26 December 2016

Viking Faroes: Settlement, Paleoeconomy, andChronology

Here is an interesting excerpt from Medievalists.net on a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Archaeology at Academia.edu/. 

As always I encourage the interested reader to go to the source for the whole story by clicking the title link or the link at the end of this excerpt. (Ed.)

Viking Faroes: Settlement, Paleoeconomy, andChronology

Viking Faroes: Settlement, Paleoeconomy, and Chronology
By Símun V. Arge
Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 7 (2014)

Faroe Islands – photo by Mariusz Kluzniak / Flickr
Abstract: The paper presents a synopsis of the current evidence for the settlement chronology and Viking Age to Early Medieval paleoeconomy of the Faroe Islands. Special emphasis is placed on the recent interdisciplinary research carried out in the village of Sandur, on the island of Sandoy, as part of the Heart of the Atlantic project. A particularly important outcome of this recent work has been the wide application of scientific dating methods to the early settlement remains. Recent AMS radiocarbon dates push the earliest settlement of the islands further back in time than traditionally thought, results that are of great importance because the Faroes were the first stepping-stone for the Viking diaspora west across the North Atlantic.

Introduction: The Faroe Islands are a group of some 18 islands located in the North Atlantic almost midway between Norway, Iceland, and Scotland. The islands, separated by narrow fjords and sounds, together have an area of ~1400 km2 . When the first Viking settlers arrived, they encountered a landscape characterized by grasses, sedges, and ericaceous shrubs. Woodlands—small groups of juniper and birch—seem to have been of minor importance. In other words, the landscape was rather similar to what we see today. The rugged topography of the islands restricted the settlements mainly to the coastal strips along the sounds and the fjords.

Whether these settlers came directly from the east—from a Norwegian homeland—or from the south—via northern Scotland and Ireland, as indicated by archaeological and recent genetic evidence—they brought with them a Norse or Hiberno-Norse culture, which was subsequently adapted to local conditions in the North Atlantic.

18 December 2016

Historical Oddity: The Birth of a Commonwealth in Medieval Iceland

From Medievalists.net, this excellent article by John Engle, on the ancient government of the Icelandic Althing, the oldest, continually operating form of democracy on earth. (Ed.)


By John Engle

A 19th-century depiction of the Alþingi of the Commonwealth in session at Þingvellir. (Wikipedia)
Iceland is an odd place with an odd history. Despite being ranked among the wealthiest nations today, for much of its history it was left out of the growth and development of culture and technology throughout the Medieval period. It has never been a particularly hospitable environment for human habitation. Wind-blasted, cold, and rocky, it was an island left unsettled by humans long after it was discovered.

Yet humans have always found ways to inhabit and thrive in even the most unpromising of lands, and a significant number of Norwegians set out to demonstrate that in Iceland in the closing decades of the Ninth Century CE. The impetus for these bold pioneers to abandon their ancestral homelands for this terra nullius was twofold. Firstly, the lack of arable land in Norway made even the rough Icelandic plains attractive to those who lacked property but still desired to build farms and to raise families.

Secondly, the unification of Norway and the centralization of its power structure under Harald Fairhair and his heirs led many independent spirits to chafe at the yoke of royal power. Iceland was a refuge for these early political refugees.

These early pioneers found a fairly barren, inhospitable land, but they swiftly went about making a home for themselves. In many ways the settlers succeeded in replicating life as it was on the Scandinavian mainland, with family and clan groups forming the primary centers of social life. Architectural and farming practices were successfully transplanted wholesale, if in somewhat more rustic form.

Yet the settlers failed to bring along one thing: a government. The traditional nexuses of power in the Medieval world, royal families and noble elites, staked no claim to the Icelanders. This state of affairs proved somewhat unstable, as no set rule of law resulted in feuds that cost many lives. Eventually the most respected and powerful clan leaders met to resolve these problems. As pragmatic as they were warlike, the Icelanders agreed to establish a permanent government to uphold a binding rule of law and to arbitrate disputes between individuals and families.

In 930CE this government took shape as the Althing, or assembly. It would be a sort of proto-parliament, with seats apportioned to the major families and regions. The Althing was to be a deliberative and legislative body, as well as central judiciary. No one was denied access to it by merit of birth. Vitally, this governing structure allowed the rule of law to take hold while still maintaining a decentralized social structure.

