Satellite images discover site that could rewrite history of Vikings in North America

Thanks to satellite technology and the efforts of an intrepid group of archaeologists, evidence of a second Viking settlement has been discovered in North America, documentaries set to air next week on PBS in the US and BBC One in the UK will reportedly reveal.

According to BBC News and National Geographic reports, University of Alabama-Birmingham archaeologist Sarah Parcak, Douglas Bolender from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and their colleagues discovered a stone hearth used for ironworking at a remote peninsula in Canada, several hundred miles from the only confirmed Viking settlement in the New World.

Evidence of human activity at the site, a remote peninsula that runs from southern Newfoundland to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, was originally discovered last summer thanks to satellite data, which uncovered signs of previous human activity in the region. After a long and dangerous hike across bogs and bear-infested forests, Parcak and Bolender turned to more traditional techniques such as the use of trowels and brushes to make what the BBC calls a potentially “seismic” discovery.

While digging at Point Rosee, hundreds of miles south of the only previously known Viking outpost known as L’Anse aux Meadows, the researchers found the iron-working hearth partially covered by what appears to have been a wall made from turf. The artifacts found indicate the use of metal working that is not associated with the native people of the region, the New York Times reported, and radiocarbon dating places them firmly during the Norse era.

Childs and Parcack dig at the site in question. Credit: Greg Mumford

Childs and Parcack dig at the site in question. Credit: Greg Mumford

Discovery ‘has the potential to change history’

National Geographic noted that the archaeologists do not yet have enough evidence to confirm that the location was home to a second North American Viking settlement, and plan to return to the site for additional research this summer. They noted that experts are “cautiously optimistic,” however, that they have found what the Times called “a long-elusive prize in archaeology.”

The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, located at the northernmost point of Newfoundland, was discovered in 1960, confirming that Vikings were the first Europeans to arrive at the New World. Yet in the years that follow, the hunt for additional evidence of Viking activity in North America has proved fruitless, leaving scholars in the dark about how far inland they might have traveled.

The Point Rosee site is some 300 miles further south than L’Anse aux Meadows, according to the Times, which would suggest that the Vikings did indeed travel further inland after their arrival on North American shores. It was spotted by Parack’s team thanks to a satellite technique which she had previously used to ancient sites in Egypt and Rome, according to BBC News.

The satellite images used to discover the site

The satellite image used to discover the site. Credit: DigitalGlobe inc.

The images revealed soil irregularities that suggested that man-make structures had once stood on the ground – possibly Viking longhouses, the researchers explained. She, Boldender and their fellow archaeologists then took to the field, where they discovered the possible hearth, as well as the wall surrounding it. She then checked with local historians, who confirmed that there were no other groups native to the area that roasted bog iron.

If confirmed, the discovery “has the potential to change history,” Boldender told the BBC. “Right now the simplest answer is that it looks like a small activity area, maybe connected to a larger farm that is Norse,” he explained, adding that he is excited about the find and hopeful that the team will be able to discover seeds or other organic matter than can be carbon dated.


Image credit: Greg Mumford