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Natl. Museum of Natural History Director Discusses Exhibit Honoring Viking Voyage to North America

Aired July 28, 2000 - 1:25 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Today, a group of Vikings is celebrating 1,000 years since voyager Leif Ericson and his crew set foot on the North American shore. A replica of a Viking vessel is tracing Ericson's original route from Iceland to Newfoundland, an astounding feat. The 68-foot Iceland dinger left Iceland more than a month ago, sailed to Greenland, and then continued to Canada where it is arriving today.

The ship's eight-member crew is led by one of Ericson's descendants and 15,000 people are expected to attend today's festivities, among them the singers you hear in the background. Those live festivities going on now since April.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has been hosting an exhibit honoring the Vikings' voyage to North America. And we're joined now by Robert Sullivan, the museum's associate director for public programs.

This is quite an event we're seeing today, much like the arrival 1,000 years ago minus the boom microphones and the TV cameras.

ROBERT SULLIVAN, NATL. MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY: It's really great to see. It's a miracle he made it. The ships were technologically compromised. They have no center board for open oceans, so they do drift. And you sometimes have to go 60 miles to make five.

WATERS: The Vikings also take pride in inventing the compass, did they not? Because my question is, how would they know where they were going 1,000 years ago?

SULLIVAN: Well, to tell you the trust, they often didn't. The navigational systems were very primitive and really it was the movable sail that you see on these boats that was the great invention enabling them to move into the wind and tack into the wind. But they would often have to tack back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, and it was very easy to get lost.

WATERS: And it wasn't just that, was it? It was the elements. There were icebergs, all the things that the modern marine vessels have to cope with.

SULLIVAN: Oh, sure. It takes great courage to go out on the open ocean even in a boat that's fully equipped for open ocean. These were hardly ocean-ready boats as we think of today.

WATERS: How -- why then are we not celebrating Leif Ericson Day rather than Columbus Day?

SULLIVAN: Well, you know, oddly enough, today -- or this year, October 9 will be both Leif Ericson Day and Columbus Day. And I think we should call it Discoverers Day because it really is a shared honor to have discovered North America.

WATERS: When they discovered North America, were they in North America very long?

SULLIVAN: They really weren't. We guessed they were only here for several seasons. And then between the hardships of weather and the Native Americans they met, they probably decided that it wasn't a good idea to stick around for very long. So it's very likely they were only in L'Anse aux Meadows for several seasons.

WATERS: It would seem that discoverers who had travelled all that way would want to check out this piece of property that they had run into.

SULLIVAN: Well, the Vikings were really looking for farmsteads and good land to raise crops on. I think they had found good land in Greenland, some good land in Iceland, and I think they decided that North America was not hospitable, probably mostly because of their contacts with Native Americans.

WATERS: Tell us a little bit about the Vikings display at the Museum of Natural History.

SULLIVAN: Well, the Vikings exhibition, "The North Atlantic Saga," opened at the end of April and we've had almost 2 1/2 million visitors since that time to the exhibition. It's really a quite a different look at the Vikings. It really is looking at the Vikings as farmers and homesteaders and explorers and people who were searching for new places to live as opposed to the raping and pillaging. Of course, you have to mention the raping and pillage as that was an important part of their history, but we're focusing more on the Vikings as homesteaders and explorers.

WATERS: It is an amazing story. And after the Museum of Natural History is done, that moves around the country, does it not?

SULLIVAN: Yes, it does. We're going to six sites around the country, and we're also hoping to have a European tour.

WATERS: All right, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it very much, Robert Sullivan from the Smithsonian.

If you'd like more information on the Viking voyage that took place a millennium ago, you can go to Viking Trail's Web site. That address is

You may have seen it's 2:58 in Newfoundland. They're an hour and a half ahead of us. Figure that one out. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT


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