It was settled that the permanent meeting place would be in a valley within easy riding distance of the major population centers. As a quirk of history, or maybe as an auspicious sign, the particular valley chosen happens to fall directly on the dividing line of two tectonic plates. On one side is the plate carrying most of Europe. The other, to the west, holds the eastern North American continent. The Icelandic pioneers could not know that, of course, but looking back on it through history, it does have a certain synchronicity. Here, in this rugged frontier, men with little or no education had settled on a break with the only way of governing they had ever known, a break as palpable as the split in the earth dividing the Old World and the New over which they met.

While far from as representative as what modern citizens would expect from a legislative body, the Althing was a remarkable first step in the direction of parliamentary governance. The body was large enough to include many landowners, not simply the mightiest in the land. It enacted a binding law that was recognized and respected by the citizenry with a remarkable zeal. The respect for the rule of law was inculcated in Icelanders in a time when much of the rest of the world was ruled by the fiat of kings or warlords.

The difference in mindset between the Icelandic people and the Scandinavian society they left behind is perhaps best reflected in the extant legends and sagas of the two groups. Scandinavia is famous for its bloody epics detailing the exploits of mighty heroes who are celebrated for their slaying of obscene numbers of enemies and monsters. In Iceland, the sagas still have some of that blood and thunder, but the centerpieces of the stories tend to revolve more around intricate legal disputes and oratorical, rather than martial, brilliance. Njála, perhaps the most famous Icelandic saga, is replete with these legal fights as much as the traditional stories of bloodshed.

Over the centuries, despite successive foreign invaders, occupiers, and overlords seeking to quash it, the Althing and the ideals of the rule of law it represented to the early Icelanders has persisted, showing much the same resilience as the bold people who devised it. It remains the chief governing body of Iceland, though it now fits squarely in the mold of modern parliamentary democracies. In fact, it can claim to be the oldest extant parliament in the world. It is a living reminder of humans’ desire to rule themselves and to be free of arbitrary government.

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

10 December 2016

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

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

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


Published online: 20 Apr 2015

In this article

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

Introduction: was it for walrus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 December 2016

Here’s another article about archaeology stirring the pot over the disappearance of the Norse from Greenland 600-years ago, or longer. This one is from Iceland and contains a few additions to the Science Magazine article that I posted over the past two weeks, (Ed.)

BY STAFF |NOV 11 2016

HVALSEY CHURCH The ruins of a Norse church in the Eastern settlement. Hvalsey church is the location of the last written record of the Norse settlement in Greenland, a 1408 wedding. Photo/Wikipedia under a Creative Commons license

The old theory about the mysterious disappearance of the Vikings that settled Greenland in the 10th century was roughly like this: when the climate got colder the Norse did not adapt, refused to learn hunting techniques from the Inuit and eventually all ended up dead in the 15th century.

ON THE COVER Science November issue 2016.

A cover story published in the November issue of Science magazine, however, paints a fascinating and much more complex picture.
Greenland was settled by Vikings from Iceland in the 10th century, beginning with the voyage of Erik the Red from Breiðafjörður bay in west Iceland in 985. The Norse settlement was concentrated in two main settlements. The larger settlement, Eystribyggð (e: Eastern settlement) was near the southern tip of Greenland and Vestribyggð (e: Western settlement), near Nuuk, some 6-700 km (370-430 miles) to the north. A smaller Miðbyggð (e: Middle settlement), slightly north of Eystribyggð has been discovered by archaeologists, but no written records exist about this settlement. 

According to the feature in Science new excavations, over the last decade, across the North Atlantic have forced archaeologists to revise some of the long-held views. "We used to think of Norse as farmers who hunted. Now, we consider them hunters who farmed," says archeologist Thomas McGovern in the magazine.

The new findings and data suggest that “the Greenland Norse focused less on livestock and more on trade, especially in walrus ivory, and that for food they relied more on the sea than on their pastures. There's no doubt that climate stressed the colony, but the emerging narrative is not of an agricultural society short on food, but a hunting society short on labor and susceptible to catastrophes at sea and social unrest,” reports Science. 

Contrary to what was previously believed about why the Norse settled Iceland and Greenland, the new theory is that the main magnet was the hunt for ivory, not a search for new farmland. Walrus ivory was extremely valuable in medieval Europe and was used in very expensive apparel and objects like the famous Lewis chess set.

