25 August 2018

Why did Greenland’s Viking colonies disappear? It may have been because the trade in walrus ivory collapsed

Here's another article on what happened to the Norse on Greenland. Now even the Chinese are into the conversation.
Walrus ivory seems to be in vogue with archaeologists searching for a reason why the Vikings, or Norse if you will - they had not been Vikings for several centuries - completely disappeared from Greenland and history.

Walrus ivory was eventually replaced by elephant ivory in world trade, so it stands to reason that the hazardous voyages across the North Atlantic became unnecessary and the Greenland Norse colony went somewhere else because their main trade with their homeland collapsed; providing this theory is actually correct, because all it will ever be is a theory.
Nobody to this day knows what happened to these hardy people, who had lived and prospered on the island of Greenland for almost 500-years.

They did not return to their European homeland, they simply disappeared. Or did they?

That is the question that has vexed every archaeological researcher. Not a shred of evidence exists as to where the last of the Greenland Norse went when they left Greenland for good sometime in the early 15th or 16th century. Even the timeline is questionable because the Western Settlement, the smaller of the two known Greenland Norse settlements, was abandoned during the 13th or 14th century.

In a fictional sense, my Axe of Iron novel series addresses this enduring mystery. In my opinion those remaining went to North America to assimilate with the natives as their ancestors had been doing for centuries. Check it out on my website. My theory makes as much sense as any of the others.

Click the title link to read the article at its origin. (Ed.)

Why did Greenland’s Viking colonies disappear? It may have been because the trade in walrus ivory collapsed

At one point, the Vikings’ descendants thrived on a lucrative trade in walrus tusks, which were sold to Europe’s elite and carved into luxury items

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2018, 3:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2018, 10:07pm

For almost 500 years, the Norse descendants of Erik the Red built churches and manor homes and expanded their settlements on the icy fringes of European civilisation.

On Greenland, they had elaborate stone churches with bronze bells and stained glass, a monastery, and their own bishop. Their colonies at one time supported more than 2,000 people. And then they vanished. Scholars have long wondered why.

“Why did they flourish and why did they disappear?” asked Thomas McGovern, an anthropologist at Hunter College in New York. “And did their greatest success also contain the seeds of their demise?”

Researchers who visited museums across western Europe to assemble a rare pile of artefacts – fragments of medieval walrus skulls – reported in a study in Wednesday’s Proceedings of the Royal Society B that the fate of these medieval outposts may have been tied to the demand for walrus ivory among rich Europeans.

The study revealed that during the height of the Norse settlement – from about 1120 to 1400 – at least 80 per cent of the walrus samples were directly sourced from Greenland.

“It’s possible that almost all the walrus ivory in western Europe during the High Middle Ages came from Greenland,” said Bastiaan Star, a scientist at the University of Oslo and one of the study’s authors. “This result tells a very clear story.”

A dozen years ago, many historians believed that the changing climate of medieval Europe was the main reason Norse settlements in Greenland expanded and went extinct. This view was popularised in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse.

But evidence such as walrus bones at archaeological sites in Greenland and historical documents – including church records of tithes paid in walrus tusks – suggested another possible factor: that the Vikings’ descendants thrived on a lucrative trade in walrus tusks, which were sold to Europe’s elite and carved into luxury items, such as ivory crucifixes, knife handles, and fancy dice and chess sets.

This is the first study that conclusively shows that Greenland walrus exports obtained a near-monopoly in Europe


Archaeologists suspected that famous ivory artefacts from the Middle Ages – such as the Lewis Chessmen, a set of expressive and intricately carved statuettes from the 12th century now housed in the British Museum in London – were made from walrus tusks from Greenland. But they could not get permission to bore into these precious artefacts for genetic analysis.

James Barrett, another study author and an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, was “opening dusty boxes and poring through museum catalogues” in galleries in Norway, France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK when he realised that the tusks were often sold attached to fragments of walrus skulls – and that the bone could provide the DNA he needed. Barrett didn’t get access to the Lewis Chessmen, but his hunt produced 23 medieval artefacts for analysis, after examining hundreds of related objects.

“This is the first study that conclusively shows that Greenland walrus exports obtained a near-monopoly in Europe,” said Poul Holm, an environmental historian at Trinity College in Dublin, who was not involved in the study.

McGovern, also not part of the study, said of the research: “It’s changing the story that we’ve been telling for years.”

If walrus ivory was the key to Greenland’s medieval wealth, experts now suspect a collapsing market for the ivory may have helped doom the outposts. The Norse Greenland settlements vanished in the 1400s, sometime after life in continental Europe was badly rattled by the onset of the Black Death and the beginning of the Little Ice Age, an era of cooler climates. These calamities undermined demand for walrus ivory, said Barrett.

