Why I Didn’t Want to Study the Norse World—But I’m Very Glad I Did

Sarah Parcak digs at Point Rosee in Newfoundland. The smell of pine trees tickled her nose, but digging through that turf was hard work. Photo by Freddie Claire/BBC.
Archaeologist Sarah Parcak digs at Point Rosee in Newfoundland, Canada. The smell of pine trees tickled her nose, but digging through the turf was hard work. If the site is confirmed to be Norse, it would be only the second known Norse site in North America. Photo by Freddie Claire/BBC

Last June, I was lucky enough to be part of a team that located a potential Norse site in eastern Canada, several hundred miles south of where experts expected one to be. This site, Point Rosee, has gone viral and is featured in a two-hour Nova special, Vikings Unearthed (watch it now). So I need to admit something: I did not want to do this project. I had to be convinced, mainly by Greg MumfordLook my spouse, fellow archaeologist, and long-term Viking enthusiast.

See, archaeologists are specialists, and I’m an Egyptologist. That’s just the hat I’m most comfortable wearing.

I knew enough about the Norse archaeology community to know that it’s wildly different from what I’m used to. I have tremendous respect for people who have been working in the Norse world their whole careers, and I knew I had a lot to learn, quickly. The prospect of doing archaeology here made me deeply uncomfortable.

This project pushed me out my comfort zone in so many ways. Still, it showed me that no matter where you are—and even if the weather, and dirt, and materials you’re finding are different—there’s really just one good way to do archaeology, period.

Here’s how working in the Viking world felt different from working in Egypt.

Sarah Parcak and Greg Mumford on a dig in Egypt. The two work as an archaeology team, and Mumford co-directed the dig in Newfoundland. He had to convince Parcak to study the Viking world. Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak.
Sarah Parcak with Greg Mumford work as an archaeology team. Mumford co-directed the dig at Point Rosee, and had to convince Parcak to be a part of it. Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak

The Differences From the Air

The Norse world is mainly located in the North Atlantic. You’ve got Denmark, Norway, Sweden, parts of England, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and northern Newfoundland in Canada. The Vikings were intrepid explorers though, and the full area they covered was vast—hundreds of thousands of square kilometers.

Stories about new lands they discovered are recorded in their sagas, and they paint a picture of these places. You’ve got a lot of cold, hilly environments, but lots of other landscapes too. You’ve got fields. You’ve got mountains. You’ve got bogs. You’ve got forests. The weather patterns vary from warm summer days to 15 feet of snow in winter. The local geological conditions vary significantly too.

In Egypt, archaeologists can focus on a much smaller area. Ancient Egyptian culture was mainly located along the Nile floodplain and the adjacent desert edges. Here you’ve got relatively flat floodplains and desert, but you don’t have much more distinct landscapes beyond that. As far as temperature goes, there’s a colder time of year and a warmer time of year, but you don’t really get four seasons and massive temperature variability.

Satellite imagery is hugely useful in both places, as it lets you look over large landscapes much more quickly than you could ever survey on the ground. But in Egypt, you can say, “This image processing technique worked in the Delta, so it should probably work 200 miles south of Cairo in a similar stretch of floodplain.” In the North Atlantic, the much greater diversity of landscapes means that you constantly have to adapt the techniques you’re using. The technique that works in Scotland is not going to work in Greenland, and is not going to work in Newfoundland. There’s no “one size fits all” approach to remote sensing here.

Satellite imagery of Egypt tends to look very clear. Here, the New Kingdom town of el-Gurob, built in around 1800 BC. Photo courtesy of Digital Globe.
Satellite imagery of Egypt tends to look very clear. Here, you can make out the basic outlines of the New Kingdom town of el-Gurob, built around 1800 BC. Photo courtesy of Digital Globe

Another thing worth noting: In Egypt, I know what I’m looking for in satellite imagery. I know what a potential pyramid base looks like. I know what a Dynasty 5 tomb looks like. If you asked me, “What are the basic characteristics of a New Kingdom town?” I could lecture in great detail on the subject. Archaeologists in Egypt, for the most part, study the Predynastic period through the Islamic age—it’s a fairly continuous line of history. When you do archaeology here, you can learn all the key details of the various time periods inside out.

