26 September 2014

Viking Archaeology-Canadian Arctic and Other Areas

Photos and paintings of the work going on afield in Norse archaeology, and in the writing/publishing business, to highlight all things having to do with the medieval Vikings. A great photo collection by lots of different folks. I hope you enjoy them. (Ed.)


L 'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada - 2004 - J. A. Hunsinger

Norse artifacts - source unknown

24 September 2014

More on the New Viking Fortress Discovery in Denmark

This 9 September 14, article from Archaeology and Arts, is a follow-on to the article I previously featured on this blog. No author is attributed. Several articles have appeared on this same topic over the past month. Those of you interested in the medieval Vikings might wish to check the net for the latest iteration of this interesting material. (Ed.)

Shedding light on the battles and conflicts of the Vikings

Archaeologists have discovered traces of a circular Viking fortress and embankments in a field in the diocese of Vallø, west of Køge (south of Copenhagen). The circular fortress is similar to the famous “Trelleborg” fortresses built by King Harald Bluetooth around the year 980 AD.
“This is the first time for more than 60 years that a new Viking ringed fortress has been discovered in Denmark,” explains Nanna Holm, an archaeologist and curator at the Danish Castle Centre. Her colleague on the excavation Søren Sindbæk, who is a professor of medieval archaeology at Aarhus University, adds:
“The discovery of the new Viking fortress is a unique opportunity to learn more about the battles and conflicts of the Vikings, and gives us a new chance to study the most famous of our Viking monuments.”http://www.archaiologia.gr/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gif
Found by laser
It was new, precise laser measurements of the landscape that put Nanna Holm from the Danish Castle Centre in Vordingborg on the track. These measurements showed that an almost imperceptible mound in the field had a clear circular outline, so Holm and Sindbæk decided to call in an expert in archaeological geophysics from the University of York in the UK.
“Measuring small variations in the magnetic field of the soil enables you to identify old pits or embankments without destroying them. The technique gave us a surprisingly detailed image of the fortress in no more than a few days. So we knew exactly where to dig the excavation trenches with a view to learning as much as possible about the fortress,” explains Sindbæk.
Burnt timber and radiocarbon dating
Nanna Holm underlines that the fortress was a genuine military facility, and probably the scene of fighting as well. She’s in no doubt that it dates back to the Viking Age.
“Fortresses built like this one were only built in the Viking Age, and the burnt timber in the gates enables us to fix the date using radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. We’ve sent off samples for analysis, and the result should be available in a few weeks’ time. The date will be vital. If we can establish exactly when the fortress was built, it will help us to understand the historical events with which it was connected.”
Viking ringed fortresses may be the most famous historical monuments in Denmark. They attract tourists from all over the world, and have led to revisions of Danish history on a number of occasions

16 September 2014

Viking Fortress discovered in Denmark

The following article about Denmark's most recent archaeological find comes to us from a post in the Medievalists newsletter. Very careful detective work at a site south of Copenhagen yielded the missing medieval Viking fortress in Zeeland. Four had been found in the past, among them the famous fortress at Trelleborg. The title link will take you to the original article by the team that made the discovery if that is your preference. (Ed.)

Archaeologists from The Danish Castle Centre and Aarhus University have made a sensational discovery south of Copenhagen, Denmark. On fields at Vallø Estate, near Køge, they have discovered traces of a massive Viking fortress built with heavy timbers and earthen embankments. The perfectly circular fortress is similar to the famous so-called ‘Trelleborg’ fortresses, which were built by King Harald Bluetooth around AD 980.

