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‘America’s Lost Vikings’ episode 5 — speculation is not archaeology

Making a wish with a bad penny?

After a week’s hiatus since episode four, America’s Lost Vikings is back on the Science Channel with the tantalizingly titled episode five, “Curse of Death Island.” Blue Nelson opens the show saying, “For centuries Vinland was thought to be a myth.”

This isn’t entirely true. European settlers to the Americas were talking about the possibility of Vinland and New England being the same. Even Benjamin Franklin is known to have talked about the Norse discovery of America in letters sent out before the American Revolution. Now, does that mean Franklin was correct on everything he believed about this? No, but it does prove that Nelson’s statement isn’t accurate.

Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot are in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, trying to tie it to the description of Vinland in the Vinland Saga. They start by saying the Bay could be Strumsford from the Sagas, because it’s got an unusual wave phenomenon that can create strong currents and low waves when the waterway changes direction. This is an unusual natural happening, but other than Nelson and Arbuthnot simply stating that they think the Bay is Strumsford, there’s no evidence to connect the two.

Next, we go to look at the controversial “Maine Penny.” The way Nelson and Arbuthnot tell the story, you’d believe this Norse penny was discovered by an amateur archaeologist while on a sanctioned dig. This is not true.

In 1956, Guy Mellgren and his friend Ed Runge were searching the coast on the famous, prehistoric Goddard site, an extensive area consisting of Native American ancestral artifacts such as pottery, chert and stone flakes. They found a small, corroded coin that Mellgren thought was an English penny. Mellgren apparently carried the coin around with him most of his life, showing it off and telling stories.

It wasn’t until 1978, after Mellgren’s death, that the coin was correctly identified as a Norse penny, and his cache of artifacts “recovered” from the Goddard site were finally donated to the Maine State Museum. Meaning, everything Mellgren and Runge collected was not recorded, stored, or curated properly until 22 years after their discovery.

This is the reason there’s so much mistrust surrounding the coin. Its origin appears to be genuinely Norse, but its discovery and history are unreliable. There are several other ways the coin could have made it to the Goddard site, one of which the show actually builds a strong case for and then completely fails to mention.

A few verified artifacts have been found on the Goddard site that are unlike the others. Arbuthnot is shown a very pretty projectile point made from Ramah Chert, chert (a hard, dark rock made of quartz crystals) being the preferred stone used for making stone tools and hunting points.

Except Ramah Chert isn’t from the area around the Goddard site, it’s from the Labrador region of Canada that neighbors L’Anse aux Meadows. If we’re comfortable saying the Ramah Chert made it to the Goddard site via trade, then why are we uncomfortable saying that about the Norse penny? They’re from the same area and we know the Norse at L’Anse aux Meadows were trading with the local tribes. If we accept the coin as being genuinely found at the Goddard site, then it’s not a stretch to think it got there via the same trade routes that brought the Ramah Chert there.

As there’s no solid evidence that the Norse were anywhere other than the L’Anse aux Meadows area, this hypothesis is far more logical than the presence of mysterious, undetectable Vikings, which is something Nelson even admits too. “We can’t say the Viking’s were here [in Maine] because of that coin,” he says.

From here Nelson and Arbuthnot keep trying to match anything they can to the description of Vinland from the Sagas. They go looking for wild grapes by drinking wine, they chop down a tree with Norse replica axes, and then they go talk about butternuts with an expert. I’m not sure what this all proves, but it follows the same pattern as the other episodes. They do something really science-y, then they spend the rest of the episode playing around and doing the “if we can do it, so could the Norse” thing.

In the final segment of the show, Nelson and Arbuthnot go to a small island near Martha’s Vineyard to look at the Noman’s Land Leif Eriksson Stone. All we get to see is the two struggling against high tides and an incoming storm. We never see more of the supposed rune stone than its kelp-encrusted top.

Why Nelson and Arbuthnot went after this runestone is a mystery to me. This particular stone was pretty well taken apart by Edmund B. Delabarre and Charles W. Brown in 1935, when they published their article in The New England Quarterly, “The Runic Rock on No Man’s Land Massachusetts: Geological Notes“. Delabarre and Brown list out 11 reasons why the stone is not authentic, including pointing out the sloppy script of the runes, the runic forms used that date to the 19th century, spelling errors, the use of Roman numerals, and the date on the stone itself being too early for even authentic Icelandic rune stones.

Overall, this episode was like a collection of unconnected clips that the show tried to string together in order to create an argument built entirely on speculation. It doesn’t really matter if the currents in the Bay of Fundy match the Vinland Saga’s description (which is really just Nelson and Arbuthnot’s opinion), or that they found wild grapes somewhere on the coast (not near the Bay of Fundy), or that Nelson and Arbuthnot can chop down a tree. The only real thing this episode did was reinforce the power of trade routes and built a better case for trade among the Norse in L’Anse aux Meadows and the tribes around them.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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