Centuries-Old Viking Settlement Recreated in Miniature for ‘Vinland Map’ Exhibition

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It was a map of the world, dated to AD 1440, showing an island called Vinland, identified as part of the Northeast American coastline. In other words, it was the earliest map to show America.

When Yale University unveiled the Vinland Map on October 11, 1965, at a black-tie affair in New Haven, CT, it upended what Americans had believed and been taught for centuries — that Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the New World in 1492. The Vinland Map, dated by Yale researchers to about 1440, ignited a firestorm of debate about the moment of first contact — could it be that Vikings reached North American shores as early as the year 1000?

Many scholars, historians and much of the general public were swayed by the map and the study behind it, believing that Vikings had in fact been the first Europeans. Part of this acceptance was likely due to the findings of Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, husband and wife explorers and archeologists who discovered a Norse settlement on the Newfoundland coast that dates to the year 1000.

The Ingstads used what is known as the Vinland Sagas — Norse oral histories that detail Viking explorers traveling to Iceland, Greenland and even farther west and south — as the basis for their search. Starting in 1961, they uncovered Viking artifacts dating to the year 1000 near a small town called L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Their discoveries were made public in 1964.

In Science, Myth, & Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga exhibition that opened May 19 at Mystic Seaport Museum, the visitor is transported back in time to that October day in 1965 when the map is unveiled. The exhibition lays out the journey of the map itself, all the science that went into testing it to determine its age and validity, and the context of the times around its discovery and unveiling.

The Ingstads’ work cannot be underestimated in its importance. In Helge Ingstad’s 2001 obituary in The New York Times, William W. Fitzhugh, the curator of an exhibition last year at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington and the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, is quoted as saying the Ingstads’ work ”proved that Norsemen, Vikings if you will, were actually in America 500 years before Columbus.”

Inside the Vinland Map exhibition, visitors will see a 9-foot by 4 1/2-foot scale model of the Norse fishing village unearthed by the Ingstads. Created by the same team that maintains and works on the Museum’s Mystic River Scale Model, the model shows Vikings living a coastal life around the year 1000.

The model is built to an HO Scale of 1:87, according to project leader Tim Straw. The team was commissioned in January to create the model. Typically in addition to their work on the Mystic River Scale Model, they do one or two other projects for the Museum each year. Most recently they built the model Umiak boat that was part of the SeaChange exhibition last year.

A museum in Newfoundland has a similar model, and so the team received numerous photos of that model to use as the basis for theirs. Birgitta Wallace, the retired archaeologist for Parks Canada managed the excavations after the Ingstads left the area, and advised the exhibition opening here at the Museum.

The base is made of dense foam and wood, which is cut to a rough shape to follow the topographical map of the area where the village had been. It is then refined with chisels and files, and painted. Grass is created by spreading thinned white glue and then sprinkling turf mix. The model portrays what life would be like in mid-summer for the villagers. The winters were hard (and all white, not very interesting for a model).

The team of six volunteers is responsible for all work on the Mystic River Scale Model including construction of buildings, wagons and buggies, and maintenance of groundwork. The work on the Vinland model was split among the volunteers. Straw, a retired US Navy sonar engineer, did the design work and made the base. Anny Payne spent many hours applying and detailing the groundwork covering the entire model. Cindy Crab and Payne made all the outbuildings. Nick Dombrowski — whose hobby is restoring canoes and kayaks — made all the boats and oars. Rob Groves, a tugboat captain, made all the people look like Vikings. Dave Olsen helps out where ever he is needed, which is everywhere and often.

The finished product is incredibly realistic. Straw noted that the timeline for this model was tight, but they made it with time to spare. Now they are back to their regular schedule working on the Mystic River Scale Model.