After “a bonanza tied to the novelty of bringing exotic products to the market” in Europe, Holm said, “the fading allure of the product locks the society in decline”.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Walruses shed light on Viking mystery

18 August 2018

Lost Norse of Greenland fueled the medieval ivory trade, ancient walrus DNA suggests

This is an interesting article published by Cambridge University on walrus ivory, or the lack of demand for same, as being a possible cause of the Norse demise on the island of Greenland. (Ed.)

This is an example of an elaborately-carved ecclesiastical walrus ivory plaque from the beginning of the medieval walrus ivory trade, featuring the figure of Christ, together with St Mary and St Peter, and believed to date from the 10th or 11th century. Found in North Elmham, Norfolk, UK, in the 19th century, and currently exhibited in the University of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 

Credit: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge 

Lost Norse of Greenland fueled the medieval ivory trade, ancient walrus DNA suggests
August 7, 2018

University of Cambridge

New DNA analysis reveals that, before their mysterious disappearance, the Norse colonies of Greenland had a 'near monopoly' on Europe's walrus ivory supply. An overreliance on this trade may have contributed to Norse Greenland's collapse when the medieval market declined.

The Icelandic Sagas tell of Erik the Red: exiled for murder in the late 10th century he fled to southwest Greenland, establishing its first Norse settlement.

The colony took root, and by the mid-12th century there were two major settlements with a population of thousands. Greenland even gained its own bishop.

By the end of the 15th century, however, the Norse of Greenland had vanished -- leaving only abandoned ruins and an enduring mystery.

Past theories as to why these communities collapsed include a change in climate and a hubristic adherence to failing farming techniques.

Some have suggested that trading commodities -- most notably walrus tusks -- with Europe may have been vital to sustaining the Greenlanders. Ornate items including crucifixes and chess pieces were fashioned from walrus ivory by craftsmen of the age. However, the source of this ivory has never been empirically established.

Now, researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Oslo have studied ancient DNA from offcuts of tusks and skulls, most found on the sites of former ivory workshops across Europe, in order to trace the origin of the animals used in the medieval trade.

In doing so they have discovered an evolutionary split in the walrus, and revealed that the Greenland colonies may have had a "near monopoly" on the supply of ivory to Western Europe for over two hundred years.

For the latest study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the research team analysed walrus samples found in several medieval trading centres -- Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Dublin, London, Schleswig and Sigtuna -- mostly dating between 900 and 1400 CE.

The DNA showed that, during the last Ice Age, the Atlantic walrus divided into two ancestral lines, which researchers term "eastern" and "western." Walruses of the eastern lineage are widespread across much of the Arctic, including Scandinavia. Those of the western, however, are unique to the waters between western Greenland and Canada.

Finds from the early years of the ivory trade were mostly from the eastern lineage. Yet as demand grew from the 12th century onwards, the research team discovered that Europe's ivory supply shifted almost exclusively to tusks from the western lineage.

They say that ivory from western linage walruses must have been supplied by the Norse Greenlanders -- by hunting and perhaps also by trade with the indigenous peoples of Arctic North America.

"The results suggest that by the 1100s Greenland had become the main supplier of walrus ivory to Western Europe -- a near monopoly even," said Dr James H. Barrett, study co-author from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

"The change in the ivory trade coincides with the flourishing of the Norse settlements on Greenland. The populations grew and elaborate churches were constructed.

"Later Icelandic accounts suggest that in the 1120s, Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure the right to their own bishopric from the king of Norway. Tusks were also used to pay tithes to the church," said Barrett.

He points out that the 11th to 13th centuries were a time of demographic and economic boom in Europe, with growing demand from urban centres and the elite served by transporting commodities from increasingly distant sources.

"The demands for luxury goods produced from ivory may have helped the far-flung Norse communities in Greenland survive for centuries," said Barrett.

Co-author Dr Sanne Boessenkool of the University of Oslo said: "We knew from the start that analysing ancient DNA would have the potential for new historical insights, but the findings proved to be particularly spectacular."

The new study tells us less about the end of the Greenland colonies, say Barrett and colleagues. However, they note that it is hard to find evidence of walrus ivory imports to Europe that date after 1400.

Elephant ivory eventually became the material of choice for Europe's artisans. "Changing tastes could have led to a decline in the walrus ivory market of the Middle Ages," said Barrett.

Ivory exports from Greenland could have stalled for other reasons: over-hunting can cause walrus populations to abandon their coastal "haulouts"; the "Little Ice Age" -- a sustained period of lower temperatures -- began in the 14th century; the Black Death ravaged Europe.

Whatever caused the cessation of Europe's trade in walrus ivory, it must have been significant for the end of the Norse Greenlanders," said Barrett. "An overreliance on a single commodity, the very thing which gave the society its initial resilience, may have also contained the seeds of its vulnerability."

