Following a subtle trail of artifacts, a Canadian archaeologist searches for a lost chapter of New World history.
Something about the strange strands didn’t fit. Patricia Sutherland spotted it right away: the weird fuzziness of them, so soft to the touch.
The strands of cordage came from an abandoned settlement at the northern tip of Canada’s Baffin Island, far above the Arctic Circle and north of Hudson Bay. There indigenous hunters had warmed themselves by seal-oil lamps some 700 years ago. In the 1980s a Roman Catholic missionary had also puzzled over the soft strands after digging hundreds of delicate objects from the same ruins. Made of short hairs plucked from the pelt of an arctic hare, the cordage bore little resemblance to the sinew that Arctic hunters twisted into string. How did it come to be here? The answer eluded the old priest, so he boxed up the strands with the rest of his finds and delivered them to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.
Years passed. Then one day in 1999 Sutherland, an Arctic archaeologist at the museum, slipped the strands under a microscope and saw that someone had spun the short hairs into soft yarn. The prehistoric people of Baffin Island, however, were neither spinners nor weavers; they stitched their clothing from skins and furs. So where could this spun yarn have come from? Sutherland had an inkling. Years earlier, while helping to excavate a Viking farmhouse in Greenland, she had seen colleagues dig bits of similar yarn from the floor of a weaving room. She promptly got on the phone to an archaeologist in Denmark. Weeks later an expert on Viking textiles informed her that the Canadian strands were dead ringers for yarn made by Norse women in Greenland. “That stopped me in my tracks,” Sutherland recalls.
The discovery raised tantalizing questions that came to haunt Sutherland and drive more than a decade of dogged scientific sleuthing. Had a Norse party landed on the remote Baffin Island coast and made friendly contact with its native hunters? Did the yarn represent a key to a long lost chapter of New World history?
Viking seafarers were the explorers par excellence of medieval Europe. Crafting sturdy wooden sailing ships that inspire awe even today, they set sail from their Scandinavian homeland hungering for land, gold, and treasure. Some voyaged west to what is now Scotland, England, and Ireland in the eighth century, bringing death by the sword in raids immortalized in medieval manuscripts. Many turned to foreign commerce. As early as the ninth century Viking merchants nudged eastward along the shores of the White and Black Seas and navigated the shoals of eastern European rivers. They founded cities on major Eurasian trade routes and bartered for the finest wares from the Old World—glassware from the Rhine Valley, silver from the Middle East, shells from the Red Sea, silk from China.
The most adventurous set their courses far west, into the treacherous fogbound waters of the North Atlantic. In Iceland and Greenland, Viking colonists carved out farming settlements and filled storehouses with Arctic luxuries destined for European markets, from walrus ivory to spiraling narwhal tusks that were sold as unicorn horns. Some chieftains, fearless in the face of the unknown, pressed farther west, navigating through iceberg-strewn waters to the Americas.
Sometime between A.D. 989 and 1020, Viking seafarers—perhaps as many as 90 men and women in all—landed on a Newfoundland shore and raised three sturdy halls and an assortment of sod huts for weaving, ironworking, and ship repair. In the 1960s a Norwegian adventurer, Helge Ingstad, and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered and excavated the overgrown ruins of this ancient base camp at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. Later, Canadian archaeologists found iron ship rivets and other artifacts from what appeared to be a Viking shipwreck off the coast of Ellesmere Island. But in the years that followed, few other traces of the Vikings’ legendary exploration of the New World came to light—that is, until Patricia Sutherland came along.