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How can we know that there was a Viking chopping wood in Newfoundland in 1021: state-of-the-art technology, three pieces of wood and a cosmic chance

Exactly 1000 years ago, according to research published today in Nature, there were Vikings in America. It is important, not so much because “the men from the North will arrive in America before Columbus’s ships” (something that, otherwise, we already knew), but because it is the earliest known moment in which the Atlantic was crossed and it helps us to better understand some of the less documented years in the history of mankind.

But, beyond the specific data (which can get old at any time), what is really surprising is that we can know that, a millennium ago and exactly months ago, a handful of Vikings settled in the north of Newfoundland. What’s more, we can tell by cutting three pieces of wood. This is dating technology that will allow us to look at the world with different eyes.

A cosmic chance

Typically, it is not easy to date a site with such accuracy. Written records are needed or, at best, a good number of objects with unique characteristics that can be easily dated. Needless to say Viking settlements in Northern Newfoundland have not made it easy for us. Neither of those two things happened up there. Then of course we have technologies like Carbon 14 and related methodologies, but it can’t be fine-tuned in that much detail.

Then, How did they get to the date of 1021 in the old settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows? Using three pieces of wood associated with Viking activity in the area. That is, they had signs of having been worked with metal instruments (technology that, to date, we believe that the natives of the area did not master).

The team was able to date those chunks by a cosmic coincidence: in the year 993 there was a massive solar storm that left a “mark” on the composition of the trees: a distinctive radiocarbon mark that, for that very reason, it was possible to date very accurately. And from there, it was only necessary to cut the rings to the edge of the bark to have a fairly accurate measure of what year the tree was felled. All three pieces were from different trees, but all three pointed to the same year: 1021.

As we can see, the discovery has a lot of chance. Nevertheless, the technology to meet such a coincidence (and extract all its meaning) has only been available for a few years. It makes sense: as we learn to look at the world in more detail, the stretch marks that were always there and we did not see appear before our eyes.

Image | Victor B