08 July 2017

Friends, Vassals or Foes: Relations and their representations between Frisians and Scandinavians in the Viking Age

This excerpt from a Master's Thesis, brought to us through Medievalists.net, alludes to proof that the Vikings had contact with the Frisians. This contention is not surprising given that the Frisians were a Germanic people that occupied the coastal areas of what is now much of the Netherlands, northwestern Germany, and southern Jutland in Denmark. Given their proximity to much of Scandinavia, contact and trade with various tribes of the Vikings must have been continuous.

The silver hoard from which a silver neck ring came, containing a runic inscription, is especially noteworthy. Like most runic inscriptions the exact translation is a point of contention; however, the runes seem to indicate a proven contact between these Germanic peoples. (Ed.)

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Friends, Vassals or Foes: Relations and their representations between Frisians and Scandinavians in the Viking Age
MARCH 23, 2017 BY MEDIEVALISTS.NET


Friends, Vassals or Foes: Relations and their representations between Frisians and Scandinavians in the Viking Age, late 8th to 11th centuries

By Nelleke Laure IJssennagger

Master’s Thesis, University of Groningen, 2010


A hoard of silver Viking treasure now located in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. Photo by Marieke Kuijjer
Introduction: We paid a visit to the lads of Frisia. And we it was who split the spoils of battle among us.

So reads the runic inscription on a silver Viking Age neck-ring found in Senja, Troms County in northern Norway, which is dated to c. 1025. Although the exact reading of the text is debated, the one thing that is certain is that it points to contact between Frisians and Scandinavians in the Viking Age (c. 793-1050). This ring is one of very few finds directly and unambiguously attesting to contact between these two peoples, and is therefore significant. Scholars like Judith Jesch and Kees Samplonius have examined the inscription and its context, whilst others like James Graham-Campbell have focused on its material aspects.

In addition, attention has been paid to the meaning of this find in understanding the Viking Age. Whilst the find has traditionally been interpreted as attesting to a Viking raid on Frisia, more recently both Jesch and Samplonius interpreted it as possibly attesting to more peaceful relations. I would like to argue that it is time to look at this ring and other evidence outside the context of Viking raids on the continent only, and place it in a broader perspective of Scandinavian-Frisian contacts in this period.

These contacts, already established before the Viking Age and continuing in its aftermath, changed over the course of time. Especially in the Viking Age, which came with raids and displays of political power, changes occurred. Whether or not these changes meant that the earlier (usually peaceful, trade) contacts disappeared, at least some other kinds of contact were established. In the Viking Age, a new chapter in the history of Scandinavian-Frisian contacts was written, that will be explored in this thesis. I will aim to present an overview of the ways of contact, the people involved and their reactions to these contacts and the consequences in both the short (i.e. transfer of single items, establishment of personal relationships,) and the long term (i.e. changes in attitudes and images, changes in relationships), by assembling textual and archaeological evidence.

The subject can be divided into sub-issues, all part of contact and contact situations. These issues, are exchanged in material and immaterial respects (i.e. trade, gift-exchange, exchange of people and ideas), and the intrinsic aspect of images coming into being. A couple of main aspects are important here: the images of the Self and Other before, during and after contact. Looking at all these aspects can help one understand the processes of contact and its consequences. The main question with which I will approach these issues is to what extent and in which ways there was contact between the Frisians and the Scandinavians throughout the Viking Age, and what this led to.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Groningen

02 July 2017

The Fregerslev Viking From Outside Hørning

The tantalizing part of this find are not the human remains that have been excavated, but that which has been saved for later.

A clue to what may remain for later excavation is the magnificent horse halter/headgear found beside the excavated graves. Nothing quite like it has ever before been found, and it is hoped that the richness and ornate nature of this horse accoutrement indicate the presence of a very important person in the unexcavated grave chamber for future excavation. (Ed.)

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Medieval Histories

20 March 2017

The Fregerslev Viking From Outside Hørning

Sensational find of chamber graves from the later part of the Viking Age at Fregerslev south of Hørning in Jutland in Denmark will hopefully witness to the ethos of the Viking warriors in the 10th century.

Fregerslev is a small settlement located a few km south of Hørning in the midst of Jutland near the town of Skanderborg. It lies down to a lake at an old crossing point. At the periphery of Hørning close to the road towards Fregerslev, a Viking burial ground was discovered in 2012, consisting of two inhumation graves and a tomb with two (or maybe three) chambers. While the two inhumation graves have been excavated, the chamber graves were left in situ for later excavation. However, intensive studies carried out using metal detectors as well as electromagnetic surveying left the archaeologists with tantalising glimpses of what might be a very rich picking ground for future excavations. Also, a magnificent headgear for a horse gave an inkling of what hopefully lies beneath. During the next years funding was sought while the find was kept hidden for fear of “night-owls”. Now, However, the time has come.

First excavation

Reconstruction of horse’s headgear form the grave of the Fregerslev Viking © Skanderborg Museum
Already in 2012, the two inhumation graves were excavated. One was empty of grave-goods, while the other contained a wood coffin made of oak and a skeleton, only partially preserved. This person was lying on his back with his arms at his sides. He was 165 – 170 cm high. Around this tomb, the archaeologists discovered a trapezoidal fence enclosing an area of 21 m2.

Reconstruction of horse’s headgear form the grave of the Fregerslev Viking © Skanderborg Museum
Set apart, the tomb itself was found to hold two, possibly three closely spaced chambers. One of these chambers represents the burial of a so-called “Viking Warrior”; inside the chamber, but outside the coffin, the remains of an astounding headgear of a horse’s harness were found and excavated. With the partially preserved organic remains of leather, it presents a chance of discovering how the different ornaments of gilded bronze and silver-plated iron were fitted to the headgear. Intensive studies and conservation are still going on, but as of now the headgear with a bridle, silver-plated quillons, and cheek-plates have been preserved. The headgear also appears to have been decorated with delicate and beautifully crafted “Viking Bling”. All pieces are decorated with fine ornamentations consisting of geometrical figures caught in chains, weaving, herringbone and annular patterns. The find also contains seven of presumably eight cross-shaped belt fasteners with animal heads at the raised centre.

The potential of this largely undisturbed grave belonging to an elite Viking warrior cannot be underestimated. Though found under flat ground, the tomb has been preserved because boulders may have defended the site against deep ploughing. measuring more than 21 m2 there is ample room for further riches (nad fantasies thereof).

It has been speculated what the chamber-grave may also hold: a couple, both man and woman? Horses and hounds? Valuable grave-goods like those from Bjerringbro? Most of the contemporary warrior-graves were excavated in the 19th century, and a general view of their socio-political status and the composition of their furnished graves are at hand. Nevertheless, the tomb at Fregerslev presents an opportunity to gather new and significant knowledge about these elite graves from the mid 10th century.

Stylistic parallels can be found at Langballigau near Flensburg (Northern Germany), Thumby Bienebek near Schleswig (in the old Danish borderland, now Northern Germany) and Grimstrup near Esbjerg (Denmark). Until now the tomb at Fregerslev was preserved according to the Malta Convention, Article 5.IV and the sensational find of the head-gear kept a secret. However, in April 2017 excavation will begin. During the next months, visitors are welcome on site, while the headgear is exhibited in Skanderborg.


Another piece of the puzzle is the Rune Stone found in 1849 a field near Hørning. Dated c. 970 -1020, it measures 157 cm x 55-70 cm x 45 cm and features a nice and orderly inscription, which tells us about Tóki the Smith who raised the stone in commemoration of Troels, the son of Gudmundr, who gave him gold [?] and freedom. The meaning might be that our Toke achieved his freedom from slavery while at the same time being adopted into his family (“lyst I kuld”). Another reading, though, indicates that Toke received his freedom as well as “gold”, meaning that Toke was not only set free but also taken up as a full member of the hird or household of Troels’ (receiving gold).“ The middle of the inscription seems to form a tree of life, ending in a cross. The stone was found I app. 500 meters northeast of the church at a river crossing (“bro” meaning “bridge”). Here some significant water mills were traditionally active.

We may in all likelihood never know how it all fits together, but there is no doubt each of the different finds will – when considered together – shed light on a turbulent period in Danish history when earls and kings banded together and forged the beginning of anew Christian kingdom.

SOURCES:

Vikingen fra Fregerslev – dedicated website
Ryttergaven i Fregerslev. 
By Merete Schiffer Bagge
In: Museum Skanderborg. Årbog 2015
Vikingetidstekstiler. Nye opdagelser fra gravfundene I Hvilehøj og Hørning. 
By Anne Hedeager krag and Lise Ræder Knudsen.
In: Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark (1999), pp. 159 – 170 (with English Summary)


26 June 2017

Dead Viking Warriors in Living Memory

In this fascinating article by the author, Karen Schousboe, the work done by Dr. Anne Pedersen of Denmark, is detailed.

Dr. Pedersen has delved into all that was known about the Viking graves that had been found in her native Denmark

In the process, and as result of her research, she has written two books and a catalogue of her findings on the subject.  Her work has gained her a PhD in prehistoric and medieval archaeology. (Ed.)
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Dead Viking Warriors in Living Memory.


Valkyrie and Viking Warrior from Tissø @ National Museum of Denmark

For several years the archaeologist, Anne Pedersen, painstakingly sifted through the reports of excavations of Viking warrior tombs in Denmark. The result is an excellent PhD, now published.

Dead Warriors in Living Memory. A Study of Weapon and Equestrian Burials in Viking-Age Denmark, AD 800 -1000
By Anne Pedersen
Series: Studies in Archaeology & History Vol 20:1 – The Jelling Series.
National Museum, Copenhagen, 2014
REVIEW:

Archaeological excavations of graves from the Viking Age go back several centuries and have led to many exquisite finds, which unfortunately were never properly preserved or reported. However, by sifting through the material and not least the old excavation reports, and do comparative and contextualised studies, much lost may still be retrieved.