Ground plan of the Fyrkat Viking fortress placed on top of the Vallø ringed fortress. The red lines show the outline of the Vallø excavation © Danish Castle Centre

“This is the first time for more than 60 years that a new Viking ringed fortress has been discovered in Denmark,” explains Nanna Holm, an archaeologist and curator at the Danish Castle Centre. Her colleague on the excavation Søren Sindbæk, who is a professor of medieval archaeology at Aarhus University, adds “”The Vikings have a reputation as berserkers and pirates. It comes as a surprise to  many that they were also capable of building magnificent fortresses. The discovery of the new Viking fortress is a unique opportunity to learn more about the battles and conflicts of the Vikings, and gives us a new chance to study the most famous of our Viking monuments.”
It was new, precise laser measurements of the landscape that led curator Nanna Holm on the trail of the fortress. An almost invisible rise in the field was shown to have a clear circular outline. Nanna Holm explains: “It is a huge monument. The fortress measures 145m from side to side. We recognize the ‘Trelleborg’ fortresses by the precise circular shape of the ramparts and by the four massive gates that are oriented at the four corners of the compass. Our investigations show that the new fortress was perfectly circular and had sturdy timber along the front; we have so far examined two gates, and they agree exactly with the ‘Trelleborg’ plan. It is a marvellous find. ”
Søren Sindbæk has researched Viking fortresses for years: “The discovery has been a piece of detective work. We suspected that one fortress was ‘missing’ on the island of Zealand. The location at Vallø was quite the right setting in the landscape: in a place where the old main roads met and reached out to Køge river valley, which in the Viking Age was a navigable fjord and one of Zealand’s best natural harbours. From there we worked our way forward step by step.”
Søren Sindbæk and Nanna Holm at the excavation site.

Together the team called in Helen Goodchild, an expert in archaeological geophysics from the University of York, England, to carry out a more detailed, non-invasive, survey of the site, prior to excavation. Søren Sindbæk explains: “By measuring small variation in the earth’s magnetism we can identify certain archaeological features without destroying anything. In this way we achieved an amazingly detailed ‘ghost image’ of the fortress in a few days. From this survey we knew exactly where we had to put in excavation trenches to get as much information as possible about the mysterious fortress. ”
Nanna Holm stresses that the fortress was a real military installation, and probably also the scene of fighting. “We can see that the gates were burned-down; in the north gate we found massive, charred oak posts.” She also puts beyond doubt that the fortress belongs to the Viking age. “fortresses constructed in this manner are only known from the Viking Age. The burned wood in the gates will make it possible to determine the age by means of radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. The samples have been sent, and we will be eager to hear the results. If we can establish exactly when the fortress was built, we may be able to understand the historic events of which the fortress was part.”
Viking fortresses are some of Denmark’s most famous monuments. They attract tourists from all over the world, and their study has repeatedly rewritten the history of Denmark. The previously excavated Trelleborg-type fortresses – Fyrkat, Aggersborg and Trelleborg – have been nominated for inscription in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites.
For Vallø Estate, which owns the fields where the fortress was discovered, it has been a surprise to learn that there is a large archaeological site on their land. Director Søren Boas keenly supports the investigations. “This is a unique monument, which will be of great cultural value for Denmark. We are very happy to support it.” Keld Møller Hansen, director of the Museum of Southeast Denmark, which includes the Danish Castle Centre, hopes that funds can be gathered for a major research project in collaboration with the University of Aarhus.
The site may prove to be an important discovery in the Viking history of Denmark, says Nanna Holm. “We can’t wait to find out whether the fortress dates back to the time of Harald Bluetooth, or whether it was built by a previous king. A military fortification from the Viking Age may shed more light on the links between Zealand, ancient Denmark and the Jelling dynasty – as well as teaching us more about the period during which Denmark became Denmark,”
So far, only a small part of the fortress has been excavated. The list of unresolved issues is long, says Søren Sindbæk. “This is really exciting. A find like this does not happen many times in his life-time. The excavation has confirmed far more than we dared hope, but there is much more to learn. The next big question is  whether there were large buildings inside the castle, as there are in the known Trelleborg fortresses. The  find also raises the question as to whether there will be more new Viking fortresses to discover. The exploration will be a wonderful journey of discovery. ”
Sources: Aarhus University, Danish Castle Centre

