25 March 2017

The Viking Slave Trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

98' Sea Stallion, built Roskilde, Denmark

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

18 March 2017

Why Did Greenland's Vikings Vanish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


MARCH 2017

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

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

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

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

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

They vanished from history.

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

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

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

So what happened to them?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 March 2017

Canadian Review of Assimilation, An Axe of Iron Novel

Featured this week is a very good review of the final novel in the Axe of Iron series by Tracy Roberts of Write Field Services, on Nova Scotia, Canada.

Canadian reviews are especially important to me since the entire tale of the Greenland Vikings in pre-historical North America, takes place in the region that will become Canada. (Ed.)


From the Desk of                                           BOX 714
Write Field Services                                      Lunenburg, Nova Scotia B0J 2C0 Canada                                 


           Assimilation: An Axe of Iron Novel
           by J.A. Hunsinger

Assimilation : An Axe of Iron Novel' is J.A. Hunsinger's third and final novel in his Axe of Iron novel series about the Norse people and their adventures as settlers in the new world. The Viking tale takes place about 1000 years ago in the settlement of Halfdansfjord and surrounding areas, located along the coast of North America on the east coast of James Bay, at the south end of Hudson Bay.

Hunsinger continues with the adventures of Norsemen explorers Halfdan Ingolfsson and Gudbjartur Einarsson, and their families, as well as the native tribes the Naskapi (Cree), Anishinabeg (Ojibwa), and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). As historical fiction, Assimilation  presents a possible scenario about what may happened to the Norse people and their settlements during this period.

Assimilation delivers a more in-depth story of the native tribes and their impact on the Norse people and their settlements.  Readers experience the conflicts, relationships, and integration of the settlers and the native peoples. Gudbjartur, once a prisoner of the Naskapi tribe, has forged an important friendship with them while living among them and adhering to their customs and practices. He goes by the name of Nipishish, meaning Axeman.  Halfdan is the Chieftain of the Norse settlement, Halfdansfjord, where he is tasked with overseeing life at the settlement and trying to thwart an impending threat to the settlers and the settlement itself.

Friendships develop between settlers and Naskapi and some of the native tribes fully accept the Norse people. There is an integration of the Norse people with these tribes, particularly settlers like Gudbjartur and Ingerds son, Ivar Gudbjartarsson, who chose to stay with his adopted Haudenosaunee  parents rather than return to his own Norse people. Readers experience native life, including their customs, rituals,  practices, hunting methods, cooking methods, battle tactics, and how the Norse living among them adapted.

Along with forged friendships with the Naskapi and changing and adapting to new circumstances, the major conflict in the story which presents a possible scenario about what may have happened to the Norse people, is the Anishinabeg tribes declaration of War with the settlers and their determination to destroy Halfdansfjord.

Hunsinger presents an adventure rich in historical detail, with careful attention paid to customs and practices of both the Norse settlers and the Native tribes. The struggles and threats to the Norse people highlight the difficulties of maintaining a settlement. The impact of loss is a major theme as well as obsessive, brutal revenge that destroys ones humanity as the result of a traumatic loss. 

Hunsinger delivers a tale filled with action and adventure giving readers a fascinating look at life of the Norse and native tribes about 1000 years ago. Assimilation: An Axe of Iron Novel' is well worth reading, particularly for those who love historical fiction.

Tracy Roberts, Write Field Services

23 October 2016

01 March 2017

Assimilation is your best

I recently received this book review from a reader in Sweden, so I though I'd share it with my readers of this blog. It is an excellent assessment of the last novel of my Axe of Iron series, Assimilation.

The text was edited to protect the reviewer; however, her content has not been altered. (Ed.)


Assimilation is your best

I have finished reading your book. It is your best.

I am impressed with it, very impressed. It reveals once more your deep knowledge of northern archaeology and customs but it is Death Wind that stays in mind. When I read it the first time I laid down the book and didn't touch it for two days, out of fright. My heart beat and I had to calm down. Actually, some of your favourite expressions now enter my mind. 
            "He stood still for a heartbeat." (15)
            "---for a couple of heartbeats" (90)

Death wind touched my heart. Your description of obsession accompanied by the magic of the soothing and frightening nature is masterly. The composition is more dramatic than I noticed in the first two volumes. You succeed at composing thrill, building up the story with cliff hangers, cutting off near the top of the thrill, only to return to it a few sections later.
Sublime moments are balanced against horror scenes, eating raw hearts for example. 

The atmosphere of magic lies like a sweeping cloud in and on everything, nature, thought,  relationships, feelings and it is described with all the five senses.  People hear howls, shrills and whinings and feel them on their skins. They absorb smells of food, smoke, breaths and nature and they are gluttons. They have omens, they know beforehand, they guess, they fear. They know how to hide. Magic is everywhere. Just one example:  
  "his presence had left an imprint on the soul of the young Haudeno warrior that he would never forget. He felt that something was watching him."

At the base there is love, hate and revenge. The love between Nipishish and Ingerd is perhaps not described as burning hot, rather true and everlasting. It is absurd that it should turn Nipishish into  a killing monster but revenge is human and absurdities and complexities are human too and moreover,  they make good stories.

Love has many facets. You describe it between mother and son, father and son. It lies behind the sacrifice of a son and the sparing of a father.  There are also stepfathers and adopted sons, parallel stories, with a twist.  It is easy for me to use the word "theme" as if it was all conjured up. It isn't. Assimilation could have taken place just like you describe

The love between Nipishish and the wolf, master and animal,  for example, may seem romantic but I am sure that it could have happened just like you described. It fits into this pattern of parallelism and has like mother, father and son, antique patterns, for instance Ulysses’ faithful dog, the story about a lion that spares the man who once helped him.

Your vocabulary is enormous with interesting choice of words.  I have always had the feeling that verbs of movement increase the tension and thrill, and you do use them. Just an example:
touched, crept forward, inched forward, slithered forward (349 ff)
"---the wolf angled toward where the man knelt on the lakeshore."         (363)
A French word is "---to reconnoiter with the Haudeno village for the presence of Ivar" (19)

 Here are some Norse ones that I recognize.
"---one of the females will whelp soon” Compare Sw.   infinivite  valpa, noun sing en valp, plur valpar  (36)
"---the big dog's snout".  Sw. sing en snut (37)
"---a demented troll"  Sw. sing  ett troll (67)
"--- they drug her along   Sw. past tense drog,  infinitive draga (267)
"---to find where they had lost his spoor. Sw. ett spår (350)
Overwhelming are all the words that have to do with the processes of work among the Indians and the Vikings.

The introduction of the inner monologue in the cursive is new in this third book. It has to do with both language and composition is and makes the characters sly and calculating.

Negative points of view: There are not many. Since I read the first two books a few years ago, I had forgotten about the names, so a table of names would have helped. At times I missed voice of the wise and omniscient narrator.  In Death Wind it is more vitally present than in the preceding chapters.

The book and especially Death wind is written with such youthful energy that I suspect it was conceived and existed in various stages of completion long before 2016.  If not, you are as vital as a teenager. I look forward to hearing about the genesis and stages of the book.

Tonight there will be a TV program called Vikings in Canada with Pat Sutherland. I have seen it once and am going to do it again.  What do you think about her research and findings? According to her the Vikings were great traders and trade is what you mention trade in your books as well.  I remember she showed a little bit of a pair of scales as a proof that the Vikings were tradesmen. Scales have been found in Viking graves in Russia and it has been contended that it was the women who used them.  

Thank you for publishing this book.

Sonja Bostrom
Gavle, Sweden

5 February 2017