Such a tour-de-force represents the work of the archaeologist, Anne Pedersen. In connection with her PhD, she took it upon herself to sift through the archaeological corpus of Warrior-graves in Denmark. Her aim was to better understand, who these men were, buried in their furnished graves together with their weapons, horses, dogs, and sometimes even boats. Now, her PhD has been published in two volumes encompassing a detailed presentation of her finds plus a catalogue, which can be perused by anyone with just a tiny bit more than a superficial interest in the Vikings.

Viking Weapons © National Museum of Denmark
What is a Warrior Grave?

In the Viking Age people were buried in numerous fashions. While some graves were furnished, others were devoid of nearly everything, in all probability witnessing to poverty or low social standing. Most burials were cremations. However, inhumations were also practiced in some regions throughout the Viking Age. Particularly Jutland stands out in this connections. Some of these graves were furnished with a wide selection of weapons, as well as (sometimes) horses and hounds including their harness. Sometimes these men were laid to rest in chambers, which were topped with mounds. In a few – exceptional – cases – the dead warrior, now often called a “king”, was laid to rest in his boat. These richly furnished male graves often corresponded to the graves, in which expensively dressed women have been found, laid to rest in waggons together with their caskets for personal belongings. Both males and females were often buried with combs, tableware as well as occasional other material culture, like gaming boards and pieces. A marked characteristic is that these richly furnished graves became more prevalent in the 10th century and thus coincided with the on-going Christianisation of Scandinavia during this period.

The questions raised by Anne Pedersen are why such ostentatious burials gained this prominence in the 10th century (but not earlier). More precisely, she has also tried to figure out whether particular families were behind the burials as well as what purpose the grandiose funerary investment served. The area under investigation is Denmark and its former provinces in the west and southern parts of present Sweden.

This is a careful study, and readers are therefore treated to a detailed presentation of burial sites, burial types, types of weapons, personal equipment and other furnishings found in the graves. After this introduction, we are treated to a well-argued analysis of the comparative material from the rest of Scandinavia; also a careful chronology is worked out to uncover the composition of the grave goods over time. After having established this overview, there follows a presentation of the political and cultural context of Denmark in the 10th century. Especially, the relations to the Christianised Germany lying south of the border plays a decisive role here. Finally, we get a presentation of the life world of these Viking Warriors, the changes, which took place in the period, and the development of the ostentatiously furnished graves dealt with here.
The Conclusion

In the title of the book, we are promised to learn about the warrior-graves from c. 800 – 1000. Nevertheless, one of the intriguing results of the sifting of the material is, that apart from a few outliers, weapons and riding equipment were poorly attested in the 9th century. Anne Pedersen estimates that the few examples are probably reflections of an earlier practice. From the beginning of the 10th century, more precisely c. 925 CE, deposition of weapons and riding equipment became widespread. This custom continued well into the later half of the 10th century. The Central period was c. 925 – 975 CE. The custom seems to have died out soon after, latest in Northern Jutland. During this time the types of artefacts changed and a relative chronology was possible based on forms and artistic styles. At the high point, furnished graves might come with a full set of arms. Later, the custom seemed to peter out. During this period graves might be fitted with a single weapon, often an axe.

These shifts make it complicated to decide whether there existed a hierarchy between these rich graves. Nevertheless, a pattern seems to be discernible. The “richest” furnishings (apart from those with boats) are the distinct equestrian burials. The combination of horses, decorated horse furnishings, weapons, constructed chambers, all covered by the occasional mound “strongly suggest that the deceased came from wealthy, high-ranking families or had otherwise acquired the means or right to act as such.” (p. 197) These men were laid to rest mimicking the stories told about them in the Eddic poem of Rígsþula – able-bodied and accomplished in his dealings with weapons, horses, hunting and swimming, owner of mighty halls, organiser of grand feasts, and clever with Runes.

One of the more intriguing facts appears when Anne Pedersen conduct a close reading of the artistic styles, through which she finds that even if some of the buried individuals might not necessarily be related, they had apparently acquired their stuff from the same artist or craftsman. For instance, the horse gear from a grave in Southern Jutland (Thumby Bienebek 37A) and another from Langeland (Stengade I) suggest close relations between the two families; or at least that they shopped in the same place, perhaps Haithabu?
Who were they?

To Anne Pedersen, there is no doubt. Taken together the furnishings in the male weapon graves and the ditto female waggon graves were not intended to help the deceased in their future life. In this context, it is important to note that both Thor’s Hammers and Christian crosses are extremely rare grave-goods. Rather the weapons, the horse and their furnishings as well as the tableware signal active and accomplished warriors able to exercise violent control as well as feeding their retinue. At these banquets, there would be ample opportunity to amuse oneself with skaldic poetry as well as games while surrounded by competent, richly clad women. Anne Pedersen does not say so directly, but these were obviously, “The Earls”, the King’s men, which figure in the skaldic poetry.

It is fascinating that this rich burial fashion seemed to evolve and dominate the landscape at a time when Denmark was on the cusp of being Christianised and politically integrated into the wider world. As social statements, these people did not seem busy with succumbing to the new world, which they were increasingly coming into contact with on other levels than the mere raiding and plundering of the 9th century.

Karen Schousboe
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Anne Pedersen. Born 1955, MA and PhD, prehistoric and medieval archaeology. PhD dissertation: Vikingetidens grave med våben og hesteudstyr i det gammeldanske område – inventar og datering, idé og hensigt. Since 1997 at the department for Medieval and rennaissance at the Danish National Museum. Head of the Jelling-project.

18 June 2017

Why Did Greenland's Vikings Vanish?

This article from Smithsonian Magazine is a great read, especially if you happen to have an interest in what happened to Greenland's Norse settlers. In short, they vanished from history, but did they? That has always been the question and a topic of sometimes heated discussion among the academics with a need to know.

One such individual, Konrad Smiarowski, one of Dr. Thomas McGovern’s doctoral students, has put forth some very well thought out opinion, much of it backed by new evidence from his annual on site work on Greenland. His work may turn conventional opinion on its ear - he has a good start.

New studies posit that the total population of the two known Greenland Norse settlements was 2,500 people, "less than half the conventional figure" that has been accepted for many years.

What we are left with is that nobody knows what happened to the Greenland Norse, not yet anyway. This nagging question has captured academic thought for generations. There are a few more new ideas to add to the mix, and that's what makes their efforts in this regard so exciting. Perhaps one day some new evidence, either on Greenland, or here in North America, will finally answer the question.

The final sentence in this excellent article is especially poignant for me: "But there’s a chance that Greenland’s Vikings never vanished, that their descendants are with us still."
I think the Norse of Greenland assimilated with people that they had been in contact with for generations, and I wrote three novels on the subject. What do you think?? (Ed.)

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Why Did Greenland's Vikings Vanish?
6/17/2017 | History |

By Tim Folger Smithsonian Magazine

Newly discovered evidence is upending our understanding of how early settlers made a life on the island — and why they suddenly disappeared.
The remnants of a Viking barn still stand at what had been the settlement of Gardar. (Ciril Jazbec) 
On the grassy slope of a fjord near the southernmost tip of Greenland stand the ruins of a church built by Viking settlers more than a century before Columbus sailed to the Americas. The thick granite ­block walls remain intact, as do the 20 ­foot ­high gables. The wooden roof, rafters and doors collapsed and rotted away long ago. Now sheep come and go at will, munching wild thyme where devout Norse Christian converts once knelt in prayer. The Vikings called this fjord Hvalsey, which means “Whale Island” in Old Norse. It was here that Sigrid Bjornsdottir wed Thorstein Olafsson on Sunday, September 16, 1408. The couple had been sailing from Norway to Iceland when they were blown off course; they ended up settling in Greenland, which by then had been a Viking colony for some 400 years. Their marriage was mentioned in three letters written between 1409 and 1424, and was then recorded for posterity by medieval Icelandic scribes. Another record from the period noted that one person had been burned at the stake at Hvalsey for witchcraft. But the documents are most remarkable—and baffling—for what they don’t contain: any hint of hardship or imminent catastrophe for the Viking settlers in Greenland, who’d been living at the very edge of the known world ever since a renegade Icelander named Erik the Red arrived in a fleet of 14 longships in 985. For those letters were the last anyone ever heard from the Norse Greenlanders. They vanished from history. “If there was trouble, we might reasonably have thought that there would be some mention of it,” says Ian Simpson, an archaeologist at the University of Stirling, in Scotland. But according to the letters, he says, “it was just an ordinary wedding in an orderly community.” Europeans didn’t return to Greenland until the early 18th century. When they did, they found the ruins of the Viking settlements but no trace of the inhabitants. The fate of Greenland’s Vikings—who never numbered more than 2,500—has intrigued and confounded generations of archaeologists. Those tough seafaring warriors came to one of the world’s most formidable environments and made it their home. And they didn’t just get by: They built manor houses and hundreds of farms; they imported stained glass; they raised sheep, goats and cattle; they traded furs, walrus­tusk ivory, live polar bears and other exotic arctic goods with Europe. “These guys were really out on the frontier,” says Andrew Dugmore, a geographer at the University of Edinburgh. “They’re not just there for a few years. They’re there for generations—for centuries.” So what happened to them?

Thomas McGovern (with Viking­ era animal bones): The Greenlanders’ end was “grim.” (Reed Young) 
Thomas McGovern used to think he knew. An archaeologist at Hunter College of the City University of New York, McGovern has spent more than 40 years piecing together the history of the Norse settlements in Greenland. With his heavy white beard and thick build, he could pass for a Viking chieftain, albeit a bespectacled one. Over Skype, here’s how he summarized what had until recently been the consensus view, which he helped establish: “Dumb Norsemen go into the north outside the range of their economy, mess up the environment and then they all die when it gets cold.”