According to Science the market for Greenland walrus ivory tumbled in Europe at the same time as colder climate was making the existence much more difficult for the Norse in Greenland. Ice clogged the seas farther south and for longer each year and data show that seas became stormier in the 15th century. 

Scholars now believe that the challenge for survival drove "a constant emigration back to Iceland and Europe”, bringing the last Norse settlement in Greenland “to a close peacefully, without starvation or death by Inuit."

For the whole story read Science’s fantastic feature.

27 November 2016

Why Did Greenland's Vikings Disappear - Part II

The final half of the Science Magazine article from last week is featured on this post. (Ed.)


 By Eli KintischNov. 10, 2016 , 9:00 AM

Continued from 21 November 2016:

Three decades later here at Tasilikulooq (TA-SEE-LEAK-U-LOCK), a modern Inuit farm of green pastures flanked by lakes, a couple of McGovern's students and others are busy exploring the remains of a medium-sized farm that once housed sheep, goats, horses, and a few cows. Two graduate students in rubber overalls hose 700-yearold soil off unidentified excavated objects near a midden downhill from a collapsed house. A brown button the size of a nickel emerges on the metal sieve. "They found one more of those buttons," says archaeologist Brita Hope of the University Museum of Bergen in Norway, smiling, when word makes it back to the farmhouse the nine-member team uses as a headquarters for the month-long dig. "We could make a coat," a student jokes.
But the function of the button matters a lot less than what it's made of: walrus tooth. Several walrus face bones have also turned up at the farm, suggesting that the inhabitants hunted in the communal Disko Bay expedition, says excavation leader Konrad Smiarowski of the City University of New York in New York City. These finds and others point to ivory—a product of Greenland's environment—as a linchpin of the Norse economy.

One NABO dig in Reykjavik, for example, yielded a tusk, radiocarbon dated to about 900 C.E., which had been expertly removed from its skull, presumably with a metal tool. The find suggests that the early Icelandic Norse were "experienced in handling walrus ivory," NABO members wrote in a 2015 paper; it follows that the Greenlanders were, too. 

Although historians long assumed that the Norse settled Iceland and Greenland in search of new farmland, some researchers have recently suggested that the hunt for ivory instead drove the settlement of both islands. Walrus in Iceland were steadily extirpated after the Norse arrived there, likely hunted out by the settlers.

Greenland was a key source of walrus ivory, which was carved into luxury goods such as the famous 12th century Lewis chessmen from Scotland.
© National Museums Scotland

The high value that medieval Europe placed on walrus ivory would have provided plenty of incentive to pursue it in Greenland. Craftsmen used ivory in luxury ornaments and apparel, and in objects like the famous Lewis chess set, discovered in Scotland in 1831. In 1327, an 802-kilogram parcel of Greenland tusks was worth a small fortune—the equivalent of roughly 780 cows or 60 tons of dried fish, according to tithing records analyzed in 2010 by University of Oslo archaeologist Christian Keller. "The Norse had found a cornucopia in the North Atlantic, a marine ecosystem just teeming with walruses and other animals," says historian Holm.

They exploited it not just for ivory, but also for food, Smiarowski says as he huddles in a dimly lit side room here to review recent finds. One bag contains bones collected from a layer dating to the 1350s. A long, thin, cow bone had been split open, probably to eat the marrow. But most of the bones are marine: scraps of whale bone, jaw and skull fragments of harp seals, a bit of inner ear of a hooded seal. These two species of seal migrate north along Greenland shores in the spring, and Smiarowski thinks the Norse likely caught them with boats and nets or clubs.

In 2012, NABO researchers clinched the case that the Greenlanders ate a marine diet by analyzing human bones in Norse graveyards. Animals that live in the sea have ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes that differ from those found in terrestrial animals, and this isotopic signature is passed on to the people who eat them. The Norse bones show that as the settlement developed from the 11th to the 15th century, their diet contained ever more marine protein. Far from clinging to livestock as temperatures fell, the Norse instead managed a successful subsistence system with "flexibility and capacity to adapt," wrote the author of the 2012 paper, Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Nor were the Norse incompetent farmers, as Diamond and others have suggested. Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.

Such findings, along with the ivory evidence, have transformed ideas about Norse society, says McGovern, whose beard is now white. "You start to see old data, like the seal bones in the middens, in a new light. It's exciting to get a chance to revise your old thinking before a younger colleague can," he says. "We used to think of Norse as farmers who hunted. Now, we consider them hunters who farmed."

