(…from BULLETIN OF THE MASSACHUSETTS ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY Volume XIX (?) l958)

 

THE MOORING HOLE PROBLEM IN LONG ISLAND SOUND

by

BERNARD W. POWELL

Introduction

 

THE PURPORTED NORSE VOYAGES TO VINLAND in the Eleventh century A.D. have received much attention in the popular literature in recent years. When such articles are sifted of misleading statements -and the outright "hoax potential" of finds like the Beardsmore find in Ontario - there yet remains a residue to attract the impartial student of archaeology. At present, "authorities" on both sides of the question as to whether Leif Ericson did or did not land on the North American shore, hold diametrically opposed views. Such extreme positions grade down to a "wait-and-see" middle ground held by many investigators who believe the problem cannot be settled definitely one way or another at this time - perhaps ever.

While a great deal of literary source material exists to the effect that one Leif-the-Lucky sailed westward from the Greenland settlements to land on an unknown shore in the summer of 1003 A.D. - no concrete artifact has ever been found in North America that either 1) has been accepted as genuinely Norse and from the period in question by all authorities concerned, or 2) has been found or recorded in a manner that placed its validity above question - not to mention the motives of those finding it. Many "finds" that have been put forth as evidences of Norse visitation in North America have been "discoveries" of untutored persons, curiosity seekers, or well-meaning but untrained enthusiasts. We who are archeologically-oriented, find in this state of affairs a challenging prospect. If only a trained archeologist could come upon a site that gave evidence of occupancy by Europeans during the time in question! This would be a great step forward in an admittedly highly restricted phase of North American prehistory.

Followers of archeology, however, need not be reminded of the difficulties in locating and recovering material from aboriginal sites - and the Indians and paleo-Indians have lived in the Northeast in relatively substantial numbers for several thousand years. Yet all too frequently, the diligent and scientific search for their habitation sites results in absolutely nothing. Erosion, cultivation, and excavation by non-observant persons, and the slow decay and oxidation of materials through the centuries, results in scattering of artifacts, obliteration of surface features, and the return of organic materials to the dust whence they came. And when one recalls the exceedingly limited number of Norsemen who may have come out to Vinland over a decade or so (probably never in excess of 300 persons at any one time), and the correspondingly fewer evidences of their presence that must have been left behind - the magnitude of the archeological problem is seen anew. The straight odds against locating the limited number of campsites for these Eleventh century seafarers somewhere along the North American coast are distressingly "astronomic."

This rather negative forward secures (I hope) an impartial position from which to introduce the main thesis of this article. If I seem unduly pessimistic about the presence of Norsemen along our New England shores a thousand years ago, it is only because I have been so often dismayed with the bland assumptions that the Norse did in fact make their landfall here. This is the very thing yet in the balance - to be scientifically proved - and uncritical acceptance is not to be tolerated.

 

Part I

 

One of the most promising sites for Leif's "booths" or shelters, built as the Sagas relate, for protection during the stay in Vinland, seems to be Cape Cod. A great many early theorists considered the latitude of the Cape as favorable for many things observed in Vinland, i.e. altitude of the sun at midday meals, temper of the winter, botanical phenomena and so forth. Recent work by our fellow member, Frederick J. Pohl, goes even further and attempts to designate the exact spot where the Norse first landed: Follins Pond on the Bass River.

Shortly after surveying the shores of Follins Pond in 1951, I met Mr. Pohl for the first time and discussed with him many intriguing aspects of the entire problem. One that he mentioned at that time - and which I have subsequently followed up in rather more detail - concerns the possible occurrence of "mooring holes" along both shores of Long Island Sound. That is the real substance of this paper, and my reason for bringing it to the attention primarily of you members of the Massachusetts Archeological Society is that many of you may be suited to do some field checking for us on this problem. I will explain what I have in mind a little later.

First, what exactly do we mean by a "mooring hole"? Along the shores of the fjords in Norway and in other waters of Scandinavia - are numerous large boulders and exposed rock ledges. In many of these are holes drilled to varying diameters and depths, and known to date from Viking times. They were made by Norse sailors for mooring their vessels. In use, boat lines were made fast to wrought iron pins with eyed-ends which were inserted in these holes.

v:shapes="_x0000_s1026">Several things are noteworthy about these Norse mooring holes. One is the fact that they almost invariably are drilled at a slight angle past the vertical to slope away from the direction in which the rope (and hence the strain) would have come. They vary in depth - but as little as six inches was more than adequate in many cases. Diameters may be from one inch to one and one-half inches; a marine engineer1 has calculated that a wrought iron pin one inch in diameter has an ultimate sheer value of 31,406 pounds. A Viking ship sixty-five feet in length moored broadside to a sixty-mile-an-hour wind would have caused a strain on each mooring line of from 1,950 to 7,500 pounds which would have varied with the angle between the hawsers (if more than one), and the direction of the wind. The same ship held bow to the wind would have presented less resisting surface or windage, and would have created a strain of only 1,080 pounds.

