Ancient GPS – Viking sunstones

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There is a lot wrong with the popular History Channel series Vikings. There is a lot right with it, too. Much of what you see on screen falls in the middle somewhere.

An example or two of the wrong: If there even was a Ragnar Lothbrok (the series’ main protagonist in its first four seasons, and who some historians consider a conglomeration of many Viking characters), he did not live at the same time as his series’ brother, Rollo.

In the series, the character Rollo (in reality, “Gangr Hrolf,” or “Hrolf the Walker” for his long legs) lived 50 to 75 years before the man was actually born and he received land in France, which became “Normandy,” meaning “Land of the Northmen,” perhaps 100 years after the series begins.

After agreeing to help the King of France repel any further invasions by his brother, Rollo proceeds to use French troops to kill his Viking compatriots who complain. Why then is Rollo needed? Now he is just a lone Viking.

In the Season 5a finale, we see Rollo coming to the aid of his nephews Ivar and Hvitserk at the head of a massive fleet. If the French had a massive fleet capable of reaching Norway, it’s news to virtually everyone, and history would likely have played out much differently than it did.

Those are just a couple of things wrong with the character Rollo and the timeline of the program.

However, the series does get much right. Much of the everyday life of the Vikings depicted in the series is correct, with the popular exception of the semi-Mad Max leather costumes.

We know too that Viking men were frequently tattooed and wore somewhat elaborate hairstyles. We are told this by Arab travelers who documented their visits among the Northmen. Most of the rituals depicted in the series fits outside contemporary accounts as well.

It seems also that Michael Hirst, the shows’ creator and writer, got the idea of female warriors right. While “shield-maidens” had been loosely mentioned in some texts following the Viking era, there had never been definitive proof. We don’t have it now, but it’s beginning to look like some women did take part in Viking warfare, and/or at the very dangerous game of Viking politics.

In 1889, Viking-era remains were found in a grave in Birka, Sweden. 128 years later, they were identified as female through DNA testing. In the grave with the female skeleton were typical warriors goods. Though nothing points directly to her being a warrior–she may have been a high-status warrior’s wife, given his expensive goods as a token of love, or perhaps the high-status female was anticipating joining the Valkyries in the afterlife. We are not 100 percent sure.

However, when taken with tales from the sagas (whose details, not theme, should be taken lightly), we know that women played a significant role in the political world of Iceland.

We know that women in Norway and Iceland enjoyed rights that few other women of the time could even dream of, such as divorce and inheritance.

The series’ first episode revolves around Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother yearning to try their hand at raiding in the west, not around the Baltic Sea as they apparently have for years. This is another of the show’s errors–the Vikings knew full well there was land to the west.

10 Things you may not know about the Vikings

Trade had gone on sporadically for centuries throughout the breadth and length of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Still, many British trade goods arrived via Denmark over land from France, and not every Ragnar, Rollo, or Ivar would know how to get there over the open ocean.

Ragnar lets his brother in on a little secret. He has gained a “sunstone” from a wanderer, and this will allow them to successfully navigate even if the sun is obscured with cloud and fog, as is common as dirt in the North Sea.

Here’s the trouble. No one is sure that sunstone (which is the nickname for certain types of feldspar, and other stones, such as calcite and tourmaline) was used in the Viking era, or as early as Ragnar Lothbrok was said to have lived. Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries mention “sunstones” but are vague about their use.

Later Christian texts mention them as well, but we do not know whether the Vikings of any era used them for navigation. Until archaeologists find one in a Viking grave or other yet undiscovered site, we may never know for sure.

Recent studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that it was possible to navigate using a sunstone. As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science in April 2018, two professors, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth, knowing the measurements and traits of Viking-era vessels, weather patterns in the North Sea and currents, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking voyages.

They found that if a navigator used a sunstone to monitor the sun’s position at least once every three hours he would reach his target exactly 92-100 percent of the time (and this period includes just before sunrise and just after sunset, as sunstones can magnify the suns light on the horizon before its truly visible to the naked eye).