In the North Atlantic, you have dozens, if not hundreds, of distinct cultures and phases and site types. In Europe, you’ve got Neolithic sites, you’ve got Bronze Age sites, you’ve got Iron Age sites, you’ve got Medieval sites. You have a wide variety of indigenous groups, and wide regional differences in cultures. And in North America, especially in the eastern Arctic and parts of maritime Canada and the Northeastern U.S., you have many different cultures and timelines—not to mention complex interactions.

All this to say the range of things you might find in the North Atlantic is incredibly broad. We had to research a wide range of cultures and time periods before we could even start looking at satellite imagery, and we continued this research afterwards too.

This WorldView-2 satellite image of Point Rosee reveals some anomalies. The dark spot signal differences in vegetation health, potentially from man-made structures. Image courtesy of Digital Globe.
This WorldView-2 satellite image of Point Rosee reveals some anomalies. The dark spots signal differences in vegetation health, potentially from man-made structures. Image courtesy of Digital Globe

We scanned satellite imagery for essentially the entire eastern coast of Canada.

Point Rosee stood out because in the satellite image we could very clearly see an unusual pattern in the vegetation health. But it wasn’t until a two-person team went in to survey on the ground with a magnetometer—and got a strong spike—that we knew we likely had something. They readings told us that some kind of burning had occurred there in the past. So we set up a dig.


The Differences on the Ground

Our team of six traveled to Point Rosee in Newfoundland last summer. I was nervous—we had two and a half weeks to dig, compared to the 10-12 weeks I’m used to in Egypt.

One thing calmed me as we started our work: the smells. I’ve always said that Egypt is a land of magical smells—the sand is neutral, but there’s always something roasting or baking in a nearby village, or donkeys nearby, or people smoking something fragrant. When I’m there, I always think: this smells like life. But Point Rosee smelled beautiful too. At Point Rosee, you get wafts from the sea and wafts from the land. The smell of pine trees hits your nose, and it’s just very pleasant and refreshing.

The site and magnetometer survey grid for Point Rosee, aligned to magnetic north Image by Chase Childs.
The magnetometer survey grid for Point Rosee was aligned to magnetic north, and helped the 6-person team dig in exactly the areas they decided on in the satellite image. Map by Chase Childs

I realized that, at the end of the day, we’re all archaeologists. You adapt your methods to the location, but the basic process of approaching a new site stays the same.

You start by mapping your site. You lay out a detailed grid—sometimes it’s 10×10 meters, sometimes it’s 20×20 meters. You have to be able to match up your ground survey and your satellite imagery, and if you’re off even by a couple feet it can seriously impede your excavation and recording system.

Once you have your site grid, you can choose which sections will be your excavation units. For Point Rosee, the area that got our attention in the satellite imagery was about 2×2 meters. We decided to open up 1×1-meter units so that we could dig a hole and hopefully find the promising satellite features on the first try.

We hit our target exactly.

Within our first two days of excavating, we found what ended up being a bog iron ore roasting hearth. That’s how precise the survey methodology can be if you do it correctly. It’s a process that worked exactly as it would have in Egypt.

In Egypt, if you’re digging in the floodplain, you’ll have layers of silt—thin, dusty, dense soil that’s mixed by the river with mud brick, ceramic, and bones. In the desert, you’ve got different kinds of sand—wet sand, damp sand, clean sand.

In Newfoundland, you’ve got turf and sub-soil, so we had to do this thing called “de-turfing.” It’s an intense full-body workout—I mean, Crossfit can eat it in comparison. You take a turf-cutter and you push down about 5 to 10 centimeters. Then you have to jump on top of this tool to cut through the roots. You make crisscross lines across your unit, so that you cut turf blocks that weigh between 20 and 40 pounds. The turf blocks are wet, so bigger ones would be too heavy.

