24 September 2017

To understand Viking culture, take a look at their plates

You might find this article on Viking food interesting. The accompanying photos are great; however, some of Serra's contentions are suspect, i. e. sausage. Did the Vikings make sausage? I don't know, but it's doubtful, because I have never seen a reference to sausage making among the paucity of text actually written during the Viking age - no, the sagas were not written during the Viking age. The average Viking was illiterate by our standards, the art form known as runes, which your average Viking could not read, notwithstanding.

Mr. Serra further postulates: "Aside from dried fish, Vikings apparently didn't hunt or gather much." What an absurd contention! The middens containing the remains of their food, indicate they consumed all kinds of wild meat and fish, e.g. - walrus, seal, birds of all kinds, dogs, deer, bear, trout, salmon, etc.

Had Mr. Serra really studied the culture of the Vikings he would realize that their trading ultimately led to raiding. It has recently been proven that they came to Ireland much earlier in the 8th century that has been in vogue among archaeologists. Early trading expeditions may have come as early as the latter part of the 7th century according to recent grave finds in Dublin, Ireland, and these people came not only to trade, but to settle, bringing their women and children with them.

The period of the Viking Age was a period of continuous warfare, that is why we refer to it as the Dark Ages. The Vikings were a savage society, living in a savage age, and they were well able to cope with the times in which they existed. Had they not, we would know nothing about them.

So, enjoy the article for what it portrays - a tale about a corpulent contemporary man and his corpulent companion who both love to eat, while he tries to emulate a people he admires, at the same time furthering his own opinion of how and what the Vikings ate. (Ed.)

***

To understand Viking culture, take a look at their plates

Dan Gunderson · Jun 24, 2017



Swedish culinary archeologist Daniel Serra cooks over a fire at the Midwest Viking Festival in Moorhead on Thursday. Dan Gunderson | MPR News
Daniel Serra likes to bust myths about Vikings. Like the image of Vikings gnawing on huge chunks of meat pulled from the fire.

"It's a myth of course, and it's the myth of the barbarian, the wild man," said Serra, a Swedish culinary archaeologist. "To start with most of the Vikings would have been farmers or traders. You had the fighters and raiders of course, but that's just a small part of it."
Viking food varied depending on the region, but Serra said most food in the Viking age was boiled in clay, soapstone or iron pots.

"A stew would have been common. A porridge, a savory porridge almost like a risotto would have been common," said Serra. "They did have some roasted meats but that would have been quite the upper class."

Viking re-enactor Terrie Helleloid watches Serra cook. She uses his cookbook to make meals at festivals across the Midwest. Dan Gunderson | MPR News
Vikings had knives, spoons and fingers, but no forks. That meant food was usually cut up before it was cooked to make it easier to eat. And dried or salted meat needed a good boiling to be rehydrated so it could be eaten.

Serra has spent years immersed in Viking Age history and he looks the part. A long flowing beard is whipped by the wind as he stands in swirling smoke tending an iron pot boiling sausage over an open fire in Moorhead, where he's appearing at the Midwest Viking Festival.

He grins as he pats his slightly rotund middle and explains his choice of research might have been influenced by his fondness for food. The Vikings left little documentation of what they ate, but Serra studied archaeological finds, and pored over Norse sagas and medieval texts to develop a list of ingredients and cooking techniques that were likely used during the Viking Age that lasted about 300 years from the 8th to 11th centuries.

Food archaeology became his specialty. Through research and trial and error he developed recipes he says are as "historically accurate as possible with the information we have".

He co-wrote a cookbook called "An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey."


Serra boils sausage in a kettle. He says Vikings likely used a cut off cow horn and animal intestines to make sausages. Dan Gunderson | MPR News
Of course, fish was a staple for many Vikings. Stockfish was a dried cod which Serra says is much drier than beef jerky; he describes it being "like a block of wood." Preparing stockfish involved beating it with the back side of an ax.
"A medieval cookbook says you should beat your stockfish for a good hour. When I tried it, the good hour was two hours and I smelled like ... well put it another way, cats really loved me that day," said Serra with a chuckle.