Another, interesting aspect of the mooring holes complex is the fact that the holes were apparently often used in pairs for lines run out both fore and aft from the vessel. Many of the Norwegian fjords are narrow, and in those latitudes, tidal currents are swift and the daily tidal variation quite marked. Consequently, wooden vessels moored in such potentially dangerous waters, run considerable risk of damage. Formerly, vessels rarely, if ever, swung to a single anchor after the more southerly Continental European method. Made fast in such a manner, Norse boats would have gyrated violently about their anchor lines and would have been swept either into one another or onto the numerous rocks and skerries. Therefore, they were moored both bow and stern to iron pins inserted in the drilled holes. These holes might be in rocks on opposite shores of narrow bodies of water - or in rocks on shore and in ledges immediately offshore, if harbors or coves were too wide to permit running a line clear across them. So moored, the vessels rode securely up and down as the tides rose and fell: the method was a satisfactory, indigenous solution to a "problem of the environment", as I suppose cultural anthropologists might say. Such a method of mooring was the modus operandi of the Vikings, and we assume that this "proper" way to moor must have been used by their later descendants in the Greenland colonies and those ultimate voyagers to the shores of New England, if such indeed is the place where they landed. This assumption is implicit in any development of a theory based on holes drilled in our coastal rocks and whose presence cannot be explained otherwise.

Another thing about such a method for mooring that endeared itself to the quarrelsome and rugged Norse, is the fact that it hastened getting under way (whether to flee from stronger forces or to pursue weaker ones being immaterial!) It is said that when vessels were so moored with constant strain on the lines from the ship's weight, the lines would hold secure against all hazards. However, a sailor on deck had only to grasp the anchor line in his hands, pay it a little slack and give it a sharp shake, and the subsequent "wave-front" would travel down the rope and flip the pin neatly out of its hole, whence the line could be drawn in at leisure. Thus, a group of warriors camping ashore, on bearing the alarm, could instantly grab their arms and run aboard while some of their number got in mooring lines and others shook out sails or ran out oars - all very rapidly and with little lost effort. Obviously, a simpler and more efficient process than the "manning of the capstan" that marked weighing the anchor on later European sailing ships.

The Eleventh century Norsemen were, of course, well-advanced in the Iron Age, and versed in the manufacture of hammers, swords, chisels, and similar implements. Hand sledges and rock chisels (like cold chisels) were standard equipment of the marauding "dragon" boats of those days. These tools were used for the express purpose of drilling mooring holes when the company decided to go ashore (usually to the dismay of some innocent coastal village or monastery). As an aside, it is interesting to note that priests of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland began and ended every mass in those times with the plea: "And from the furies of the Norseman, O Lord, deliver us."

v:shapes="_x0000_s1027">Actually, those unacquainted with the problem are often amazed at the relative speed with which one can sink a hole into rock with an iron chisel. This is not a tedious operation at all. Supposedly, a good man can drill a satisfactory hole in less than fifteen minutes, no time at all for a group preparing to moor somewhere for the night. Mr. Pohl had some limited experience with such hole drilling; I quote directly from his book2: "He and his son and I, taking turns, leisurely cut a hole 1-1/4 inches deep in five minutes. We found we could not make a round hole with a straight-edge chisel. All our attempts resulted in triangular holes with the corners rounded." This is characteristic of such chisel-drilled holes: they invariably present (in horizontal cross-section) the shape of a spherical triangle with "bulged" sides. The holes tend to taper somewhat towards the bottom (in vertical cross-section) and this and the "bulging" is a consequence of the fact that the person drilling the hole must periodically shift the position of his chisel to maintain maximum cutting. (See illustration.)

Not every hole occurring in rocks along our shores, however, is potentially suspect - in fact, in all probability, very few are. Of course everyone is familiar with modern blasting practices and the drilling of holes in rock for insertion of sticks of dynamite. Such holes are drilled by "star-drills" or special rock drills which are metal cylinders that cut away with abrasive grains (sometimes diamond) around their perimeters and thus remove a solid "slug" or core of rock. Recently-drilled holes for blasting purposes are perfectly circular in horizontal cross-section, and when machine-drilled, may be from one and one-half to two and one-half inches or more in diameter. Such holes are invariably drilled in rows for the purpose of breaking rock along a definite line, and are not ordinarily confused with mooring holes at all. The presence of several holes in a line removes any of them from consideration as a Norse mooring hole. Along the shores there is always the chance of finding holes left by U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey parties in the furtherance of their operations. These holes are usually adjuncts of some kind to bench markers or triangulation stations. A check on this possibility may be had by comparing the location of suspected holes with lists of triangulation stations for the area. Such lists can be obtained free of charge from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Anyone seriously interested in helping us is urged to check against these lists when finding suspected Holes. Usually U.S.C.&G.S. holes have either lead plugs or bronze seals in them, but on occasion these could be missing.