12 September 2014

Danish Viking Ship Museum's Sea Stallion of Glendalough

I was unable to find any recent posts, for 2014, on this beautiful 98' Viking ship reconstruction; perhaps you will have better luck should you undertake the quest.
I have other past posts - here's one - on this vessel if you'd care to check over the blog list. For those of us interested in all things having to do with the medieval Vikings, in my case the Greenland Vikings specifically, the quest continues for new or updated material. As you know, field work can only occur during the summer when digging on an archaeological site in the north lands of the Viking is possible.
The link that follows this message will take you to the Viking Ship Museum's site - a video - on Sea Stallion and the many other ships and boats that their boatyard has constructed. You may find the process of construction very interesting as no modern tools tools were used to build Sea Stallion and the old methods were used throughout.
Another issue worthy of note: the museum states that they hope their work with these magnificent ships can continue. As you might imagine, keeping the crews interest up in the yearly sailing excursions to show the flag and the ships is very expensive. Without donations this work will not continue. (Ed.)



05 September 2014

The Viking Ship, Draken Harald Hårfagre

I will take it that you are interested in Vikings or you would not be here. Over the next two posts I will feature two fabulous contemporary Viking ships, one built in Norway and the other built in Denmark.
This post features the Norwegian ship, Draken Harald Hårfagre (Dragon Harald Fairhair), named for Norway’s first King, Harald Fairhair. At 115’ and some 70-tons of beautifully fashioned oak, she is the largest dragon ship built to date. Some have stated that she is capable of 21-knots; an excellent turn of speed. But regardless, she is a magnificent sight under sail. You also won't want to miss the Photo Collage if you've come this far. The photos and the YouTube video following this paragraph will give you an appreciation for the scale of the project and the consummate skill of the ship builders.
In the next blog I’ll feature the Danish ship, Sea Stallion, a modern reconstruction of an actual 98’ Viking long ship constructed in Ireland in the 11th-century. (Ed.)

The lower hull takes shape

Lower hull planking

Draken under sail

Draken - 50 oars pulled by 100-men 

Man - collage of photos of the island

My friend Steve Callus, a resident of the Isle of Man, took the next five photos of the Draken in Peel Harbor, Man, during the ship’s recent visit to that beautiful island in the Irish Sea.

Forward of the mast

Looks like a halyard winch

Aft of amidships


Draken figurehead atop the stem

02 September 2014

More on the Greenland Viking's association with the Dorset natives of Baffin Island, Canada

This 2012 article from National Geographic, by Heather Pringle, Vancouver, Canada, gives us more details on the work being done by Dr. Patricia Sutherland at her archaeological dig on Baffin Island, in the Canadian Arctic. Dr. Sutherland has found irrefutable evidence that the Greenland Norse enjoyed considerably more than just a passing relationship with the Dorset Culture more than 1000-years ago. Her work continues each summer and she feels that there is much left to discover on the site. Of course her efforts have met with skepticism and disbelief from her colleagues - no surprise there - because much of their opinions stated in numerous papers and books in the past would need to be retracted when Dr. Sutherland's theories are proven to be correct as her work continues. (Ed.)