The Vikings often survived on this leathery cod, but no; the Vikings did not create or eat lutefisk. Serra glances surreptitiously over his shoulder before sharing this bit of culinary heresy.
"The first recipe for that is not from Scandinavia. The first recipe for lutefisk I found was from France in the 14th century," explained Serra. "I'm not sure if I'll get out of here alive, but yes, that's the origin."



Serra has researched and replicated cuisine and cookware. Dan Gunderson | MPR News
Aside from dried fish, Vikings apparently didn't hunt or gather much. Serra says most bones found in archeological sites are from domestic cattle, sheep and goats. And Vikings grew most of the grains and vegetables they ate.

They made bread from the grain and, more importantly, beer. Serra says beer was a staple, an every meal drink. It had health benefits, helping prevent waterborne illnesses and providing some necessary nutrients.

Beer was mostly brewed in open vats without hops. Instead, Vikings used aromatic plants like bog myrtle for flavor.
Beer, Serra says, was a social expectation.
"If you don't serve the beer when you have it, people will take offense," said Serra, adding with a laugh, "And that is important today as well, I think."


Serra uses a small stone mill to grind wheat. Dan Gunderson | MPR News
The pleasure of good food aside, Serra finds value in learning about historical food culture.
"It is an understanding of how people are living.This is giving an everyday understanding of life," said Serra. "Everyone can relate to people eating. And that makes it a very good way of displaying history I think."

Serra demonstrates Viking cuisine Friday and Saturday at the Midwest Viking Festival in Moorhead. Next Tuesday and Wednesday he's at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.

17 September 2017

The Vikings in Ireland

It is unfortunate that Dublin can't be moved over about a mile, for a Viking treasure trove exists just beneath her streets in the old part of town. (Ed.)

***



A surprising discovery in Dublin challenges long-held ideas about when the Scandinavian raiders arrived on the Emerald Isle


The Vikings in Ireland

By ROGER ATWOOD Tuesday, March 10, 2015


(Courtesy Linzi Simpson)

An impressive ax head is one of hundreds of Viking artifacts found during excavations under the streets of Dublin.

When Irish archaeologists working under Dublin’s South Great George’s Street just over a decade ago excavated the remains of four young men buried with fragments of Viking shields, daggers, and personal ornaments, the discovery appeared to be simply more evidence of the Viking presence in Ireland. At least 77 Viking burials have been discovered across Dublin since the late 1700s, some accidentally by ditch diggers, others by archaeologists working on building sites. All have been dated to the ninth or tenth centuries on the basis of artifacts that accompanied them, and the South Great George’s Street burials seemed to be four more examples.

Yet when excavation leader Linzi Simpson of Dublin’s Trinity College sent the remains for carbon dating to determine their age, the results were “quite surprising,” she says. The tests, performed at Beta Analytic in Miami, Florida, and at Queen’s University in Belfast, showed that the men had been buried in Irish soil years, or even decades, before the accepted date for the establishment of the first year-round Viking settlement in Dublin —and perhaps even before the first known Viking raid on the island took place.


(Courtesy Linzi Simpson)
All across Dublin at sites such as South Great George’s Street (above), archaeologists have uncovered dozens of Viking burials. These graves are now contributing to a picture of the city as a successful trading outpost of the Viking world.
Simpson’s findings are now adding new weight to an idea gaining growing acceptance—that, instead of a sudden, cataclysmic invasion, the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland and Britain began, rather, with small-scale settlements and trade links that connected Ireland with northern European commerce for the first time. And, further, that those trading contacts may have occurred generations before the violent raids described in contemporary texts, works written by monks in isolated monasteries—often the only places where literate people lived—which were especially targeted by Viking raiders for their food and treasures. Scholars are continuing to examine these texts, but are also considering the limitations of using them to understand the historical record. The monks were devastated by the attacks on their homes and institutions, and other contemporaneous events may not have been recorded because there was no one literate available to do so. “Most researchers accept now that the raids were not the first contact, as the old texts suggest,” says Gareth Williams, curator of medieval coinage and a Viking expert at the British Museum. “How did the Vikings know where all those monasteries were? It’s because there was already contact. They were already trading before those raids happened.”


