Thursday, January 4, 2018

Did Ancient Norsemen Sail the St. Lawrence River? – Part I

The following article(s) are in response to a comment received recently regarding the Norse writing on what is called the Peterborough Petroglyphs in Canada that have been dated to as early as 1700 B.C. by one historian, as related to the Norse sailing "down" the St. Lawrence River.
    First of all, there are three terms that need to be understood: 1) Nordic, 2) Norse, and 3) Scandinavian. In addition, there are other names involved in these, i.e., Northmen, Norsemen or Vikings. Secondly, these terms all basically refer to the same people, i.e., ancient people of the Norden, or “the North,” which included the northern Germanic peoples of Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the latter including the Aland Islands, Faeroe Islands and Greenland. Collectively referred to as the Nordic countries, which is a historical and cultural region in Northern Europe characterized by a common ethnocultural North Germanic heritage and mutually intelligible North Germanic languages.
The Vikings crossed the Atlantic in the 9th and 10th Centuries A.D. by sailing from land to landfrom Norway to the Shetland Islands, to the Faeroe Islands, to Iceland, to Greenland, to Newfoundlandthey did not cross the Atlantic Ocean in one major sailing venture, but crossed in very stages over a 200 years period

Geographically and culturally, this is a region of Northern Europe and the North Atlantic, which is where the term “Norden” originated—meaning “the North.” A later term for this area is Scandinavia, which also refers to the Scandinavian Peninsula (the countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland), which originally referred vaguely to the formerly Danish, now Swedish, region Scania (Skåne or Skaane).
    The so-called “Viking Age” has been established by historians and archaeologists as the period between 800 A.D. to 1050 A.D. These Vikings (Vikingr) or Norsemen called themselves “Norse” (norroen), and though “Viking” is the word used today, it originally meant “pirate,” and actually would not generally have applied to the Norse.
    As we have recorded here in past articles, these Norse moved across the Atlantic in slow stages, first sailing to the islands of Shetland and then Faeroe, then on to Iceland, then Greenland, and finally to the island of Newfoundland, just off the east coast of the North American mainland. This first known attempt at European colonization began when Norsemen briefly settled at LAnse aux Meadows (Jellyfish Cove), located on the northernmost tip of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, around 1000 A.D., and is considered by historians as the only certain site of a Norse or Viking settlement in North America. 
    This site, on the northern tip of the island is along the northern entrance of the Strait of Belle Isle, the northernmost entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and has a magnificent view overlooking the Labrador coast. However, this area is exposed to strong winds and open to fierce storms that sweep in from the sea. It is an unusual spot for the Norse to settle since they normally selected more sheltered locations, though it would have been an easy area to find sailing in unknown waters at the time.
The Vikings ventured into North America from Greenland to Helleland, Markland, and Vinland, the latter on Newfoundland, where they landed and established a settlement they called Winland

This area is also notable for its possible connection with the attempted colony of Vinland (Vineland or Winland, i.e., Vinlanda Insula) established by Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red Thorvaldson (Eiríkr Rauði), around the same period. Though the exact location is unknown, it is believed to be the area surrounding the Gulf of St. Lawrence in what is now eastern Canada.
    No further known European exploration of the Western Hemisphere occurred until 1497, when Italian seafarer John Cabot explored and claimed Canada’s Atlantic coast in the name of King Henry VII of England. This was followed by Basque and Portuguese mariners who established seasonal whaling and fishing outposts along the Atlantic coast in the early 16th century, and in 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
    Another point should be noted that the type of ships the Norse had during these centuries is today called the Viking Longship. These ships were a type of boat invented and used for trade, commerce, exploration, and warfare during the Viking Age. They were made of wood with a cloth sail of woven wool, the hull gracefully long and narrow, forming a light boat with a shallow-draft designed for speed. The light weight allowed the vessel to be carried over portages and used “bottom-up” for night shelter in camps. Designed to sail in northern waters where sea ice and icebergs were a constant danger, the boats were double-ended, allowing the crew to sail in either direction without turning the vessel around.
    Initially, these ships were powered strictly by muscle power, where oars were fitted along almost the entire length of the boat. Later, around the 8th century, a rectangular sail of a plaited or checkered pattern, with narrow strips sewn together, was mounted on a single mast to augment the rowers.
    The smallest of the longships, referred to as “dragonships,” had thirteen rowing benches and was called a Karvi  (karve), and were “general purpose” ships, specifically used for fishing and trade. The Gokstasd (Kongshaugen), meaning “king,” was seventy-five feet long with sixteen rowing benches. The Snekkja (Snekke), meaning “thin and projecting,” had twenty rowing benches and the smallest boat used for warfare, carrying a crew of 41 men. The Skeld (skeið), meaning “cuts through water,” had thirty rowing benches and was a large warship with a crew of seventy to eighty, measuring ninety-eight feet in length, and the Drekkar, the longship used for raiding and plundering, whose prows were elaborately carved with menacing beasts, such as dragons and snakes meant to protect the ship and crew and to ward off terrible sea monsters  of Norse mythology—but mostly to frighten enemies and townspeople who the Vikings attacked during what has been described in the Gongu-Hroffs Saga (the Saga of Rollo who later settled in the part of France called Normandy).
    The very first of the longships have been traced back to initial construction between 500 and 300 B.C., when the Danish Hjortspringboat was built, which was fastened with cords rather than later ships that were nailed. The main point of the longships is to note that they were never built for deep-sea sailing—the Vikings or Norse strictly sailed short distances between land, typically hugging the coasts from Norway to Iceland to Greenland to Newfoundland, or down the European coast to England, France, and Spain. While operating in rivers and fjords, the longship design was perfect—small, fast, and highly maneuverable; however, its shallow-draft, low freeboard, lightweight construction and gunwales close to the water line, these vessels would have been beaten up and swamped in the deep sea crossing oceans where changing sea conditions are normal and can occur quickly in suddenly breaking seas where large waves would pass over the gunwales.
    As for sailing up the St. Lawrence, such longships would not have survived the heavy Lachine Rapids at Montreal, and were not built for such sailing venues that would have tossed the small, light-weight craft severely about, though their shallow draft would have been advantageous; however, their low-sitting, light weight, long and narrow design would have been battered by the heavy, cross-current wakes, and their calm water construction would not have lasted in the turmoil—otherwise, they would have done well in river sailing, since that was their main usage in Northern Europe among rivers and fjords.
    In addition, the petroglyphs at Peterborough are located 1400 miles west of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, where the Norse are credited as landing and temporarily settling. To reach the area of the petroglypghs, they would have had to sail across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up the St. Lawrence River to Kingston, then travel across land northwest 190 miles from the river, to Woodview (today known as the areas of Kawartha or Aspley), Peterborough County, Ontario, Canada, an area surrounded by freshwater lakes.
    Such a distance would have made no sense to the ship-bound Norse, nor would they have been able to sail or row their longships up the St. Lawrence River as mentioned earlier for the Norse were not known as explorers, or for their exploring lands simply to see what was there, but were heavily committed to trade and settlement, especially as a result of being exiled from first Norway, and then from Iceland, and forced to settle elsewhere.
(See the next post, “Did Ancient Norsemen Sail the St. Lawrence River? – Part II,” to better understand what these petroglyphs actually were and who made them, and also for more on whether or not Norse seaman were in the interior of Canada, and writing on rock such as the Peterborough petroglyphs)

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