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‘America’s Lost Vikings’ — episode 6 review and series recap

We may have learned more about the show hosts than we did any historical group.

We made it! America’s Lost Vikings has ended and the final episode, “The Alaska Enigma,” wraps up all the loose ends that the series left throughout the last five episodes … or not.

We open with Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot speculating on where the Norse in Greenland went, and why they left their settlement seemingly so suddenly. Just to be clear, there are logical reasons that are currently accepted by the archaeological community for why the Norse settlers moved on, and Nelson and Arbuthnot hint at them a few times, but mostly dismiss them.

It becomes abundantly clear this episode, if it weren’t already, that Nelson and Arbuthnot are 100% behind the idea that the Norse made it further into the Americas than there is evidence for. They are determined to prove it here, no matter what straw they have to grasp at. Which also leads to some incredibly dismissive comments episode toward Native Americans, the Inuit, and First Peoples. Whether this is intentional or not, I can’t say.

On a ship sailing towards Greenland, Nelson and Arbuthnot start to talk up the mystery of the “vanishing” of the Norse from the area after roughly 500 years of settlement. Since we’ve established over the last five episodes that Nelson and Arbuthnot like to exaggerate, we shouldn’t take this “vanishing” statement at face value. “There’s no written evidence that they ever returned to Iceland,” Arbuthnot says. “Could they have ended up in America?”

Well for starters, there’s no written evidence they did a mass exodus to America, either, so if a lack of written record rules out Iceland, it sure as hell rules out the Americas, too. Especially since there’s also no archaeological evidence that a massive migration of Norse occurred. As archaeologists, this should have more weight for Nelson and Arbuthnot, but it doesn’t.

We arrive in Greenland and meet Unesco Site Manager for the Hvalsey site, Alapat Ard. I think it’s worth pointing out here that Ard always says “Norse” when Nelson says “Viking,” because the first is a noun and the second a verb. It’s like referring to coastal New Englanders as “Fishing” because a of few of them do that for a living.

“What’s most important to us as archaeologists is to see what remains of this Viking Stronghold,” Nelson says, taking us to see the church ruins at Hvalsey and the footprint of the large manor house nearby. Ard says the last written record we have for the area is a wedding record. After that, the settlement goes silent. Nelson and Arbuthnot immediately begin speculating as to why that might have been, without ever asking to see anything archaeological.

A couple things here:

  1. This is not a Viking Stronghold, it’s a settlement; these are different things and Nelson is once again playing on violent metaphors to make the Norse sound bad-ass … I guess.
  2. Seeing the ruins is not priority number one for archaeologists. Yes, it’s good to see the sites as they are, but what’s more helpful is the excavation documentation and the assemblages recovered there, two things Nelson and Arbuthnot never look at.

Ard shares with them some Inuit lore that says the Thule came upon a weakened Norse settlement and killed them all. Suddenly Arbuthnot comes up with the idea that maybe the Norse fled the violence and went to America. “We don’t know, because they’re stories,” Ard chides him. “And that’s what makes it interesting,” Arbuthnot responds, deciding this is just the plot thickening.

Then we go to The Greenland National Museum located in Nuuk, Greenland, to talk with Christian Koch Madsen, an expert on medieval Norse and Thule culture in Greenland. In a very poor choice of words, Arbuthnot tells us we’re going here to see if there’s any “truth in Ard’s tales”. Because, you know, Native oral histories, /shrug.

Nelson also emphasizes the oral origins of the idea of a Thule attack, and I honestly think that the very idea the Vikings could be killed by a bunch of Inuits really bothers Nelson and Arbuthnot. They appear a little too relieved when Madsen tells them there’s no evidence of violence on the site or in the remains recovered.

Madsen goes on to talk about the reason the Norse were here in the first place, the harvesting of walrus ivory, emphasizing the craftsmanship and trade of the Norse. Arbuthnot and Nelson then speculate on why the Norse would give up such a lucrative trade resource, again playing up the mystery of the “vanishing.” What probably happened here was the first half of the Little Ice Age.

The show kinda touches on it, but the severity of it is left a little vague. From about 1300 to 1400, there was a massive cooling of the northern part of the globe. It affected Northern Europe and America, and created climate change that devastated nearly every aspect of human life. Food resources were lost, water froze, temperatures dropped, and places that were once habitable become inhabitable. This is most likely what drove the Norse from Greenland, which was already a difficult place to survive.

And here again there’s an issue with Arbuthnot and Nelson’s language when talking about “Vikings” vs. the Inuit. Nelson wants to know if Vikings could survive on a diet of seal. Nelson and Arbuthnot engage an Inuit hunter to take them on a seal hunt, and they fail to acknowledge that the Inuit did, have, and do survive on seal. It’s still a major food source for the modern Inuit, and that Nelson and Arbuthnot just fail to mention this is a little breathtaking.

Combined with Nelson and Arbuthnot’s comments, and honestly their behavior during the seal hunt, it’s just flat out insulting. They make all these little comments about how hard this is, and wow *they* can’t see the seals, and gee, Alekatsiak (their Inuit hunter guide) must be specially tuned to seal hunting. All of this shows that Arbuthnot and Nelson’s real question isn’t, “Can HUMANS survive on seal?” but, “Can Vikings, who are somehow separate and different from the Thule Inuit, survive on seal?” I hope the dog whistle there is apparent.

We jump back to Denmark to meet Niels Lynnerup from the University of Copenhagen. Lynnerup talks about using isotope analysis of the teeth of early and late Greenland settlers. Comparing the two shows there was a major shift in food source from mostly land animals, (cow, pig, sheep) to nearly 80% seal. Nelson and Arbuthnot think this is an amazing adaptation for the Vikings, again, ignoring the Inuit.