In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Norse crossed the stormy Atlantic to Greenland in vessels like this 9th century Viking ship found in Norway © Swannell/Aurora Photos
It was a sustainable lifestyle for hundreds of years. But in the 13th century, economics and climate began to conspire against the Norse. After 1250, a cooling climate posed multiple threats to a marine-oriented society reliant on seal and walrus. (Global average temperature fell by about a degree during the Little Ice Age, although scientists have struggled to quantify local cooling.) Even before the big chill set in, The King's Mirror describes ships lost and men who perished in ice. Historians and climatologists agree that as the cold spell continued, ice would have clogged the seas farther south and for longer each year, disrupting voyages. And concentrations of salt particles in glacier cores indicate that seas became stormier in the 15th century. Norsemen hunting migratory seals or walrus on the high seas would have been at increasing risk. The nomadic Inuit, by contrast, hunted seal native to the fjords, and rarely embarked on open-ocean hunts or journeys.

Not only did the climate disrupt trade, but the market did, too. Around 1400, the value of ivory in Europe fell as tusks from Russian walrus and African elephants flowed into the continent.

Even as surviving from marine resources became more difficult, the growing season on land shortened, and the meager pastures yielded even less. But soil and sediment analyses show that the farmers, too, tried to adapt, Simpson said, often fertilizing and watering their pastures more intensively as temperatures dropped. "We went in with the view that they were helpless in the face of climate change and they wrecked the landscape," Simpson says. Instead, he says, these "pretty good managers" actively adapted to the cooling climate. In the end, however, their best efforts fell short.

At the grand bishop's seat of Gardar, 35 kilometers away by boat from the modest farm at Tasilikulooq, grass grows around the ruins of a cathedral, the bishop's residence, and myriad other buildings probably built by stonemasons shipped in from Norway. Stone shelters here once housed more than 100 cows—a sign of power in medieval Scandinavia.

If the Greenland settlement was originally an effort to find and exploit the prized natural resource of ivory, rather than a collection of independent farmers, the society would have needed more top-down planning than archaeologists had thought, says Christian Koch Madsen of the Danish and Greenlandic National Museums in Copenhagen. His work and other research support that notion by revealing orchestrated changes in the settlement pattern as the climate worsened.

Madsen carefully radiocarbon dated organic remains like wood from the ruins of 1308 Norse farms. The dates show that Gardar, like other rich farms, was established early. But they also suggest that when the first hints of the Little Ice Age appeared around 1250, dozens of outlying farms were abandoned, and sometimes reestablished closer to the central manors. The bones in middens help explain why: As temperatures fell, people in the large farms continued to eat beef and other livestock whereas those in smaller farms turned to seal and caribou, as Diamond had suggested. To maintain their diet, Greenland's powerful had to expand labor-intensive practices like storing winter fodder and sheltering cows. He thinks that larger farms got the additional labor by establishing tenant farms.

The stresses mounted as the weather worsened, Madsen suspects. He notes that the average Norse farmer had to balance the spring- and summertime demands of his own farm with annual communal walrus and migratory seal hunts. "It was all happening at once, every year," Madsen says. Deprivation in lower societal strata "could eventually have cascaded up through the system," destabilizing large farms dependent on tithes and labor from small ones. The disrupted ivory trade, and perhaps losses at sea, couldn't have helped. The Greenland Norse simply could not hold on.

It adds up to a detailed picture that most archaeologists studying the Norse have embraced. But not everyone agrees with the entire vision. Fitzhugh of NMNH, for one, questions the reconception of the colony as an ivory-focused trading post and still thinks farming was more important. "They couldn't get enough ivory to maintain 5000 people in the Arctic," he says.
Fitzhugh does agree with Madsen and others on how the final chapter of the Greenland saga may have played out. Despite the signs of crisis at a few Western Settlement sites, those in the Eastern Settlement show no sign of a violent end. Instead, after farmhouses collapsed, remaining settlers scavenged the wood from them, suggesting a slow dwindling of population. 

The challenge for the average Greenlander to survive drove "a constant emigration" back to Iceland and Europe, Fitzhugh hypothesizes, "which could bring the Eastern [Settlement] to a close peacefully, without starvation or death by Inuit."

