), after years of research, located the first Norse settlement in North America at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland.
     The answer to the dilemma of whether L'Anse-aux-Meadows was an actual Norse habitation site was confirmed with the discovery of a small iron smelter found within the site where bog-iron had probably been smelted for general use, but more importantly the smelter site yielded characteristic iron rivets of the type used throughout the Viking era for repairing Norse ships. Also found were rivets that the inhabitants had removed from Norse ships being repaired. Clearly, L'Anse-aux-Meadows was a Norse habitation site. Carbon 14 dating of charcoal from the smelter site yielded a date of about 1000 A.D., which is consistent with both the sagas and the time of the Greenland Colony, which existed between approximately 985 and 1300 A.D.
     Archaeologists have concluded that L'Anse-aux-Meadows was the first Norse site found in North America. They have also concluded that the settlement had been occupied by small groups of people for short periods over a long time. L'Anse-aux-Meadows appears to have been a way-station for Norsemen traveling south.
     L'Anse-aux-Meadows was not the Vinland described in the sagas. The sagas tell that Torvald, Leif Ericksson's brother, and others spent two or more years at Vinland, to the south of L'Anse-aux-Meadows and which could be located anywhere from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Passamaquoddy Bay. The sailing directions, according to a map found in Edward Reman's 1949 book, The Norse Discoveries and Explorations of America, placed Norse explorers around the outside of Nova Scotia and into the Bay of Fundy or Passamaquoddy Bay.
     Several places, inscriptions and objects found in Maine have been attributed to the Norse explorers. For example, Norse Pond, located in Trescott between Cutler and Lubec on the Bold Coast, is perhaps the best known site attributed to the Norse. This is a small pond, dammed up by a cobble ridge, which was named by the early settlers of the area. Their reasoning, as far as can be determined from literature, was, "The pond is dammed up. We didn't do it. Indians don't build rock dams, and therefore it was done by Vikings." Local folklore goes on to conjecture that the Norse were attracted to the sandy beach below the pond where the outlet stream tumbles down a cliff to the beach. Norse explorers could have easily seen the waterfall from sea and realized that they could readily replenish their ships' water supply there. But why did they bother to dam the pond at all?
     Professor Ronald Davis and Professor Borns investigated the origin of this historic pond for a potential buyer about 20 years ago. Core samples of the sediments on the floor of the pond and radiocarbon age-dated the earliest pond vegetation that formed. The pond was formed about 12,000 years ago. As the high sea level of the late-glacial age fell from an elevation of 250 feet to the present level, a wave-built cobble beach formed which dammed up the small stream, thereby forming Norse Pond. Clearly this predates any possible activity by Norse explorers who first came to North America at about 1000 A.D.
     Beyond Norse Pond, other Norse objects have been reported from the Passamaquoddy Bay region. A story of Norse ship remains near Eastport has not been examined or evaluated. A three-inch iron spike from South Lubec Beach proved to be a common barn spike from the late 19th century. Runic writing on ledge near the outlet of Norse Pond has been clearly rejected as runic or Norse. Dikes and canals near Pembroke are yet to be adequately examined, and a Viking iron axe-head from Pembroke was recently proved to be a French Acadian trade axe. A small silver Norse penny was found at Naskeag Point in Brooklin and proved to be minted in Norway between 1065 and 1080 A.D., and probably arrived at Naskeag Point from Greenland or Newfoundland by way of native trade networks. The penny has a small hole drilled into it, suggesting that it was worn as a pendant or clothing ornament. Further south in Maine are reports of Norse runic inscriptions, which have been long discredited.
     So, back to asking the same question: Why is Norse folklore so strong in eastern coastal Maine compared to other areas along the coast to the south? It would be important to understand the origin of the folklore. Does it pre- or post-date the translation of the two sagas that report the discovery of North America? There may be real evidence yet to be discovered. For example, did the early French Jesuits discover evidence of the Norse from the Indians they lived with? A search of a series of reports from 1632B1673 called The Jesuit Relations is certainly in order. On the other hand, if the folklore started after translation of the sagas into English, which reveals the Norse discovery of North America, then the folklore may be the result of the frantic local search for Viking sites that followed this revelation.
     A colleague of Borns who works in the Middle Ages Division of the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, suggests that there is a need to search northeastern coastal Maine for a settlement. This suggestion was based to a large degree on the intensive search for Vinland made by Edward Reman in 1949, which was based upon directional information recorded in the sagas. It is felt that Reman was an exceptionally competent ship's captain and marine navigator. His work pre-dates that of the Ingstads; however, his reconstructed route to Vinland bypasses L'Anse-aux-Meadows, around Nova Scotia and to Grand Manan, around West Quoddy Head and into Cobscook Bay, thereby establishing the Vinland colony inland of the West Quoddy Head-Lubec/Eastport area. On the other hand, another look at the geography of the region may suggest that the Norse could have traveled south of L'Anse-aux-Meadows into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and established their Vinland colony along the Gulf of St. Lawrence shores.
      Borns believes that the search needs to continue given the possibility that Reman was correct, and that eastern Maine was Vinland and that Leif Ericksson explored and colonized the area for several years.
     In searching the coast of eastern Maine, Borns points out, it must be kept in mind that the land had submerged up to three feet since the year 1000 A.D., likely destroying much, if not all, of any Norse shoreline sites. In contrast, the shoreline at L'Anse-aux-Meadows has risen several feet, which has guaranteed protection from shoreline erosion.
     Any information, whether hearsay or direct observation, on possible Norse places or artifacts would be welcome by Professor Harold W. Borns Jr.. He may be contacted by writing to him at the Climate Change Institute, Bryand Global Science Center, University of Maine, Orono ME 04469, or emailing <>.


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