Dennis Cerrotti with a standing stone he found near Ducktrap River, and, inset, stained with a red dye typical of Norse monuments (Photos by Ethan Andrews)
Dennis Cerrotti with a standing stone he found near Ducktrap River, and, inset, stained with a red dye typical of Norse monuments (Photos by Ethan Andrews)
Looking for Norse artifacts in the Maine woods might be like wandering the state of Virginia in search of the hatchet that George Washington used to chop down his father’s prized cherry tree. At best, it’s like looking for a rusted needle in a hayfield, which is to say, you might find it by accident.

After 30 years of walking the woods near his home in Northport, Dennis Cerrotti believes he’s stumbled, sometimes literally, on enough evidence to suggest that a Norse settlement existed at Ducktrap Harbor hundreds of years before Columbus arrived in the Americas. The decisive artifact has been elusive, but he’s cautiously optimistic.

In the current edition of the New England Antiquities Research Association Journal, Cerrotti lays out his case for the settlement. The article builds on a paper published three years ago by a Swedish researcher, who concluded that Penobscot Bay was the most likely location of a temporary settlement by the Norse explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni, who led an expedition to Vinland in the 11th century.

Contemporary research leans heavily on the “Vinland Sagas,” a pair of 13th-century Icelandic texts that describe the Norse settlement of Greenland and exploration of three regions to the south, Helluland, Markland and Vinland, the present-day locations of which are the subject of ongoing debate.

The sagas laid a breadcrumb trail for archaeologists. In the 800 years since they were written, just about any corroborating evidence has been ground into stale dust and blown to the wind. A single silver penny discovered in 1957 at a former Native American trading site in Brooklin remains the only accepted pre-Columbian Norse artifact found in what is now the United States.

On a recent walk through the woods with Cerrotti, it was easy to see why. The ground was covered in a thick mat of leaves. When the leaves are on the trees, he said, there isn’t much visibility through the forest. Until about 150 years ago, Cerrotti said, no one believed the sagas, but archaeologists and historians have slowly been able to put some of the pieces together, and for all the possible flights of fancy among storytellers steeped in the mythology of gods and giants, the Norse left just enough plausible clues to keep modern-day archaeologists searching.

Penobscot Bay had been on the map of possible Norse exploration sites for more than 200 years — a French explorer in 1542 first described what would come to be called Norumbega, a fabled city of “tall and fair” people that was later embellished by another explorer as a kind of El Dorado, “filled with erudite people who wore furs, gold and pearls, so luxurious that even the roofs of homes were made of precious metals, and their pillars of crystal.” It was far fetched, but even the wildest tales sometimes hold clues, and Cerrotti notes that the leader of Norumbega held the title of “Bathsheba,” whereas the sachem, or leader, of the local Wawenok people was called the “Basheba.”

Karlsefni’s settlement was called “Hóp,” the Norse word for a small landlocked bay. The sagas describe how this one was connected by a stream that could only be entered with a boat at high tide. This proved to be a good landmark, as Cerrotti found that Ducktrap Harbor, near the Northport-Lincolnville town line, is the only example in the Penobscot Bay region. Seen from Route 1, the harbor is framed by trees on both sides and nearly separated from the bay at the far end by a high sandbar jutting up from the southern shore.

Cerrotti found that other descriptions of the area lined up perfectly. The sagas tell of fertile lowland pastures, mountains and streams in the vicinity. The native people, during one encounter documented by the Norse explorers, came up the bay in hide canoes from the south, where Wawenoks population centers would have been, rounding a point of land that protrudes from the southern shoreline, as the sandbar at Ducktrap Harbor does.

The voyages south were probably to get lumber — Cerrotti notes that Greenland is the same distance from Maine as it is from Norway. The Norse traded with the local Wawenoks for red cloth, which later European accounts suggest was a typical native commodity for the area, but relations generally were not good between the locals and the newcomers and the Norse ultimately retreated.

Cerrotti never set out to find Norse settlements. His interest in the subject started about 20 years ago when he found a row of stones pointing up the slope of Ducktrap Mountain. He had been studying Native American groups in the area and has since written several books shining a light on the experience of indigenous people in New England. The row of stones wasn’t like anything he’d seen before, so he called the NEARA. The organization helped him find a cairn — a ceremonial pile of stones common in neolithic cultures — at the peak of the mountain and a “womb-shaped” altar stone with a firepit containing chunks of rutilated quartz — a material with mystical properties that was prized by the Norse.

“I wasn’t doing any kind of a focused search for anything, just kind of walking in the woods and discovering stuff, but [NEARA] helped me to focus,” he said. “They got a few people out, we’ve been working on this, and these people are considered experts in the field.”

On another outing, his son stubbed his toe on a hunk of quartz that turned out to be part of a ring of quartz stones, 10 or 12 feet across. “You never see anything like that,” he said. “You see them in England, you see them in Scandinavia.”

Possibly his most interesting find is a vertical stone, standing chest high in a forest otherwise populated with small boulders and prone slabs. It was covered, in places, with what appeared to be a red dye, “which is a typical Norse tradition,” he said. The location of the stone more or less matches a description of where Karlsefni built a house, a mile inland and set back from the river. Bog iron tools were found recently on the opposite bank.

In one story about Hóp, an indigenous man finds a Norse axe that was lost and bangs it against a stone. “And it broke, Cerrotti said, “and their expression was this thing is worthless, you know, this iron is worthless. It breaks too easily. He threw it down in disgust.”

Cerrotti sometimes takes a metal detector on his walks. Finding the broken axe head would be the ultimate vindication, but he tempers his hopes.

“All of this is caught in a complete mystery,” he said. “There are all these little pieces of evidence. Someday, somebody’s going to find an axe head and we’re all gonna know. And I hope that person is me.”