Coolest School Trip Spotlight: L'Anse-aux-Meadows National Historic Site

National historic sites in Canada help to tell the story of our nation and how it was shaped over the centuries into what it is today. There are military forts that commemorate the War of 1812 where you can re-enact historic battles, there are fur trading posts where you can relive the experience of the hunters and trappers who made a living off the land, and there are dozens of historic houses and buildings that were the sites of pivotal events in Canadian history. Near the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland sits a national historic site unlike any other in Canada and, in fact, unlike any other on the entire continent – l’Anse-aux-Meadows National Historic Site.

Originally discovered in 1960 by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, l’Anse-aux-Meadows is an archaeological site celebrated for being the only authenticated Viking settlement in the western hemisphere. The settlement has been dated to approximately 1,000 A.D. – about 500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot on the North American continent. It’s the oldest existing evidence of pre-Columbian exploration of North America, which, when you think about it, is a pretty big deal. Score one for Newfoundland!

Careful excavation of the site revealed the remains of eight different structures, some of them dwellings where the settlers would have lived, and others workshops for iron working, carpentry and boat repair. If you were to visit the site today, you might wonder to yourself, “Where are these structural remnants I’ve been hearing about? I want to see what’s left of the houses these people lived in!” Well, here’s your answer (and you might not like it): they have all been buried. Once the site had been excavated and properly explored and it didn’t seem likely that further excavation would turn up anything new, the site was very carefully buried once again to preserve everything that had been found.

While the archaeological finds are certainly fascinating and contribute so much to our understanding of who, historically, shared the same land we live on today, the very existence of the site itself helps provide context for the accounts of the Vikings’ journeys to a land across the ocean called Vinland. It is difficult to determine how long the Vikings lived at l’Anse-aux-Meadows, which would have been the initial entry point to the land they knew as Vinland, but it is believed that they remained living there for at least several years before their final departure to Greenland, never to return again.

Why is it the Vikings remained in l’Anse-aux-Meadows for such a short period of time? There is some debate around this question, and the answer could very likely be the combination of a huge number of factors. Whatever the case may be, what evidence remained of their settlement after they departed was lost for over a thousand years, left to battle it out with the forces of nature over the centuries. If Ingstad hadn’t succeeded in his search for evidence to prove the existence of Vinland, the tiny settlement may have never been discovered and we might still be wondering whether the Vikings had truly ever arrived in North America or whether they were just really good storytellers.

Feeling inspired by the Vikings and thinking of making a video about l’Anse-aux-Meadows? Here are a few ideas for potential video topics...

  • Get ready to brave the long sea voyage from Greenland to the New World. How many people were part of the crew that originally arrived at the land the Vikings named Vinland? What was the purpose of the voyage? When you arrived at l’Anse-aux-Meadows, why did you decide to stay and how long did you remain there?
  • The Viking sagas tell the tale of the second expedition to the New World, which brought a community of men and women across the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic to l’Anse-aux-Meadows, where they built the settlement whose remains were not to be found until over a thousand years later. What would a typical day have been like for those men and women? How big was the group of people and what types of buildings did they build? Where did they get their food and how much of the territory did they explore while they lived there?
  • Grab a shovel and start digging! Join the team that led the excavation of the site that began in the 1960s. What did the site look like before excavation, and how did it get to look that way? Think about what happens when nature is left to its own devices and how that contributed to keeping the site hidden for so many centuries. What were the structures that you found, and how did you determine what each one was used for? How did you figure out how old the settlement was and how did you know it was a Viking settlement?