In one of their simulations, the professors used a different type of sunstone, and departing from Norway in their simulation, found that if they checked their stone for the sun once every four hours instead of three, they would blow past the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and end up in…Canada.

 Matthew Gaskill


Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.

The unlikely home of the world’s smallest desert

It had snowed overnight, but there were already tracks on the ground. The fine powder had covered the perimeter of spruce and willow and was already starting to melt on the topmost branches when I set out on my expedition. Ahead was a denuded and frozen basin of snowy ridges and gently rising slopes.

The noise of the village had faded, and as I took my first steps onto the plateau, following the contour of the land, an intense squeak escaped from under my boots. It was all I could hear for the next 10 minutes. A muffled, metronomic marriage of snow groaning on sand. After that, I had reached my destination. I had crossed what many believe is the world’s smallest desert.

At only 600m wide, Canada’s Carcross Desert is said to be the world’s smallest desert (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

At only 600m wide, Canada’s Carcross Desert is said to be the world’s smallest desert (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

This was my introduction to one of North America’s most bizarre geological phenomena, the Carcross Desert in Canada’s Yukon). At first glance, it admittedly didn’t look like much. Hardly recognisable as a desert and only 600m wide, best measured end to end by bootprints, it was blanketed in snow, the sand only apparent between cracks in the melted crust. But the details sharpened over time. Closer inspection revealed a miniature kingdom of fine-grain sands, a rare habitat for plants, ungulates and insect species that may be new to science.

Arriving at its roadside gateway, marked by an abrupt ‘Carcross Desert’ signpost, the words seemed jarring and out of place in Canada. I’d seen dunes in Oman, Morocco, Namibia, Chile, Saudi Arabia, India, Mongolia and Egypt, but there are few places at 60° North where you’ll see the word ‘desert’ writ large. Deserts take up one third of the Earth’s land surface, but the one outside the village of Carcross doesn’t offer the philosophical mindset of the Sahara or the Rub’ Al Khali. It is a pipsqueak. A Lilliputian sandpit, by comparison. And measuring just 1 sq mile (2.59 sq km) it is one of only a few such dune systems in North America.

“The desert has long been an enigma to us locals,” said Keith Wolfe Smarch, a member of the Tlingit First Nation who lives in Carcross, population 301. The wood carver, who can see the dunes from his workshop, has long used the surrounding landscape as inspiration for his work. “There’s plenty of rare vegetation that lives down by the beach on the Carcross River and one day the desert will swallow it up. It shapes our town.”

The Carcross Desert is a rare habitat for plants and insect species that may be new to science (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

The Carcross Desert is a rare habitat for plants and insect species that may be new to science (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

According to Wolfe Smarch, the village of Carcross was founded some 4,500 years ago at a crossing point where Bennett Lake and Nares Lake meet. Such good fortune created a natural land bridge, which in turn became a makeshift trap for migrating game. “Massive herds of woodland caribou would cross here,” Wolfe Smarch told me. “As nomadic people, both the Tlingit and Tagish tribes camped beside the nearby Natasaheen River to hunt – so the town’s name comes from a portmanteau of caribou and crossing.”

As Carcross has grown, so has the number of visitors to the Yukon’s one-of-a-kind desert. Originally called Naataase Heen (meaning ‘water running through the narrows’), Carcross was the kind of village most would pass through. There is a scattering of white-painted churches, a general store, and cabins adorned with moose antlers and rusted axes, leftovers from the Klondike era when paddle-steamer traffic ferried miners to the territory’s goldfields near Dawson City and Atlin. But today, the story is changing.

It shapes our town

Sport lovers now descend on the sands every weekend, creating a multi-purpose adventure playground. In summer, exposed dunes are used by quad bikers, hikers and sand-boarders, and become a shelter for dall sheep, mountain goats and deer. As soon as enough snow falls, the desert turns into something else entirely, the dunes reclaimed by ski-tourers, tobogganers, snowshoers and snowboarders.

“I bring my kids tobogganing and they love it,” said Whitehorse-born Jennifer Glyka, who I met at the village’s Bistro on Bennett, one block from Wolfe Smarch’s studio. “I grew up in the Yukon, but it’s still pretty weird for me to slide down an ice-covered sand dune. I’d never heard of this place when I was a kid.”