The NABO team hopes future grants will allow them to fill out that picture. They're eager to start new excavations in the Western Settlement, where artifacts could shed light on any contact between the Norse and Inuit, a historical possibility about which there are little hard data.

Time is running out. The Tasilikulooq excavation yielded well-preserved artifacts including wooden spoons, bowls, and a small wooden horse. But McGovern fears that its success may not be repeated. Thirty years ago most sites in the Eastern Settlement contained preserved bone, hair, feathers, and cloth. A NABO survey of 90 sites has found, however, that most organic samples "had pretty much turned to mush" as the permafrost thawed, Smiarowski says. Tasilikulooq was one of only three sites spared.

Hans Egede, the missionary, wrote that he went to Greenland 500 years ago to save its people from "eternal oblivion." Today's archaeologists fear a different oblivion—that Greenland's prehistory will be lost unless it is quickly unearthed. As pioneers who weathered climate change, the Greenland Norse may hold lessons for society today. But the very changes that make those lessons urgent could keep them from ever being fully deciphered.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Posted in: 
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal0363

21 November 2016

Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear? - Part I

This lengthy, interesting article from Science Magazine has been divided into two parts. I will post the final half of the article next week. NOTE: As always, I encourage the reader to click on the title link for the entire unabridged article.

I have a bulletin for the reader of this article - the archaeologists still do not know what happened to the Greenland Norse. This is just another theory from a group that frequently experiences problems with employment. They must continually come up with something new, otherwise, why would we need them at all?

First of all the Norse settled Greenland  in 985 AD, not 1000 CE as stated in this article. Of course, perhaps a 115-year error no longer means anything to the community of archaeologists. The author corrected the error later in his text, using the correct year for settlement as 985AD, but why use the year 1000CE at all, because it is wrong?

For those readers who might not know where CE - Current Epoch - came from, I will explain. CE is the politically correct means of denoting the age of a period in history to some in the current crop of archaeologists, so the socialists among them do not have to acknowledge the existence of God and the birth of Jesus Christ - AD - Ante Domini - Latin for Year of the Lord. I don't know what that crowd uses to denote BC - Before Christ, nor do I care.
Some left wing archaeologist, for something to do you know - that employment thing again - decided to try to change the term for the politically correct folks and other atheists. Most of the rest of us do not pay any attention  to that attempt.

But I digress - nobody will ever know what happened to the Greenland Norse, or why they abandoned their last settlement sometime in the 15th century - food scarcity, severe winter weather, nobody knows. The other two known settlements - Middle and Western - were abandoned centuries before the folks of the Eastern Settlement finally gave up and followed their compatriots south. The Mini- Ice Age, or Maunder Minimum had swept down over the North land and by the 15th century savage winters were the norm in the northern hemisphere. Since the Norse did not or could not adapt sufficiently to that onslaught to survive they had no choice but to flee while they still could.

So, take the content of this otherwise informative article with a grain a salt, because like all such articles it tries to further an agenda rather than just reporting the same old stale facts as they are currently known. A great deal of sleuthing has occurred on the various Greenland digs, and that data is very useful, but after all the data is quantified they are still left with a theory which will never be proven.

Archaeology does not know where the Norse went when they left Greenland for good. There is no documentation that they returned to Iceland or Norway. Did they even possess ships at that time capable of that arduous sea voyage across the North Atlantic? If they did have seaworthy ships the timber would have had to come from North America because Greenland never had any ship building timber of any kind, except for scattered stands of dwarf birch quickly consumed by their livestock.

One must always remember that not a single document written by the Norse Greenlandic people themselves is known to exist, so any contentions about them are just that, contentions. I challenge anybody who thinks otherwise to produce one shred of original Greenland Norse documentation.

As I have postulated in my Axe of Iron historical fiction novel series, I think they all went to North America, and they had been doing so for the entire 500-year history of their Greenland settlements. And, why not? North America was close to Greenland and they already knew all about it from a 500-year association. Archaeology may never admit to this theory, but it makes a great deal of sense, given that the Norse people of Greenland eventually had little to no association with Europe when they finally disappeared(Ed.)


Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear?
By Eli KintischNov. 10, 2016 , 9:00 AM

In 1721, missionary Hans Egede sailed a ship called The Hope from Norway to Greenland, seeking Norse farmers whom Europeans hadn't heard from in 200 years in order to convert them to Protestantism. He explored iceberg-dotted fjords that gave way to gentle valleys, and silver lakes that shimmered below the massive ice cap. But when he asked the Inuit hunters he met about the Norse, they showed him crumbling stone church walls: the only remnants of 500 years of occupation. "What has been the fate of so many human beings, so long cut off from all intercourse with the more civilized world?" Egede wrote in an account of the journey. "Were they destroyed by an invasion of the natives … [or] perished by the inclemency of the climate, and the sterility of the soil?"

Archaeologists still wonder today. No chapter of Arctic history is more mysterious than the disappearance of these Norse settlements sometime in the 15th century. Theories for the colony's failure have included everything from sinister Basque pirates to the Black Plague. But historians have usually pinned most responsibility on the Norse themselves, arguing that they failed to adapt to a changing climate. The Norse settled Greenland from Iceland during a warm period around 1000 C.E. But even as a chilly era called the Little Ice Age set in, the story goes, they clung to raising livestock and church-building while squandering natural resources like soil and timber. Meanwhile, the seal-hunting, whale-eating Inuit survived in the very same environment.

Over the last decade, however, new excavations across the North Atlantic have forced archaeologists to revise some of these long-held views. An international research collective called the North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation (NABO) has accumulated precise new data on ancient settlement patterns, diet, and landscape. The findings suggest that the Greenland Norse focused less on livestock and more on trade, especially in walrus ivory, and that for food they relied more on the sea than on their pastures. There's no doubt that climate stressed the colony, but the emerging narrative is not of an agricultural society short on food, but a hunting society short on labor and susceptible to catastrophes at sea and social unrest.

The Arctic Frontier

Norse colonists established settlements in southern Greenland, often siting their farmsteads on fjords.
(Map) J. You/Science; (Data) NABO and C. Madsen

Historian Poul Holm of Trinity College in Dublin lauds the new picture, which reveals that the Greenland Norse were "not a civilization stuck in their ways." To NABO archaeologist George Hambrecht of the University of Maryland in College Park, "The new story is that they adapted but they failed anyway."

Ironically, just as this new picture is emerging, climate change once again threatens Norse settlements—or what's left of them. Organic artifacts like clothing and animal bones, preserved for centuries in the deep freeze of the permafrost, are decaying rapidly as rising temperatures thaw the soil. "It's horrifying. Just at the time we can do something with all this data, it is disappearing under our feet," Holm says.

In 1976, a bushy-bearded Thomas McGovern, then 26, arrived for the first time on the grassy shore of a fjord in southern Greenland, eager to begin work on his Ph.D. in archaeology. The basic Norse timeline had already been established. In the ninth century, the advances in seafaring technology that enabled Scandinavian Vikings to raid northern and central Europe also opened the way for the Norse, as they came to be known in their later, peaceful incarnations, to journey west to Iceland. If the unreliable Icelandic Sagas, written centuries later, are to be believed, an enterprising Icelander named Erik the Red led several ships to Greenland around 985 C.E. The Norse eventually established two settlements, with hundreds of farms and more than 3000 settlers at their peak. But by 1400, the settlement on the island's western coast had been abandoned, according to radiocarbon dates, and by 1450 the inhabitants in the Eastern Settlement on the island's southern tip were gone as well.

Data gathered in the 1980s by McGovern and others suggested that the colonies were doomed by "fatal Norse conservatism in the face of fluctuating resources," as McGovern, now at Hunter College in New York City, wrote at the time. The Norse considered themselves farmers, he and others thought, tending hay fields despite the short growing season and bringing dairy cows and sheep from Iceland. A 13th century Norwegian royal treatise called The King's Mirror lauds Greenland's suitability for farming: The sun has "sufficient strength, where the ground is free from ice, to warm the soil so that the earth yields good and fragrant grass."

Timeline: Fighting the big chill

Environmental data show that Greenland's climate worsened during the Norse colonization. In response, the Norse turned from their struggling farms to the sea for food before finally abandoning their settlements.

Environmental data show that Greenland's climate worsened during the Norse colonization. In response, the Norse turned from their struggling farms to the sea for food before finally abandoning their settlements.

1450 Eastern Settlement ends.

900 1000 1100 1200 1300 1400 1500


Winter temperatures dropped below the long-term average by more than a degree halfway through the 5-century occupation, according to oxygen isotope data in cores taken from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

1°CLong-term average-1°C


Measurements of salt particles in ice cores suggest that storminess rose toward the end of the occupation, perhaps making voyages to hunt and trade walrus ivory even more dangerous.


