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.