Following a subtle trail of artifacts, a Canadian archaeologist searches for a lost chapter of New World history.
By Heather Pringle
Photographs by David Coventry
November 12, 2012
Something about the strange strands didn’t fit. Patricia Sutherland spotted it right away: the weird fuzziness of them, so soft to the touch.
The strands of cordage came from an abandoned settlement at the northern tip of Canada’s Baffin Island, far above the Arctic Circle and north of Hudson Bay. There indigenous hunters had warmed themselves by seal-oil lamps some 700 years ago. In the 1980s a Roman Catholic missionary had also puzzled over the soft strands after digging hundreds of delicate objects from the same ruins. Made of short hairs plucked from the pelt of an arctic hare, the cordage bore little resemblance to the sinew that Arctic hunters twisted into string. How did it come to be here? The answer eluded the old priest, so he boxed up the strands with the rest of his finds and delivered them to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.
Years passed. Then one day in 1999 Sutherland, an Arctic archaeologist at the museum, slipped the strands under a microscope and saw that someone had spun the short hairs into soft yarn. The prehistoric people of Baffin Island, however, were neither spinners nor weavers; they stitched their clothing from skins and furs. So where could this spun yarn have come from? Sutherland had an inkling. Years earlier, while helping to excavate a Viking farmhouse in Greenland, she had seen colleagues dig bits of similar yarn from the floor of a weaving room. She promptly got on the phone to an archaeologist in Denmark. Weeks later an expert on Viking textiles informed her that the Canadian strands were dead ringers for yarn made by Norse women in Greenland. “That stopped me in my tracks,” Sutherland recalls.
The discovery raised tantalizing questions that came to haunt Sutherland and drive more than a decade of dogged scientific sleuthing. Had a Norse party landed on the remote Baffin Island coast and made friendly contact with its native hunters? Did the yarn represent a key to a long lost chapter of New World history?
Viking seafarers were the explorers par excellence of medieval Europe. Crafting sturdy wooden sailing ships that inspire awe even today, they set sail from their Scandinavian homeland hungering for land, gold, and treasure. Some voyaged west to what is now Scotland, England, and Ireland in the eighth century, bringing death by the sword in raids immortalized in medieval manuscripts. Many turned to foreign commerce. As early as the ninth century Viking merchants nudged eastward along the shores of the White and Black Seas and navigated the shoals of eastern European rivers. They founded cities on major Eurasian trade routes and bartered for the finest wares from the Old World—glassware from the Rhine Valley, silver from the Middle East, shells from the Red Sea, silk from China.
The most adventurous set their courses far west, into the treacherous fogbound waters of the North Atlantic. In Iceland and Greenland, Viking colonists carved out farming settlements and filled storehouses with Arctic luxuries destined for European markets, from walrus ivory to spiraling narwhal tusks that were sold as unicorn horns. Some chieftains, fearless in the face of the unknown, pressed farther west, navigating through iceberg-strewn waters to the Americas.
Sometime between A.D. 989 and 1020, Viking seafarers—perhaps as many as 90 men and women in all—landed on a Newfoundland shore and raised three sturdy halls and an assortment of sod huts for weaving, ironworking, and ship repair. In the 1960s a Norwegian adventurer, Helge Ingstad, and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered and excavated the overgrown ruins of this ancient base camp at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. Later, Canadian archaeologists found iron ship rivets and other artifacts from what appeared to be a Viking shipwreck off the coast of Ellesmere Island. But in the years that followed, few other traces of the Vikings’ legendary exploration of the New World came to light—that is, until Patricia Sutherland came along.
In the soft morning light on Baffin Island, Sutherland and her field crew wind single file down a rocky footpath into a green hollow known as Tanfield Valley. The high wind of the previous evening has died, and the heavy clouds have cleared, leaving blue sky along the rugged coast that Viking seafarers once called Helluland—“stone slab land.” Long before the Vikings arrived, the area’s ancient inhabitants built a settlement here, at a site known today as Nanook.
As Sutherland clambers down the hill, she scans the shoreline warily for polar bears. 

