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Putting a face on the Vikings in North America

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At the turn of the last millennium, a party of Norse Vikings landed on this rocky, fogbound shore, built a small settlement, and set out to explore a vast new region they called "Vinland."

But for much of the past 1,000 years, the Norse voyages were forgotten, the epic accounts of their journeys dismissed as myths. Generations of schoolchildren were taught that Columbus discovered America, and that another Italian, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), was the first European to lay eyes on Newfoundland.

Today, the elusive Viking legacy in North America remains controversial. Like fall leaves falling, the US celebration of Columbus Day in a few weeks routinely prompts scholarly interest in the Viking legacy.

This year, as a century draws to a close, the effort to see through the mist of a 1,000 years of Viking legend will intensify, gathering force from the broad array of millennial deliberations.

Historians remain divided over the significance of the Norse exploration of North America. "To my mind discovery and exploitation are linked, and the age of Columbus is the age of discovery," says Byron Nordstrom, professor of Scandinavian Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. "The Norse discovered these places, but there's no lasting colonial or trade establishment and the contact [with native Americans] never develops into anything significant."

Historians debate whether the Viking landing is of lasting historical significance. Archaeologists argue over the authenticity of alleged Norse artifacts found everywhere from New England to the Upper Plains (Minnesota via the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes). Vikings may have been the first Europeans to visit and live in the New World, but did they really "discover" it?

The Norsemen's most important historical contribution may have been the geographical knowledge that trickled from Greenland to Europe over the centuries leading up to Columbus's voyage.

Experts think this knowledge may have contributed to 15th-century rumors that there was land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, prompting Columbus and others to sail west in search of new trade routes to Asia.

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