A common practice of early survey crews was to leave drill holes with "sunbursts" or outward-radiating chiseled lines surrounding them. Such holes are automatically eliminated as Norse mooring holes. Mariners, fishermen, and others have from time to time erected markers along our shores, and such markers may now be long vanished. If they were guyed or stayed against the wind (not unreasonable along the coast), holes might very well have been drilled for bracing pins or legs. In my opinion, numerous holes around a central spot argue against a mooring hole origin. One authority3 states that Colonial fishermen made many holes in our coastal rocks. Isolated holes showing weathering, and at angles and in locales likely to have been utilized by ancient mariners for mooring their ships, are the most likely candidates for true mooring hole status. It should be remembered that many of the "mooring holes" found on the Cape are now eroded and in some places broken clean through (presumably with time and thermal shock) and are thus assumed to be quite old. Certainly weathering of the stone is important, but this is often a subjective judgment, and an aspect of the problem that cries for more research in its own right. Remember too, that prevailing winds enter into the picture in the Sound; in summer they are southwest and vessels would be moored out of such winds accordingly.

And there are other agents responsible for holes in rocks along our shores. Again I quote from Mr. Pohl4: "Some holes have been made by grinding or pounding that wore away the rock by use, and these are generally large in diameter and were made by Indians. Other holes have been made by rotating drills, consisting of reeds or cylinders of wood, the cutting being done by wet sand. This method has been used for thousands of years by jade cutters. Where these perfectly round holes are very small, 1/2 inch or less in diameter, they were probably made by primitive men for religious or other reasons unknown or unguessed at by us. Some of these small drilled holes are deep; others are shallow depressions."

As I have mentioned previously 5, certain marine gastropods ("snails", etc.) are equipped with a hard, horny, chewing apparatus technically called a radula, and with this they can actually chew holes into rock. Ordinarily, the radula is most developed in predatory forms that chew through the shells of other mollusks, but along exposed shores, these marine animals can chew holes right down into the rock, and do so usually to secure a burrow in which to live and not be washed away by the waves. These holes are sometimes symmetrical and when old enough and weathered, might conceivably give rise to some speculation. Generally, however, they may be noted as having rather widened, tapering vertical cross-sections, and colonies of such marine animals will, over a period of years, likely chew more than one isolated hole in the rocks of the waters where they abound. These then, are only partial explanations for the occurrence of many holes in rocks along our shores; further study will no doubt clarify this picture and perhaps add to the list of possible causes for such holes. But any hole that is 1) isolated in a large rock or ledge, 2) is obviously not "fresh" i.e. shows some degree of weathering, 3) has characteristically "bulged" sides and rounded corners, 4) agrees generally with dimensions and angles for mooring holes as mentioned previously, and 5) is logically located with regard to suitable anchorages for vessels, is at least suspect and we would like to know where any such occur in the circum-Sound region, on the south shore of Long Island, and in the vicinity of Lower New York Bay and Staten Island.

 

Part II

 

That such mooring holes might be expected in this region is a consequence of the so-called "Thorvald Small-Boat Theory." This concerns the exploration of waters somewhere west of Vinland by one Thorvald Ericson, brother to Leif-the-Lucky. Thorvald came out to Vinland with a picked crew in Leif's boat which he had borrowed for the occasion. The year was 1005 A.D., and the sagas (Flateyjarbok version) relate that the following spring Thorvald directed a portion of his followers to take the ship's longboat (small boat carried aboard the larger ocean-going vessel) and explore the region west of Vinland. This a group of men is supposed to have done, staying out the whole summer in the process and returning to the Vinland base in the fall. In respect to this incident, I quote Pohl at length 6: "'In the spring Thorvald ordered a few men to take the afterboat and explore along the coast to the west during the summer. These men found it a pleasing, well-wooded country, with the woods near the white sands. There were many islands and shoals. They found no dwellings of men or lairs of beasts, but in one of the islands to the west they found a corncrib of wood. They returned to Leif's Shelters at harvest-time.'

Since Thorvald's afterboat party spent the entire summer exploring to the west from the Vinland camp site and did not return for the ship, we may safely deduce that they found a boat as small as the afterboat (about the size of a whaleboat) entirely adequate, and therefore that it was not open ocean which lay to the west of them, but extensive inland waters. These inland waters must have been Nantucket Sound, Vineyard Sound, Buzzards Bay, Narragansett Bay and the inlets of Long Island Sound. A party of only a few men, observing natural caution against the possibility of attack by unfriendly natives, must have fastened their boat many a night to mooring holes in rocks off the wooded shores, since one man could have chiseled an adequate mooring hole in about fifteen minutes. The islets off the shore line of these inland waters might well be searched for such mooring holes."

