10 December 2016

Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland

This post is an excerpt of an article published in the World Archaeology Journal about the importance of walrus ivory to the medieval Norse of Greenland and Iceland. 

I encourage interested readers to click the links provided to read the entire fascinating article from the source. (Ed.)


Published online: 20 Apr 2015

In this article

Walrus-tusk ivory and walrus-hide rope were highly desired goods in Viking Age north-west Europe. New finds of walrus bone and ivory in early Viking Age contexts in Iceland are concentrated in the south-west, and suggest extensive exploitation of nearby walrus for meat, hide and ivory during the first century of settlement. In Greenland, archaeofauna suggest a very different specialized long-distance hunting of the much larger walrus populations in the Disko Bay area that brought mainly ivory to the settlement areas and eventually to European markets. New lead isotopic analysis of archaeological walrus ivory and bone from Greenland and Iceland offers a tool for identifying possible source regions of walrus ivory during the early Middle Ages. This opens possibilities for assessing the development and relative importance of hunting grounds from the point of view of exported products.

Introduction: was it for walrus?

The Norse expansion into the North Atlantic is remarkable testimony to the maritime transformation of the early medieval world. Sailing technology and skills developed in the ninth and tenth centuries ce in Scandinavia allowed the settlement of diaspora communities in Iceland and Greenland, with further foraging into the North American continent which had impacts upon both human communities and island ecosystems that persist to the present day (Vésteinsson, McGovern and Keller 2002Vésteinsson, O., T. H. McGovern, and C. Keller. 2002. “Enduring Impacts: Social and Environmental Aspects of Viking Age Settlement in Iceland and Greenland.” Archaeologica Islandica 2: 98–136.). This diaspora is a legacy of the ‘florescence of piracy, trade, migration, conquest and exploration across much of Europe’ which defines the Viking Age (Barrett et al. 2010Barrett, J., R. Beukens, I. Simpson, P. Ashmore, S. Poaps, and J. Huntley. 2010. “What Was the Viking Age and When did it Happen? A View from Orkney.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 33 (1): 33–44., 289). The rising impact of long-range seafaring by the Norse settlers, traders and raiders can be seen as part of a global pattern of the late first millennium ce. Aspects of the maritime expansion that is associated with the Viking Age in the northern seas of Europe are paralleled by developments in other maritime regions of the world in the same period, e.g. in eastern Africa (Sinclair 2007Sinclair, P. 2007. “What Is the Archaeological Evidence for External Trading Contacts on the East African Coast in the First Millennium AD?” In Natural Resources and Cultural Connections of the Red Sea, edited by J. Starkey, P. Starkey, and T. Wilkinson (British Archaeological Reports international series 1661), Oxford: Archaeopress.; Sinclair, Ekblom and Wood 2012Sinclair, P. J. J., A. Ekblom, and M. Wood. 2012. “Trade and Society on the South-East Africa Coast in the Later First Millennium AD; the Case of Chibuene.” Antiquity 86: 723–37.[CrossRef][Web of Science ®]) and in insular Southeast Asia (Heng 2009Heng, D. 2009. Sino-Malay Trade and Diplomacy from the Tenth through the Fourteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Research in International Studies, Southeast Asia Series No. 121 Ohio University Press.; Krahl et al. 2010Krahl, R., J. Guy, J. K. Wilson, and J. Raby 2010. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Singapore: National Heritage Board, Singapore Tourism Board.; Miksic 2013Miksic, J. N. 2013. Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea. Singapore: National University of Singapore.). Seafaring catalysed the creation of new areas of settlement and diaspora communities, and created sustained networks of interaction that introduced new regions and products into existing exchange cycles. As a consequence, the world of the early Middle Ages came to be integrated by flows of material culture that reached almost a global scale, as illustrated for example by the spread of ninth-century Abbasid (Islamic) coins from eastern China (Guy 2010Guy, J. 2010. “Rare and Strange Goods: International Trade in Ninth-Century Asia.” In Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, edited by R. Krahl, 19–29. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.) to Iceland (Blackburn 2005Blackburn, M. 2005. “Coinage and Contacts in the North Atlantic during the Seventh to Mid-Tenth Centuries.” In Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic: Selected Papers from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Viking Congress, Tórshavn, July 19–30, 2001, edited by A. Mortensen and S. V. Arge, 141–51. Tórshavn: Foroya Fródskaparfelag(The Faroese Academy of Sciences) in collaboration with Foroya Fornminnissavn (Historical Museum of the Faroe Islands).).

