That this should not be taken completely literally is evidenced from the fact that Adam’s words are nearly verbatim those used by Pliny, Isidore, and Rabanus Maurus in describing the Fortunate Islands, write down to the mysterious “self-sown wheat,” a key element of the Fortunate Islands’ ecosystem. When the Icelandic sagas repeated the same elements, they did so as part of what Jerold C. Frakes called a wider Scandinavian literary “narrative discourse” that interacted with Latin literature and its mythical and legendary traditions. I have discussed this material previously here and here.
The complexity of the description of Vinland in the Icelandic sagas in relation to the European literary tradition it sits within makes the question of identification of the “real” Vinland challenging. Fortunately, America’s Lost Vikings S01E05 “The Curse of Death Island” doesn’t traffic in complexity, so hosts Mike Arbuthnot and Blue Nelson simply take the sagas at face value and attempt to use their semi-fictional stories to locate the true Vinland, conveniently enough in the United States.
As I said ,this episode goes in search of Vinland by using clues from the Icelandic sagas, but it is highly selective in what it takes from them. Arbuthnot and Nelson happily ignore the self-sown wheat, for example, and instead focus only on grapes and river currents. The two men believe Vinland to be located in North America, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Long Island, much as nineteenth century speculators like Carl Rafn concluded from the same readings of the same sagas. However, nineteenth century writers made a mistake because they didn’t know about climate change and weren’t aware that the Medieval Warm Period spread grape vines much farther north than they existed in the Little Ice Age of the 1800s. The Victorians thought that Vinland had to be in Massachusetts or farther south, but we now know that grapes grew as far north as Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada. And that’s assuming that you accept the notion that Vinland really did have actual grapes.
Arbuthnot and Nelson find what they feel is a major clue in a saga reference to a strong current: “There was an island lying out in front of the firth, and there were great currents around the island, which they called Straums-ey (Stream-island)” (Saga of Erik the Red 8, trans. J. Sephton). The men visit the Bay of Fundy to see if its unusual and powerful reversing of its flow matches this description from the sagas, which spoke only of “great currents.” They are rather over-interpreting the evidence, I would say. There isn’t really enough detail to make a firm identification.
They also discuss the so-called Maine Penny, a Viking-era coin from the rein of Olaf Kyrre (1067-1093) found in Maine in 1957 and long believed to have been brought there by being traded from one Native group to the next from the Viking settlement in Nova Scotia on down, like other trade goods, including chert from Labrador, found at the same archaeological site in Maine, which was a major trade hub. The men also note that the Maine Penny was found by a coin collector and suspicion has hovered over it. They examine the coin and learn nothing that wasn’t already known. It is simply an excuse to look at the coin under a portable microscope to see what was already visible in extant photos of the coin. This action “doesn’t get us any closer to finding Vinland,” Nelson notes. To try to do that, they have the coin tested to see if its corrosion is consistent with being buried for a thousand years. Its corrosion is consistent but as they celebrate its authenticity, they miss an obvious problem: The coin could have been buried for centuries in Europe before the coin collector tossed it in a Maine hole. I have Roman coins that were buried for 1700 years. They would test as authentically corroded even though they currently sit on my bookshelf. The men didn’t actually prove anything.
To try to prove that the coin came to America in Norse hands rather than Native ones, they visit the site where the coin was found and dig a small test pit, with permission, to hunt for Viking artifacts. They find only Native American artifacts.
A segment discusses wild grapes and where they grew, but I’m not entirely certain where they got their map of the wild grape’s range since such grapes can still be found in eastern Canada, including Nova Scotia and Quebec.
The two men are very excited about alcoholic beverages, which seem to interest them more than the grapes. They tour a University of Maine winery to taste fermented wild grape juice, and Nelson blathers on about liking beer better but “my ancestors” would have found this wine “amazing.” Maybe, but the sagas don’t talk about the Vikings making wine in Vinland.
They then try to chop down a tree with a Viking ax for no particular reason except to ask whether Vikings could cut down American trees as the sagas claim. News flash: They could. Nelson keeps referring to “my ancestors” as he tries to fell a tree, which reflects the real underlying motif of this show. But it’s too minor an issue to emphasize again here. The tree they fell is a tamarack, which they choose because archaeologists found tamarack in Greenland houses. This species is not native to Greenland, meaning that it had been transported from America. While midcentury archaeologists suggested that such wood came from Labrador or Newfoundland, where the trees can be found, our heroes claim that the trees never grew there.
Incidentally, the Saga of Erik the Red and the Greenlander Saga don’t speak of tamarack. Instead, the Greenlander Saga mentions only generic trees and the Saga of Erik the Red tells us that the trees of Vinland were maples: “There were also the trees which were called maples; and they gathered of all this certain tokens; some trunks so large that they were used in house-building” (trans. J. Sephton).
By superimposing what they say was the historic tamarack range on what they claim to be the grape range, they narrowed down Vinland’s location to an area reaching from New Brunswick and Quebec southwestward through New England to the Hudson Valley of New York. I don’t trust their map because the books I consulted all say that tamarack is native to the northern Labrador coast and most of northern Canada, and those places are a lot easier a spot from which to transport wood to Greenland than the deep interior of New England. The men give no specific reason to associate the tamarack of Greenland with trees discussed in the sagas, though they are perhaps one and the same, under poetic license.
To further narrow it, they add butternuts to the mix, for they were found at L’anse aux Meadows but are not local to that area. Adding butternuts gives Arbuthnot and Nelson a location in the interior of New England, from Maine to western Massachusetts. In reality, according to the common maps of historic plant ranges given in standard reference works, the plants they identify could all be found in the area of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, long suspected as being the furthest south the Vikings traveled. Despite this, they choose an area in southern coastal Massachusetts as the real Vinland, even though it does not correlate with the overlapping plant ranges ON THEIR OWN DAMNED MAP, as you can see from the screen shot below. My own home in Albany is, by their map, a better candidate.
The men then travel to Cape Cod to visit the No Man’s Land (or, modernized, Nomans Land) Stone, last seen on America Unearthed, for the same reason Scott Wolter sought it out. The stone contains fake runes identifying it as Leif Ericson’s monument to a pretended visit in 1001 CE—some sixty years before the date of the Maine Penny. The Nomans Land Stone was first seen in 1926 and contains both runic and Latin characters in a combination utterly unlike genuine inscriptions of c. 1000 CE. A man from New Bedford was widely suspected of having carved the stone as a hoax.
Arbuthnot and Nelson receive permission to attempt a landing on Nomans Island, south of Cape Cod, to visit the stone, which sits amid unexploded Navy ordinance from the island’s time as a Navy testing range in World War II, and they have just one hour to visit the stone and “verify” its authenticity. Most of the segment is dedicated to watching the men struggle to get ashore in bad weather, and they give up because the waters are too rough. The episode ends with them turning around to leave.
Despite utter failure in their stated mission, they declare victory and claim to have found Vinland, where it never was, based on a misreading of their own map, which they had created from faulty assumptions and faith in medieval propaganda. It was a perfect encapsulation of both the search for American Vikings and of our times.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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