In the fall of 1954, I discovered the beginnings of a chisel-drilled hole in a shoreline boulder of a small island. This island is located in a cove on the Connecticut shore in the western end of the Sound. The hole could be such a mooring hole, or more properly, the beginnings of a mooring hole, for it is only an inch or so deep and was apparently never finished. Diligent search of the rest of the island failed to disclose any other holes or significant features, save other than a tiny, worn, pit-like depression on top of a massive glacial erratic at the southern end of the island. This find bears no relationship to the suspected hole.

Further survey revealed another likely hole on an island at the entrance to a harbor a mile or two west of the first site. This second hole was found in the summer of 1955. It too, was isolated, and was quite a bit deeper (deep enough to have been functional) and was situated in a manner convenient for mooring a vessel in the prescribed manner and out of the roll of a Southwesterly sea. The finding of these two holes was reported by several local newspapers, which, unfortunately, stated rather flatly that the holes had been "made by Norsemen." This is, perhaps, the unavoidable consequence of stories in the popular press, but the author wishes to state here that the holes are, of course, only tendered as tentative mooring hole finds predicated on the basis of the "Thorvald Small-Boat-Theory." One swallow does not make a summer, and two holes don't clinch the hypothetical wanderings of theoretical Vikings!

That one hole is not finished is not against its having been at least the start of a mooring hole. Perhaps a group intended to camp on or near the first island one night but later reconsidered. They might have very well started a hole, then moved on - perhaps to the next island. Such theorizing is admittedly far-fetched, but if there is anything at all to the entire notion, we must try to examine every possibility and follow up every lead so that we can ultimately find for or against the postulation.

It is, therefore, the author's hope that interested amateur archeologists such as yourselves, could be drawn to this phase of the overall problem and cooperate by informing me of any likely holes you might locate along the shores of Long Island Sound or its headlands, or in its coves, bays, harbors and river tributaries. Spread the word in your own area and personally evaluate such finds yourselves. If they seem worthy of further consideration, write and let me know. Give their exact locations (name of harbor, point, etc.) and where located i.e. east side, west side, etc. Also send data on how far they are from present mean tide levels, and any other pertinent information about them, such as weathering, presence of "bulged" sides, whether you have checked them against Coast and Geodetic Survey lists, and so forth. Photographs would be very desirable and could include a general view of the rock or ledge, and perhaps a close-up of the bole with a scale indicator in the picture. I don't know just what we can expect to develop from all this. Perhaps we will bring to light so many drilled holes in our shoreline rocks that it would have taken a veritable armada of Vikings drilling day and night to explain all of them! Again, we may get some meaningful pattern when plotting finds on a map of the region . . . Without the effort it is impossible to say. At all events, an open invitation is extended to those who would like to assist in "Project Thorvald": an attempt to test a theory stemming from assumed presence of Norsemen in Eleventh century North America.

Author's Note:

The subject of this paper was presented before the Massachusetts Archeological Society at the annual Fall meeting in October, 1957. Various members at that time raised questions relative to original studies of mooring holes in Scandinavia (presumably by Danish or Norwegian archeologists). The author has no first hand knowledge of such studies, but presumes them to have been undertaken. Likewise, questions bordering the realm of geology were advanced relative to rock weathering, shoreline emergence/submergence, et al. The author doubts seriously that reliable data for the time span we are treating are available on such things - particularly as to the weathering of coastal rock. I know of no study on just this subject, and previous research along similar lines (see problem on decay and fossilization rates of organic material in Cape Cod soils, in author's "An Osseous Find At Follins Pond," Massachusetts Archeological Society Bulletin, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, January 1957), did not yield worthwhile geological information.

However, the author wishes to draw attention to the fact that this paper is not an attempt to be definitive on the subject, but merely introductory to some limited investigations. For such an approach, a delving into Scandinavian sources (possibly not translated into English?) or attempts to define chemical and physical alterations in coastal rocks in the past 1000 years, does not seem to be necessary.
B.W.P.
 

Footnotes

1. POHL, p. 86.

2. POHL, p. 86.

3. BRONDSTED, p. 399.

4. POHL, p. 85.

5. Stamford Advocate, Sept. 29, 1955, The Village Gazette, Sept. 9, 1955 and Greenwich
    Time
, Sept. 19, 1955.

6. POHL, p. 124-25.

References


 

 

BRONSTED, JOHANNES

1954. Norsemen in North America Before Columbus. A previously published article appearing in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1953, pp. 367-405, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C.
 
 

POHL, FREDERICK J.

1952. The Lost Discovery. W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York.

Newspapers: Stamford Advocate, Stamford, Conn.; The Village Gazette, Old Greenwich, Conn.; and Greenwich Time, Greenwich, Conn.
 
 

 

End