(CourtesyNational Museum of Ireland)

Unlike the Christian populations they encountered—and sometimes conquered—Vikings often buried their dead with treasured objects such as this late 9th- to early 10th-century zoomorphic iron figurine found in a grave in the Dublin neighborhood of Islandbridge.

The beginning of the Viking era in Britain was long thought to have been June 8, A.D. 793, the day when seaborne Scandinavian raiders appeared on the horizon and attacked a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the east coast of England. Population pressures at home, a thirst for wealth and adventure, and improvements in boat-building techniques all propelled the Vikings out of their chilly realm in search of conquest. In 795 they reached Ireland with an attack on Rathlin Island, where the monastery was “burned by the heathens,” according to the Annals of Ulster, the longest and most detailed of the medieval texts that historians have relied on to chronicle the period. At the time, Ireland had been Christian for at least three centuries, and its monasteries were its wealthiest and most powerful institutions. Early medieval texts refer to the Vikings as simply “the heathens,” stressing the religious, rather than ethnic, differences between them and the Irish.

The Annals describe hordes of Vikings plundering the landscape and battling the feuding warlords who ruled Ireland. One entry, from 798, says the pagan invaders stole cattle tribute from chieftains, burned their churches, and “made great incursions in Ireland and also Alba [Scotland],” painting a picture of widespread chaos and destruction. Another entry records the arrival of a flotilla of 60 Viking ships in 837 at the mouth of the Boyne River, 30 miles north of Dublin. Within weeks, the Annals say, the Vikings had won a battle “in which an uncounted number [of people] were slaughtered.” Recent excavations in Ireland tend to confirm the account the texts depict. “They came, they saw the lay of the land, and then came the catastrophic invasions described in the Annals,” Simpson says. “Considering the weapons buried with these guys, and all the Viking cemeteries discovered in Dublin, I don’t think the Annals were exaggerating. It must have been a very violent time.”

By 841, Vikings had established a year-round settlement around a timber-and-earthen fort known as a longphort at the confluence of the Liffey and Poddle Rivers, in the heart of modern Dublin. This date has long been taken to be the beginning of the Vikings’ permanent settlement in Ireland. Through alliances, conquest, and intermarriage with local kings, their power waxed and waned over the next two centuries until they were expelled by celebrated Irish warlord Brian Boru in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In recent years the story of that battle has also been revised, with modern scholars seeing it more as a clash for control of Dublin’s port than the shining moment of Irish nationalism of lore. Nonetheless, it meant the end of the Vikings’ presence. Unlike in England and northern France, where they created new cultural orders and royal lineages, the Vikings left little permanent imprint on Ireland, and there are few Viking place names there or Norse words in its language.

(Courtesy Linzi Simpson)

A decorated comb made of deer antler was found lying on the shoulder of one of the Vikings 

in the South Great George’s Street excavation.

Since the 1960s, archaeologists have been gathering information about the mid-ninth-century longphort that lay under the pubs and sidewalks of Fishamble Street in Dublin. “The Vikings started with sporadic summer raids, but after some years they decided, ‘This is lucrative, let’s stay,’ and so they built settlements to stay over the winter,” says Ruth Johnson, Dublin’s city archaeologist. Although the earlier dates for a Viking presence in Dublin that have been identified by Simpson and independent archaeologist Edmond O’Donovan differ from the established dates by only a few decades, when combined with other evidence, they are challenging the chronology of Viking settlement in Ireland.

Carbon dating, which measures the age of organic materials based on the amount of radioactive carbon 14 remaining in a specimen, usually gives a range of likely dates at the time of death. The older the material, the wider the range. In the case of the four individuals excavated under Dublin’s South Great George’s Street, Simpson found that two of them had a 95 percent probability of having died between 670 and 880, with a 68 percent probability of between 690 and 790. Thus, the entire most likely range was before the first documented arrival of Vikings in 795. A third individual lived slightly later, with a 95 percent probability of having died between 689 and 882, with a 68 percent probability of between 771 and 851. “I expected a later range of dates, safe to say,” says Simpson. “These dates seem impossibly early and difficult to reconcile with the available historical and archaeological sources.”

