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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: Vikings in America by Graeme Davis

"The Vikings have left an enduring legacy on both sides of the Atlantic. Without the Vikings' discovery and settlement of North America the world would be a different place."

Vikings in America, published in August 2009, is a fascinating work by Graeme Davis that deals with the extent of the Viking settlements in North America. Interestingly, it argues that the Viking presence on this continent left a lasting impact in Europe and in North America. In addition to the traditional textual sources, and the verified and accepted archaeology, Davis's work makes use of recent finds as well as DNA evidence and North American oral histories to try and create a complete picture of the Viking involvement on this continent.

This is a work that is aimed at a general audience, Davis states this close to the beginning. Therefore the text is accessible. It is, however, very in tune with current scholarly trends and debates as well. Davis starts on the European side of the Atlantic, and establishes the relevant elements of culture, and the stepping stones the Vikings needed to take to get to North America, before proceeding to list the arguments for Viking involvement on the continent, including the High Arctic and in Hudson's Bay. From there the book goes on to discuss the evidence for continuous societal memory of North America and the legacy, or impact, the Viking landing and settlements had on the existing American settlements and future European settlements in North America.

The book is very well done in its treatment of evidence. All evidence is treated equally, and while usually if there is significant scholarly debate Davis will include that the evidence may be dubious, practically no evidence is left out. While this is not always academically sound, it certainly helps to show that whatever evidence we may in the future deem to be authentic, regardless it is clear that the Vikings had a larger impact than is currently verifiable with the more authoritative evidence. In particular this is a good approach to take when writing for a popular audience. Significant attention is also paid to Inuit, and pre-Inuit cultures and their contact with Europeans, and the recent archaeology from Ellis Island. These are areas which have not been as thoroughly explored, and are dealt with well in this book.

The weakest chapter is the one on the Hudson Bay, and the theory that the Vikings have gone in there, and this is arguably because it is based on the weakest evidence. Again, inclusion is interesting, because it does add to this image of widespread settlement and exploration, but it is mostly conjecture, although this entryway into the continent is linked to passages in the texts and to the dubious artifacts found in Minnesota.

While it may help the popularity of the book, the scholarship is in part undermined by the tone of the book. Davis is tapping into the nationalist sentiment that has fueled a lot of the writing about Vikings in America. Many argue that the discovery of Viking history is important, and it is to the telling of an accurate history. To argue that continuous knowledge of the Viking landings is important becomes more dubious, because people can not really explain why it is important. In the end it plays into the myth of national identity, as the North America we know today is seen to have been 'founded' by settlers. Essentially, statements like "in the Vikings, America finds its first European settlers. Most fittingly these first European settlers in America were people searching for what we know today as the American dream: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," colour the way we interpret Davis's attempt to give credence to all evidence. It gives the illusion of reaching, and compromises some of the excellent scholarship in the book. Especially when you view the so called Hispanic 'discovery' as some sort of conspiracy, and don't talk about other possible European landings as being as probable as the Viking landings.

This book very actively taps into the emotional drive behind trying to locate the Vikings in North America. Therefore, perhaps sometimes it accepts evidence too readily, though this does accomplish the task of creating a complete picture. Overall I would recommend this book due to the breadth of its coverage, and the sensitivity with which it treats scholarly current debates.

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