The village of Carcross was founded more than 4,000 years ago at the point where the Bennett and Nares lakes meet (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

The village of Carcross was founded more than 4,000 years ago at the point where the Bennett and Nares lakes meet (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

For all the feel-good spectacle, the Carcross Desert leads a double life. It is also the territory of Canadian scientists and geologists at pains to unravel its secrets, to work out just exactly how this nanoscale oddity came to be.

One such expert is surficial geologist Panya Lipovsky from the Yukon Geological Survey. She has made it her mission to research the scaled-down desert’s backstory, and she understands its contradictions better than most. “I study dirt,” she said, matter-of-factly, when we met at the Yukon government building in Whitehorse. “I also study landslides and surface deposits. And that encompasses deserts.”

The ice bulldozed everything

According to Lipovsky, the Carcross Desert’s unique genesis is the result of 10,000 years of natural labour. The Yukon was last glaciated during the Wisconsinan McConnell glaciation, she explained, some 11,000 to 24,000 years ago. “Carcross would have had 1km of ice sitting on top of it,” she told me, while hunched over research papers and geological fieldwork studies. “You just can’t picture it.”

As the ice started to melt, lobes of ice began to retreat south, leaving the southern Yukon with heavily scarred valleys. Lipovsky likens this to a vast construction site, as “the ice bulldozed everything”. Over time, massive lakes formed at the snout of the lobes, then when the ice retreated, water levels dropped, leaving beaches and strand lines socked in between the valleys. To finish, sand was hoovered up by fierce winds and blown north-west, giving birth to one of the world’s most unlikely deserts.

“There’s a misconception it’s the result of a dried-up lake, but that’s not the case,” Lipovsky told me. “Strong prevailing winds continue to whip along Bennett Lake today, blowing exposed fine-grain sands into the dunes. So the combination of the wind, the water and the Ice Age created a distinctive set of circumstances.”

Artist Keith Wolfe Smarch of the Tlingit First Nation has long used the unique landscape of the Carcross Desert as inspiration (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Artist Keith Wolfe Smarch of the Tlingit First Nation has long used the unique landscape of the Carcross Desert as inspiration (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Another inconsistency is the issue of classification. To be categorised as an arid desert for scientific purposes, one needs to receive less than 250mm of annual precipitation, while semi-arid deserts receive between 250mm and 500mm. This is the category that Carcross falls into, despite sitting in the rain shadow of the surrounding mountains.

“You can certainly call it a wet desert,” Lipovsky said. “But with so much sand and sediment blown in, there’s no chance for the vegetation to regenerate. It’s a truly dynamic system.”

Despite such contradictions, what’s not debated is the sense of awe and sheer amazement the desert inspires. As you enter, its mystery deepens, the tall willow and spruce appearing in ghostly silhouette. Beyond this, surprises wait. Yukon lupine and Baikal sedge flower in summer. Rarely seen coast dart moths and dune tachinidae hover in the skies. Five new species of gnorimoschema, a genus of the moth family, have been discovered. The likelihood is there are more.

The Carcross Desert is home to a variety of wildlife, including dall sheep and mountain goats (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

The Carcross Desert is home to a variety of wildlife, including dall sheep and mountain goats (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

All this beauty in one of the Earth’s most unforgiving and complex environments is hard to fathom. This isn’t the Sahara, the Gobi or the Kalahari. But each step across its diminutive dunes makes you realise: this desert is a whole world of wonder unto itself.

By Mike MacEacheran 22 June 2018

 

North Americas unexpected neon jungle

Surprisingly, Vancouver – not Shanghai, Hong Kong or Las Vegas – was once the neon capital of the planet.

Wide shot: a city’s majestic backdrop of sea and sky, skirted by folds of Douglas fir, and deep, zigzagging fjords. Zoom in: a downtown core on the rise, a mixture of newly built condominiums, theatres and red-brick saloons. Close-up: in the middle, a hodgepodge of advertising signs and overhead utility lines rearing out of the darkness. And the big picture: the sky electrified in a glow of red, yellow and green as 19,000 neon lights switch on.

