Author: Colleen Andjelic
Series Editor: Roland Case
A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 11–14
Late in the 10th century, Vikings travelled west from their homelands to explore and settle in North America. The Vikings were Norse people from the northernmost countries of Europe — Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden. It was not Columbus who was the first European to set foot in America, but these Norse explorers. The proof of this lies in the 1961 discovery of the remnants of a Viking village at L’Anse aux Meadows in the present-day province of Newfoundland and Labrador. This village is thought to have been settled 500 years before Columbus landed in 1492.
Not enough is known about these early visitors to North America. Who were these people? What did they value or believe in? How was their society structured and what comprised their daily life?
In this MysteryQuest, you are invited to help anthropologists interpret a particular piece of Viking writing carved into a rock. This object, called a runestone, tells of the death of a Norse man. Archaeologists and historians have been able to piece together clues about his appearance, living conditions, and general health, but they want your help in learning more about Norse society, how Viking politics, trade, and society were structured, and how various groups related to one another.
To begin this task, you will learn about runes and runic writing by reading background documents written by historians. Then you will study documents about Viking life looking for information about Norse culture, politics, economics, and society. As you gather this evidence, draw conclusions about what it would have been like to live in the world of the Vikings. Finally, you will create a one-page profile or written snapshot that would provide those who found the runestone a clearer picture of this Norse man’s life, beliefs, customs, religion, and place in society.
While you need not be an expert in runic script, you may be curious about this old form of writing. To learn more about the topic, read the summary entitled Runes in the Secondary Sources section of Evidence in the Case. As you read the text and examine the photographs, think about how much information there is on a runestone. Can runestones tell us about the authors and about things they experienced? Can we gain glimpses of how life was at that time from these objects?
We often make inferences without realizing it. For example, you might smell something delicious cooking in the kitchen and infer that something special is happening or that a guest may be coming to visit. Without him expressly telling you, you might infer from your teacher’s tone of voice, stance, and facial expression that he is very pleased with your work. In both of these examples, you have inferred: you have drawn a plausible conclusion from the information before you. This is precisely what you need to do as you read the documents related to Viking life. It is helpful to consider two criteria when making an inference:
Working on your own or with a partner, examine these six documents from the Evidence in the Case section of this MysteryQuest. To help you, here is a brief description of each document:
As you read, focus on two tasks:
Use the chart Analyzing Norse Life to record what you learn and infer about Viking society, political and economic systems, and culture. For example, in “Viking Trading in Egil’s Saga,” Thorolf loaded a ship with “dried fish and hides, and ermine and gray furs … a most valuable cargo,” and then sent it to England where he used it “to buy him clothes and other supplies that he needed.” From this evidence, it might be inferred that the Vikings used a barter system (goods traded for goods) rather than exchange of paper money or coins for products. It may also be inferred that their trade system was extensive since they travelled great distances to exchange goods and services.
While reading the documents, you may come across words or phrases you are not familiar with. Consult a dictionary or thesaurus to help you understand the meaning of difficult words.
You should now have a much clearer understanding of Viking society, political and economic systems, and culture. Create a profile to help those who found the runestone recording the death of the Norse man. A profile offers a summary of a person’s habits, physical characteristics, traits, and abilities. Police officers sometimes rely on profiles to help them determine what type of person might have committed a crime. Focus your profile on the likely details of life in three areas:
For example, given what you inferred about society, would this man likely have had a wife, children (how many?), and a job (doing what?)? Looking at politics and economics, would he have participated in government, followed laws, and traded goods? In the cultural category, what religion would he likely have practiced, and what customs might he have followed?
Write a one-page profile that summarizes at least ten likely features of the life of the man mentioned on the runestone. The more clarity you can bring to your profile, with descriptive and imaginative yet plausible inferences, the better. Remember that after finding the runestone scientists were able to determine many basic facts about the Vikings, such as how their houses were built, what they looked like and ate, and where they travelled. It is the social, political, and cultural information for which they are relying on you for help. Create an imaginative, insightful, and plausible profile.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence and Inferences may be used by you or a student peer to assess how well you were able to identify relevant information and make inferences about Norse life.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Profile may be used to assess how well you were able to explain and incorporate plausible inferences into your profile.
Look for corroborating evidence
If the runestone had been found at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, would your profile be corroborated by the evidence? Read several of the overviews beginning with the Introduction written about L’Anse aux Meadows in the Where is Vinland? website. Find ten pieces of evidence to support the accuracy of your profile.
Create a Norse runestone
Runestones are one of the most precious of Viking artifacts because they are a direct communication link with a society that lived 1000 years ago. Review the information about runes and runic script and then select one of the people listed in Cast of Characters on the Where is Vinland? website. Create a rune that tells of something that person did or that commemorates the person’s death. As an additional challenge, determine the most likely location in which your runestone would be found.
Explore other challenges
Apply your detective skills to a related mystery associated with Vinland:
Activity Sheet: Analyzing Norse Life
Secondary Sources (interpretations and summaries of the evidence created at, or close to, the time and events you are studying)
Birgit Sawyer, “[Women in] Scandinavia in the Viking Age” in Vínland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, ed. (St. John’s, NL: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2000), pp. 56–58
Primary Sources (evidence created at, or as close as possible to, the time and events you are studying)
From the Sagas
Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins, trans., Laws of Early Iceland, Grágás(Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 1980), pp. 51–380
B. Wallace, trans., "Hávamál" in Eddukvćđi (Sćmundar-Edda), Guđni Jónsson (Akureyri, Iceland: Íslendingasagnaútgáfan, 1959), pp. 25–45