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‘America’s Lost Vikings’ brings speculative warfare to Science Channel

What’s that they say about facts and a good story?

The third episode of America’s Lost Vikings on Science Channel is an odd one, because there’s no real point to it? The general premise appears to be that Vikings and Native Americans had some kind of battle in New York State. This is based on a story told in both the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red, collectively known as the Vinland Sagas.

It’s a story about Thorvald Erikson, the son of Erik the Red and the Brother of Leif Erikson. He’s described as leading an exploration to Vinland and encountering Skræling, the supposed name given to Native Americans by the Norse. In the Sagas, Thorvald angers a group of Skrælings after capturing a few, and takes an arrow to the knee. No, sorry, that was a different story.

Thorvald taking an arrow to the neck.

Seriously though, Thorvald and his men get into a skirmish with the Skrælings, he’s hit by an arrow and dies from the wound. According to the Sagas, he’s buried in the land he was killed in, and his men sail home without him. It’s a little aggravating because the show just assumes this is all true and accurate, and never proves anything.

Episode three is titled “War in the New World,” playing up the imagined conflict. There’s so much wrong here, it’s hard to unpack. For starters, the show focuses on the Lake Ontario area of New York State in the beginning. Why? Because the Wayne County Museum has a suspected Norse spearhead, that’s the only reason I can figure out.

So what’s wrong here?

  1. In the 80 years the museum has held onto the spear point, it never had the object verified. That’s weird to me.
  2. The spear point was found by a random guy digging a footer trench for his boathouse. It was kept for a while by said guy and later donated well after the fact. Its unearthing location was never investigated scientifically and there’s no documented history behind the artifact.
  3. There is no reason given in the show to associate the spear point with the Norse. This area is not L’Anse aux Meadows, so there’s no archaeological evidence for Norse occupation in the area.

Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot go to look at the artifact and use a portable microscope and the PXRF gun from episode two to see what the composition is. It’s an aggravating clip to watch because all they’re really able to tell is that the artifact is corroded, and is made of iron that has a number of impurities in it. However, both Nelson and Arbuthnot try to play it up like this is all verifying evidence that the spear point is, in fact, Norse and 1,000 years old. They, in fact, proved none of that.

There are things they could have done to verify the spear point, and they did none of it. They could have compared the style and shape to known Norse spear points. They could have used the PXRF gun the way its meant to be used and compared the elemental make-up reading they got from the spear point to the reading of the bog iron from L’Anse aux Meadows, or other known Norse spear points in other verified collections. But they didn’t.

Here’s the real rub though — even if they had gone the extra mile to prove the artifact was indeed Norse in origin, it wouldn’t mean that it was here because of any battle. It could have been a souvenir brought back from overseas, lost in the giant lake and forgotten about. It might have been a family heirloom. It could have been carried by a European swallow blown off course by a summer squall.

Point being, without context of any kind about the discovery, we know nothing archaeological about the artifact, and that makes it useless for the purposes the show puts on it. Again, this is Lost Vikings using technology as a neat trick that proves nothing of value.

Nelson and Arbuthnot decide to go to the location where the artifact was supposedly found and do a survey. I have so many questions about this, because it doesn’t look like any survey I’ve ever been on. The area they’re looking at is underwater, so why is Nelson doing the survey when Arbuthnot is the underwater expert? It’s literally his thing.

The metal-detector confuses me, too, not because they have one; lots of archaeologists use them. But this area is heavily disturbed and built-up — the metal detector is going to be useless. Then when they do find a spot to dig, they only go down a foot and don’t screen the soil they bring back up. I mean, yeah, it was basically a bucket of rocks, but you can’t adequately sort dirt without a screen of some kind.

Srly, where is your screen? Was there no budget for a screen?

As far as archaeology is concerned, this is it for the show, and I am really hard pressed to call what just happened archaeology.

From this point, the episode continues with this idea that Vikings did make it this far onto U.S. soil (again, there is no evidence to support this idea), and runs with the violent fantasy of what would happen if Vikings and Native American’s clashed. Who would win?

The show does get points for having Dr. Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki tribal member and expert on Northeastern oral traditions. Nelson talks briefly about the kinds of weapons the indigenous people would have used and to see if there is any oral history that lines up with the Vinland Sagas.

Bruchac mentions there are tales of violent stone giants that could deflect arrows, and Nelson decides those must be Vikings, because reasons. I’ve seen this particular trick tried before by other members of the fringe, taking Native oral history out of context, and using it to prove everything from aliens to actual giants to Vikings. Frankly, it’s tiresome.

A molten ball of bog iron.

The most interesting part of the whole show is when they go to Ontario, Canada, to meet artisan blacksmith Darrell Markewitz at his Wareham Forge to learn how to smelt bog iron using Norse techniques. The rest of it is just an episode of Deadliest Warrior, with Nelson and Arbuthnot dressing up like Norsemen again and doing weapon demonstrations.

What also irritates me is that the same document they’re pulling this “War in the New World” idea from, the Vinland Sagas, also talks about the trade that occurred between the Norse and the Skrælings. They traded for milk and cloth, and the Norse got foodstuffs and furs. But did Nelson or Arbuthnot mention any of that? Nope. They clearly have a narrative they’re pushing here, and they’re ignoring anything that counters it.

So, this episode was basically just watching Nelson and Arbuthnot doing random things and then having an imaginary face-off between not-even-authentic Norse chainmail and an actual Native American bow and arrow. Which I also have a rant about, but it’s irrelevant because there’s no bleeping evidence that anything like this occurred, especially not in New York State.

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

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