The most difficult part of working at Point Rosee: the "de-turfing." Cutting through the root and lifting off the top layer of turf gives Crossfit a run for its money, says Parcak. Photo by Greg Mumford.
The most difficult part of working at Point Rosee was the “de-turfing.” Parcak says that cutting through the roots and lifting off the top layer of wet turf gives Crossfit a run for its money. Photo by Greg Mumford

Once you’ve opened a trench, the process once again looks the same as it does in Egypt. You move methodically. You watch for all changes in soil, texture, inclusions, and other details. You take careful notes. You draw soil profiles, top plans, and sketch plans too. You snap photos of everything. You learn as you go.

The camaraderie on this dig felt similar to what I’ve experienced in Egypt. You’re waking up early, working hard together all day. In Egypt, you’re sweating buckets because of the heat. In Newfoundland, you’re sweating buckets because the labor is grueling. But then, there’s the thrill of discovery.

In Egypt, at any given site, you find thousands of pottery shards from multiple periods of time. Analyzing these ceramics helps you date your site, and can help you determine if a site was wealthy or middle-class, if it was a place of trading or a home. In Newfoundland, we didn’t find a single piece of pottery. If pottery had appeared, that would have suggested that we were looking at a site built by European settlers in the mid to late 1700s. We also didn’t find flint, which would have suggested we were looking at an indigenous North American site.

What we did find: the aforementioned hearth and probable turf walls. We also found 18 pounds of a glassy, blackened, and brownish material that, when we had it analyzed by a Norse metallurgy expert, turned out to be evidence of bog iron ore roasting, which is the first phase in Norse iron production. Iron production was a major part of Norse culture—it’s no coincidence that one of their most important gods, Thor, was a master smith.

Bog iron ore
The team found 18 pounds of material like this. After having it analyzed by a metallurgy expert, it appears to be evidence of bog iron ore roasting, something the Norse were known for. Photo by Greg Mumford

The bog iron ore roasting hearth, the probable turf walls, the iron production—all of this felt very new to me. And again, I want to stress that we did just two and a half weeks of work at Point Rosee, so everything we found is super preliminary. Right now, we know from our indigenous specialists and our research that the site doesn’t match other known cultures in eastern Canada, while it best fits “Norse” culture. But we have a lot more to excavate before we can know for sure.

It’s been fascinating to watch Point Rosee go viral. I’m a little puzzled by it, as interest seems higher than what I’ve seen for big finds in Egypt. I wonder if there’s a difference in expectation. People seem used to hearing about fantastic archaeological discoveries in Egypt—just the other day, the Ministry of Antiquities announced a new tomb dating back 5,600 years. You don’t hear as much about new discoveries in the Viking world. Especially ones in North America.

In all, working in the North Atlantic, we found some really cool Bronze Age and Iron Age sites. We made discoveries in Iceland and Scotland, too—and what you saw in Vikings Unearthed is only a fraction of our discoveries. In the end, I’m very glad my husband and team pushed me to be a part of this work. Hard, but well worth it.

Sarah Parcak usually works in Egypt, and says that doing archaeology in the North Atlantic was a challenge for her. Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak
Sarah Parcak usually works in Egypt, and says that doing archaeology in the North Atlantic was a challenge on every level. Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak is the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. She’s using the $1 million prize to build a citizen science platform to allow people all over the world to join the search for ancient sites. The platform will launch in summer or fall 2016 and, as she builds it, she’s bringing Explorers Journal readers along for the journey. Sign up for updates on this project, currently called Global Xplorer°.


Human Journey


Meet the Author
Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, National Geographic Fellow, and the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. With this one-million-dollar prize, she’s building a citizen science platform that will allow anyone, anywhere, to join in the search for and protection of ancient sites by analyzing satellite images and detecting new sites as well as the tell-tale pits and marks of looting.