(Courtesy Linzi Simpson)

The bones of a Viking warrior in a grave in South Great George’s Street were discovered partly covered by the boss of his iron shield.

The fourth Viking excavated at South Great George’s Street was the most intact of the group and revealed the most about their lives and hardships. A powerfully built man in his late teens or early 20s, he stood five foot seven—tall by the day’s standards—with the muscular torso and arms that would come from hard, oceangoing rowing. His bones showed stresses associated with heavy lifting beginning in childhood. Unlike the three other men, he was not buried with weapons. He and one of the other men shared a congenital deformity in the lower spine, perhaps indicating they were relatives. Carbon dating gave a wider range for his lifetime, showing a 95 percent probability that he died between 786 and 955.


(Courtesy Kevin Weldon)

Archaeologists Edmond O’Donovan (left) and Linzi Simpson (right) excavate human remains and artifacts at a Dublin site called Golden Lane.

In 2005, O’Donovan found two Viking burials under Dublin’s Golden Lane of similar ages to Simpson’s, with a 94 percent probability of death between 678 and 870 for both individuals. One of the burials was an elderly woman, suggesting that Viking family groups, a telltale sign of permanent settlement, were likely established in Dublin earlier than medieval texts had indicated, and perhaps even before the establishment of the longphort. In a separate excavation under Ship Street Great, a few blocks away, Simpson found a Viking corpse with a 68 percent chance of dating from 680 to 775—again, before historical sources say Vikings had even set foot in Ireland. “We know that Vikings started staying over the winter in 841. But now these findings are showing dates before that, and people are starting to wonder what’s going on,” explains Johnson. “They weren’t supposed to be here yet.”

Tests done at the University of Bradford in England on the four South Great George’s Street men’s isotopic oxygen levels, which indicate where an individual spent childhood based on a chemical signature left by groundwater in developing teeth, told yet another story. The results showed that the two men with the spinal deformity had spent their childhood in Scandinavia, though the tests were not precise enough to show where exactly. However, the other two had spent their childhoods far from the Viking homeland, in Ireland or Scotland, another sign of permanent settlement by families, and not just summertime raids by Viking warriors. “You’ve got these four guys, with a mixed geographic origin, and closely associated with fixed settlements, with fires and postholes,” says Simpson. “They didn’t just come here and die and get buried. They were amongst the living.”

(Courtesy Edmond O'Donovan)

This decorated belt ornament was unearthed at Golden Lane.
The evidence of an earlier-than-expected Viking presence in Ireland, based as it is on forensic tests conducted on a handful of burials, may seem slight. But seemingly small pieces of evidence can overturn well established conventions in archaeology. Both Simpson and Johnson stress that more excavations and tests will be needed before anyone can rewrite the history of Viking settlement, and that is years away. Archaeological work in Ireland has been starved of funds and nearly stopped completely after the country’s economic crash of 2008, and it is only now reviving. Williams adds, “There are two possibilities raised by [Simpson’s] work. Either there was Viking activity earlier than we’ve realized in Ireland, or there is something in the water or soil in Dublin skewing the data, and both possibilities need further research.”

Nevertheless Williams agrees with Simpson and others that the chronology of the Viking presence in Britain and Ireland is in flux, and that they were likely trading or raiding in Britain, and perhaps Ireland as well, before 793. “Most archaeologists would accept that there was extended contact in Britain with the Vikings from the late eighth century or earlier, and there is no reason to think that contact would not extend around Scotland and down into Ireland, especially in a natural landing place like Dublin,” says Williams. Other finds support this: For example, the discovery at the port of Ribe, Denmark, of Anglo-Saxon artifacts dated to the eighth century and recent carbon dating of Viking remains in the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland from the same period all suggest fluid trade before raids began, he explains. “It’s a poorly documented part of history,” he says. “But before there was Viking settlement, there was this big trading zone in the North Sea. Did it extend to the Irish Sea? We don’t have any evidence to say that, but it could be just a question of time.”