Step back in time to 1950s Vancouver, and this is what would have greeted you after sailing across the Georgia Strait to the city’s historical district of Gastown. From here to the suburbs, the streets hummed with transporters and Frankenstein-like glass insulators. Logging agencies, lumberjack recruiters – even churches – advertised with neon lettering, while residents amped up their houses with neon door numbers. Harder to believe still, the city produced more strip neon than anywhere else on the planet, with one sign for every 18 residents, and 12 factories, including the world’s largest.

Vancouver, Canada, was one of the first capitals of neon, with one sign for every 18 residents (Credit: Credit: Michael robertharding/Alamy)

Vancouver, Canada, was one of the first capitals of neon, with one sign for every 18 residents (Credit: Michael robertharding/Alamy)

Stories like this aren’t supposed to happen in the middle of the Pacific Northwest’s beautiful temperate rainforests. Maybe in Hong Kong, Las Vegas or Shanghai, cities where streets besieged with neon are part of downtown lore. But Vancouver, Canada’s great-outdoors capital? The sheer volume of neon colour juxtaposed with its beautiful natural setting seems alien. Yet the truth that it was one of the world’s first capitals of neon is unlike anything stereotypes of the city might lead you to expect.

To learn more, I contacted John Atkin, a Vancouver-born civic historian, heritage consultant and neon expert. “Neon and rain are made for each other – it makes the colour diffuse and come alive – and that really helps explain why there was such a boom here,” he said as we toured the Museum of Vancouver’s permanent neon gallery on an overcast afternoon. “Vancouver has more grey days than anywhere else in North America, but it was also a streetcar city, which advertising neon is perfect for. Add the weather to the transport system, then factor in the low cost of leasing the signs as manufacturers began competing with each other, and neon boomed. It workedhere.”

The museum’s rich collection of aged and weathered signage comes from the groundwork of Atkin, who first curated an exhibition on the city’s neon history back in 2000. Two stand-outs are a gigantic pink-striped ‘R’ from Regent Tailors, first hung on West Hastings Street in 1960; and a buzzing red and green headstone designed for S Bowell & Sons Ltd Funeral Directors from the previous decade.

Even Vancouver’s churches advertised with neon signs (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Even Vancouver’s churches advertised with neon signs (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

According to Atkin, the key thing that set Vancouver apart was the majority of sign makers here were art-school graduates. That meant there was a real consideration for design, and streets became canvases of typography, colour and action. The definition between where the building finished and art began started to blur.

“The artists had fun with it,” said Atkin, as we looked upon one-sided mounts advertising a beauty salon, a dry cleaner, a garage, a dairy and a pool hall. “In the 1940s and 1950s, Vancouver wasn’t just lit by neon – it was illuminated with stories.”

Vancouver wasn’t just lit by neon – it was illuminated with stories

Atkin clearly remembers the tales that illuminated his childhood. When he was a boy, he used to cycle through the inner city on his way to swimming practice. He was an early riser, and somehow felt drawn to the rainbow-coloured signs on downtown Granville Street in the pre-dawn light, particularly vibrant around 05:00.

Share such stories with Vancouverites today and many will be puzzled. Tell them trees were covertly planted beneath well-known signs to blot out the visual noise and they’ll scarcely believe you. But there’s a good reason: the signs have all but gone, with most consigned to the scrapheap.

For history hasn’t been kind to Vancouver’s neon. Did it signal glamour and big-city living – or was it a vulgar display that vandalised a city? From the 1950s to 1970s, this was the question that divided the city, with neon becoming a symbol of a deep civic controversy and a lightning rod for critics.

By the 1960s, a growing suburbia meant neon had become demonised and associated with urban blight. “You can have civilisation, or you can have neon,” said one detractor, the criticism ironically lit up as a display at the museum. “It is vital to Vancouver’s reputation as a beautiful city… that these proposed sign controls be implemented before any more visual squalor is added to our most attractive streets,” said another at the height of the backlash.

