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Sop’s Arm is also not Vinland — ‘America’s Lost Vikings’ episode 2

Full of Viking ships and explanations in search of evidence.

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.

Today bad archaeology debunker Sara Head returns to look at episode 2 of Science Channel’s America’s Lost Vikings, for an examination of rusty nails and the nature of evidence.

The official title of America’s Lost Vikings episode 2 is “Mystery of the Sea Raiders,” never mind that the Norse weren’t raiding the coast here, they were exploring and settling. Regardless, this episode isn’t actually looking at any particular mystery, it’s supposedly looking to see if there’s any way to connect Newfoundland with Vinland. Since the last episode, Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot agreed that L’Anse aux Meadows wasn’t Vinland, so they’re on the hunt for a new location, and they get a tip that there might be a potential site near the community of Sop’s Arm.

What’s of interest here are several long pits dug into the landscape that appear to be man-made. These have been examined in the ’60s by first Helge Ingstad and later by Helen Devereux. Both seem to agree that these were pitfall traps, a type of hunting trap recorded all over the world, characterized by deep pits dug into the ground, into which large game were driven by hunters. Ingstad believed the pits were Norse in nature, but Deveraux argued they could have been for mineral exploration, and attributes the pits to the Indigenous people of the area.

Nelson and Arbuthnot are looking at the pits to see if they can find any evidence they’re connected to L’Anse aux Meadows and/or are Norse in origin. They seem to be drawing from the article Falling Into Vinland: Newfoundland Hunting Pitfalls at the Edge of the Viking World , which is co-authored by Bjarni F. Einarsson, mentioned in the first episode and credited with suggesting that L’Anse aux Meadows was inhabited for hundreds of years, and Kevin McAleese, who we’ll meet later in the show.

They spend some time looking at the pitfalls, and Nelson takes some measurements and uses a tablet in the field. It’s nice to see the tech in use because there is a slight push to start using more digital tablets in the field and move away from paper. Archaeology is trying to go high-tech.

While Nelson takes notes, Arbuthnot talks to McAleese, who says there’s no evidence that the Indigenous people were using pitfall traps to hunt. I’m a little confused, because there are several references I can find that state that Indigenous peoples used pitfall traps. Even in the Kristjánsson et al paper, the authors refer to the 1966 excavation led by Devereux that suggested the pitfalls were of indigenous use for hunting, although the authors do point out there seem to be no other occurrences of pitfall hunting in Canada. So Norse or not, if these are pitfalls at Sop’s Arm, then this site is significant for that reason alone.

Unfortunately, Kristjánsson et al found no artifacts at all in the pits, Norse, Indigenous or otherwise. They attempted to take radiocarbon dates but got mixed results. Not that the radiocarbon dates would have proven a Norse presence, but it would have given a time period for the possible construction of the pits. Even with these results, the authors, including McAleese, chose to argue that the pits are probably Norse in origin, since pitfall traps like these are not known to the Indigenous people in the area. Again, a confusing statement, but I can’t find any definitive papers that counter that.

So what does all this get us? Inconclusive results leaning heavily towards Indigenous origins due to lack of anything saying otherwise. The show adds nothing to this really; Nelson and Arbuthnot were not able to excavate or investigate the pitfalls beyond taking some notes and measurements. So, other than being interesting, there’s no hard evidence to tie these pitfalls to the Norse.

Nelson goes back to his Found roots and goes to look at the Viking Museum curated by the late Kent Budden. In his museum, Budden kept many objects he collected over the years, thinking they were Norse in origin. He’s even published a paper on his explorations and conclusions into Norse occupation of Sop’s Arm. With Budden’s death, the museum’s collection has passed into the care of a committee of some kind, and Nelson managed to get permission from them to see it. When the camera pans over the collection, it’s clear to me that the objects Budden has collected are historical in origin.

Nelson is fascinated with a few of the objects, giving the misleading comment of, “This could be a thousand years old, or just a hundred.” Which — no, just, no. Nelson gets oddly obsessed over a nail from the collection. It looks identical to a square cut nail seen on pretty much every historical site in America that foraged its own nails. Nelson seems to think it has a good chance to be Norse in origin and goes about trying to convince the current keepers of the museum to let him take it to be tested.

Which leads to a scene that is confusing on several levels. Nelson eventuality gets his nail in the mail and takes it out with a pair of gloves, saying he doesn’t want to contaminate the sample, even though he’s already been shown handling the nail bare-handed. Then he takes out a portable PXRF machine, which, 1) is actually really cool, and 2) why didn’t he just take the PXRF machine to the museum and test all the things there? It’s portable, and he’s doing this test in what looks like his hotel room. If it could have gone there, why all the drama of getting the museum to part with the artifact for testing?

Anyway, the nail comes back as being made of nearly pure iron. Nelson did a good job of telling us that if it had been made from bog iron, he’d expect a lot of impurities. The nail didn’t demonstrate that. It would have been even more impactful if he had also done a sample of the bog iron for comparison, but we’re left with just the nail. This is a neat thing, more tech in the field, but this is also not a common tool in a field kit. It also doesn’t help prove that Sop’s Arm is connected to the Norse, and to Nelson’s credit, he doesn’t try to shoehorn it into fitting.

And that wraps up the more traditional archaeology for the show, with Nelson and Arbuthnot saying they’ve pretty much done all they can at Sop’s Arm. Nelson says something about him discovering that the sea winds would have been stronger on one side of Newfoundland than the other. I’m not really sure what that was meant to do other than segue to the second half of the show, where Nelson and Arbuthnot are looking at Norse ships in a Viking shipyard in Copenhagen, Denmark, and then sailing one for a speed test.

Yes, this entire segment is neat and fun and Norse ships are impressive. If you ever get a chance to go see one up close, especially one of the reproductions, I highly recommend it. Aside from just showing off these awesome ships, and having Arista Holden, the captain of the Polaris, demonstrate how a Norse Sunstone works, there’s no real point to this bit.

What it does do is feed a fear of mine that I expressed for the last episode, that America’s Lost Vikings is going to devolve into two dudes doing stuff and then saying things like, “Well if we can do it, the Viking’s could have, too!” Which is not the point. Lots of culture groups had the ability to do things like voyage to new lands. The point is, there’s no evidence they did.

Still, Arbuthnot says, “It [the ship’s speed] could mean the Vikings made landfall in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts,” and, “I think we’ve demonstrated conclusively that they had the technology and the capability.” Again, this is currently irrelevant because there’s no evidence to support the claim that they did do it.

Overall, this episode was better than the first, especially with the presentation of negative evidence. The show demonstrated archaeology more and even showed some tech in use in the field. Nelson and Arbuthnot seem to accept their lack of evidence with aplomb, but they do try to make it sound like there’s still possibly something out there.

Arbuthnot: “We’re still lacking the physical archaeological evidence.”

Nelson: “It just means you haven’t found it yet.”

I mean, guys, sometimes the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

America’s Lost Vikings airs on Science Channel on Sundays at 10:00 pm eastern time.

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