Monday, June 04, 2012

Vikings in America

I just finished reading Graeme Davis' Vikings in America.  Coming on the heels of Lies My Teacher Told Me, this is an interesting study in contrasts and similarities.

Some fifteen odd years ago, I read another book about vikings in America that posited a much more thorough presence than they are generally given credit for, as well as dissemination of knowledge of the vikings' journey being really integral to Columbus' own sailing west from Spain.  I can't remember the title or the author anymore, but it certainly introduced me to some of the controversies of viking archeology in America, including the Newport tower, the Vinland map, and the Kensington runestone.  Because of this, I've always been very interested in the subject, and suspected privately that our scholarship was too conservative and pessimistic about what exactly the vikings were up to on our continent.

Davis takes a similar approach.  He's obviously very enthusiastic about the vikings in general, and really wants their contribution to North America to be bigger, and to be recognized.  So he takes a kind of "I want to believe" approach.  This is where it's similar to Lies, in that Loewen also really wanted to believe things that had only flimsy (or in some cases even less) evidence.  The biggest difference between them is that Davis rather openly admits the state of current evidence.  Whereas Loewen assigns a confidence rating of "moderate" that a ship from Mali discovered America prior to Columbus (despite there being absolutely no evidence to support that that hasn't been thoroughly discredited or rightly ignored as spurious by the academic community), Davis is perfectly fine saying that current consensus today would say that the Vinland map, the Kensington runestone and the Newport Tower are not viking related, and the first two are in fact hoaxes.  However, he also goes on to say that they weren't always viewed as such, and explains why it is that accepting them as hoaxes is in many ways at least as problematic as accepting them as genuine, in terms of what it means as a tear-up of our current beliefs.  It's his view that at some point scholarship will turn yet again, and they will come back into favor as accepted sometime in the future.  In fact, he points out that in today's climate, he's not sure what it would take for them to be accepted as genuine.

His view also is that there is almost certainly a treasure trove of archeological evidence yet to be uncovered.  Given that L'ans aux Meadows wasn't even "discovered" until the 1960s, despite being right there on the surface and a point of local curiousity for years, and that the recently discovered High Arctic sites are merely the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended) on a thoroughly uninhabited and unsurveyed land today.

Where he wanders into more specious territory is where he talks about the Narragansett peoples as probable descendents of Vinland vikings gone native, and passing on their genetic resistance to diseases to that tribe.  He also disbelieves the notion that America is named after Amerigo Vespucci (for which there is some evidence, actually) and proposes a Viking etymology for the name, based on the viking word merki which after undergoing metathesis and having an a added at the begining and end due to adoption into Spanish, we get Amerika.  Since Spanish uses the letter c to represent the k sound, well, there we go.  This etymology seems almost too easy, and it's completely speculative, although interesting.  The viking word merki is cognate to the Old English word mearc which gave us the kingdom of Mercia (land on the borders), phrases such as the Welsh Marches (Welsh frontier, or border) and the mark in landmark, which meant border marker, originally.  This should also be familiar to anyone who's a Lord of the Rings fan--the Mark of Rohan meant, of course, the Rohan border country.  This meant that originally, the meaning of America, in viking (if one accepts his etymology) is merely border lands or frontier.

Anyway, fascinating book, and relatively short (less than 200 pages) written for a general audience, and a particular favorite subject of mine; it's no surprise that I found Davis' book excellent.

As an illustration, I've attached a small thumbnail of an Angus McBride illustration that originally came with the Osprey book on vikings.


K said...

Have you had a look at Totems of the Dead yet?

Joshua said...

Actually, I've only just now heard of it. Thanks for the heads-up.

Speesh Reads said...

Could the book you mention at the start, be ‘Viking America. The Norse Crossings And Their Legacy’ by James Robert Enterline.

Desdichado said...

Yes! That is exactly the book I'm looking for! I Googled it and immediately recognized the cover.