To the city’s lawmakers, the signage frustrated people’s expectations of what Vancouver – surrounded by a northern cape of mountains and forests – should be. The throbbing glow was seen as an ugly, seedy distraction. So by 1974, the city adopted its first comprehensive sign control bylaw, restricting new neon signage beyond measure.

As Atkin sees it, the distaste came from a misguided realisation of just how corrosive to society neon was. “The bylaws made it damn difficult to do anything,” he said. “Everything that made neon cool – you couldn’t do it anymore. And with it the craft started to disappear.”

By the 1960s, Vancouver’s neon became a symbol of deep civic controversy

By the 1960s, Vancouver’s neon became a symbol of deep civic controversy (Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Today, examples of vintage neon still dot Vancouver, although you need to know where to look. For maximum impact, a walk through the city should take in The Orpheum and Vogue Theatre, two typographic verticals on Granville Street trimmed with bulbs. On nearby Hastings Street, a quick succession of marvels then spreads farther east, including signs such as those at Save On Meats, The Balmoral and The Pennsylvania (hotels turned social housing projects) and Ovaltine Cafe, a city fixture dating to the early 1940s.

We’re bringing the neon back

However, thanks to newly tempered bylaws keen to curtail downtown’s commercial decline, change is gathering pace, particularly in Chinatown, an area intrinsically tied to neon’s rise and fall because of the propensity of restaurants to embrace the advertising. Walk along East Pender Street and you’ll come to Sai Woo, a nearly 100-year-old restaurant, restored and reopened in 2015 as part of the area’s ongoing gentrification. Here, the unmissable 3x2m neon cockerel advertising chop suey – paid for by a community-supported C$19,000 Kickstarter campaign – is just the start of a welcome revival.

“We’re bringing the neon back,” owner Salli Pateman told me, while staring out at the two-sided gold-and-green cockerel sign. “It’s happening again, and a year from now there’ll be five or so more places with signs like this. We’re salvaging the heritage of this neighbourhood.”

The message is clear: there’s a new generation willing to embrace the visual noise.

Owner Salli Pateman raised nearly C$20,000 to locate and restore the Sai Woo restaurant’s original neon sign (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Owner Salli Pateman raised nearly C$20,000 to locate and restore the Sai Woo restaurant’s original neon sign (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Next for Chinatown is the return of Foo’s Ho Ho, Vancouver’s oldest Chinese restaurant and a place famous for a once-notorious neon artwork. It was the address for an incredibly complex four-storey sign depicting a two-sided bowl of steaming noodles with flashing, alternating English and Cantonese words. The campaign to restore it has been masterminded by restaurant owner Carol Lee. Designed from scratch by Atkin using a more streamlined design, and paid for through heritage grants and donations, the C$80,000 signboard will be unveiled later next year.

It creates a sense of nostalgia, but also community

But while such visual ambition forms part of a wider lighting strategy to revitalise downtown Vancouver, it’s about more than just adding drama to the cityscape for locals. “It creates a sense of nostalgia, but also community,” said Pateman, looking up and down the street with a look of marked confidence. “When these signs are switched on, people will know Chinatown is back.”

The ultimate symbol of Vancouver’s transition from west coast logging town to vibrant metropolis, neon was once the city’s hallmark. Tomorrow’s Vancouver – shining bright – will be as much a reaction to its past as it is a celebration of the future.

By Mike MacEacheran 4 May 2018

Canada’s vital role in the communications revolution

I carefully framed the iceberg over my left shoulder and snapped the perfect selfie. A few taps of my phone later, the image was soaring through cyberspace from my location in St John’s, Newfoundland, to my various social media channels and followers around the world.

I smiled, wondering if, when Guglielmo Marconi stood on this spot in December 1901 to receive the world’s first wireless transatlantic transmission, he had any idea of where his success would lead. Would Marconi have taken a selfie on this spot?

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

I was on Signal Hill, a massive piece of bedrock about 140m above the Atlantic Ocean on Canada’s eastern shore. It’s a dramatic spot where the ocean merges into St John’s Harbour, creating a waterway appropriately called The Narrows. Fishing boats and trawlers pass through each morning just as the sun begins to illuminate the route, and again in the early evening hours to bring seafood to the local restaurants and canneries.