Accordingly, the Vikings were not just dumb, they also had dumb luck: They discovered Greenland during a time known as the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from about 900 to 1300. Sea ice decreased during those centuries, so sailing from Scandinavia to Greenland became less hazardous. Longer growing seasons made it feasible to graze cattle, sheep and goats in the meadows along sheltered fjords on Greenland’s southwest coast. In short, the Vikings simply transplanted their medieval European lifestyle to an uninhabited new land, theirs for the taking. But eventually, the conventional narrative continues, they had problems. Overgrazing led to soil erosion. A lack of wood—Greenland has very few trees, mostly scrubby birch and willow in the southernmost fjords—prevented them from building new ships or repairing old ones. But the greatest challenge—and the coup de grâce—came when the climate began to cool, triggered by an event on the far side of the world. In 1257, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok erupted. Geologists rank it as the most powerful eruption of the last 7,000 years. Climate scientists have found its ashy signature in ice cores drilled in Antarctica and in Greenland’s vast ice sheet, which covers some 80 percent of the country. Sulfur ejected from the volcano into the stratosphere reflected solar energy back into space, cooling Earth’s climate. “It had a global impact,” McGovern says. “Europeans had a long period of famine”—like Scotland’s infamous “seven ill years” in the 1690s, but worse. “The onset was somewhere just after 1300 and continued into the 1320s, 1340s. It was pretty grim. A lot of people starving to death.” Amid that calamity, so the story goes, Greenland’s Vikings—numbering 5,000 at their peak—never gave up their old ways. They failed to learn from the Inuit, who arrived in northern Greenland a century or two after the Vikings landed in the south. They kept their livestock, and when their animals starved, so did they. The more flexible Inuit, with a culture focused on hunting marine mammals, thrived. That is what archaeologists believed until a few years ago. McGovern’s own PhD dissertation made the same arguments. Jared Diamond, the UCLA geographer, showcased the idea in Collapse, his 2005 best seller about environmental catastrophes. “The Norse were undone by the same social glue that had enabled them to master Greenland’s difficulties,” Diamond wrote. “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.” But over the last decade a radically different picture of Viking life in Greenland has started to emerge from the remains of the old settlements, and it has received scant coverage outside of academia. “It’s a good thing they can’t make you give your PhD back once you’ve got it,” McGovern jokes. He and the small community of scholars who study the Norse experience in Greenland no longer believe that the Vikings were ever so numerous, or heedlessly despoiled their new home, or failed to adapt when confronted with challenges that threatened them with annihilation. “It’s a very different story from my dissertation,” says McGovern. “It’s scarier. You can do a lot of things right—you can be highly adaptive; you can be very flexible; you can be resilient—and you go extinct anyway.” And according to other archaeologists, the plot thickens even more: It may be that Greenland’s Vikings didn’t vanish, at least not all of them.

Lush grass now covers most of what was once the most important Viking settlement in Greenland. Gardar, as the Norse called it, was the official residence of their bishop. A few foundation stones are all that remain of Gardar’s cathedral, the pride of Norse Greenland, with stained glass and a heavy bronze bell. Far more impressive now are the nearby ruins of an enormous barn. Vikings from Sweden to Greenland measured their status by the cattle they owned, and the Greenlanders spared no effort to protect their livestock. The barn’s Stonehenge ­like partition and the thick turf and stone walls that sheltered prized animals during brutal winters have endured longer than Gardar’s most sacred architecture.
Vikings sailed hundreds of miles from their settlements to hunt walrus in Disko Bay. (Guilbert Gates) 
Gardar’s ruins occupy a small fenced ­in field abutting the backyards of Igaliku, an Inuit sheep ­farming community of about 30 brightly painted wooden houses overlooking a fjord backed by 5,000 ­foot ­high snowcapped mountains. No roads run between towns in Greenland—planes and boats are the only options for traversing a coastline corrugated by innumerable fjords and glacial tongues. On an uncommonly warm and bright August afternoon, I caught a boat from Igaliku with a Slovenian photographer named Ciril Jazbec and rode a few miles southwest on Aniaaq fjord, a region Erik the Red must have known well. Late in the afternoon, with the arctic summer sun still high in the sky, we got off at a rocky beach where an Inuit farmer named Magnus Hansen was waiting for us in his pickup truck. After we loaded the truck with our backpacks and essential supplies requested by the archaeologists—a case of beer, two bottles of Scotch, a carton of menthol cigarettes and some tins of snuff—Hansen drove us to our destination: a Viking homestead being excavated by Konrad Smiarowski, one of McGovern’s doctoral students. The homestead lies at the end of a hilly dirt road a few miles inland on Hansen’s farm. It’s no accident that most modern Inuit farms in Greenland are found near Viking sites: On our trip down the fjord, we were told that every local farmer knows the Norse chose the best locations for their homesteads.

The Vikings established two outposts in Greenland: one along the fjords of the southwest coast, known historically as the Eastern Settlement, where Gardar is located, and a smaller colony about 240 miles north, called the Western Settlement. Nearly every summer for the last several years, Smiarowski has returned to various sites in the Eastern Settlement to understand how the Vikings managed to live here for so many centuries, and what happened to them in the end. This season’s site, a thousand ­year ­old Norse homestead, was once part of a vital community.

“Everyone was connected over this huge landscape,” Smiarowski says. “If we walked for a day we could visit probably 20 different farms.” He and his team of seven students have spent several weeks digging into a midden—a trash heap—just below the homestead’s tumbled ruins. On a cold, damp morning, Cameron Turley, a PhD candidate at the City University of New York, stands in the ankle ­deep water of a drainage ditch. He’ll spend most of the day here, a heavy hose draped over his shoulder, rinsing mud from artifacts collected in a wood ­framed sieve held by Michalina Kardynal, an undergraduate from Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. This morning they’ve found a delicate wooden comb, its teeth intact. They’re also finding seal bones. Lots of them. “Probably about 50 percent of all bones at this site will be seal bones,” Smiarowski says as we stand by the drainage ditch in a light rain. He speaks from experience: Seal bones have been abundant at every site he has studied, and his findings have been pivotal in reassessing how the Norse adapted to life in Greenland.

The ubiquity of seal bones is evidence that the Norse began hunting the animals “from the very beginning,” Smiarowski says. “We see harp and hooded seal bones from the earliest layers at all sites.” A seal ­based diet would have been a drastic shift from beef ­and­ dairy ­centric Scandinavian fare. But a study of human skeletal remains from both the Eastern and Western settlements showed that the Vikings quickly adopted a new diet. Over time, the food we eat leaves a chemical stamp on our bones—marine ­based diets mark us with different ratios of certain chemical elements than terrestrial foods do. Five years ago, researchers based in Scandinavia and Scotland analyzed the skeletons of 118 individuals from the earliest periods of settlement to the latest. The results perfectly complement Smiarowski’s fieldwork: Over time, people ate an increasingly marine diet, he says. It’s raining heavily now, and we’re huddled beneath a blue tarp next to the midden, sipping coffee and ingesting some terrestrial chemical elements in the form of cookies. In the earliest days of the settlements, Smiarowski says, the study found that marine animals made up 30 to 40 percent of the Norse diet. The percentage steadily climbed, until, by the end of the settlement period, 80 percent of the Norse diet came from the sea. Beef eventually became a luxury, most likely because the volcano ­induced climate change made it vastly more difficult to raise cattle in Greenland. Judging from the bones Smiarowski has uncovered, most of the seafood consisted of seals—few fish bones have been found. Yet it appears the Norse were careful: They limited their hunting of the local harbor seal, Phoca vitulina, a species that raises its young on beaches, making it easy prey. (The harbor seal is critically endangered in Greenland today due to overhunting.) “They could have wiped them out, and they didn’t,” Smiarowski says. Instead, they pursued the more abundant—and more difficult to catch—harp seal, Phoca groenlandica, which migrates up the west coast of Greenland every spring on the way from Canada. Those hunts, he says, must have been well ­organized communal affairs, with the meat distributed to the entire settlement—seal bones have been found at homestead sites even far inland. The regular arrival of the seals in the spring, just when the Vikings’ winter stores of cheese and meat were running low, would have been keenly anticipated.
Hvalsey church ruins (Ciril Jazbec) 
“People came from different farms; some provided labor, some provided boats,” Smiarowski says, speculating. “Maybe there were several centers organizing things along the coast of the Eastern Settlement. Then the catch was divided among the farms, I would assume according to how much each farm contributed to the hunt.” The annual spring seal hunt might have resembled communal whale hunts practiced to this day by the Faroe Islanders, who are the descendants of Vikings. The Norse harnessed their organizational energy for an even more important task: annual walrus hunts. Smiarowski, McGovern and other archaeologists now suspect that the Vikings first traveled to Greenland not in search of new land to farm—a motive mentioned in some of the old sagas—but to acquire walrus ­tusk ivory, one of medieval Europe’s most valuable trade items. Who, they ask, would risk crossing hundreds of miles of Arctic seas just to farm in conditions far worse than those at home?

As a low ­bulk, high ­value item, ivory would have been an irresistible lure for seafaring traders. Many ivory artifacts from the Middle Ages, whether religious or secular, were carved from walrus tusks, and the Vikings, with their ships and far ­flung trading networks, monopolized the commodity in Northern Europe. After hunting walruses to extinction in Iceland, the Norse must have sought them out in Greenland. They found large herds in Disko Bay, about 600 miles north of the Eastern Settlement and 300 miles north of the Western Settlement. “The sagas would have us believe that it was Erik the Red who went out and explored [Greenland],” says Jette Arneborg, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, who, like McGovern, has studied the Norse settlements for decades. “But the initiative might have been from elite farmers in Iceland who wanted to keep up the ivory trade—it might have been in an attempt to continue this trade that they went farther west.” Smiarowski and other archaeologists have unearthed ivory fragments at nearly every site they’ve studied. It seems the Eastern and Western settlements may have pooled their resources in an annual walrus hunt, sending out parties of young men every summer. “An individual farm couldn’t do it,” he says. “You would need a really good boat and a crew. And you need to get there. It’s far away.”

