- I’m happy to announce that the new version of my book exploring the world of America Unearthed, Unearthing the Truth, is now available in both print and electronic formats.
- Todd Cobery, the director responsible for the historical reenactments on America Unearthed, won a $25,000 fellowship from a panel of media industry judges. While his win was not solely based on America Unearthed, I suppose it’s fitting that the industry is recognizing the show for the only parts of it that everyone involved is happy to admit are fake.
Heitzman notes that it is now an indisputable fact that the Vikings had colonized a small part of North America around 1000 CE. He mistakenly asserts that this colony is known to be Vinland. Technically, while there is good reason to suspect that L’anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland may have been Vinland, there is no proof that the two were identical. So far, so bad. What comes next is much worse; he accuses academics of actively ignoring evidence until happy-go-lucky amateurs showed them up:
Eventually, Vinland was proven, but not by Oxford, Princeton, or Harvard or even Yale. Instead a Norwegian couple, Helge and Anne Ingstad organized and carried out the excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. One wonders whether Ericson would still be “just a myth” had these two individuals not decided to prove he was real. Does it surprise you considering that, the century before, academia rejected Homer’s Troy and Mycenae as legend, only to have rogue archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann prove them both real?
The Ingstads were not happy amateurs; Helge Ingstad was a lawyer, governor of two Norwegian territories, and a longtime explorer. His wife Anne was a professionally-trained archaeologist. They conducted professional excavations at the site with an international team of scholars (and later under the auspices of the government of Canada), but really this part isn’t important. What’s important is that even before their discovery, academics had a widespread belief that the Norse had in fact reached the North American mainland. Academics of the 1800s widely accepted the Danish writer Carl Rafn’s conclusion that the Norse sagas described a journey to America, and Sir Daniel Wilson—an archaeologist and the third president of the University of Toronto—wrote an influential essay (published posthumously in 1892) concluding that the weight of evidence favored a Viking colony in North America. During World War II, the Office of War Information included Leif Ericson’s discovery of America in its “Handbook of the United States.”
Even in the 1950s, the period singled out by Heitzman (by implication, as the last decade before discovery of L’anse-aux-Meadows) as particularly benighted, I found frequent allusions in the scholarly literature to the near-certainty that Leif Erikson reached America and founded Vinland, along with caveats that no physical evidence existed at that time, like the one in Viking Times to Modern (1952) by Eric W. Fleisher and Jörgen Weibull: “It is impossible to determine whether Adam [of Bremen]’s information about Vinland was the result of actual discoveries or whether it was based on pure popular mythology.” The legislative record of Maine reports that in 1959, the state debated whether Leif Ericson should be honored with a holiday instead of Columbus due to his discovery of America, and a 1950 Rand McNally history curriculum invites teachers to have their middle school classes act out Leif Ericson’s discovery of America! I could go on.
So where does the idea that Vinland was always seen as a myth come from? Here I turn to an impeccable alternative history source, Frederick J. Pohl, that painfully obtuse advocate of Henry Sinclair’s voyage to America. In his Lost Discovery (1952) he correctly notes that most scholars assumed Vinland was real but that Fridtjof Nansen, in a 1911 article called “The Norsemen in America,” cast doubt on Vinland and declared it a myth. This, then, seems to be the source of the claim that academia hated Vinland. Later alternative authors, mistaking academia’s caution that no physical evidence had yet been found for dismissal of the whole idea, simply eliminated all of the discussion about Vinland from the 1830s to 1959 to create a fake history better suited to their narrative about close-minded intellectuals.
But is Heitzman right that “no one cared to investigate” Vinland? No, of course not. The problem was that they were looking in the wrong place. Academics before 1960 believed Vinland was in New England because that was the only place where grapes (the vin in Vinland) naturally grew; they were looking in the wrong place because they took the legends literally, just like alternative theorists want them to! Today, scholars are unsure whether L’anse-aux-Meadows was Vinland, or whether Vinland refers to grapes or to a lookalike word for meadows. With modern understanding of climate change, it’s possible to consider that the Medieval Warm Period made it possible for grapes to grow in Newfoundland, but so far no botanical studies have found evidence of grapes.
Heitzman goes on to discuss Dennis Sanford’s Solutrean hypothesis whereby the early Spaniards came to America and taught the Natives how to make spears, oblivious to the fact that this idea (which I do not believe for reasons outlined here) was proposed by an academic and is actively discussed by academics and is being evaluated not by dogma but on evidence.
Heitzman concludes by praising Scott Wolter in terms that I’m not sure are as flattering as he means for them to be:
Most of the time he doesn’t prove anything, but he does open the door on possibilities. While I watch from my living room, I can decide whether some of the things he investigates are bogus. Others seem possible. The main thing is its (sic) entertaining and I’m glad someone else is driving all over the country and boiling these claims down to one hour presentations.
I will admit that there were some things that I wish that were not true and after watching parts of the documentary I felt a bit more relieved. However I do not want the theory as a whole to be untrue. I wonder if there are older, possibly neolithic or earlier civilizations that are more advanced than the oldest widely accepted civilizations. I would like to see that as well as unknown writing and other relics that many of us here want to see.