They, too, make vivid images to share on social media.

A paved trail from downtown St John’s follows the harbour shoreline to the bottom of the hill before winding around and up via a series of switchbacks and steps that make the hike an energetic workout. When I explored on a Saturday afternoon, the hillside was dotted with picnickers, dog walkers and people enjoying the beauty of the day. Two wedding parties with photographers in tow were taking advantage of this exceptional setting as a backdrop for their special day.

But its popularity was not what brought Marconi to Signal Hill. Indeed, the number of visitors was a concern as he considered the needs for his experiment.

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic storms (Credit: Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic (Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

The child of a wealthy family in Bologna, Italy, Marconi was well-educated, and from an early age was fascinated with science, specifically the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the air. He was the first to discover that by grounding a transmitter and receiver, and raising the height of an antenna, he could extend a signal’s range.

That was big news in 1894. But few in Italy were impressed, so Marconi moved to Great Britain where he patented the invention and found investors to continue his work. The big question of the day was whether a long-distance radio wave could follow the curvature of the Earth or whether it just shot out into space.

Marconi scoured several locations on North America’s eastern seaboard for this experimental, transatlantic transmission. His first choice was a rocky outcropping in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but a series of storms on both sides of the ocean that battered antennae and other equipment eventually led him further north.

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America; that would be Cape Spear, a little further south. But Signal Hill is slightly more protected from the North Atlantic’s furious storms by a natural recess in the coastline. On a clear day, you feel as though you could shout a greeting to someone on England’s rocky coast, about 3,500km to the east.

Marconi had already chosen his ideal location on the other side of the Atlantic: Poldhu on the Lizard Peninsula in South Cornwall. Although the original transmission station is gone, a monument and visitors centre today marks the spot and interprets what was going on here while Marconi and team worked on the other side of the ocean.

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

Those in England worked in isolation, struggling with weather conditions of their own, not knowing at all what was transpiring in Newfoundland. It had been weeks since they had communicated with Marconi and team.

For several days, at an appointed time each day, the scientists at Poldhu transmitted three simple dots – the Morse code signal for the letter ‘s’. Marconi was battling against the violently cold and windy winter up here, and needed to use a series of balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright. But each day, at the designated time, he donned headsets and listened.

Finally, on 12 December 1901, it happened. Dot-dot-dot.

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world, comparable today perhaps to Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. He made millions from his inventions and received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909.

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world

Signal Hill is now a National Historic Site. And about 64km south is Cape Race, the first permanent Marconi station in North America. It was here on a cold night in April 1912 that wireless transmissions from the RMS Titanic were received and shared with the rest of the world.

Both places are worthy of a selfie, thanks to Guglielmo Marconi.

By Diana Lambdin Meyer  2 September 2017

 

The first European settlement in the New World

I sat stranded along the stretch of roadway in northern Newfoundland known as the Viking Trail, which leads to L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site, the only authenticated Norse settlement in North America.

As I waited for him to carry on his way, I noticed that the tree branches in the forest lining this section of road all pointed east, angled by the force of the wind blowing inland off the Strait of Belle Isle, the narrow strip of water separating Newfoundland from Labrador.

L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland was the site of the first European settlement in the New World (Credit: Credit: Interfoto/Alamy)

L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland was the site of the first European settlement in the New World (Credit: Interfoto/Alamy)

Twenty minutes later, I continued on my journey; it was another 80km to L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. Stepping out of the car, my nostrils filled with the crisp, briny sea air carried in by a breeze that rippled across the grassy landscape.

It is here that a significant moment in human migration and exploration took place

It is here, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, that a significant moment in human migration and exploration took place.

In the year 1000, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus set sail, a Viking longboat, skippered by Leif Erikson, brought 90 men and women from Iceland to establish a new settlement – the first European settlement in the New World.