Written records from the period mention sailing times of 27 days to the hunting grounds from the Eastern Settlement and 15 days from the Western Settlement. To maximize cargo space, the walrus hunters would have returned home with only the most valuable parts of the animal—the hides, which were fashioned into ships’ rigging, and parts of the animals’ skulls. “They did the extraction of the ivory here on­site,” Smiarowski says. “Not that many actually on this site here, but on most other sites you have these chips of walrus maxilla [the upper jaw]—very dense bone. It’s quite distinct from other bones. It’s almost like rock—very hard.”
Bishops ring and top of Crozier from Gardar ruins (Ciril Jazbec)
How profitable was the ivory trade? Every six years, the Norse in Greenland and Iceland paid a tithe to the Norwegian king. A document from 1327, recording the shipment of a single boatload of tusks to Bergen, Norway, shows that that boatload, with tusks from 260 walruses, was worth more than all the woolen cloth sent to the king by nearly 4,000 Icelandic farms for one six ­year period.

Archaeologists once assumed that the Norse in Greenland were primarily farmers who did some hunting on the side. Now it seems clear that the reverse was true. They were ivory hunters first and foremost, their farms only a means to an end. Why else would ivory fragments be so prevalent among the excavated sites? And why else would the Vikings send so many able bodied men on hunting expeditions to the far north at the height of the farming season? “There was a huge potential for ivory export,” says Smiarowski, “and they set up farms to support that.” Ivory drew them to Greenland, ivory kept them there, and their attachment to that toothy trove may be what eventually doomed them.

When the Norse arrived in Greenland, there were no locals to teach them how to live. “The Scandinavians had this remarkable ability to colonize these high­ latitude islands,” says Andrew Dugmore. “You have to be able to hunt wild animals; you have to build up your livestock; you have to work hard to exist in these areas....This is about as far as you can push the farming system in the Northern Hemisphere.” And push it they did. The growing season was short, and the land vulnerable to overgrazing. Ian Simpson has spent many seasons in Greenland studying soil layers where the Vikings farmed. The strata, he says, clearly show the impact of their arrival: The earliest layers are thinner, with less organic material, but within a generation or two the layers stabilized and the organic matter built up as the Norse farm women manured and improved their fields while the men were out hunting. “You can interpret that as being a sign of adaptation, of them getting used to the landscape and being able to read it a little better,” Simpson says. For all their intrepidness, though, the Norse were far from self ­sufficient, and imported grains, iron, wine and other essentials. Ivory was their currency. “Norse society in Greenland couldn’t survive without trade with Europe,” says Arneborg, “and that’s from day one.”

Then, in the 13th century, after three centuries, their world changed profoundly. First, the climate cooled because of the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Sea ice increased, and so did ocean storms—ice cores from that period contain more salt from oceanic winds that blew over the ice sheet. Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub ­Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market. “The fashion for ivory began to wane,” says Dugmore, “and there was also the competition with elephant ivory, which was much better quality.” And finally, the Black Death devastated Europe. There is no evidence that the plague ever reached Greenland, but half the population of Norway—which was Greenland’s lifeline to the civilized world— perished. The Norse probably could have survived any one of those calamities separately. After all, they remained in Greenland for at least a century after the climate changed, so the onset of colder conditions alone wasn’t enough to undo them. Moreover, they were still building new churches—like the one at Hvalsey—in the 14th century. But all three blows must have left them reeling. With nothing to exchange for European goods—and with fewer Europeans left—their way of life would have been impossible to maintain. The Greenland Vikings were essentially victims of globalization and a pandemic. “If you consider the world today, many communities will face exposure to climate change,” says Dugmore. “They’ll also face issues of globalization. The really difficult bit is when you have exposure to both.”

So what was the endgame like in Greenland? Although archaeologists now agree that the Norse did about as well as any society could in confronting existential threats, they remain divided over how the Vikings’ last days played out. Some believe that the Norse, faced with the triple threat of economic collapse, pandemic and climate change, simply packed up and left. Others say the Norse, despite their adaptive ingenuity, met a far grimmer fate. For McGovern, the answer is clear. “I think in the end this was a real tragedy. This was the loss of a small community, a thousand people maybe at the end. This was extinction.” The Norse, he says, were especially vulnerable to sudden death at sea. Revised population estimates, based on more accurate tallies of the number of farms and graves, put the Norse Greenlanders at no more than 2,500 at their peak—less than half the conventional figure. Every spring and summer, nearly all the men would be far from home, hunting. As conditions for raising cattle worsened, the seal hunts would have been ever more vital—and more hazardous. Despite the decline of the ivory trade, the Norse apparently continued to hunt walrus until the very end. So a single storm at sea could have wiped out a substantial number of Greenland’s men—and by the 14th century the weather was increasingly stormy. “You see similar things happening at other places and other times,” McGovern says. “In 1881, there was a catastrophic storm when the Shetland fishing fleet was out in these little boats. In one afternoon about 80 percent of the men and boys of the Shetlands drowned. A whole bunch of little communities never recovered.” Norse society itself comprised two very small communities: the Eastern and Western settlements. With such a sparse population, any loss—whether from death or emigration—would have placed an enormous strain on the survivors. “If there weren’t enough of them, the seal hunt would not be successful,” says Smiarowski. “And if it was not successful for a couple of years in a row, then it would be devastating.” McGovern thinks a few people might have migrated out, but he rules out any sort of exodus. If Greenlanders had emigrated en masse to Iceland or Norway, surely there would have been a record of such an event. Both countries were literate societies, with a penchant for writing down important news. “If you had hundreds or a thousand people coming out of Greenland,” McGovern says, “someone would have noticed.”

Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen who has studied Viking burial sites in Greenland, isn’t so sure. “I think in Greenland it happened very gradually and undramatically,” he tells me as we sit in his office, beneath a poster of the Belgian cartoon character Tintin. “Maybe it’s the usual human story. People move to where there are resources. And they move away when something doesn’t work for them.” As for the silence of the historical record, he says, a gradual departure might not have attracted much attention. The ruins themselves hint at an orderly departure. There is no evidence of conflict with the Inuit or of any intentional damage to homesteads. And aside from a gold ring found on the skeletal finger of a bishop at Gardar, and his narwhal ­tusk staff, no items of real value have been found at any sites in Greenland. “When you abandon a small settlement, what do you take with you? The valuables, the family jewelry,” says Lynnerup. “You don’t leave your sword or your good metal knife....You don’t abandon Christ on his crucifix. You take that along. I’m sure the cathedral would have had some paraphernalia—cups, candelabras—which we know medieval churches have, but which have never been found in Greenland.”

Jette Arneborg and her colleagues found evidence of a tidy leave­ taking at a Western Settlement homestead known as the Farm Beneath the Sands. The doors on all but one of the rooms had rotted away, and there were signs that abandoned sheep had entered those doorless rooms. But one room retained a door, and it was closed. “It was totally clean. No sheep had been in that room,” says Arneborg. For her, the implications are obvious. “They cleaned up, took what they wanted, and left. They even closed the doors.” Perhaps the Norse could have toughed it out in Greenland by fully adopting the ways of the Inuit. But that would have meant a complete surrender of their identity. They were civilized Europeans—not skraelings, or wretches, as they called the Inuit. “Why didn’t the Norse just go native?” Lynnerup asks. “Why didn’t the Puritans just go native? But of course they didn’t. There was never any question of the Europeans who came to America becoming nomadic and living off buffalo.” We do know that at least two people made it out of Greenland alive: Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson, the couple who married at Hvalsey’s church. They eventually settled in Iceland, and in 1424, for reasons lost to history, they needed to provide letters and witnesses proving that they had been married in Greenland. Whether they were among a lucky few survivors or part of a larger immigrant community may remain unknown. But there’s a chance that Greenland’s Vikings never vanished, that their descendants are with us still.

10 June 2017

Wood Quay: revealing the heart of Viking Dublin

The archaeologists discovered a great deal under the streets of Dublin, Ireland before the dig was shut down by the construction project that uncovered the site.

What has been discovered is truly amazing and the artifacts give us a good look at what life must have been like in 10th and 11th century Viking Dublin. (Ed.)

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Wood Quay: revealing the heart of Viking Dublin
 Jun 01, 2017




Overlooking the Wood Quay excavations in the heart of Dublin. (Photo: National Museum of Ireland)
Between 1974 and 1981, excavations in Dublin’s historic centre revealed a vast swathe of intact archaeology spanning most of the Viking-founded town’s Scandinavian occupation. Now the full findings have been published for the first time in a landmark new book. Carly Hilts takes a tour through the Viking streets.

As Pat Wallace stood in the shadow of Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral in 1974, the view that lay before him was truly spectacular. It was not the soaring religious building that held his attention, though, but something a little closer to the earth. Pre-development clearance of the Irish capital’s historic centre had laid bare an early medieval time capsule: waterlogged layers of well-preserved archaeology some 3m deep, containing unprecedented echoes of the town’s Viking past. With over 100 houses, thousands of objects, and a wealth of environmental evidence, the four-acre site at Wood Quay would shed light on every aspect of life in the early medieval settlement over a period of five centuries. And, at the age of just 25, Wallace had been placed in charge of the entire investigation.

