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Turning Over a New Leif

September 20, 2004

Shocking news on the ancient history front. Remember those crude, red-hairy Scandinavians in the horned helmets, the anti-couths who swung swords and burned everything within an hour's looting of their worthy sailboats? Vicious Vikings in fur skirts, resembling bands of unshaven Kirk Douglases without the chin dimple, have long been synonymous in Western minds with fearless warriors and explorers. They conquered wherever they sailed and island-hopped the North Atlantic in search of new stones, or something.

Historians long knew that Vikings growled all across England but left little trace of themselves. Two known Norse burial grounds included few relics.

Now, the accidental discovery by a hiker with a metal detector of a 10th century burial site in northwestern England provides invaluable insights into an era predating even Dick Clark.

It also delivers disappointment.

A fair number of these ruthless rowdies with names like Erik and Leif apparently settled down with women. Leaving boots by the door, they traded riding the wild waves of the frigid North Atlantic with the guys for hut life.

What? Viking suburbanites? Next thing they'll find knitting needles and other evidence these biker ancestors herded sheep instead of eating them raw.

It also appears the Vikings were covering their afterlife bases: Bodies were buried east-west in old Christian tradition, but they took pagan keepsakes too: jewelry, swords, a drinking horn and possibly a horse harness. Please tell us not for family sleigh rides.

Historical research is grand, admirable and all that. It doesn't fix the 405, but it advances knowledge and helps explain how humanity got here. However, in an age when so many large figures, both heroes and villains, develop clay feet, foibles and self-esteem issues like the rest of us, did anyone need to know this?

Bad enough adjusting to Word 2008 someday. Now must we sift through assembled wisdoms to delete historical givens for updated downloads?

What other legends are jeopardized? Will we one day learn the Goths were merely misunderstood language missionaries, that Nero's fiddling showed his sensitive side, that Round Table knights called their boss Artie, or Genghis Khan was just seeking directions home?

On the hopeful side, perhaps someday we'll discover that those mysterious explosions in North Korea recently were just vats of fermenting kimchi left too long.

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