The Norse involvement in such networks is evident in the continued relations between the much dispersed North Atlantic settlers and their parent societies after the ninth century ad. Urban centres in Scandinavia and in the British Isles were indispensable to the life-style of the Iceland and Greenland settlers as suppliers of culturally important manufactured products and commodities, including iron. In return, the settlers had access to a range of Arctic products that were prized further south: hides, furs, eider down and, perhaps most notably, tusk ivory from walrus (Odobenus rosmarus L.). From the beginning of settlement in Iceland and Greenland, exploitation of natural resources from the Arctic hinterland included walrus hunting (Arneborg 1998Arneborg, J. 1998. “The High Arctic ‘Utmark’ of the Norse Greenlanders.” In Outland Use in Preindustrial Europe, edited by H. Andersson, L. Ersgard, and E. Svensson, 156–126. Lund: Institute of Archaeology, Lund University.; Lucas 2008Lucas, G. 2008. “Pálstóftir: A Viking Age Shieling in Iceland.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 41 (1): 85–100. doi:10.1080/00293650802069193.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®]). Several authors (Vésteinsson et al. 2006Orri, V., H. Þórláksson, and A. Einarsson, eds. 2006. Reykjavik 871+/-2: The Settlement Exhibition. Reykjavík: Reykjavik City Museum.; Keller 2010Keller, C. 2010. “Furs, Fish, and Ivory: Medieval Norsemen at the Arctic Fringe.” Journal of the North Atlantic 3: 1–23. doi:10.3721/037.003.0105.[CrossRef]; Einarsson Bjarni 2011Einarsson Bjarni, F. 2011. “Róum við í selinn, rostungs út á melinn. Um rostunga við Íslandsstrendur.” In Fjöruskeljar. Afmælisrit til heiðurs Jónínu Hafsteinsdóttur sjötugri 29. Mars 2011, edited by G. Kvaran, H. J.Ámundason, and S. Sigmundsson, 31–52. Reykjavík: Mal og Menning.) have suggested that the first exploration and settlement of both Iceland (c. 850–75 ce) and Greenland (c. 980–90 ce) had an initial stimulus from exploiting the walrus, then native to both islands. This is supported by the observation that the use of walrus ivory can be traced archaeologically in finds from Scandinavia, the British Isles and continental Europe, particularly in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, corresponding to the heyday of Norse settlement in Greenland (Roesdahl 2003Roesdahl, E. 2003. “Walrus Ivory and Other Northern Luxuries: Their Importance for Norse Voyages and Settlements in Greenland and America.” In Vínland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millenium. Selected Papers from the Viking Millennium International Symposium, edited by S. Lewis-Simpson, 15–24 September 2000, 145–52. Newfoundland: Newfoundland and Labrador. St. Johns.). Walrus ivory is recorded as workshop debris in major trading towns such as Dublin, Trondheim, Bergen, Sigtuna, Lund and Schleswig, and in art objects and ornaments (Roesdahl 2005Roesdahl, E. 2005. “Walrus Ivory – Demand, Supply, Workshops, and Greenland.” In Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic. Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Viking Congress, Tórshavn, July 19–30, 2001, edited by A. Mortensen and S. V. Arge, 182–91.), the most famous in the British Isles being the Lewis chessmen, a group of ninety-three twelfth-century chess pieces discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland (Robinson 2004Robinson, J. 2004. The Lewis Chessmen. London: British Museum Press.).

 Figure 1 provides a location map for place names mentioned in this article.

The extent to which long-distance flows of moveable wealth (such as walrus ivory) had a sufficient scale and intensity in the early Middle Ages to be a potential causal dynamic for major social change (such as the Norse North Atlantic settlement) remains a subject of debate. Critics have downplayed the impact of Viking Age and early medieval long-distance trade and exchange (Wickham 2005Wickham, C. 2005. Framing the Early Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.[CrossRef], 818ff.; Hodges 2012Hodges, R. 2012. Dark Age Economics: A New Audit. London: Bristol Classical Press., 121). In compliance with this view, a traditional assessment (endorsed by medieval saga writers) ascribes the incentive for settlement in Iceland and, by extension, Greenland, to a quest for landnám – the search for suitable farmland for a growing population. The issue of Norse trade in walrus ivory brings these matters to a head. On the one hand, the marginal farming potential offered by subarctic Iceland and low arctic Greenland stretches the ‘farming hypothesis’ to its limit. On the other hand, the ‘trade hypothesis’ involves the no less remarkable assumption that societies at the far ecological and cultural margin of Europe were essentially conditioned by exchange cycles involving sea journeys of more than 3,000km – equivalent to the distance from Barcelona to Moscow. Christian Keller recently summed up the puzzle as to why the Norse colonized Greenland and pushed into high arctic Norway in the late tenth century ce: ‘Was it a desperate search for farmland at the margins of the known world, or was it a market-driven economic strategy applied to sub-arctic territory?’ (Keller 2010Keller, C. 2010. “Furs, Fish, and Ivory: Medieval Norsemen at the Arctic Fringe.” Journal of the North Atlantic 3: 1–23. doi:10.3721/037.003.0105.[CrossRef], 1).

This article presents new evidence and offers a framing interpretation, which outlines a route map for resolving this question. New finds of walrus bone and ivory in early Viking Age contexts in Iceland suggest exploitation of nearby walrus for meat, hide and ivory that appears to have driven local Icelandic walrus populations to extinction. New Greenlandic archaeofauna from both the Eastern and Western Settlements continue to suggest a very different specialized long-distance hunt of the much larger walrus populations in the Disko Bay area that mainly brought ivory and hide rather than meat to the settlement areas and eventually to European markets. New lead isotopic analysis of archaeological walrus ivory and bone from Greenland and Iceland shows distinct and consistent variation in the lead isotope signatures in samples with a different geographical origin, and so offers a tool for identifying different regional sources of walrus ivory during the early Middle Ages. This opens possibilities for assessing the development and relative importance of different hunting grounds from the point of view of exported products. This article thus presents an overview of existing archaeological evidence for Norse North Atlantic walrus hunting and the initial results of lead isotope analyses aimed at sourcing walrus ivory to geographically specific past walrus populations. Collaborative interdisciplinary work is ongoing, so this presentation is necessarily a report of work in progress rather than a final statement.

Click link for the full paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2015.1025912

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