The finds so captured the popular imagination that, in 1978, a 20,000-strong march campaigned to ‘Save Wood Quay’. (Photo: Thaddeus Breen. Image enhanced by Nick Maxwell for History Ireland 22/2, 2014)
The discoveries came to light because the Dublin Corporation (now Dublin City Council) had selected Wood Quay as the site of its new headquarters, and it was not a project without controversy. Pioneering work by the late Breandán Ó Ríordáin (1927-2017; Pat’s predecessor both in excavating Viking Dublin, and as Director of the National Museum of Ireland) had previously demonstrated the extent of surviving archaeology from this period in the town, and as the significance of what lay beneath the surface at Wood Quay became clear, calls to halt the development grew in volume. A campaign spearheaded by Prof. F X Martin – chairman of the Friends of Medieval Dublin – culminated in a protest march some 20,000 strong in 1978 and, the following year, a three-week sit-in on the site under the banner ‘Operation Sitric’, named after an 11th-century king of Dublin.
Amber cross pendants like this are an unusual local innovation – although popular in Dublin, they are not often seen in Scandinavia. (Photo: National Museum of Ireland)
Despite legal challenges and the vociferous demonstrations, the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the work. What it did achieve, though, was buying Wallace and his team vital extra time to carry out a much fuller excavation of the site than would have been possible under the originally agreed time-frame. Thanks to these excavations, which ran for seven years, we now know more about 10th- and 11th-century Dublin than any contemporary town north of the Alps, and only York (CA 58) and Waterford (in south-east Ireland – see CA 304) rival its revelations about urban life in Viking Age Britain and Ireland.

The project’s specialist reports have now been transformed by Wallace into a major new publication, telling the full story of the site and its game-changing finds. The window that it opens on early medieval Dublin is set to transform our understanding of Viking Age towns.
Ploughshares to swords

Dublin’s Viking Age is traditionally defined as stretching from the settlement’s foundation in c.AD 840 until the Norman Conquest of Ireland in 1170 – though with a culturally mixed material record from the 10th century onwards, perhaps indicating a mixed population, the period is more accurately characterised as ‘Hiberno-Scandinavian’ rather than ‘Norse’.

Some of the Fishamble Street ‘Type 1’ houses. Each was divided in three, with a central aisle containing the hearth, flanked by areas for seating and bedding. (Photo: National Museum of Ireland)
The site would quickly blossom into a wealthy commercial centre, part of a powerful political axis with York (which, until the mid-10th century, was ruled by the same dynasty), but its origins were on a rather humbler scale. Like Waterford, it began not as a town but as a seasonal raiding camp or longphort, and traces of this initial incarnation are thought to have emerged during Georgina Scally and Linzi Simpson’s later work on Essex Street and Parliament Street, where they uncovered the earliest-dated archaeology. This was a wide spread of plough marks, covering almost the entire excavated area. The marks all run in the same direction and never overlap, suggesting that they were only made once. It is thought that they represent a single event – not agricultural ploughing, but the clearing and preparation of land for building.

The result was a small riverside community, made up of just a handful of semi-sunken structures, dating from the 9th century. It would not remain small for long, though; just a generation later, towards the end of the 9th century, the site was completely redeveloped, backfilling the buildings, levelling the ground, building boundary fences, and erecting a multitude of post and wattle structures.

This dramatic transformation marks the beginnings of the town proper – the Essex Street area turned into an enduring focus of industrial activity, which continued into the 11th and 12th century, marked by thick spreads of charcoal and ash, while densely populated residential zones sprang up elsewhere, including on what is now Fishamble Street.

Finds like this child’s boot provide a wealth of information about what Dublin’s early medieval inhabitants wore. (Photo: National Museum of Ireland)

This latter area was particularly productive for Wallace’s team, as it was home to diverse features of the medieval town, from sections of the defensive earth banks that encircled it in the 10th and 11th century, to its waterfront marketplace. The most impressive aspect of Fishamble Street, however, was its houses. Numbering over 120 – around a fifth of the structures identified across the site – they make up the best-preserved and most extensive series of 10th- and 11th-century buildings found at any European site west of the Elbe.

This is an extract from a feature published in CA 328. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe.


03 June 2017

Storm in the Labrador Sea

The following text and link will take to a YouTube video of the magnificent Viking ship, Draken Harald Hårfagre, as she battles a storm in her crossing of the Labrador Sea on the way to Newfoundland, Canada, during her voyage to North America from Norway.

The link will also make available several other great videos of this amazing ship. (Ed.)


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Draken Harald Hårfagre

Published on Aug 20, 2016


8 minutes with the amazing Draken. This is the film we showed in our exhibition tent on the festivals around the Great Lakes, filmed between Greenland and Newfoundland on the crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XORSpUUy0lQ

28 May 2017

1,200-year-old Viking sword located in Norway can still be used today

Here you are, proof positive that if you make it right it will last a very long time. A 1250-year old Viking sword that is still useful today. Now, how special is that? (Ed.)

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1,200-year-old Viking sword located in Norway can still be used today

TornosNews.gr 06.02.2017 | 20:38

While hiking an old mountain trail in Haukeli (on the border of Telemark County, Norway), Goran Olsen was surprised to discover a 1250 year old Viking sword among some rocks near the road
While hiking an old mountain trail in Haukeli (on the border of Telemark County, Norway), Goran Olsen was surprised to discover a 1250 year old Viking sword among some rocks near the road when he sat down to rest. The sword was in excellent condition, especially considering its immense age.

The sword was taken to Hordaland County Council, where local archaeologists working for the council were elated to have the opportunity to study such a beautiful artifact. County conservator Per Morten Ekerhovd said, “It’s quite unusual to find remnants from the Viking age that are so well-preserved. It might be used today if you sharpened the edge”.

Preliminary analysis shows that the 30-inch (77 centimeters) iron sword is from about AD750, and according to Ekerhovd, it’s an important find that will shed light on early Viking history.

Wrought-iron arms and armor were expensive at the time and they were regarded as a high-status symbol. The owner of this sword was probably a wealthy and influential person and not some average Viking. Professor Alexandra Sanmark, a Viking expert at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, said: “The common idea about Vikings was that they wore big, metal helmets, but they probably wore leather helmets. The metal would’ve gone into making these fabulous weapons, which have more like steel, it’s really high quality.”

Norwegian archaeologists think that the sword is part of a burial for a high-status person. Wealthy individuals used to be buried with hundreds of valuable objects: weapons, armor, riding gear and even with their horses. The Viking sword has now been sent to the University Museum of Bergen for further study and restoration. Haukeli’s mountains are buried in frost and snow for six months, but due to climate change, artifacts have increasingly started to turn up along mountain paths in the last few years. Because of this, more clues are revealed how the Vikings lived and died.

Jostein Aksdal, an archaeologist with Hordaland County, plans to begin excavation on the location where the sword was found; he says that “If we find several objects, or a tomb, perhaps we can find the story behind the sword.”

Source: thevintagenews.com

25 March 2017

The Viking Slave Trade

The following article was recently posted at Academia.edu by the author, Clare Downham, from a work that she originally published in History Ireland.

I have inserted a photo of the ship in question, Sea Stallion, after my preface to the body of the post for those of you who have never seen this magnificent Viking ship.

It is interesting to note that dendrochronology identified the place of origin of the oak tree and age of the keel fashioned from that tree for the original Viking ship from which Sea Stallion was copied, to Glendalough, Ireland in the early 11th century. 

Mention is also made about the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea. We spent a week there with local friends last year and the island is rich in medieval history. We were able to visit many of the Viking sites along the coast of this beautiful island.

The paper deals with Viking slaves in Ireland and the Viking slave trade in a general sense. People are always revolted by talk of slavery, but the concept is old as man and every culture has kept slaves. The author draws parallels with the morality of keeping slaves, a contemporary feeling that was not shared by people of the Viking Age, but putting those few "feel good" opinions aside it is an interesting article about some of the conditions in medieval Ireland.

This post will be the last one until 4 May 2017, because we will be on a 30-day cruise aboard Holland America’s ship Konigsdam. (Ed.)
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98' Sea Stallion, built Roskilde, Denmark

The Viking Slave Trade
Clare Downham
published in History Ireland, History Publications Limited, Dublin (May/June 2009), pp 15-17.

Note: This is the text as it was submitted to History Ireland. Some changes were made by the editors, so this varies slightly from the published version.

The popularity of the ‘Sea Stallion of Glendalough’ as a media item and visitor attraction indicates a fairly popular perception of vikings in Ireland’s past. They can be perceived as swashbuckling adventurers, craftsmen and traders who launched a medieval version of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. These views flourish alongside an older view of vikings as bloodthirsty heathens, hell bent on plunder and destruction. The practise of slavery by vikings in Ireland can similarly be interpreted in two ways; it was a trade already well established in medieval Ireland and Britain in which Scandinavian entrepreneurs played no worse a role, or it can be argued that there was something strikingly abhorrent about the scale and nature of the vikings’ acquisition and sale of human cargo. We have a rich body of evidence for viking slavery in Ireland which can be brought into this debate.

ACQUISITION

Slavery was a feature of Irish society long before the vikings arrived. St Patrick was first brought to Ireland as a captive, and slave raiding across the Irish Sea is attested (in both directions) at the time when Roman power collapsed in Britain. However there no evidence of large-scale slave raiding in Ireland in the century prior to the vikings’ first recorded raids. Slaves were, nevertheless, obtained by other means; as prisoners of war, or in lieu of debts that could not be paid. In addition parents occasionally sold their children or gave themselves into slavery as a desperate measure during times of famine.

When vikings came to attack the coasts of Ireland, people, along with ecclesiastical metalwork and cattle, were portable goods which might be transported off in ships. ‘The Annals of Ulster’ record under the year 821 that Howth (Co. Dublin) was raided and ‘a great booty of women was carried away’. Viking-leaders also came to appreciate that they could obtain a quick and sizeable profit by ransoming high status captives back to their communities or families. From the 830s a number of high profile figures were seized (usually kings or bishops) who were later released (presumably for a fee) or who were ‘killed at the ships’ of the vikings – maybe because hostage negotiations failed or because the captives chose to put up a fight.