Donny Pitseolac watches for polar Bears

The coast is clear this morning, and as she crosses between two freshwater ponds, she marvels aloud at the valley’s thick, spongy moss. “It’s full of greenery, full of turf for making buildings,” she says. “It’s the greenest valley in the area.”
Sutherland, now a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, smiles at the perfection of it all. Below us lies a protected cove, a natural harbor for an oceangoing Viking ship. Along some boggy patches in the valley, an oily-looking microbial slick suggests the presence of bog iron, the ore that Viking smiths worked expertly. But as Sutherland scrambles up a small rise to the excavation, her high spirits evaporate. Eight inches of muddy water from the previous night’s storm flood the pits. Draining them will require hours of bucket brigades and pumping. “We’re running out of time here,” she snaps.
With her silver-gray curls, girlish voice, and diminutive five-foot-nothing frame, Sutherland seems an unlikely expedition leader. But the 63-year-old archaeologist is a rolling storm in camp. She is the first up each morning and the last to crawl into a sleeping bag at night. In between she seems to be everywhere—flipping pancakes, making lunches for Inuit elders, checking the camp’s electric bear fence. She makes nearly every decision, whether large or small. Just three months earlier she underwent major shoulder surgery; after four weeks of excavation her left arm is so swollen that she tucks it into a sling.
But Sutherland is nothing if not determined. In 1999 the discovery of the yarn sent her back to the storage rooms at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. She began scrutinizing artifacts that other archaeologists had dug from sites of Arctic hunters known today as the Dorset, who ranged the eastern Arctic coast for nearly 2,000 years until their mysterious disappearance in the late 14th century.

Antler carving, European and indigenous Dorset

Poring over hundreds of presumably Dorset artifacts, often under a microscope, Sutherland discovered more pieces of spun yarn that had come from four major sites—Nunguvik, Tanfield Valley, Willows Island, and the Avayalik Islands—scattered along a thousand miles of coastline, from northern Baffin Island to northern Labrador. Sutherland also noticed something decidedly odd about the collections from these sites. Teams working there had turned up numerous pieces of wood, despite the fact that the landscape is treeless tundra. To Sutherland’s astonishment, she discovered fragments of what seemed to be tally sticks, used by Vikings for recording trade transactions, and spindles, which might have been for spinning fibers. She also noted scraps of wood with square nail holes and possibly iron stains. One was radiocarbon-dated to the 14th century, toward the end of the Norse era in Greenland.
The more Sutherland sifted through the old Dorset collections, the more evidence she found that Vikings had come to these shores. While examining the stone tools, she discovered nearly 30 traditional Norse whetstones, standard gear for Viking men and women. She also found several Dorset carvings of what looked to be European faces, with long noses, prominent eyebrows, and possibly beards.
All these artifacts pointed strongly to friendly contact between Dorset hunters and Viking seafarers. But to gather more clues, Sutherland needed to excavate, and Tanfield Valley seemed the most promising of the four sites. In the 1960s American archaeologist Moreau Maxwell had dug part of a peculiar stone-and-turf structure there. The ruins, he later wrote, were “very difficult to interpret,” but he finally concluded that wandering Dorset hunters had built some sort of house there. Sitting in her office, surrounded by trays of Viking artifacts, Sutherland found that hard to believe. The Dorset had built snug homes the size of an average modern bedroom. The house in Tanfield Valley, one wall of which measured more than 40 feet long, would have been much, much larger.

Evidence of Viking outpost found?

On a cold Arctic afternoon Sutherland hunches over a square of earth inside the mysterious stone ruins. With the tip of her trowel she loosens a small piece of whale bone. Lifting the piece free, she brushes away the dirt, revealing two drill holes. The Dorset had no drills—they made holes by gouging—but Viking carpenters stowed augers in their tool chests, and they often drilled holes for wooden dowels used to fasten pieces of wood together.

