On an Early Colony

Growing up, my interest in history made me want to become an archaeologist. However, when I realized that 99% of that profession is in the pursuit of the artefact and not the actual finding of it, my innate laziness put the kibosh on that possible career. The opposite was true for a woman named Anne Stine Ingstad. Anne relished the pursuit, the chase, the digging, and the tedious research required by a classic archaeologist.

And Anne was led to excavate a site of one of America’s first colonies of European settlement. We probably all know about Roanoke Island, the first English attempt at settlement and how those colonists mysteriously vanished. Most of us have heard about colonial Jamestown or Williamsburg and those more successful attempt at a permanent English settlement in North America. But the site of the place of early attempt at a colony where Anne dug was a bit more north than what became Virginia.

Anne and her collaborator/husband, Helge, began surveying and carefully uncovering their site on the northeastern coast of North America in 1961 at a site called Grassland Bay. Locals pointed out the small settlement area to Anne by saying they thought the lumps of earth marked an old Native American campsite. However, Anne’s trained eye soon realized that it was a previously unknown and uncatalogued European site. For the next seven years, she and her husband and a growing team of researchers dug the site. What they discovered and uncovered was astounding and re-wrote the colonial history of America.

Over the years, the team was able to uncover and positively identify the remains of sod houses built on timber frames. Inside them, metal needles were found along with fragile bits of fabric, indicating that women were indeed part of the early settlement. They uncovered large, centralized cooking pits, proving that much of the food was prepared for the group rather than for individual houses and families. They found remnants of an iron forge, thus showing that the site didn’t belong to native tribespeople but rather to metal-working Europeans. And they found boathouses and boat-repair shops, indicating that the place was used as a way-station for other ships which passed by. All in all, the excavations carried out by Anne and the team proved beyond doubt that besides the fact that the colony was European, that it was occupied for some decades, and that it was from the early colonial settlement period.

But Anne’s work met some opposition in some corners of the history and archaeology disciplines. Since there was no corroborating narrative about an attempt at a colony at that site, there were skeptics who said that it was a much later site than what Anne and her team had proposed. Rather than a European colony, they argued, that it was merely an outpost of later settlements further down the North American coast.

But Anne then used carbon-dating methods to show that the wood used in the building of the sod huts was older than any of the other European colonial attempts. In fact, the proof Anne had showed that it may have been the oldest European settlement in North America–ever. She thus silenced her critics.

And, today, we recognize that Anne Stine Ingstad uncovered the fact that Vikings settled in Newfoundland, in North America a full 600 years before the English tried to colonize the New World.


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