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Finding the truth behind ‘America’s Lost Vikings’ — advance review

New Science Channel series wades into a controversial topic.

When AiPT! asked me to review the new six-part Science Channel series, America’s Lost Vikings, I was apprehensive, but a little hopeful. First, it was on the Science Channel; that’s safe, right? Also, it’s headed by two archaeologists, Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot.

I don’t know either man, so I did a little digging. Blue Nelson is an archaeologist, who appears to work in Cultural Resource Management and has been on a TV show prior to this on the History Channel, called Found. I dug a little into that show, and despite being on the History Channel (with everything that brings), Found seems to be a pretty solid show about archaeologists looking at the weird stuff people find in their yards and helping them accurately identify the items. I’ve seen one episode and was pretty pleased with it.

Nelson played a very small part in the first episode of Found, but I’m sure he’ll pop up more as I go through it. Most importantly to me was that Nelson didn’t seem to be playing into any weird pseudoarchaeology ideas like Minoans in America or Transoceanic Travelers or the European-First claims that tend to go hand in hand with “Vikings” in America.

 

Michael Arbuthnot is another story altogether. Arbuthnot is an archaeologist who specializes in underwater archaeology and used to run a company called Team Atlantis, which he described as, “A multidisciplinary research outfit whose mission is to explore archaeological mysteries with an emphasis on those enigmas associated with underwater contexts.”

In a 2013 reprint of a 2005 publication, The Disinformation Guide to Ancient Aliens, Lost Civilizations, Astonishing Archaeology, and Hidden History, Arbuthnot acknowledges the possibility that Atlantis could be a real place on Earth, but stated it wasn’t his primary focus of research. No, his work was to discover how the Americas were really populated. Arbuthnot then proceeds to argue for completely unsupported ideas of cultural diffusion to the Americas via prehistoric European migration by boat or raft.

I do not have the space here to explain why this is not an accepted archaeological theory, other than there is no evidence to support it and the implications of such a theory are problematic, to say the least.

So, with this unfortunate information now in my head, I watched the first episode of  America’s Lost Vikings.

Right off the bat, I’m struck with how this show will be following the format of others like Unearthed America, The Curse of Oak Island, and Legends of the Lost by using splashy graphics, epic music, and choppy editing to create a narrative that supports the show’s premises. I’m also struck with how Vikings‘ chosen audience is clearly men, given how far it went to not mention women at all.

The main focus of the first episode is the well-researched and documented site of L’Anse aux Meadows, the only confirmed Norse settlement site in the Americas. L’Anse aux Meadows was investigated in the 1960s by archaeologists Anne Stine Ingstad and her husband Helge Ingstad. The majority of what we know about L’Anse aux Meadows is because of the Ingstads, and continuing work in the 1970s by Birgitta Wallace, archaeologist emerita for Parks Canada.

Not that Nelson or Arbuthnot mention any of that. They attribute everything to only Helge Ingstad, effectively erasing Anne Stine Ingstad and Wallace from the picture. (There’s literally a monument at L’Anse aux Meadows for both of the Ingstads. They have to walk past it to see the site.)

Anyway. The rest of the first segment is Nelson and Arbuthnot walking around the site, looking at the reproduction of one of the longhouses, and in general talking about the particulars of the site.

There’s evidence that  L’Anse aux Meadows was home to somewhere between 60 -180 people, including women. Again, this is blatantly ignored. Why? Maybe they just didn’t have time to add in the word “woman” between Nelson making observations like, “This place must have just reeked of Man” (said of the longhouse), and, “This here, this is the Man’s room” (said of the sleeping closet).

Arbuthnot does spend about 30 seconds explaining that the Norse get a bad reputation as being Vikings, and really were mostly merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. The show follows this up with images of violent Vikings and passive women. So, way to clear up that misconception.

Arbuthnot also brings up the relatively short habitation period at L’Anse aux Meadows. It’s thought, via the Ingstads’ and Wallace’s research, that the site was only occupied for 3-5 years. In the long scheme of things, that is rather short, but Arbuthnot’s question of, “Why would they build so much for such a short stay?” is misleading. There are only eight structures identified at the site. Only three are housing. Eight buildings between 60-180 people doesn’t seem like “so much” to me.

It’s another subtle way the show is trying to build up the mystery of the site. Calling the houses “monumental” when they are not, saying it would have taken a long time to build, when it wouldn’t have, claiming there’s a huge number of structures when there isn’t. It’s exaggerating the facts to make it seem like more than it is.

L’Anse aux Meadows is an amazing site, but it’s not a wonder of the world or the most mysterious place in America. Pretending that it is takes away from the importance of the site, and the actually interesting things we’ve learned about it.

Arbuthnot touches on some of that a little by bringing up the controversial idea from Bjarni Einarsson that the site was used for hundreds of years, not just five. It’s the first big idea the show latches onto, and here we get to see some actual archaeology, however briefly.