A remarkable account of one individual’s travail at the hands of the vikings can be found in the ‘Life of Saint Findan’. This account was written survives from the late ninth century. It tells how Findan (a man of noble stock from Leinster) was sent  to ransom his sister who had been taken by vikings. Things went badly and Findan was himself captured although some of the vikings argued that it was wrong to seize negotiators and he was soon freed. Findan nevertheless was taken by vikings on another occasion and taken to the Orkney Islands where he eventually escaped and made his way to the Continent. A curious feature of the account is that Findan’s second capture was aided by an Irish conspirator. Political alliances between vikings and Irish are recorded in annals from the 840s. In the tenth and eleventh centuries we hear of Irish kings gathering captives as the booty of war, presumably, so that they too could profit from the burgeoning slave markets established in Ireland’s major ports.

FATE

What was the fate of those captured by vikings? ‘The Life of Findan’ suggests that some were sold on to viking colonies in Britain, while recent DNA studies suggest that many went to Iceland. A sensational story is also found in a thirteenth-century Icelandic saga concerning an Irish princess called Melkorka who was brought to Iceland as a slave. Melkorka pretended to be dumb, and it was only after she had borne a child to her owner that her Irish pedigree was discovered. Laxdaela saga presents one of several medieval stories which circulated about Irish princesses in Iceland. These probably reflect later fantasises about exotic noble beauties rather than historical reality. Another destination for slaves exported from Ireland was to the east. The comparatively sophisticated Islamic and Byzantine empires produced many luxury goods which were sought after by viking traders and there is archaeological evidence for imports from these regions, including Byzantine silk and Arabic coins in Ireland. These high-status goods were exchanged for ‘unmanufactured’ items from North Europe including slaves and furs.

The destination of slaves was only one aspect of their fate, their treatment was another. The Arabic geographer Ibn Fadlan, gives a very dark account of the way that vikings treated their female slaves, which included human sacrifice. There is some evidence for this in an Insular context. At Ballateare on the Isle of Man a wealthy viking was buried with many possessions including a young female who had been killed with a savage blow across the top of her skull. Her remains lay toward the top of the warrior’s burial mound, mixed in with the cremated remains of his animals. An eleventh century poem ‘Moriuht’ purports to tell the tale of an Irish poet and his family who were captured by vikings. The poem is an outrageous attack by a rival who delights in claims that that Moriuht was urinated upon and gang raped by his captors.

There is no doubt that people living in eastern coastal districts of Ireland feared seizure by vikings. Probably very few slaves were sacrificed to heathen gods. Most would have ended up living alongside their new owners, in Ireland or abroad, required to do the dirtier and more laborious work of the household. Whether owners were relatively kind (eventually freeing their dependents and endowing them with land), or whether they treated their slaves worse than their livestock, that must have varied from owner to owner.

OPPOSITION

Not all slaves accepted their condition. A few escaped, one (an Irish bishop held on Dalkey Island in 940) died in the attempt. The Icelandic ‘Book of Settlements’ gives a story of a revolt by Irish slaves in the early days of the Scandinavian colony, but in this tale the escapees were all killed.

It is possible that some of the wars fought between Irish and vikings were fuelled by accusations that the enemy had made slaves of their own people. In 980 the Southern Uí Néill king Maelechlainn stormed Dublin. He was accredited with releasing all the Irish slaves in the port from captivity. This may have been a wise political move as well as an act of charity; it served as a rallying point for a king who sought supremacy across Ireland, and it imposed an economic disadvantage on his defeated enemies.

In the late tenth century the fortunes of viking rulers in Ireland were in decline. They suffered a series of defeats at the hands of powerful Irish kings. In these situations the tables were turned. Irish kings now seized human booty from the defeated viking armies or towns. Their justification seems to have been that the inhabitants of viking towns were foreigners bearing the sins of their forebears.

 CONTINUATION

Not withstanding the significant defeats suffered by the viking towns they remained economically powerful in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and commerce in slaves continued. There is greater evidence for the involvement of Irish kings in this lucrative business in the eleventh century. There are also reports of slaves being paid as tribute, or in return for military service. In 1098 ships from Dublin supported the Welsh of Anglesey against the Normans, but they were bought over by a Norman earl with promises of ‘captives … of young men and maidens’. A near contemporary Welsh source reports with relish that the earl ‘assembled from afar all the hags – toothless, humped, lame, one-eyed, troublesome, feeble’ to give as payment to the ‘traitors’, the sight of whom caused the Dubliners to lift their anchors and sail away.

A significant blow was dealt to the slave market of Dublin in 1102 when trafficking human cargo was banned in England. This led to the breakdown of exchange networks in this particular commodity, although some illicit trading may have continued from the port of Bristol where Irish merchants were accused of carrying unwitting visitors off in their ships.

 THE END OF THE SLAVE TRADE

For the Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland, the persistence of the slave trade was used as a justification for conquest. Any English slaves in Ireland were to be freed according to a degree of the Council of Armagh in 1171. It is not clear if there were many English slaves in Ireland at this time, but it certainly suited the invaders to seize the moral high-ground. Trading in slaves had long been abolished in areas under Norman rule, partly on religious grounds as a movement for spiritual reform spread through Christendom, but also due to economic reasons. Across large areas of Europe population growth meant that lower classes of freemen were forced to accept worse conditions of employment and this meant that slavery was not so necessary. In effect, one could argue that Normans opposed slavery but supported a system which saw people of the lowest ranks now partially enslaved as serfs.
  
CONCLUSION

The large scale slave-raids which vikings embarked upon in Ireland seemed fearful and abhorrent to contemporaries. This is despite that fact that slavery was already an integral part of Irish society. Perhaps this fear was fuelled by the alien ways and heathenism of the first viking raiders, and their method of slave acquisition which operated outside the normal rules of Irish society. Despite this, there is reliable evidence to show that other groups (including Irish kings) became willing to participate in similar slaving activities if the opportunity presented itself. Evidence suggests that slavers sought to depersonalise their victims by identifying them as being born into the lowest social echelons, being criminals, foreigners, or members of an opposing political group. In passing judgement on medieval crimes against humanity, it is worth remembering that such labels have also been used in modern times when denying people basic human rights.

Clare Downham is a lecturer in Celtic at the University of Aberdeen
  
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clare Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to AD 1014 (Edinburgh, 2007)
Paul Holm ‘The Slave Trade of Dublin, Ninth to Twelfth Centuries’, Peritia, 5 (1986), 317-45
Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin, 1988)

Alfred Smyth, Scandinavian York and Dublin: The History and Archaeology of Two Related Viking Kingdoms, 2 vols (Dublin, 1975-79)

18 March 2017

Why Did Greenland's Vikings Vanish?

There have been many articles on what happened to the Vikings of Greenland - here's another. The participants in this interesting article from Smithsonian, like many of their ilk, ignore everything found by others that disagrees with their own contentions about this enduring mystery.

So, what did happen to the Greenland Norse? Nobody knows, including these guys. But, the Norse did not disappear, their descendants are still here.

Dr. Patricia Sutherland has found unequivocal proof that at least some of the Greenland Norse were living with members of the Dorset culture on Baffin Island as early as the late 10th century. Yet all her findings at the Tanfield Site, Baffin Island, Canadian Arctic, are ignored - they weren't even mentioned in this article. Why? Because any data supporting assimilation with the natives of North America makes this article, and all its participants, invalid.

What about the DNA findings proving that Norse men conjoined with the natives? Then there are the sites on Newfoundland, Canada - L 'Anse aux Meadows, and the Point Rosee Site.

They lived in this hemisphere for 400+- years, folks, and they didn't stay on Greenland, they frequently visited North America. Most of the Greenland Norse population were men, there were never enough women with them. So what do men do when there are no women? They go find some. That's what the male Norse of Greenland did, and they found them in North America.

Believe me, there will be more sites found on this continent, thanks to Dr. Sarah Parcak and Dr. Patricia Sutherland, to name two who continue the quest.

The Norse Greenland people did not disappear, they slowly assimilated with the pre-historical natives of North America that they had been among for centuries.

Read my Axe of Iron series that deal with this issue in a fictional sense. Although fiction, my novels make more sense than articles like this one. (Ed.)

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SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE
MARCH 2017

Newly discovered evidence is upending our understanding of how early settlers made a life on the island — and why they suddenly disappeared

The remnants of a Viking barn still stand at what had been the settlement of Gardar. (Ciril Jazbec)

On the grassy slope of a fjord near the southernmost tip of Greenland stand the ruins of a church built by Viking settlers more than a century before Columbus sailed to the Americas. The thick granite-block walls remain intact, as do the 20-foot-high gables. The wooden roof, rafters and doors collapsed and rotted away long ago. Now sheep come and go at will, munching wild thyme where devout Norse Christian converts once knelt in prayer.

The Vikings called this fjord Hvalsey, which means “Whale Island” in Old Norse. It was here that Sigrid Bjornsdottir wed Thorstein Olafsson on Sunday, September 16, 1408. The couple had been sailing from Norway to Iceland when they were blown off course; they ended up settling in Greenland, which by then had been a Viking colony for some 400 years. Their marriage was mentioned in three letters written between 1409 and 1424, and was then recorded for posterity by medieval Icelandic scribes. Another record from the period noted that one person had been burned at the stake at Hvalsey for witchcraft.

But the documents are most remarkable—and baffling—for what they don’t contain: any hint of hardship or imminent catastrophe for the Viking settlers in Greenland, who’d been living at the very edge of the known world ever since a renegade Icelander named Erik the Red arrived in a fleet of 14 longships in 985. For those letters were the last anyone ever heard from the Norse Greenlanders.