Sutherland slips the find into a plastic bag. Earlier archaeologists, she explains, excavated extensively in the ruins, so she and her colleagues must work like forensic investigators, searching for minute, overlooked clues that could shed light on Tanfield Valley’s occupants. In sediments taken from inside the walls, for example, Sutherland spied several tiny pelt fragments. Expert analysis later revealed that they belonged to an Old World rat species, most probably the black rat, which must have reached the Arctic by ship.
The ruins have yielded other clues that aren’t so subtle. One team member excavated a whalebone shovel closely matching those found in Greenland’s Viking settlements. It’s “the exact size and material as the spades used to cut sod for houses,” notes Sutherland. And that makes a lot of sense. Sutherland and her colleagues found remnants of turf blocks—a material the Vikings used to build insulated walls—and a foundation made of large rocks that appear to have been cut and shaped by someone familiar with Norse stone masonry. The overall size of the structure, the type of walls, and a drainage channel lined with stones resemble features of Viking buildings in Greenland. One area still has the telltale reek of a latrine. Along the floor, a team member excavated hand-size clumps of moss, the Viking equivalent of toilet paper. “The Dorset people were never in places long enough to build a toilet structure,” says Sutherland.
But why would restless Vikings stop long enough to build on this blustery corner of Helluland? What treasures did they seek?
Toward the end of the ninth century a wealthy Viking trader arrived at the court of King Alfred the Great in England. An effusive man dressed in rich, foreign attire, Ohthere told of a long voyage he had taken to the coast of the White Sea, where northerners known as the Sami had furnished him with rare Arctic luxuries, from otter and marten furs to bushels of soft bird down. Then the Viking trader presented the king with walrus ivory that could be carved into gleaming chess pieces and other exquisite works of art.
Ohthere was not the only Viking merchant who catered to the European appetite for fine goods from the frozen north. Each spring, men from Greenland’s Western and Eastern Settlements went north to a rich coastal hunting ground known as Nordsetur. Camping along the shore, these medieval Greenlanders pursued walrus and other Arctic game, filling their boats with skins, furs, ivory, and even live polar bear cubs for trade abroad. Just two or three days west of Nordsetur, across the choppy waters of the Davis Strait, lay another, potentially richer Arctic treasure-house: Helluland. Its glacier-topped mountains loomed forbiddingly, but its icy waters teemed with walruses and narwhals, and its lands abounded with caribou and small fur-bearing animals.
The Viking seafarers who explored the North American coast a thousand years ago likely searched, as Ohthere did, for trading partners. In Newfoundland, a region they called Vinland, the newcomers met with a hostile reception. The aboriginal people there were well armed and viewed the foreigners as intruders on their land. But in Helluland small nomadic bands of Dorset hunters may have spotted an opportunity and rolled out the welcome mat. They had few weapons for fighting, but they excelled at hunting walruses and at trapping fur-bearing animals, whose soft hair could be spun into luxurious yarn. Moreover, some researchers think the Dorset relished trade. For hundreds of years they had bartered avidly with their aboriginal neighbors for copper and other rare goods. “They may have been the real entrepreneurs of the Arctic,” says Sutherland.
With little to fear from local inhabitants, Viking seafarers evidently constructed a seasonal camp in Tanfield Valley, perhaps for hunting as well as trading. The area abounded in arctic fox, and the foreigners would have had two highly desirable goods to offer Dorset hunters for their furs: spare pieces of wood that could be carved and small chunks of metal that could be sharpened into blades. Trade in furs and other luxuries seem to have flourished. Archaeological evidence suggests that some Dorset families may have prepared animal pelts while camping a short stroll away from the Viking outpost.
Thirteen years ago, when she first spotted the curious strands of cordage, Sutherland could never have envisioned a small Viking trading post standing on the coast of her beloved Arctic. But for Sutherland much work remains. Only a small fraction of Tanfield Valley has been investigated, and Sutherland’s remarkable findings—new evidence of friendly contact between Viking seafarers and aboriginal North Americans, and the discovery of what is probably the earliest European fur trade in the Americas—have stirred intense controversy among many of her colleagues. Archaeology is all about interpreting the evidence. As with the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows decades ago, the fight for acceptance will be hard and long. But Sutherland is determined to prove the doubters wrong.
She pulls the mosquito netting over her face and resumes digging. “I think there is more to dig here, absolutely,” she says with a smile. “And we are going to find much more.”
Vancouver-based Heather Pringle writes about archaeology for a variety of publications. David Coventry last photographed Panama’s golden chiefs.