- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

"In a way, the Viking long ship was the Internet of the year 1000, connecting places and people who themselves could not even imagine what lay beyond that wide sea or that mountain range." First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton

Norwegian explorer Helge Ingestad was born Dec. 30, 1899, and he looks it.
Wedged into the corner of a sofa at the Madison Hotel, with wisps of white hair covering his head and a hearing-aid cord trailing out of his left ear, Mr. Ingestad recalls how he broke the back of conventional history 40 years ago with this discovery: Leif Ericson and his vikings landed in North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
Mr. Ingestad was here last week to help open "Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga," an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
The 300-piece show marks the 1,000-year anniversary of the arrival of the vikings in North America, with everything from ancient artifacts to pop-culture items such as a "The Vikings" movie poster and a Thor comic book.
Co-sponsoring "Vikings" with the Smithsonian is the White House Millennium Council, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's pet project. The exhibit, which cost $3 million, runs through Aug. 13. Nine countries donated items, the oldest of which is the Lindisfarne Stone from Great Britain.
Dated around 832, the rough-surfaced, cream-colored slab supposedly commemorates the viking invasion of England in 793. Other pieces, such as jewelry, church carvings, manuscripts and even musical instruments, seek to represent the Norse as everyday people who made contact with American Indians.
"The Vikings have long been admired for their ability as shipbuilders, mariners, explorers, traders, and warriors, as well as for their less-reputable history as raiders and plunderers," Arne-Sofie Graslund writes in the exhibit's accompanying text. "Unfortunately, the more constructive side of the vikings is less well known."
Mr. Ingestad hardly looks like a raider or plunderer. A dark blue sweater shrouds him, and he has just finished a glass of orange juice. (He may be 100, but he's well taken care of.)
He is, however, an adventurer, to say the least.

Mr. Ingestad grew up in Bergen, Norway, and was a thriving lawyer in the city of Levanger. ("I could have been a rich man," he says.) He quit that 70 years ago to become a trapper in the Canadian Arctic.
"I always had a little devil in my heart," says Mr. Ingestad, who now lives in Oslo. "At first, it was very tough. Sometimes the weather was 50 to 60 degrees below zero."
Make a big deal about his greatest exploit, and Mr. Ingestad smiles pleasantly, more out of nonchalance than advanced age.
"I studied these things, of course," he says in his thick, gravely Norse accent, "and I had lived very much among the natives, so I had an idea about the country."
He found the viking site of L'Anse aux Meadows remains of houses that were similar to Norse houses from Ericson's time on the northern tip of Newfoundland, in 1960.
That region of northeastern Canada was known as Vinland by Ericson and his vikings.
Mr. Ingestad knew this from the well-known 13th century "Vinland Sagas." Those written accounts were taken from oral histories as opposed to eyewitness accounts about viking voyages to North America between 850 and 1050.
He also had studied a 1670s map that pinpointed the location. Yet there was no physical evidence, so Columbus' arrival in the West Indies in 1492 still was taken as the discovery of America by Europeans.
Historians long thought Vinland meant grapes, because Mr. Ingestad says "the sagas repeatedly mention grapes," so they concluded the viking sites belonged in the wild grape areas of New England.
Mr. Ingestad, however, followed the 1898 studies of a Swede, Sven Soderburg, who based the name Vinland on the Norse word "vin," which means meadows. He went farther north, by boat and plane, along the eastern coast of Newfoundland in 1959.
"For a long time, it was disappointing," he says. "It's a long coast."
Then Mr. Ingestad met "an old-timer, a fisherman" on the northern tip of Newfoundland in the village of L'Anse aux Meadows.
"I asked him if there were any ruins here," Mr. Ingestad says. " 'Yes,' he said. 'Follow me.' Then we went along the coast where there was lots of grass and a little river where the salmon were swimming… . We saw huge traces of grass, completely overgrown. But here and there was some part of a wall and houses that evidently had been built of sod.
"Of course, I didn't know exactly what it was, but I had a hope, a strong hope, that it might be Norse."
He and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine, returned seven times between 1961 and 1968 to excavate the site. Besides the ruins of eight houses, which were the same type in Iceland and Greenland from 1000, the Ingestads found a soapstone spindle-whorl and a ring-headed bronze pin "which indicated that women might also have lived in the settlement," Mr. Ingestad said in his remarks at the exhibit's opening.
Radiocarbon samples further showed the site as dating to 1,000 years ago.
"Some people had some difficulty" with the findings in the beginning, Mr. Ingestad says with a smile.
The site is now a World Heritage Site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and also one of the Canadian National Historic Sites.
"It's the only site I ever found," Mr. Ingestad says. "I just came from the Smithsonian, and they have finds from the viking time, and they have made a very nice exhibition of it."


WHAT: "Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga"
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Aug. 13
WHERE: The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
PHONE: 202/357-2700, 202/357-1729 (TYY), 202/633-9126 (Spanish)
WEB SITES: www.mnh.si.edu/vikings, www.nmnh.si.edu


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