The heyday of the walrus ivory trade saw the material used for exquisitely carved items during Europe's Romanesque art period. The church produced much of this, with major ivory workshops in ecclesiastical centres such as Canterbury, UK.

Ivory games were also popular. The Viking board game hnefatafl was often played with walrus ivory pieces, as was chess, with the famous Lewis chessmen among the most stunning examples of Norse carved ivory.

Tusks were exported still attached to the walrus skull and snout, which formed a neat protective package that was broken up at workshops for ivory removal. These remains allowed the study to take place, as DNA extraction from carved artefacts would be far too damaging.

Co-author Dr Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo said: "Until now, there was no quantitative data to support the story about walrus ivory from Greenland. Walruses could have been hunted in the north of Russia, and perhaps even in Arctic Norway at that time. Our research now proves beyond doubt that much of the ivory traded to Europe during the Middle Ages really did come from Greenland."

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Nansenfondet and the Research Council of Norway.

15 August 2018

An interesting National Geographic article through their SmartNews site on the difficulty faced by contemporary researchers as they attempt to separate fact from fiction. (Ed.)


Researchers test it out on a medieval epic to investigate whether the Battle of Clontarf was fought against the Vikings or was part of an Irish civil war
Battle of Clontarf, Hugh Frazer, 1826 (Wikimedia Commons)

FEBRUARY 2, 2018

In 1014, the famous high king of all Ireland and founder of the O’Brien dynasty, Brian Boru— Brian of Béal Bóraimhe Bóraimhe, near Killaloe in Co Clare —fought Viking forces that controlled Leinster and Dublin at the Battle of Clontarf. Boru’s victory finally broke the power of the Norsemen on the island and united the nation. Supposedly.

As Michael Price at Science reports, over the centuries, some historians have suggested the battle may have been fought as more of a civil war between Boru’s forces and opposing Irish factions instead, and that the Norsemen were bit players.

Now, a new study in the journal Royal Society Open uses social network analysis to weigh in on the debate and see if the battle, remembered across generations as a fight between the Vikings and the Irish, might not have been about that at all. 

According to a press release, lead author Ralph Kenna, a theoretical physicist at Coventry University and other researchers from Coventry, Oxford and Sheffield Universities conducted the social science analysis—which draws inferences based on inspecting a network of relations—on a translation of a 217-page medieval text. Called Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, or The War of the Irish with the Foreigners, it chronicles 50 years of skirmishes between the Irish and Vikings, including the climactic Battle of Clontarf.

After the researchers formulated a way to measure hostility between the 315 characters in the sprawling epic, they quantified 1,100 interactions as positive (Irish versus Irish) or negative (Irish versus Viking). Crunching the numbers, the analysis overall was negative, suggesting that the hostility was mainly between the Irish and Vikings, though the result is not clear-cut, indicating that the relationships all around were mixed.

As the researchers write in the paper, their findings do not support “clear-cut traditionalist or revisionist depictions of the Viking Age in Ireland.” Instead, they conclude, their analysis suggests “a moderate traditionalist picture of conflict which is mostly between Irish and Viking characters, but with significant amounts of hostilities between both sides as well.” 
Kenna tells Price that the team is highly aware that the source material they are drawing from may not be completely accurate. Today, there is sparse archaeological evidence from the reign of Boru and Contarf to pull from and there are no contemporary historical accounts of the battle. Additionally, researchers do not know when the Cogadh was written, and its timeline is out of whack.

The text itself is also a pretty blatant piece of propaganda against the Vikings. It’s believed the work was a way to strengthen the O’Brien clans claim to Ireland’s throne. Instead of focusing on the real battle between anti-Boru Irish in Leinster and Dublin, some historians believe it casts the battles as a noble fight to drive out the Vikings and unite Ireland.
But regardless of the intent of the book, Kenna tells Price that he thinks the relationships described in it might be more or less accurate. “There’s an art to propaganda,” he says. “You can’t falsify too much or else people won’t accept it.”

Søren Michael Sindbæk, a Viking archaeologist at Aarhus University not involved in the study, tells Price that he agrees that the analysis may be a way to cut through the layers of propaganda and get at something that might not have been consciously constructed by the author. He points out that similar analysis has been used recently in anthropology. For instance, in a recent study researchers used social network theory to compare the similarity of pottery decorations and map regional networks and discern the role played by Jefferson County Iroquoians in the 16th century.

Though we’ll likely never know exactly how the Battle of Clontarf went down, we do at least know King Boru’s fate. He was killed during the battle, either in hand-to-hand combat or when his tent was overrun by foes fleeing the battlefield. Ireland did not stay united for long after his death and soon the island fell back into regional conflict.