Jul 28, 2007
The Norse - or Vikings - were an amazing seafaring people. They got as far as North America, and played a role in Russia and the Byzantine. They even used crystals - sunstones - to navigate on cloudy days.
For most of our recent history, until the 1970s, in fact, many historians doubted that the Vikings ever made it to North America. All we had of those trips were myths and legends, whispered in the Norse winds, as flimsy as chilly gusts of air. Then, finally in the 1970s, Norse remains were dug up in Newfoundland, and carbon-dated to 1,000 AD. The time of Leif Ericson's arrival.
Columbus had it much better. His son Diego published a pamphlet describing his father's voyage to the New World, and it became a best-seller in Europe in 1493. One of the first, in fact, right after the Bible. And printed not only in Latin, but in French, Spanish, and a dozen vernaculars of the day. As I say in my 1997 The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution, we have the printing press to thank for the Age of Discovery. Without it, Columbus' voyages might well have amounted to little more than Leif's in the wind...
And that concerns me, a little, like a chill down my back. You ever wonder about what happened in the ancient world, or even the Dark Ages, that we don't know about? In an age before mass media, lots of important events went unreported and unrecorded. Sometimes, even when they were recorded, they were lost. How many unique copies of scrolls and codices were lost in the burnings of the Library of Alexandria? Such questions make good material for historical fiction - I deal with some of them in the sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates(which I'm currently at work on). But I also worry about them in our real lives.
Well, maybe worry is too strong a word. I certainly think about them. What cures for our illnesses were discovered in ancient times and then forgotten? The Bible (Psalm 51) says, "cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean" - hyssops has antibiotic qualities. But we did not discover antibiotics until Fleming was struck by what the mold on his bread did to bacteria in his petrie dish, in the 20th century.
And trips across the Atlantic, around the world? Some people think the Phoenicians made it, long before the Vikings, maybe as long ago as 1500 BC. The Phoenicians certainly had the seamanship. They mined tin in England, and traveled down and up the African coast.
But until we dig up some evidence - hey, every excavation for a parking lot has that possibility - the answers will be blowing in some ancient pre-mass media winds...