Helge Ingstad, 101, Discoverer of
(from the New York Times as
it appeared in the Halifax Sunday Herald Sunday, April 1, 2001)
Helge Ingstad, the Nowegian writer and
adventurer who followed a hunch and an ancient map to identify the place where
Vikings landed in North America 500 years before Columbus, died Thursday in a
hospital in Oslo, Norway. He was 101.
Ingstad transformed a myth into scientific fact
in the spring of 1960 when he found ruins almost a millennium old on the north
coast of Newfoundland. Though many doubted that the fishing village, L'Anse
aux Meadows, represented Lief Ericson's fabled Vinland, expeditions led by
Ingstad and his wife Ann Stine, over the next seven summers uncovered houses
of Norse origin.
Definitive proof came as objects were discovered
so obviously and conspicuously of Norse origin that they could not be
disputed. Radiocarbon analysis established they were about 1000 years old.
Particularly convincing was the discovery in 1964 of a spinner for yarn, the
first proven Norse artifact in North America. This discovery implied that the
settlers included women who attended to household tasks while the men tried to
establish a permanent settlement.
W. Fitzhugh, the curator of an exhibition last year at the National Museum of
Natural History in Manhattan, said the Ingstad's work "proved that Norsemen,
Vikings if you will, were actually in America 500 years before Columbus."
To Ingstad, this was headily inspirational
stuff, and in the final lines of his book, 'Westward to Vinland', he tried to
see the Newfoundland coast as it looked to the Vikings seeing it for the
first time. "Young sailors once stood under a square sail, gazing wonderingly
across the water to where a strange shore rose about the sea - a New World, he
entire life seemed to be a quest for newer shores.
abandoned a lucrative law career to become a trapper in the Canadian Arctic,
served as a governor in Greenland and lived with the Apache Indians and
Alaskan Eskimos. He wrote novels and a play.
Three years ago he told NTB, the Norwegian news
agency "I came into the world at the right time. I got to do everything. I
have it in me like wealth, the experiences and the people."
Marcus Ingstad was born on December 30, 1899, in Meraaker, on Norway's west
coast. He practised law in Levanger before striking off n a life of adventure
in 1926. He
spent four years as a trapper and hunter northwest of Great Slave Lake in
Canada, then wrote extensively about his experiences. Percy Hutchison,
reviewing his book, 'The Land of Feast and Famine (Knopf, 1933), said the
adventure tale read more true than tall. He called the book, "a fine narrative
of consistent courage, extremely well written."
In 1932 and 1933, Ingstad served as governor of
a portion of Greenland that was briefly claimed by Norway in the 1930s. It
was the same area where Eric the Red lived and built. Ingstad then served for
three years as governor of the Svalbard Islands, a Norwegian territory in the
He next conducted research on a group of
Apaches in Arizona and Mexico who, he said, had not previously been contacted
by white men. During World War 2, he served first as a leader of a relief
action in Norway and then in the underground resistance movement.
In 1941 the dashingly handsome adventurer
married Ann Stine-Moe, a respected archaeologist. They became professional
collaborators. She died in 1997. He is survived by their daughter,
In the 1950s, the couple gained familiarity with
Ancient Norse ruins from excavations in Greenland. He intensively studied the
original Icelandic sagas, and every available interpretation. Particularly
useful was a pamphlet written in 1914 by William Azariah Munn, a
Newfoundlander who made a name for himself in the cod liver oil business.
Munn used the old sagas to theorize the site of Vinland was just 10 miles from
where Ingstad ultimately found it.
But before investigating Newfoundland, Ingstad
roamed coastal areas of New England and Nova Scotia by foot, boat and airplane
without finding any archaeological evidence. Finally, he arrived at the spot
identified in an Icelandic map from the 1670's as Promontorium Windlandiae.
He asked a fisherman, George Decker, if there
was any strange ruins in the vicinity. "Yes, follow me," Decker said.
"Decker took me west of the village to a
beautiful place with lots of grass and a small creek and some mounds in the
tall grass," Ingstad said in an interview with The New York Times last year.
was very clear that this was a very, very old site. There were remains of sod
walls. Fishermen assumed it was an old Indian site. Bu Indians didn't use
that kind of buildings and houses."
Ensuing digs confirmed that the ruins were
Vinland, although grapes never grew in Newfoundland. (Vinland is believed to
derive from the ancient Norse word for pasture.) The place seems to have
been a base used by Vikings to spend winters, repair boats and mount
expeditions to what are now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Archaeologists have found butternuts, a white
walnut considered a delicacy by the Vikings, buried there. The closest place
where butternuts grow is New Brunswick.
Ingstad lived on a nine-acre estate in Oslo,
where a polar bear rug was spread on the floor of his home and mounted ox
heads decorated the walls. He attended the unveiling of his own statue in
January. The intrepid explorer always insisted that his discovery did
not undercut Columbus' achievement, although facts, he also suggested, are
made a wonderful discovery," he said in an interview with The Ottawa Citizen
last year. "But he was a few hundred years later."