St. Marys native and aspiring filmmaker works on Newfoundland Vikings documentary

Dr. Sarah Parcak, left, was the lead archaeologist at a dig in Newfoundland & Labrador this year. St. Marys native John McKinnon worked on the film crew for the documentary about the dig “Vikings Unearthed,” which aired on PBS and BBC earlier this month.

By Dan Rankin

The significance of L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland & Labrador is well known to most history buffs: Vikings lived there. Discovered in 1960, the archaeological site on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland dates back to around 1000 CE and is probably the most famous evidence of Norse exploration in North America beyond Greenland. L’Anse aux Meadows became a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1978 and has remained a popular tourist draw for the province ever since.

Well, it may soon have some company, thanks to some discoveries that have recently been made on the southwest tip of the island at Point Rosee. A documentary about the exciting new dig produced by PBS and BBC, “Vikings Unearthed,” appeared on television earlier this month. “Sound recordist” for the documentary, filmed on location at the site in Newfoundland, was St. Marys native John McKinnon, who had a firsthand experience of world history being made.

McKinnon graduated from Confederation College in Thunder Bay’s Film Production program in 2008. He currently operates the film production company PB Productions in Corner Brook, Newfoundland & Labrador with his business partner Peter Buckle. It was Buckle who was first contacted by the BBC about the Point Rosee Dig, McKinnon told the Independent.

“He put the co-producer Nathan Williams in touch with me and we soon chatted via Skype,” McKinnon said. “Nathan informed me about what this dig was about and I was soon hired as “Sound Recordist.”

But his first job wasn’t to worry about sound. Instead, McKinnon was tasked with picking up from Deer Lake airport world famous American archaeologist, Dr. Sarah Parcak, who appeared as a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Cobert earlier this year. Dr. Parcak won the 2016 TED Prize of $1 million for her pioneering work in “space archaeology,” which uses satellite imaging to find evidence of ancient civilizations. She was the lead archaeologist for the dig at Point Rosee, and McKinnon had the pleasure of driving her to Port aux Basques.

“On the way there we talked a lot about what this dig could mean in terms of how it has the potential to change North American history,” he said.

For most of the shoot, the documentary’s crew consisted of Williams, as location director and camera operator, and McKinnon on sound. It was all very secretive, and none of the locals knew what they were up to, he said. “It was just the two us on the production side for the entire 14 days of production in Newfoundland, excluding two days when another small crew was flown in from England,” said McKinnon.

He described the setting around the dig, trees and cliffs over looking the ocean as “beautiful.”

“Over the next several days we documented the team of archaeologists as they surveyed the land and began to dig,” he said. “It was slow going at first as the archaeologists did their work in surveying and prepping the land for the dig. Myself and Nathan captured some great footage of the early goings and some great interviews with the team.”

Things became more exciting when ash was found, he said, as that is a signal that metal working may have taken place there at some point throughout history. Next, slag was found, a bi-product of metal working.

“The archaeologists then discovered a ‘hearth’ which resembles what the Norse would have used to produce their iron workings,” he said.

Next, they traveled up to L’Anse aux Meadows, filming, interviewing and spending time not only with the original team of archaeologists, but also Birgitta Wallace, who was a lead archaeologist for the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows. Shortly after that, the crew from England headed back across the pond to where the documentary was edited.

While more work needs to be done to determine definitively whether or not what they discovered was a Norse settlement, or if it was perhaps a site used by Basque fishermen, McKinnon says he is already convinced. “I personally do believe that Sarah and her team have uncovered another Viking settlement,” he said.

McKinnon called the experience “the defining moment” in his career to date. “To look back now, after seeing the documentary, words really can’t describe how much this film shoot and dig has meant to me,” he said.

“To watch these archaeologists uncover history and seeing them become so excited, made me realize more and more that I was a part of something that could change history,” he said. “I was there before anyone else. I saw everything happen right in front of my eyes, and it will stay with me forever.”

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