Arbuthnot brings out a drone that he uses to take images of the site so he can then stitch them together into a 3D model of the footprints of the structures at the site. He makes a neat map out of the images and uses them to check the elevations of the footprints.

Not to be mean here, but honestly, as cool as it was to see this all in use, it was unnecessary. The building footprints are clear to the naked eye, and these are hardly the first aerial photographs of the site. You can find many online by simply Googling them.

Arbuthnot then compares the footprints of the buildings from L’Anse aux Meadows to other sites in Iceland. He’s doing this because he thinks he can “age” the buildings on the site this way.  The major problem with this is there are radiocarbon dates for the L’Anse aux Meadows site, and those are slightly more accurate than the stylistic footprints of buildings that could vary for any reason, from regional variation to the purpose of use. It’s interesting, and a neat trick, but not really hard evidence.

From here we kind of abandon “traditional” archaeology and start doing things that might generously be called “experimental archaeology.” There’s merit in doing experimental archaeology, but some of this I think is just an excuse for Nelson to dress up like a Norseman.

They go to Toronto’s Climate Lab, where there’s a giant freezer that can reach extreme temperatures, and they dress Nelson up in the best reproduction of Norse clothes they can find. Then they stick him in and monitor his vitals as the freezer drops to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, or -13.9 Celsius. Nelson says he was not too uncomfortable while in the freezer, and that’s nice and all. What this was proving, I don’t know. We already knew the Norse could live through the winters at L’Anse aux Meadows. They did so for about five years.

We then go to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies. Nelson and Arbuthnot get access to early written-down sagas, and they want to see if L’Anse aux Meadows is possibly mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas. You see, there’s an argument that L’Anse aux Meadows is actually Vinland, mentioned in the Vinland sagas, but it in no ways matches the description of Vinland.  The researcher they talk with mentions it might be Leif’s camp, also mentioned in the Vinland saga, but there’s really no way to know or prove that. So, fun idea, but not really helpful.

We then take a detour to go to the apparent childhood home of Leif Erikson. Honestly, I have no idea why we’re here, other than to let Nelson and Arbuthnot have a moment to be wowed that they’re standing in the same spot as the first European to set foot in America, which is important for some reason.

Lastly, we head back to L’Anse aux Meadows to figure out why anyone would want to live there. L’Anse aux Meadows is a little strange in that there is apparently no evidence of agriculture or animal husbandry beyond foodstuffs. Even the food that is found there appears to be brought in from other places. We do know there was an iron smithy there, and that the people at L’Anse aux Meadows were harvesting bog iron and working it.

Nelson again decides he’s going to be the one to go learn how to harvest bog iron and drops the wonderful gem as he’s scraping mud barehanded from the creek bank, “While the Indigenous people of America were still using stone, the Vikings were extracting iron ore.”

Three things:

  • Seriously, Blue Nelson?
  • The Indigenous people of America were also mining and working copper, lead, and gold, harvesting oil, carving stone, crafting pottery, weaving, and building earthworks, among other things.
  • Am I really supposed to believe that people that figured out how to cross an ocean, work iron, and cut sod for houses, hadn’t figured out how to make and use a shovel? I think the guide was just screwing with Nelson here.

It’s possible this was not a typical settlement colony and more of a resource colony. Eleanor Barraclough at Durham University has even suggested that the site was a stop-over for ships, a place to possibly build and repair them. This idea is one Arbuthnot appears to repeat, commenting on the number of nails found at L’Anse aux Meadows, and comparing that number to known shipyards in Iceland. Honestly, that’s the first convincing thing I’ve heard all episode, and the originator of that idea isn’t even mentioned.

Nelson and Arbuthnot wrap up the episode with some stirring dialogue about how they’ve only just begun to investigate the Viking presence in America. But before they go off to chase wild geese, they have to have a drinking party with people dressed up as Vikings.

Overall, this episode didn’t really say anything flashing-red-lights “wrong.” The premise of the whole show, though, is an issue because of the loaded implications in the idea that Europeans were in the Americas in prehistoric times. That’s often used as a way to deny Indigenous culture and land rights, usually by claiming something is not actually Indigenous and assigning it to a different group. In this case, for example, Vikings.

L’Anse aux Meadows is the only verified Norse site in the Americans, and it’s not like people aren’t looking. I really hope that America’s Lost Vikings follows the pattern of Found, where they go and examine Viking claims, then effectively debunk them. I have this bad feeling it’s going to be six episodes of two guys doing wacky crap, then saying something like, “Well if we could do it, then Vikings could too!” And the problem there is the same problem with all Vikings-in-America claims — there’s no evidence.

America’s Lost Vikings debuts on Science Channel Sunday, February 10, at 10:00 eastern time.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

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