Arbuthnot and Nelson are desperate to connect the Greenland Norse with an undetectable migration to the Americas, even though they have no evidence for it. To do so, Arbuthnot finds an obscure reference from a 17th century Bishop named Gisli Oddsson. This is another one of Arbuthnot’s dubious references, as he’s referring to the Annaliym In Islandia Farrago and De Mirabilibus Islandiae, translated from Latin by Ketill Jörundsson and attributed to Gisli Oddsson.

Arbuthnot makes it sound like this source is a first-hand accounting of what happened to the Norse settlement, but in reality, Oddsson was writing about the settlements in the early 1600’s. That’s 200 years after the settlement was abandoned. Kirsten Seaver notes in her book The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of  North America, ca. A.D. 1000-1500 (p. 86), that Oddsson was simply recounting the loss of the settlement, basing his hypothesis on even older ideas that the colonies must have become un-Christian. Seaver states that Oddsson’s comments are not reliable proof of the Norse movements to the New World nor a reliable source on the state of Christianity in Greenland at the time.

Next, we go to the Canadian Museum of History to meet Dr. Matthew Betts and to look at Norse artifacts. Nelson and Arbuthnot get really excited about these artifacts because they’ve all been found in the high arctic area in Canada, which is immediately west of Greenland. Again, there are a few things to take into consideration here:

  1. We know the Thule and the Norse were trading with each other.
  2. There’s not a whole lot here, and what is here is not settlement-type stuff, but more hunting related.
  3. There’s no physical site associated with these artifacts that looks like a Norse settlement. Remember, we know what those look like, and we haven’t found those in the high arctic. The Thule, however, did live in the high arctic, and if they were trading with the Norse, we would expect to find items similar to these.

So all Nelson and Arbuthnot have proven, while refusing to contemplate it, is evidence of trade.

Nelson does say they need harder evidence to prove the presence of Norse in the high arctic. The straw he grasps at is a small, carved figure. According to the show, It’s clearly Thule-made, but the figure looks more like a Norse style of dress.

As neat as this figure it, what it tells us is that a Thule Inuit carved a figure of a Norse person. This isn’t hard to believe since they were in contact with each other via trade and some conflict. But Nelson and Arbuthnot don’t stop there.

Nelson sees a piece of carved antler with several faces on it. Nelson and Arbuthnot see Vikings in the carvings and begin to make things up, like how Inuit don’t have beards. They completely ignore the rest of the antler which is also carved, and just start forcing their own interpretations on the Thule carvings. There is historical evidence for Inuit with beards in both photographs and traditional art.

The last thing they look at is a scalpel-like knife that is a combination of a bone tool and metal. They marvel at the location where it was found, somewhere near Alaska. Even after saying, “This really shows the range of material was transported a good distance,” Arbuthnot decides that Vikings must have moved inland, all the way to Alaska. I would like to beat a dead horse here and again say, trade routes are a hell of a thing, and are a much more logical conclusion to draw here than a migration of Norse that left no other trace than one singular artifact.

For the final push of the show, they try to incorporate what Nelson and Arbuthnot like to call “experimental archaeology.” Arbuthnot suggests that the Norse indeed moved inland along the treacherous Northwest Passage. This would have been almost impossible to sail, given the Little Ice Age and just the nature of the passage. So how does Arbuthnot suggest the Norse did it?

Dogsleds.

Arbuthnot and Nelson have a not-so-impressive replica of a known Norse trade sled recreated and shipped to them in French-Canada somewhere, and they find somone who is willing to lend them some dogs. I love this ornery little guy because he refused to speak anything but French to Nelson and Arbuthnot.

Long story short, they hook the dogs up, make everything seem more complicated than it needed to be, and fail to get the sled to work. Their reasoning is that the sled they used was originally meant to be pulled by horses, not dogs. So obviously, the Vikings must have altered the sled to accommodate dogs, and we’ve just never found one … ever. Or any mention of dogsleds … ever.

Anyway, that’s the end of the show, Nelson and Arbuthnot talk about Viking ingenuity and continue to convince themselves that the Norse made it to Alaska somehow. It’s all a bunch of  speculation and we’re left right where we started, the only known Norse settlement in the Americas is still L’Anse aux Meadows, and Nelson and Arbuthnot have provided nothing to change that.

But here’s a picture of a smiling sled dog!

My final thoughts:

Well, if you’ve stuck with it this long, gold star!

Overall, America’s Lost Vikings was aggravating on several levels. The most obvious being the clickbait titles, amped-up filming and music, the constant speculation and exaggeration, and the use of unreliable sources as evidence. The less obvious was the sneaky sexism and low-key shade-throw at Native Americans and First Peoples.

It’s good that Nelson and Arbuthnot constantly reminded me that they were archaeologists, because just watching this show, I wouldn’t have guessed. Their methodology was weird or non-existent, their conclusions were drawn from thin air, and they clearly had an agenda mold they tried to make everything fit into.

Another reason Vikings is so frustrating is what it did right. It showed lots of technology in archaeology, even if Nelson and Arbuthnot used it in weird ways. It showed collaboration with experts, and most of those experts were allowed to give decent information, even if Nelson and Arbuthnot bent or ignored it.

This easily could have been a six-part series on the Norse in L’Anse aux Meadows and Greenland, looking over Norse technology, settlements, craftsmanship, and trade. But no, Science Channel decided to back a pseudoarchaeology show that used the trappings of archaeology to lend authority to problematic theories of pre-Columbian European settlers in the New World.

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

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