Women in NL Archaeology: Birgitta Wallace

In honour of International Women’s Day & Women’s History Month 2021, the NLAS is profiling women who have made contributions to archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador. Inspired by TrowelBlazers “We’re here. And we always have been,” we celebrate all women in archaeology.

Photo by Rob Ferguson

Anyone interested in Norse archaeology in Newfoundland will likely be familiar with the work of Birgitta Wallace, who has been an instrumental part of the work at L’Anse aux Meadows and wrote the book ‘Westward Vikings: the Saga of L’Anse aux Meadows‘ on the site, which was published in 2006. Today she is retired, but remains an active part of the Norse Archaeology community.

Born in 1944, Wallace completed her degree in Nordic Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Uppsala, and received her Masters in 1975 in Pittsburg, with her main research area being the western expansion of the Norse into North America. She worked for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg, PA, prior to heading north to Canada in 1975 to join Parks Canada as the archaeologist for the Atlantic region.

With an excavation career to make all early-career researchers envious, Wallace has excavated sites in Sweden and Norway, Israel, the USA, and Canada. She worked on both the Norwegian expeditions at L’Anse aux Meadows and the later Parks Canada work at the site, and became responsible for the archaeological material recovered there. The first woman to be awarded the Smith-Wintemberg Award from the Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA) in 2015, the president at the time wrote:

Although most of us recognize the work that Birgitta has undertaken in Norse archaeology, especially at L’Anse aux Meadows, her research was much broader.  She undertook significant work with Parks Canada at the Fort Anne National Historic site in Nova Scotia, at Nicholas Deny’s 17th- century trading post in Cape Breton and throughout the shell middens of Prince Edward Island.

Along with traditional excavations, Wallace has worked as the curator of multiple museum exhibitions and have been praised for her work as a public educator, to teach those interested in the “realities of Norse North America”. Those in Newfoundland and Labrador who have gotten the chance to work with her, attest to her expertise and passion for the field. Wallace is currently Parks Canada Archaeologist Emeritus, and remains engaged as an advisor in the interpretation and promotion of L’Anse aux Meadows.

Her husband, Rob, wrote:

She not only put an end to the age-old question “Where is Vinland?”, but correctly identified the mis-located site of the first Scottish settlement in Nova Scotia (yes, the one that gave us our name and flag), and used an innovative strategy to look at pre-contact shellfish processing in PEI by stripping sod from an entire site to reveal individual work stations of shell. She was instrumental in bringing overhead photography techniques to Parks Canada, and has been involved, through L’Anse aux Meadows, in many technological developments in archaeological science, such as AMS dating. Despite working in a glamorous field (Viking archaeology) where egos frequently take precedence, she has always maintained that the results of research are far more important than who found what first. Ok, I’m a little bit proud. It’s International Women’s Day. I’m allowed to be.

If you are interested in reading more about Birgitta’s work, check out her book, or this open-source article!