Salk professor explores exciting piece of Viking history

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By: Jessica O’Connor

Rodney Steward, an Associate Professor of Hstory at USC Salkehatchie, has long held an interest in archaeology. The twelve year Salk employee, who holds a PhD. in Civil War Era Studies from Auburn University, received an invitation this year that he knew he couldn’t turn down. When Andres Gotherstron and Anna Linderholm (from The University of Stockholm) asked if he would like to join them in exploring L’Anse aux Meadows, Professor Steward leapt at the chance.

Joined by his son, he made his way to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Newfoundland, Canada over the summer to take part in a sponsored archaeological dig. When the pair arrived, they found themselves in a ruggedly beautiful seaside locale. L’Anse aux Meadows (which means “the cove of meadows”) is aptly named-the lush greenery, muted tones of the peat bog, and solemn gray of the cliffs and rocky shoreline all come together in stark contrast that’s a feast for the eyes.

What is the significance of L’Anse aux Meadows? Simply put, the site offers ample evidence that Vikings were most likely the first Europeans to make their way to the New World and establish a settlement in North America. Yes, that means that history as most of us know it (in which Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach the New World), could be false.

Carbon-14 dating and the discovery of items such as butternuts, bog iron, wood/ironworking tools, and a bronze cloak pin allowed archaeologists to tie the site to the Norse people. In fact, that cloak pin could be traced back to Norway through testing of the metals it was made up of. As Professor Steward noted, “This proved definitively that it was a European site.”

The findings were consistent with information contained within the Vinland Sagas, which told of the travels of Leif Erikson and other Norsemen who made the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to explore distant lands.

Professor Steward was particularly enthusiastic about this project and its relevance in the classroom due to the potential historical implications that could result.

“It’s important because it has the potential of changing the historical narrative of North America,” he said. “It’s very likely that Columbus had heard stories of people from the north venturing across the Atlantic, and it’s very likely that’s where he got his idea. It could very well be that stories of Norse explorations of the North Atlantic (including the New World) had significant influence on navigation in Europe, in the form of Christopher Columbus.”

Professor Steward went on to explain that a student posed a question to him this semester regarding why we’re told that Columbus was the first European to come to the New World.

“Columbus was the first to come and stay,” he replied. “The Norse didn’t-they came and stayed periodically over a stretch of time. They didn’t come to the New World with the goal of establishing a colony. It’s important for people to understand that for the Norse, they’re oriented toward Europe. They explore these other places, but always with a view of going back.”

The self proclaimed “amateur archaeologist” has taken part in other local digs, but the L’Anse aux Meadows project is the largest and most significant he’s participated in. Professor Steward has a particular interest in nautical archaeology, and would enjoy searching for shipwrecks at some point.

The L’Anse aux Meadows trip was made possible in part by USC Salkehatchie’s Faculty Development Fund. Professor Steward felt that his participation in the dig was without a doubt a feather in the cap, so to speak, in regard to staff credibility for the college.

“We’re hoping that this is just good publicity for Salkehatchie,” he said. “We want to let the community know that we have people here who are involved in research both nationally and internationally. We’re out here doing things.”

Professor Steward had the privilege of making a presentation at the Colleton County Museum about his trip to L’Anse aux Meadows, as well as presenting it at the Salkehatchie Scholarly Research Forum. You can see his fascinating presentation, complete with photos and videos, online at https://www.facebook.com/SalkResearch/videos/641283650902834/. We’ve only brushed the tip of the iceberg in this article-there’s far more history to be covered in his thorough explanation.

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