Roger Atwood is contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

12 August 2017

New discoveries at Sherwood Forest’s ancient Viking meeting point

A Viking Thing site has been rediscovered in Sherwood Forest. It will surely lead to further discoveries as the site is opened up by archaeologists. (Ed.)

***

New discoveries at Sherwood Forest’s ancient Viking meeting point

By Jamie Barlow
Jun 5, 2017

The Thynghowe Viking site, Sherwood Forest.
A team of archaeologists have made ‘nationally significant’ new discoveries at an ancient monument which acted as a Viking meeting point in Sherwood Forest.

The site, known as Thynghowe, is at the top of Hanger Hill, on the boundary of the Budby, Warsop and Edwinstowe parishes, and on the edge of Birkland's wood. The wood is the home of the famous Major Oak tree which, according to local folklore, was used by Robin Hood and his merry men for shelter.

Thynghowe, meaning ‘thing site’ where vikings held meetings, was discovered by a group of local volunteers called Friends of Thynghowe Group and a team of archaeologists.

Its location was re-discovered a decade ago but new research has just been completed, uncovering new evidence that the area was hugely important in Viking history.
Andy Gaunt, of Mercian Archaeological Services, which led the study, said: “It’s where they [Vikings] signed laws, settled disputes and all sorts of things like that.”

A host of monuments believed to date back to the Viking era have been discovered such as a ‘thing mound’, a Viking ‘court circle’ – which research has shown could date back to Medieval or Saxon times – and pot-boiler stones which Vikings used to boil water.

The ‘thing site’ is definitely where they’d meet and where they would hold assemblies,” Andy said.
And, if we’re correct, they would’ve stood within the circle and discussed laws and the question of the day, and then they’d pronounce the verdict from the top of the hill from the ‘thing mound’. That’s how it might have worked.
The ‘thing sites’ are something you see all over the Viking world – in Dublin, the Isle of Man and the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands and Iceland – but we’ve got one in Sherwood Forest, which is amazing.

The level of preservation makes it a pristine site; it’s a very exciting time.”
Research also suggests the village of Budby could have been a ‘booth farm’ where Viking delegates may have stayed.

New monuments discovered at Thynghowe:
  • A ‘thing mound’
  • A circular enclosure 75.0m-77.5m in diameter which has been shown to be Medieval or Saxon in date – which could represent a possible Viking ‘court circle’
  • Holloways including ‘Nether Warsop Gate’
  • A spread of pot-boiler stones
  • Two possible hearths
  • Boundary stones for Warsop and Edwinstowe
  • The ‘Birklands Forest Stone’
  • The ditch and bank of the boundary of Warsop and Edwinstowe Parish
  • The possible identification as the village of Budby as meaning the ‘booth farm’ where delegates attending the assembly may have stayed in ‘booths’
And many more unidentified features could be found later, added Andy.

Stuart Reddish and Lynda Mallett, who used to live in Nottinghamshire, but have since moved to Canada, formed the Friends of Thynghowe Group in 2004 after initially being told by archaeologists that there was nothing at the site.


Thynghowe site in Sherwood Forest.

They began working alongside archaeological and other experts in 2009-10, who have helped to save and understand the area.
Andy said it is down to Stuart and Lynda’s dedication, knowledge and hard work, along with the other volunteers of Friends of Thynghowe and the Forestry Commission, which have preserved the site.
He added: “Its hugely important archaeological remains could have been lost forever and have remained unknown and unrecorded.”

A survey of the site can be found on the Mercian Archaeology website.

The Vikings, otherwise known as Scandinavian Norsemen, explored Europe by its seas and rivers for trade, raids and colonisation between the Eighth and Mid-11th Century.
During this period, the Norsemen settled in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, Scotland, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey.