In the year 1000, a Viking longboat captained by Leif Erikson landed near L’Anse Aux Meadows with 90 men and women (Credit: Credit: Parks Canada)

In the year 1000, a Viking longboat captained by Leif Erikson landed near L’Anse Aux Meadows with 90 men and women (Credit: Parks Canada)

Erikson’s party arrived at low tide and found themselves stranded in the misty shallows of what historians believe was Epaves Bay. When the tide returned, they moved further inland, navigating up Black Duck Brook to the place where they would establish their stronghold in their new-found land.

By modern sensibilities, Newfoundland can seem a harsh place, with fierce coastal winds whipping across the remote landscape. But for people who just travelled across the unforgiving North Atlantic in open boats, it would have been perfect. The forests were rich in game; the rivers teemed with salmon larger than the Norse had ever seen; the grasslands provided a bounty of food for livestock; and, in some places, wild grapes grew, prompting the Vikings to name this land ‘Vinland’.

The settlement didn’t last long, however; the community abandoned the settlement after less than a decade after repeated clashes with the island’s native tribes, known to the Vikings as ‘Skraelings’.

In some places wild grapes grew, prompting the Viking name this area ‘Vinland’ (Credit: Credit: Michael Runkel/Alamy)

In some places wild grapes grew, prompting the Viking name this area ‘Vinland’ (Credit: Michael Runkel/Alamy)

For more than 100 years, archaeologists in Finland, Denmark and Norway used ancient Norse sagas to guide their search for Erikson’s lost settlement, scouring the coast of North America from Rhode Island to Labrador.

We didn’t know anything about the Vikings being here

In 1960, a husband-and-wife team of Norwegian archaeologists, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, heard from locals of L’Anse Aux Meadows – the town for which the site was named – speak of what they believed to be an old Indian camp. The initial excavation of the site’s mysterious seaside mounds revealed a layout similar to longhouses found in confirmed Viking settlements in Iceland and Greenland. Then, the discovery of a 1,000-year-old nail indicated that ship building had taken place here, leading them to believe that they had discovered the long lost Vineland settlement.

“As kids we played on the curious mounds,” said Clayton Colbourne, a former Parks Canada guide at L’Anse Aux Meadows. “We didn’t know anything about the Vikings being here.”

In 1960, two Norwegian archaeologists discovered that what was thought to be an old native village was the Viking settlement (Credit: Credit: Parks Canada)

In 1960, two Norwegian archaeologists discovered that what was thought to be an old native village was the Viking settlement (Credit: Parks Canada)

From the entrance of the L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site, a narrow path crosses a landscape that has changed very little over the centuries. Mossy partridgeberry and bakeapple vines cover a boggy shelf along the rocky shoreline. Cow parsnip stands as tall as centuries-old dwarf trees, its clusters of tiny, white flowers blooming at shoulder level. The only noticeable sounds are the cry of seabirds, the rustling of grass in the wind, and the slapping of waves on the pebble-strewn shore. In the shallows, rows of jagged rocks jut out of the calm, clear water like teeth waiting to bite a boat’s bottom.

The path leads to the grassy outlines of the settlement’s original three large lodges and five workshops. Parks Canada has recreated a sod lodge and two more workshops near the original mounds. There, guides and animators dressed as Vikings explain the Norse architecture and lifestyle and demonstrate ancient crafts. The recreated lodge is entered through a Hobbit-high doorway built into 6ft-thick walls. Thanks to the sturdiness of the construction, the winds may howl outside, but inside is silent. If L’Anse Aux Meadows is indeed where Erikson’s party settled, it would have been in one of these huts that Erikson’s nephew, Snorri, became the first European baby born in the New World.

Costumed reenactors illustrate Viking life at L’Anse Aux Meadows (Credit: Credit: Parks Canada)

Costumed reenactors illustrate Viking life at L’Anse Aux Meadows (Credit: Parks Canada)

Nearly 1,000 years later, this unassuming collection of mounds experienced another first. In 1978, Unesco announced the creation of the now lauded World Heritage List; L’Anse Aux Meadows was the first cultural site in the world to receive Unesco World Heritage status.

