Archaeologists worked hard to unearth what might well be only the second Viking site ever discovered in North America – but they had a little help from a higher power.
To be precise, 386 miles higher, in the form of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite.
It was the satellite’s near-infrared imagery that set Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her colleagues on a quest to excavate the site on the southwestern coast of Newfoundland, known as Point Rosee.
“It screams, ‘Please excavate me!'” said Parcak, who won a $1 million TED Prize for her satellite sleuthing in Egypt.
Her quest in Newfoundland is the focus of a two-hour PBS/BBC documentary titled “Vikings Unearthed,” which makes its PBS broadcast debut on Wednesday and is available online for streaming via the “NOVA” website on PBS.org.
The imagery from WorldView-3 provided subtle clues, including the near-infrared signatures of ruins buried beneath the surface. Following up on those clues, archaeologists conducted a series of magnetometer surveys and excavations last June that turned up evidence on iron-ore processing and turf-type remains.
Carbon dating suggested that the site was active sometime between the year 800 and 1300. If the findings are confirmed, Point Rosee would be only the second Viking settlement ever discovered in North America, and the first such site to be found since 1960.
Point Rosee is more than 300 miles south of the previously discovered site, at a place in Newfoundland called L’Anse aux Meadows.
The evidence gathered from L’Anse aux Meadows proved that Christopher Columbus and his crew weren’t the first Europeans to reach the New World. Rather, Vikings sailed to Newfoundland around the year 1000 and tried for years to set up colonies there.
Norse sagas say that the Vikings eventually had to withdraw – due to environmental hardships as well as attacks from the natives, whom they called “Skraelings.” But if the sagas are true, how far did the Vikings get before they turned back? The Point Rosee site suggests that they could have ranged from north to south across Newfoundland.
“Vikings Unearthed” delves into the wide sweep of Viking wanderings back and forth across the North Atlantic, including discoveries that Parcak and her colleagues made in Scotland’s Shetland Islands and in Iceland.
The team behind the Point Rosee find acknowledges that they can’t yet confirm that the site they’re excavating is of Viking origin. But Parcak argues that the evidence of a Norse-style hearth and the lumps of roasted iron ore are highly suggestive.
As far as scientists know, no other culture in that time and place was working iron in that way.
“It’s either a new culture that looks and presents exactly like Norse, or Norse,” she told the CBC.
The archaeologists plan to resume excavations this summer, and look for further evidence of Norse settlements in North America as well as northern Europe.
Internet users may well be able to help out. In February, Parcak unveiled an online project called Global Xplorer that will let participants search for evidence of anomalies in satellite pictures like the one that led to the Point Rosee discovery.