30 July 2017

Archaeologists Uncover Viking Army Camp in England

There have been several articles from a number of sources on this large Viking town, or winter camp in England. Each has a little different take on the site, new photos, and new theories to digest.

So, here is another for your edification. (Ed.)

***

Archaeologists Uncover Viking Army Camp in England

May 19, 2017 by News Staff / SourAD

A long-held archaeological mystery has been solved as researchers have revealed the exact location, extent and character of a huge winter camp of the Viking army at Torksey, Lincolnshire, of AD 872-873.

A 21st-ADntury view looking east across the River Trent to the prominent bluff and the Viking winter camp. Image credit: Dawn Hadley & Julian Richards / Antiquaries Journal, doi: 10.1017/S0003581516000718.
The Vikings established the winter camp at Torksey, on the banks of the River Trent in Lincolnshire, as they prepared to conquer 9th Century England, according to a team of archaeologists from the Universities of Sheffield and York, UK.
The camp was used by thousands of Viking warriors, women and children who lived there temporarily in tented accommodation.
They also used the site as a base to repair ships, melt down stolen loot, manufacture, trade and play games.

“The Vikings’ camp at Torksey was much more than just a handful of hardy warriors — this was a huge base, larger than most contemporary towns, complete with traders, families, feasting, and entertainment,” said team leader Professor Dawn Hadley, from the University of Sheffield.
“From what has been found at the site, we know they were repairing their boats there and melting down looted gold and silver to make ingots — or bars of metal they used to trade.”

“The Vikings had previously often raided exposed coastal monasteries and returned to Scandinavia in winter, but in the later 9th century they came in larger numbers, and decided to stay,” said team member Professor Julian Richards, from the University of York.
“This sent a very clear message that they now planned not only to loot and raid — but to control and conquer.”

The exact location and scale of the Vikings’ camp in Lincolnshire has been debated for decades. It is now thought to be at least 55 hectares in size, bigger than many towns and cities of the time, including York.

There have also been more than a thousand finds by metal detectorists and archaeologists, including several hundreds of coins.

A selection of metal-detected finds from the Viking winter camp at Torksey, UK. Image credit: Fitzwilliam Museum / Dawn Hadley & Julian Richards / Antiquaries Journal, doi: 10.1017/S0003581516000718.
“It is the metalwork and, specifically, the coinage, that allows the assemblage to be dated so precisely and which confirms this as the site of the Viking winter camp of AD 872-873,” Prof. Hadley, Prof. Richards and co-authors explained.

“More than 350 early medieval coins have been recovered, including 40 English silver pennies, with a notable concentration from the 860s and early 870s, which is striking given that coin finds of the early 9th century are generally more prolific than those of the middle and later parts of the century.”

“Remarkably, there are also more than 170 Northumbrian copper-alloy stycas, which did not circulate widely outside Northumbria and are generally only recovered in Lincolnshire as single finds.”
“There are also 124 dirhams from Torksey, the largest concentration on any insular site. These had all been cut into smaller fractions, indicating that they had been retained for their silver content rather than their monetary value.”
“These dirhams had clearly been brought to England from the Middle East via Scandinavia, and similar concentrations of dirhams have been found at Scandinavian trading centers such as Birka in Sweden and Kaupang in Norway.”

More than 50 pieces of chopped up silver, including brooch fragments and ingots have been found along with rare hackgold.

Evidence has been found that these items were being processed at the camp — chopped up to be melted down.

Other finds include the 300 gaming pieces, iron tools, spindle whorls, needles and fishing weights.
“Metal detectorists have also found more than 300 lead game pieces, suggesting the Vikings, including, women and children, were spending a lot of time playing games to pass the time, waiting for spring and the start of their next offensive,” Prof. Hadley said.

The research was recently published in the Antiquaries Journal.
_____
Dawn M. Hadley & Julian D. Richards. 2016. The Winter Camp of the Viking Great Army, AD 872–3, Torksey, Lincolnshire. Antiquaries Journal 96: 23-67; doi: 10.1017/S0003581516000718


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.)

***
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.)

***
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.)
***

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.)

***

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.