Proportion of marine food in diet

As conditions for farming worsened, the Norse shifted to a more marine diet, as shown by carbon isotopes in bones found in archaeological sites in the Eastern and Western settlements.

J. You/ Science; Data:“Climatic signals in multiple highly resolved stable isotope records from Greenland,” Vinther et al, 3 November 2009; “Norse Greenland settlement,” Dugmore et al., 2007; “Human diet and subsistence patterns in Norse Greenland AD c.980–AD c.1450,” Arneborg et al. 2012

Bone samples suggest that even small farms kept a cow or two, a sign of status back in Norway, and written records mention dairy products including cheese, milk, and a yogurt called skyr as essential parts of the diet. "There were no activities more central to Norse identity than farming," archaeologist William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C., wrote in 2000.
Geographer Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, popularized this view in his 2005 bestseller, Collapse. The Norse "damaged their environment" as they had done in Iceland, Diamond asserted, based on analyses of dust that suggested erosion caused by felling trees, agriculture, and turf cutting. While foolishly building churches with costly bronze bells, Diamond said, Greenland's Norse "refused to learn" Arctic hunting techniques from the Inuit, who hunted seals and fish year-round. He noted grisly evidence of calamity at a few sites in the Western Settlement: bones of pet dogs with cut marks on them, suggesting hunger; and the remains of insects that feast on corpses, suggesting too few survivors to bury their loved ones. "Every one of [the Norse] ended up dead," Diamond said in 2008.

This narrative held sway for years. Yet McGovern and others had found hints back in the 1980s that the Norse didn't entirely ignore Greenland's unique ecology. Even Diamond had noted that bones of seals comprised 60% to 80% of the bones from trash heaps, called middens, found at small Norse farms. (He believed, though, that only the poorer settlers ate seal meat.) Written sources reported that the Norse routinely rowed up to 1500 kilometers to walrus migratory grounds near Disko Bay in western Greenland. They returned with countless walrus snouts, whose ivory tusks they removed and prepared for trade with Europe. The Norse paid tithe to the Norwegian king and to the Catholic Church in ivory, and traded it with European merchants for supplies like iron, boat parts, and wood. But McGovern dismissed the walrus hunt as "a curious adjunct," he recalls, echoing the scholarly consensus that farming was central.

End of Part I. Part II to be continued next week...

12 November 2016

Viking Torksey

As a follow-on to my previous post calling attention to the archaeological recovery of 'The Winter Camp of the Great Viking Army at Torksey,' you might find the following short article interesting. It comes to us from the University of York, Department of Archaeology.

Torksey is a small village in the West Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, eastern England. The site of the encampment may cover as much as 50 hectares (123.5 acres), and is believed to be the largest Viking camp ever discovered in the UK. The excavation work will take years of effort and a great deal of money to accomplish.

This is not just a winter camp of heathen Viking raiders, they brought their women and children. Obviously, they came to settle the land, and they did just that, as history has shown. 

I encourage interested readers to click on the links below the article's title for a comprehensive look at the reports of those who worked hard to bring this information to light. 

The Media link features two videos that are most engaging.

If you like reading about the Vikings, check out my three historical fiction Axe of Iron novels on the Greenland Vikings and their assimilation with the pre-historical Indians of Canada (Ed.)


Torksey is widely known as a Viking winter camp from an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for AD872. A growing body of archaeological evidence offers the potential of placing the site in its broader chronological and spatial context. Previous work has focussed on the pottery industry associated with an Anglo-Scandinavian town or burh.

Recent metal detector finds have also suggested Torksey may be an Anglo-Saxon ‘productive site’, implying that Viking occupation must be seen in the context of pre-existing Saxon inhabitation. ‎‎ 

The aim of the project is to understand the role and significance of Torksey by plotting the chronological and spatial development of the various centres of activity, which have been tentatively identified through metal detecting.  These include a putative Anglo-Saxon riverine ‘beach market’, the Viking winter encampment and wider trading site, the Anglo-Scandinavian burh and the Torksey ware kilns.

The project has major implications for wider understanding of the Viking Great Army and its interaction with local populations, the development of Anglo-Saxon burhs, and the evolving nature of trade and industry in the early medieval period, and its connections with power and ideology.

Funding has been provided by the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Robert Kiln Trust.