Spotting a potential Viking settlement from space

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Sarah Parcak used satellite imagery to identify a potential Viking settlement in Newfoundland. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak, on the hunt for Viking settlements in North America, turned to satellite imagery to identify potential sites.

An exhaustive analysis of images taken from space identified several “hotspots” in Newfoundland. Multi-spectral imaging revealed what looked like manmade formations underneath vegetation on Point Rosee, a grassy windswept peninsula on the island’s southwest end.

A potentially historic discovery followed.

Read about more events at the U.N. Global Colloquim of University Presidents.

Parcak ’01 described her quest to find the Norse settlement during a presentation on April 6 at the Whitney Humanities Center. Her talk kicked off more than a week of public events focused on the preservation of global cultural heritage, offered in conjunction with the United Nations Global Colloquium of University Presidents convening at Yale April 12-13.

Parcak’s pioneering use of space-based imagery in archaeology earned her the 2016 TED Prize and the unofficial job title of “space archaeologist.” She has used satellite imagery to expose and chart the widespread looting of key archeological sites in Egypt.

In the fall of 2014, Parcak and her team trekked through the remote wilderness to investigate Point Rosee.

“There were bears,” she said. “We didn’t see any, thank goodness, but I’d never had to carry bear spray before.”

She said the site, located near “perfect beaches” and featuring abundant natural resources, including “a gorgeous inlet full of fish,” would have provided an ideal spot for an early settlement.

Magnetometer readings confirmed that the formations in the satellite images were not natural. Armed with this information, Parcak secured funding and returned to the site last summer to excavate.

Parcak is a 2001 graduate of Yale College. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The excavation uncovered a turf-like feature that could be the remnant of a turf wall.

“What we’re seeing under the ground matches the satellite imagery,” she said. “No indigenous cultures used organized turf like this and, certainly, historic peoples would have built things out of wood.” 

Further digging turned up a large, fire-cracked, hearthstone and 20 pounds of bog iron in a bowl formed in the hearth. The bog iron had been burned.

Parcak said the hearth and surrounding turf features were intentionally positioned in a way to catch the most wind, which would facilitate making a fire.    

Analysis under an electron microscope showed the bog iron had been slowly roasted, consistent with how the Vikings worked bog iron, which is damp and would explode in a hot furnace, Parcak said.  The analysis also revealed that the material was 85% to 90% iron ore. 

“Whoever roasted this knew what they were doing,” she said. “It’s the first phase in iron production.”

Parcak said radio carbon dating produced a date range from the 9th century to the 13th century, which falls in the Norse era.

“That is suggestive,” she said.

Parcak, founding director of the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Laboratory for Global Observation, said there is not yet enough evidence to call Point Rosee the second known Viking settlement in North America. (The only confirmed Viking settlement, L’Anse aux Meadows, was discovered in 1960 about 300 miles north of Point Rosee on Newfoundland.)

“We have the second pre-Colombian iron processing site in North America,” she said. “I feel very comfortable saying that.”

She said it would take “years and years” before enough excavation and analysis is performed to conclusively determine whether the site is a Norse settlement. She is forming a team of scientists and specialists to return to Point Rosee this summer.

“We think there’s real potential,” she said.

Sarah Parcak, a 2001 graduate of Yale College, returned to Yale to discuss “The Future of Archaeology: Space-based Approaches to Ancient Landscapes” on April 6 in a talk sponsored by by the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage and Timothy Dwight College. It was the first in a series of public events on the preservation of cultural heritage held in conjunction with the eighth U.N. Global Colloquium of University Presidents.
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