Canada Hall

The Norse


What Europeans considered a "New World" was in fact home to Native people for over 15,000 years before the first Europeans landed on the eastern shores of North America. Around A.D. 1000, the medieval Norse (Vikings) established the first European settlement, on the northern coast of Newfoundland, but they only stayed for a brief period.

At the end of the ninth century, a gradual migration began across the North Atlantic. Several hundred families left the Norwegian coast aboard knorrs -- rugged cargo vessels three times larger than the coasters then plying the North Sea -- to settle in Iceland. A century later, Eric the Red led their descendants to Greenland and a few of them followed his son, Leif the Lucky, as far as North America. Since the Norse used open ships offering no protection from the elements and lacked even the most rudimentary navigational devices, they had to cross the North Atlantic island by island, from Norway to North America. Each leg of the journey was about 600 kilometres.

Speculation about the Norse expeditions to North America was based primarily on traditional Icelandic sagas, which are supported by direct evidence uncovered by archaeologists since the 1960s. A handful of Norse artifacts scattered across the islands of the High Arctic and the remains of a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, suggest unequivocally that the Norse were present in North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in l492.

The first exhibit in the Canada Hall depicts a Norse family unloading tools and supplies from a small boat, known as a faering, upon their arrival in Newfoundland. The ship that brought the settlers from Greenland is anchored offshore. The lightweight construction of the boats (overlapping planks placed lengthwise and rivetted together) meant that they could be safely navigated in shallow water even when loaded.

The clothing, jewellery, and tools used by the Norse indicate that they were not peasants, but rather members of the prosperous yeoman farming class. They were likely descendants of chieftains who were forced to seek new land in the ninth century. At that time, King Harald Fairhair of Norway attempted to unify his realm through subjugation of lesser kings, which forced many to flee to Britain, Iceland, Greenland, and beyond. The pendants worn by the mannequins reflect the changing times. They feature the hammer of the pagan god Thor and the cross of the newly adopted Christian religion.

In the l960s, archaeological excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows uncovered the remains of eight turf-walled structures -- three large dwellings, two small workshops, a forge, a shed and a small sod construction. Most of the artifacts found at the site were iron boat rivets and floorboards from small watercraft, which suggests that boat construction and repair was a principal activity. Other objects include a bronze-ringed cloak pin similar to the one worn by the female mannequin on display, a soapstone spindle whorl, and a stone lamp. The discovery of the spindle whorl, used by women to spin wool, is evidence that families came to the site. In other words, this was a genuine attempt at settlement, not just an outpost for explorers. The absence of a large garbage midden and the fact that the structures do not appear to have been rebuilt indicates that the settlement was abandoned after a relatively short period. Over the next two or three centuries, the Norse probably continued to make periodic crossings from their colonies in Greenland, in order to procure timber from the coast of Labrador. They may also have traded occasionally for furs and walrus ivory with the Native peoples of the Canadian Arctic.