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An ancient site spotted from space could rewrite the history of Vikings in North America

Chase Childs and Sarah Parcak looked for a possible Norse presence in Point Rosee, Newfoundland.
Chase Childs and Sarah Parcak looked for a possible Norse presence in Point Rosee, Newfoundland.Greg Mumford via The New York Times

The ancient chronicles told of a larger-than-life Viking warrior with a shock of red hair, banished from his home for killing another man, who sailed with hundreds of followers to an icy island in the sea. And they told of his son, who set out only a few years later to an even more distant place he knew as ‘‘Vinland,’’ but which today’s historians believe were the eastern coasts of modern-day Canada and the United States.

The Icelandic Sagas are thrilling narratives, full of swashbuckling exploration, epic feuds, dazzling romances, and poignant betrayals. Still, they are only stories, told hundreds of years after the fact by poets with a penchant for embellishment. To date, the sagas have only led archaeologists to one actual, verified Norse historical site in the New World — the 1,000-year-old seaside settlement L’Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.

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It would take 55 years and a view from space to track down a possible second one.

The new archaeological find, announced Thursday, offers tantalizing evidence of a Viking presence 300 miles from the only place in Canada they’d ever been seen before.

It doesn’t look like much — a fire-cracked stone and some mangled scraps of iron unearthed from a muddy patch of ground called Point Rosee. But lead archaeologist Sarah Parcak says the site is almost certainly only one of two things:

‘‘Either it’s . . . an entirely new culture that looks exactly like the Norse and we don’t know what it is,’’ she told The Washington Post in an interview. ‘‘Or it’s the westernmost Norse site that’s ever been discovered.’’

If it does turn out to be a Norse site, researchers say that the discovery, which is the subject of a two-hour documentary that will air on PBS next week, has the potential to rewrite the history of the Vikings in North America. It might confirm the belief that the Norse presence here was fleeting — just another short-lived expedition by a seafaring society. Or it could touch off a wave of discoveries of other Norse settlements in the region, proving that the Vikings strayed farther and stayed longer in the New World than anyone realized.

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Parcak, a University of Alabama at Birmingham anthropologist, has a fellowship from National Geographic, a $1 million grant from the conference nonprofit TED, and an innovative new technique at her disposal: space archaeology.

Using satellite images taken by cameras 400 miles above the Earth, Parcak scans for telltale variations in the landscape — discolored soil, changes in the vegetation — that suggest something might be lying beneath them. Last year, Parcak, her husband and partner, Greg Mumford, and Canadian archaeologist Frederick Schwarz turned their eyes in the sky on North America.

They found a site that looked promising: a bit of exposed headland on the southwestern side of Newfoundland where intriguing, almost-imperceptible patterns in the ground suggested manmade structures once stood there. One seemed to have internal divisions and is almost the exact size and shape of longhouses uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows.

The archaeologists are careful to hedge when they discuss Point Rosee and its implications. Parcak acknowledges there isn’t yet a ‘‘smoking gun’’ that absolutely confirms the site as Norse (in L’Anse aux Meadows, archaeologists uncovered a bronze fastening pin and an iron smithy, among other things).

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‘‘This is going to take years of careful excavation, and it’s going to be controversial,’’ she said. ‘‘It raises a lot more questions than it answers.’’

‘‘But,’’ she added, her tone bright, ‘‘that’s what any new discovery is supposed to do.’’