They vanished from history.

“If there was trouble, we might reasonably have thought that there would be some mention of it,” says Ian Simpson, an archaeologist at the University of Stirling, in Scotland. But according to the letters, he says, “it was just an ordinary wedding in an orderly community.”

Europeans didn’t return to Greenland until the early 18th century. When they did, they found the ruins of the Viking settlements but no trace of the inhabitants. The fate of Greenland’s Vikings—who never numbered more than 2,500—has intrigued and confounded generations of archaeologists.

Those tough seafaring warriors came to one of the world’s most formidable environments and made it their home. And they didn’t just get by: They built manor houses and hundreds of farms; they imported stained glass; they raised sheep, goats and cattle; they traded furs, walrus-tusk ivory, live polar bears and other exotic arctic goods with Europe. “These guys were really out on the frontier,” says Andrew Dugmore, a geographer at the University of Edinburgh. “They’re not just there for a few years. They’re there for generations—for centuries.”

So what happened to them?

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Thomas McGovern used to think he knew. An archaeologist at Hunter College of the City University of New York, McGovern has spent more than 40 years piecing together the history of the Norse settlements in Greenland. With his heavy white beard and thick build, he could pass for a Viking chieftain, albeit a bespectacled one. Over Skype, here’s how he summarized what had until recently been the consensus view, which he helped establish: “Dumb Norsemen go into the north outside the range of their economy, mess up the environment and then they all die when it gets cold.”
Thomas McGovern (with Viking-era animal bones): The Greenlanders’ end was “grim.” (Reed Young)

Accordingly, the Vikings were not just dumb, they also had dumb luck: They discovered Greenland during a time known as the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from about 900 to 1300. Sea ice decreased during those centuries, so sailing from Scandinavia to Greenland became less hazardous. Longer growing seasons made it feasible to graze cattle, sheep and goats in the meadows along sheltered fjords on Greenland’s southwest coast. In short, the Vikings simply transplanted their medieval European lifestyle to an uninhabited new land, theirs for the taking.

But eventually, the conventional narrative continues, they had problems. Overgrazing led to soil erosion. A lack of wood—Greenland has very few trees, mostly scrubby birch and willow in the southernmost fjords—prevented them from building new ships or repairing old ones. 

But the greatest challenge—and the coup de grâce—came when the climate began to cool, triggered by an event on the far side of the world.

In 1257, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok erupted. Geologists rank it as the most powerful eruption of the last 7,000 years. Climate scientists have found its ashy signature in ice cores drilled in Antarctica and in Greenland’s vast ice sheet, which covers some 80 percent of the country. Sulfur ejected from the volcano into the stratosphere reflected solar energy back into space, cooling Earth’s climate. “It had a global impact,” McGovern says. “Europeans had a long period of famine”—like Scotland’s infamous “seven ill years” in the 1690s, but worse. “The onset was somewhere just after 1300 and continued into the 1320s, 1340s. It was pretty grim. A lot of people starving to death.”

Amid that calamity, so the story goes, Greenland’s Vikings—numbering 5,000 at their peak—never gave up their old ways. They failed to learn from the Inuit, who arrived in northern Greenland a century or two after the Vikings landed in the south. They kept their livestock, and when their animals starved, so did they. The more flexible Inuit, with a culture focused on hunting marine mammals, thrived.

That is what archaeologists believed until a few years ago. McGovern’s own PhD dissertation made the same arguments. Jared Diamond, the UCLA geographer, showcased the idea in Collapse, his 2005 best seller about environmental catastrophes. “The Norse were undone by the same social glue that had enabled them to master Greenland’s difficulties,” Diamond wrote. “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.”

But over the last decade a radically different picture of Viking life in Greenland has started to emerge from the remains of the old settlements, and it has received scant coverage outside of academia. “It’s a good thing they can’t make you give your PhD back once you’ve got it,” McGovern jokes. He and the small community of scholars who study the Norse experience in Greenland no longer believe that the Vikings were ever so numerous, or heedlessly despoiled their new home, or failed to adapt when confronted with challenges that threatened them with annihilation.

“It’s a very different story from my dissertation,” says McGovern. “It’s scarier. You can do a lot of things right—you can be highly adaptive; you can be very flexible; you can be resilient—and you go extinct anyway.” And according to other archaeologists, the plot thickens even more: It may be that Greenland’s Vikings didn’t vanish, at least not all of them.

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Lush grass now covers most of what was once the most important Viking settlement in Greenland. Gardar, as the Norse called it, was the official residence of their bishop. A few foundation stones are all that remain of Gardar’s cathedral, the pride of Norse Greenland, with stained glass and a heavy bronze bell. Far more impressive now are the nearby ruins of an enormous barn. Vikings from Sweden to Greenland measured their status by the cattle they owned, and the Greenlanders spared no effort to protect their livestock. The barn’s Stonehenge-like partition and the thick turf and stone walls that sheltered prized animals during brutal winters have endured longer than Gardar’s most sacred architecture.

Vikings sailed hundreds of miles from their settlements to hunt walrus in Disko Bay.(Guilbert Gates)
Gardar’s ruins occupy a small fenced-in field abutting the backyards of Igaliku, an Inuit sheep-farming community of about 30 brightly painted wooden houses overlooking a fjord backed by 5,000-foot-high snowcapped mountains. No roads run between towns in Greenland—planes and boats are the only options for traversing a coastline corrugated by innumerable fjords and glacial tongues. On an uncommonly warm and bright August afternoon, I caught a boat from Igaliku with a Slovenian photographer named Ciril Jazbec and rode a few miles southwest on Aniaaq fjord, a region Erik the Red must have known well. Late in the afternoon, with the arctic summer sun still high in the sky, we got off at a rocky beach where an Inuit farmer named Magnus Hansen was waiting for us in his pickup truck. After we loaded the truck with our backpacks and essential supplies requested by the archaeologists—a case of beer, two bottles of Scotch, a carton of menthol cigarettes and some tins of snuff—Hansen drove us to our destination: a Viking homestead being excavated by Konrad Smiarowski, one of McGovern’s doctoral students.

The homestead lies at the end of a hilly dirt road a few miles inland on Hansen’s farm. It’s no accident that most modern Inuit farms in Greenland are found near Viking sites: On our trip down the fjord, we were told that every local farmer knows the Norse chose the best locations for their homesteads.

The Vikings established two outposts in Greenland: one along the fjords of the southwest coast, known historically as the Eastern Settlement, where Gardar is located, and a smaller colony about 240 miles north, called the Western Settlement. Nearly every summer for the last several years, Smiarowski has returned to various sites in the Eastern Settlement to understand how the Vikings managed to live here for so many centuries, and what happened to them in the end.

This season’s site, a thousand-year-old Norse homestead, was once part of a vital community. “Everyone was connected over this huge landscape,” Smiarowski says. “If we walked for a day we could visit probably 20 different farms.”

He and his team of seven students have spent several weeks digging into a midden—a trash heap—just below the homestead’s tumbled ruins. On a cold, damp morning, Cameron Turley, a PhD candidate at the City University of New York, stands in the ankle-deep water of a drainage ditch. He’ll spend most of the day here, a heavy hose draped over his shoulder, rinsing mud from artifacts collected in a wood-framed sieve held by Michalina Kardynal, an undergraduate from Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. This morning they’ve found a delicate wooden comb, its teeth intact. They’re also finding seal bones. Lots of them.

“Probably about 50 percent of all bones at this site will be seal bones,” Smiarowski says as we stand by the drainage ditch in a light rain. He speaks from experience: Seal bones have been abundant at every site he has studied, and his findings have been pivotal in reassessing how the Norse adapted to life in Greenland. The ubiquity of seal bones is evidence that the Norse began hunting the animals “from the very beginning,” Smiarowski says. “We see harp and hooded seal bones from the earliest layers at all sites.”

A seal-based diet would have been a drastic shift from beef-and-dairy-centric Scandinavian fare. But a study of human skeletal remains from both the Eastern and Western settlements showed that the Vikings quickly adopted a new diet. Over time, the food we eat leaves a chemical stamp on our bones—marine-based diets mark us with different ratios of certain chemical elements than terrestrial foods do. Five years ago, researchers based in Scandinavia and Scotland analyzed the skeletons of 118 individuals from the earliest periods of settlement to the latest. The results perfectly complement Smiarow­ski’s fieldwork: Over time, people ate an increasingly marine diet, he says.

It’s raining heavily now, and we’re huddled beneath a blue tarp next to the midden, sipping coffee and ingesting some terrestrial chemical elements in the form of cookies. In the earliest days of the settlements, Smiarowski says, the study found that marine animals made up 30 to 40 percent of the Norse diet. The percentage steadily climbed, until, by the end of the settlement period, 80 percent of the Norse diet came from the sea. Beef eventually became a luxury, most likely because the volcano-induced climate change made it vastly more difficult to raise cattle in Greenland.

Judging from the bones Smiarowski has uncovered, most of the seafood consisted of seals—few fish bones have been found. Yet it appears the Norse were careful: They limited their hunting of the local harbor seal, Phoca vitulina, a species that raises its young on beaches, making it easy prey. (The harbor seal is critically endangered in Greenland today due to overhunting.) “They could have wiped them out, and they didn’t,” Smiarowski says. Instead, they pursued the more abundant—and more difficult to catch—harp seal, Phoca groenlandica, which migrates up the west coast of Greenland every spring on the way from Canada. Those hunts, he says, must have been well-organized communal affairs, with the meat distributed to the entire settlement—seal bones have been found at homestead sites even far inland. The regular arrival of the seals in the spring, just when the Vikings’ winter stores of cheese and meat were running low, would have been keenly anticipated.

