This week’s episode, S01E03 “War in the New World,” explored the passages in the Icelandic sagas describing battles between the Vikings and the “Skraelings,” the indigenous peoples of Greenland and Vinland. It is commonly accepted that in Greenland the word referred to the Dorset people or their successors, the Thule, who are the ancestors of the Inuit. The controversy comes into play when extending the term to Vinland, since the thirteenth century sagas use that word to describe peoples encountered in the eleventh century. Since the location of Vinland has never been fully established, the people that the Vikings encountered there can’t be determined with certainty. Nelson and Arbuthnot want to play around in that uncertainty and extend the term “Skraeling” to a variety of Native people throughout New England and upstate New York, though there is not yet a reason to do so. Nor are they terribly clear about the widely accepted identification of Skraelings with the Arctic peoples, for to do so would limit the persuasiveness of the assertion that Native Americans of the continental U.S. were the Skraelings of the sagas.
Basically, few would doubt the Skraelings were Natives, but who the Skraelings of the Vinland stories were depends entirely on where Vinland was, a question Nelson and Arbuthnot have not answered.
In order to start to answer the question, Nelson and Arbuthnot travel to the Wayne County Museum here in upstate New York to view an alleged Viking spearhead found at Charles Point in 1929 and kept in the museum. Wayne County is on the shore of Lake Ontario, far from L’Anse aux Meadows, and the broken iron spear point is an anomaly that has generated a great deal of speculation but few answers. It has never been scientifically tested. Some non-invasive tests that Arbuthnot and Nelson conducted determined that it is a piece of forged iron with a 93% iron content and some manganese impurities, within the range of Viking iron. However, they could not confirm that it was of Viking manufacture, but the two archaeologists and the museum’s curator were giddy with excitement anyway. I’m not entirely sure why. As best I can tell, those who have written about the artifact in the past already concluded that it is possibly a Viking spear point, but the consensus explanation is that it probably arrived on the shore of Lake Ontario as a trade item passing from Native group to Native group down from Newfoundland. It is possible that Vikings brought it themselves, but no other evidence supports this. Nelson and Arbuthnot do not consider the trade explanation and present a false dichotomy that the spear was brought by Vikings or it is not a Viking artifact at all.
They briefly search the site near Augustus Hoffman’s boathouse where the spearhead was found in 1929, but they find nothing of interest because there is too much modern debris to sort through in an hour. They knew that before starting but went through the kabuki theater of pretend archaeology anyway.
What is more interesting is that this particular artifact—the first and only piece of hard evidence for Viking material in the continental United States that they examined—warranted only a few minutes of screen time. Arbuthnot and Nelson shrug and give up without bothering even to speculate about how the spear fits into the story they are trying to tell about the Vikings. They simply let the thread drop as though the investigation never happened at all. The sheer and utter incompetence of letting actual evidence fade away was, frankly, shocking. America Unearthed would have done half an hour on it and somehow turned it into the Spear of Destiny. Here, no one seems to much care once they got the 30 seconds of video they needed for the trailer.
After giving up on the Wayne County spear head, Nelson alone travels here to Albany to meet a Native American oral history expert, who tells Nelson about the widespread tradition that Native peoples fought “giants” with skins of stone. Many have suggested that this refers to encounters with armed Vikings, though it is of course not possible to state this definitively, despite Nelson’s claim that it is “strong evidence” for a Viking presence in New York and New England. As with trade goods, stories spread, so the presence of a story south of Newfoundland might be evidence of the spread of an oral tradition but not necessarily physical encounters with actual Vikings.
Much of the remainder of the episode—about two-thirds of the running time—involves historical reenactments in which the hosts play manly he-men and run around in the woods. The first experiment was an effort to determine of the Vikings could have smelted their own iron and forged new weapons in upstate New York should they have needed additional weapons to fight with Native Americans. Mostly, it is an excuse to watch the two men stumble through a poor attempt to make iron. Then Nelson and Arbuthnot join some Viking reenactors to see Viking weapons at work in the hope of gauging how many Native Americans Vikings could have killed in battle. I could have lived without watching them do violence to a dead pig, and I wasn’t terribly interested in watching Nelson and Arbuthnot pretend to fight each other with Viking-style weapons. In Baltimore, the men have Native and Viking weapons tested in order to determine if the Vikings could have been “victorious” against Native Americans. The show’s sympathies clearly lie with the Vikings, and we are asked to root for them as we imagine them heroically carving a path of violence and death across the northeast United States. After spending an hour fetishizing the Vikings, a throwaway line at the end admits that Native Americans would have just killed them all if they came into conflict because there were many times more Native Americans than the handful of Viking explorers, so the point was largely moot.
Frankly, it was really weird. The hosts make a big deal out of emphasizing their respect for Native Americans and their bona fides when it comes to Native issues. They have several different Native people in the episode. And yet, they really only give Native Americans their due in a brief aside at the end, having spent the entire hour “investigating” all the ways Vikings could have conquered and killed Natives in an orgy of violence. That such a conquest did not occur should be obvious—there aren’t any Vikings here anymore. There was nothing wrong with the exploration of Viking technology and culture, but the framing, in almost fetishistic terms, was just weird.
The show is rather perverse in its priorities, as though it doesn’t really care about its subject matter and wanted to be a show about manly men learning about the Viking lifestyle before network notes told them that they had to connect it to the United States to cater to the network’s demand for U.S.-centric content. If you excise the few minutes of speculation about whether the Vikings reached the interior of North America, there is little here that wouldn’t pass for a standard-issue low-budget reality show about living the Viking lifestyle. Since only 390,000 people are watching, they might have done better to be more honest about their intentions and made this more of a survivalist-style reality show than a pale imitation of the History Channel’s gonzo fake history shows.
Before I leave that thought, I do want to point out that the Science Channel’s marketing is somewhat at odds with the actual content of the show. It’s very much targeted to the presumed prejudices of its audience. “The New World wasn’t new,” reads the tagline for America’s Lost Vikings, as intoned by the Science Channel’s promo narrator. This is literally true—Native Americans already lived there. But the promo meant something different: that white people had already explored the Americas before Columbus inaugurated sustained trans-Atlantic contact. We know this is the real meaning because “new to Europeans” or “to white people” is implied, and the only objects of that preposition to make sense in the sentence, reminding us of both the real subject of the show and also the Science Channel’s assumptions about its audience.
Note: This post was updated to include viewership figures for the Feb. 24 broadcast.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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