L’Anse Aux Meadows was the first cultural site in the world to receive Unesco World Heritage status

I spent two hours at L’Anse Aux Meadows, listening to the costumed reenactors and studying exhibits in the visitors centre. Before I left, I lingered on the shore washed in salty breezes that had travelled thousands of kilometres across the same seas that Erikson and his party did.

Leaving the Viking site was a type of instant, extreme time travel. I drove my rental car south along rocky coast, then inland towards the small St Anthony airport ‒ all the while keeping my eyes out for wandering moose.

By Allan Lynch

 

Tintin, the subject of 200 million comics sold, was likely based on a real 15-year-old …

 

In the overcrowded world of fictional characters, there are few faces as adorable as Tintin’s. Unlike Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, Tintin, the young investigative reporter, is not a household name in America, but he is definitely one of the most beloved figures in Europe.

With no specific magic powers, he is the antithesis of a superhero, but that didn’t prevent him from being widely admired by both children and adults. Charles de Gaulle once declared that Tintin is his only international rival, saying that “nobody notices, because of my height. We are both little fellows who won’t be got at by big fellows.”

Tintin and his fox terrier, Snowy, appeared for the first time on January 10, 1929, in the children’s supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siecle. What started as the subject of a supplement went on to become a symbol of the 20th century, appearing in an inde­pen­dent comic book, on television, and even on the big screen in Steven Spiel­berg’s animated movie The Adven­tures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

Tintin is one of the most beloved figures in the comic book world.Author: Joi/Flickr-CC By 2.0

Georges Prosper Remi, known by the pen name Hergé, is the man behind the creation of Tintin. With almost no formal training, Hergé began drawing the legendary comic-book character in 1929, but little did he know that by doing so he would give birth to an entire European comics publishing industry.

Tintin and his fox terrier Snowy appeared for the first time in 1929. Author: karrikas/Flickr CC By 2.0

Since 1929, Tintin comics have sold more than 200 million copies, and over the years, this beloved character served as an inspiration for many people and influenced the ways comic book readers perceive the world around them. But what actually inspired Hergé to create the iconic character?

Debate still exists on what exactly inspired Hergé to come up with the snub-nosed teenage reporter, but most people agree that it was a real life person known by the name Palle Huld. It is one of the most original of origin stories in the comic book world.

Less than a year before Tintin made his first appearance, in the children’s supplement of  Le Vingtième Siecle, a 15-year-old Danish Boy Scout named Palle Huld won a competition organized by a Danish newspaper to mark the centennial of Jules Verne.

 

Palle Huld, during his trip around the world in 1928, almost certainly influenced Hergé to create Tintin.

The winner of the competition would re-enact Phileas Fogg’s voyage from Verne’s famous novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Strangely enough, only teenage boys were allowed to take part in the competition, and the 15-year-old was the perfect match. There was another twist: The winner had to complete the journey within 46 days, without any company and without using planes.

Hundreds of Danish teenagers applied to participate in the competition, and Palle was lucky enough to be chosen. He started his journey on March 1, 1928, from Copenhagen and traveled by rail and steamship through England, Scotland, Canada, Japan, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany.

His journey made the headlines at the time and when he arrived in Denmark, he was already a celebrity. Over 20,000 admirers greeted their hero when he came back home.

The next thing he did was write a book about his journey, which was quite popular among his admirers, and published in several languages. That book also came into the hands of a Belgian cartoonist known by the name of Hergé and that same year, when Huld’s book was published, Tintin made his debut.

Huld himself suggested on several occasions that he was the inspiration for Tintin. However, others believe that the inspiration behind the character was actually the French travel photojournalist Robert Sexe, whose journeys were exactly in the same order as Tintin’s first three books.

With no specific superpowers, Tintin is the antithesis of a superhero. Author: Hicham Souilmi CC By 2.0

Nonetheless, true Tintin fans couldn’t care less. For them it is all about the character, a hero they all know and love, representing something that others don’t have: uncompromising vigilance and the need to succeed no matter what the cost.

Tintin proves that a hero doesn’t need to be big or strong, he or she just needs to be tenacious and stubborn enough to do what needs to be done.

By Goran Blazeski