Point Rosee (Canada): Discovery Could Rewrite History of Vikings in New World


The Stuff of Legends

Was Point Rosee a Viking outpost a thousand or so years ago? The evidence thus far is promising. The turf structure that partially surrounds the hearth is nothing like the shelters built by indigenous peoples who lived in Newfoundland at the time, nor by Basque fishermen and whalers who arrived in the 16th century. And, while iron slag may be fairly generic, “there aren’t any known cultures—prehistoric or modern—that would have been mining and roasting bog iron ore in Newfoundland other than the Norse,” says Bolender.

Very few artifacts have been found at Point Rosee, but that’s actually a good sign. Most Norse possessions haven’t preserved well; they were typically made from wood, which decayed, or iron, which either decayed or was melted down to make something else. Archaeologists conducted seven excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, from 1961 to 1968, before they had sufficient evidence to confirm it was a Norse outpost. And even then they found only a handful of personal items, such as a bronze pin, a needle hone, and a stone lamp. If the archaeologists had found many artifacts at Point Rosee, then it probably wouldn’t be a Viking site.

03 vikingnf adapt 1190 1Archaeologists conducted a "test excavation" in Newfoundland—a small-scale dig to search for initial evidence that the site merits further study. They were successful. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

One theory is that Point Rosee was primarily an iron-working camp, a temporary facility supporting exploration and exploitation of resources within the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Bolender, however, believes it might have been part of a more substantial settlement somewhere in the vicinity.

If so, then how does this discovery fit into history’s bigger picture?

Much of what we know about the Norse exploration of North America is gleaned from the Viking sagas, oral stories passed down across generations that were eventually transcribed.

We’re looking here because of the sagas,” says Bolender. “Nobody would have ever found L’Anse aux Meadows if it weren’t for the sagas. But, the flipside is that we have no idea how reliable they are.”

Archaeologists have found sporadic evidence suggestive of Viking explorers who traveled beyond their settlements in Greenland. Artifacts from the 11th century, including a copper coin, were discovered in Maine, possibly obtained by Native Americans who traded with the Norse. Canadian archaeologist Patricia Sutherland has found ruins on Baffin Island, far above the Arctic Circle, which she claims were a trading outpost—though the evidence remains inconclusive. 

The confirmed discovery of a Norse camp at L’Anse aux Meadows proved that the Viking sagas weren’t entirely fiction. A second settlement at Point Rosee would suggest that the Norse exploration of the region wasn’t a limited undertaking, and that archaeologists should expand their search for evidence of other settlements, built 500 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

For a long time, serious North Atlantic archaeologists have largely ignored the idea of looking for Norse sites in coastal Canada because there was no real method for doing so,” says Bolender. “If Sarah Parcak can find one Norse site using satellites, then there’s a reasonable chance that you can use the same method to find more, if they exist. If Point Rosee is Norse, it may open up coastal Canada to a whole new era of research.”