The last news of Greenland’s Vikings came from Hvalsey. (Ciril Jazbec)
“People came from different farms; some provided labor, some provided boats,” Smiarowski says, speculating. “Maybe there were several centers organizing things along the coast of the Eastern Settlement. Then the catch was divided among the farms, I would assume according to how much each farm contributed to the hunt.” The annual spring seal hunt might have resembled communal whale hunts practiced to this day by the Faroe Islanders, who are the descendants of Vikings.

The Norse harnessed their organizational energy for an even more important task: annual walrus hunts. Smiarowski, McGovern and other archaeologists now suspect that the Vikings first traveled to Greenland not in search of new land to farm—a motive mentioned in some of the old sagas—but to acquire walrus-tusk ivory, one of medieval Europe’s most valuable trade items. Who, they ask, would risk crossing hundreds of miles of arctic seas just to farm in conditions far worse than those at home? As a low-bulk, high-value item, ivory would have been an irresistible lure for seafaring traders.

Many ivory artifacts from the Middle Ages, whether religious or secular, were carved from walrus tusks, and the Vikings, with their ships and far-flung trading networks, monopolized the commodity in Northern Europe. After hunting walruses to extinction in Iceland, the Norse must have sought them out in Greenland. They found large herds in Disko Bay, about 600 miles north of the Eastern Settlement and 300 miles north of the Western Settlement. “The sagas would have us believe that it was Erik the Red who went out and explored [Greenland],” says Jette Arneborg, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, who, like McGovern, has studied the Norse settlements for decades. “But the initiative might have been from elite farmers in Iceland who wanted to keep up the ivory trade—it might have been in an attempt to continue this trade that they went farther west.”

Smiarowski and other archaeologists have unearthed ivory fragments at nearly every site they’ve studied. It seems the Eastern and Western settlements may have pooled their resources in an annual walrus hunt, sending out parties of young men every summer. “An individual farm couldn’t do it,” he says. “You would need a really good boat and a crew. And you need to get there. It’s far away.” Written records from the period mention sailing times of 27 days to the hunting grounds from the Eastern Settlement and 15 days from the Western Settlement.

To maximize cargo space, the walrus hunters would have returned home with only the most valuable parts of the animal—the hides, which were fashioned into ships’ rigging, and parts of the animals’ skulls. “They did the extraction of the ivory here on-site,” Smiarowski says. “Not that many actually on this site here, but on most other sites you have these chips of walrus maxilla [the upper jaw]—very dense bone. It’s quite distinct from other bones. It’s almost like rock—very hard.”

A bishop’s ring and the top of his crosier from the Gardar ruins (Ciril Jazbec)

How profitable was the ivory trade? Every six years, the Norse in Greenland and Iceland paid a tithe to the Norwegian king. A document from 1327, recording the shipment of a single boatload of tusks to Bergen, Norway, shows that that boatload, with tusks from 260 walruses, was worth more than all the woolen cloth sent to the king by nearly 4,000 Icelandic farms for one six-year period.

Archaeologists once assumed that the Norse in Greenland were primarily farmers who did some hunting on the side. Now it seems clear that the reverse was true. They were ivory hunters first and foremost, their farms only a means to an end. Why else would ivory fragments be so prevalent among the excavated sites? And why else would the Vikings send so many able-bodied men on hunting expeditions to the far north at the height of the farming season? “There was a huge potential for ivory export,” says Smiarowski, “and they set up farms to support that.” Ivory drew them to Greenland, ivory kept them there, and their attachment to that toothy trove may be what eventually doomed them.

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When the Norse arrived in Greenland, there were no locals to teach them how to live. “The Scandinavians had this remarkable ability to colonize these high-latitude islands,” says Andrew Dugmore. “You have to be able to hunt wild animals; you have to build up your livestock; you have to work hard to exist in these areas....This is about as far as you can push the farming system in the Northern Hemisphere.”

And push it they did. The growing season was short, and the land vulnerable to overgrazing. 

Ian Simpson has spent many seasons in Greenland studying soil layers where the Vikings farmed. The strata, he says, clearly show the impact of their arrival: The earliest layers are thinner, with less organic material, but within a generation or two the layers stabilized and the organic matter built up as the Norse farmwomen manured and improved their fields while the men were out hunting. “You can interpret that as being a sign of adaptation, of them getting used to the landscape and being able to read it a little better,” Simpson says.

For all their intrepidness, though, the Norse were far from self-sufficient, and imported grains, iron, wine and other essentials. Ivory was their currency. “Norse society in Greenland couldn’t survive without trade with Europe,” says Arneborg, “and that’s from day one.”

Then, in the 13th century, after three centuries, their world changed profoundly. First, the climate cooled because of the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Sea ice increased, and so did ocean storms—ice cores from that period contain more salt from oceanic winds that blew over the ice sheet. Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market. “The fashion for ivory began to wane,” says Dugmore, “and there was also the competition with elephant ivory, which was much better quality.” And finally, the Black Death devastated Europe. There is no evidence that the plague ever reached Greenland, but half the population of Norway—which was Greenland’s lifeline to the civilized world—perished.

The Norse probably could have survived any one of those calamities separately. After all, they remained in Greenland for at least a century after the climate changed, so the onset of colder conditions alone wasn’t enough to undo them. Moreover, they were still building new churches—like the one at Hvalsey—in the 14th century. But all three blows must have left them reeling. With nothing to exchange for European goods—and with fewer Europeans left—their way of life would have been impossible to maintain. The Greenland Vikings were essentially victims of globalization and a pandemic.

“If you consider the world today, many communities will face exposure to climate change,” says Dugmore. “They’ll also face issues of globalization. The really difficult bit is when you have exposure to both.”

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So what was the endgame like in Greenland? Although archaeologists now agree that the Norse did about as well as any society could in confronting existential threats, they remain divided over how the Vikings’ last days played out. Some believe that the Norse, faced with the triple threat of economic collapse, pandemic and climate change, simply packed up and left. Others say the Norse, despite their adaptive ingenuity, met a far grimmer fate.
For McGovern, the answer is clear. “I think in the end this was a real tragedy. This was the loss of a small community, a thousand people maybe at the end. This was extinction.”
The Norse, he says, were especially vulnerable to sudden death at sea. Revised population estimates, based on more accurate tallies of the number of farms and graves, put the Norse Greenlanders at no more than 2,500 at their peak—less than half the conventional figure. 

Every spring and summer, nearly all the men would be far from home, hunting. As conditions for raising cattle worsened, the seal hunts would have been ever more vital—and more hazardous. Despite the decline of the ivory trade, the Norse apparently continued to hunt walrus until the very end. So a single storm at sea could have wiped out a substantial number of Greenland’s men—and by the 14th century the weather was increasingly stormy. “You see similar things happening at other places and other times,” McGovern says. “In 1881, there was a catastrophic storm when the Shetland fishing fleet was out in these little boats. In one afternoon about 80 percent of the men and boys of the Shetlands drowned. A whole bunch of little communities never recovered.”

Erik the Red slept here: Qassiarsuk features replicas of a Viking church and longhouse. (Ciril Jazbec)
Norse society itself comprised two very small communities: the Eastern and Western settlements. With such a sparse population, any loss—whether from death or emigration—would have placed an enormous strain on the survivors. “If there weren’t enough of them, the seal hunt would not be successful,” says Smiarowski. “And if it was not successful for a couple of years in a row, then it would be devastating.”

McGovern thinks a few people might have migrated out, but he rules out any sort of exodus. If Greenlanders had emigrated en masse to Iceland or Norway, surely there would have been a record of such an event. Both countries were literate societies, with a penchant for writing down important news. “If you had hundreds or a thousand people coming out of Greenland,” McGovern says, “someone would have noticed.”

Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen who has studied Viking burial sites in Greenland, isn’t so sure. “I think in Greenland it happened very gradually and undramatically,” he tells me as we sit in his office, beneath a poster of the Belgian cartoon character Tintin. “Maybe it’s the usual human story. People move to where there are resources. And they move away when something doesn’t work for them.” As for the silence of the historical record, he says, a gradual departure might not have attracted much attention.

The ruins themselves hint at an orderly departure. There is no evidence of conflict with the Inuit or of any intentional damage to homesteads. And aside from a gold ring found on the skeletal finger of a bishop at Gardar, and his narwhal-tusk staff, no items of real value have been found at any sites in Greenland. “When you abandon a small settlement, what do you take with you? The valuables, the family jewelry,” says Lynnerup. “You don’t leave your sword or your good metal knife....You don’t abandon Christ on his crucifix. You take that along. I’m sure the cathedral would have had some paraphernalia—cups, candelabras—which we know medieval churches have, but which have never been found in Greenland.”

Jette Arneborg and her colleagues found evidence of a tidy leave-taking at a Western Settlement homestead known as the Farm Beneath the Sands. The doors on all but one of the rooms had rotted away, and there were signs that abandoned sheep had entered those doorless rooms. But one room retained a door, and it was closed. “It was totally clean. No sheep had been in that room,” says Arneborg. For her, the implications are obvious. “They cleaned up, took what they wanted, and left. They even closed the doors.”

Perhaps the Norse could have toughed it out in Greenland by fully adopting the ways of the Inuit. But that would have meant a complete surrender of their identity. They were civilized Europeans—not skraelings, or wretches, as they called the Inuit. “Why didn’t the Norse just go native?” Lynnerup asks. “Why didn’t the Puritans just go native? But of course they didn’t. There was never any question of the Europeans who came to America becoming nomadic and living off buffalo.”

We do know that at least two people made it out of Greenland alive: Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson, the couple who married at Hvalsey’s church. They eventually settled in Iceland, and in 1424, for reasons lost to history, they needed to provide letters and witnesses proving that they had been married in Greenland. Whether they were among a lucky few survivors or part of a larger immigrant community may remain unknown. But there’s a chance that Greenland’s Vikings never vanished, that their descendants are with us still.