For the first time in over a thousand years, archeologists have laid eyes on the ancient Roman town of Ucetia, which is decked out with some surprisingly well-preserved mosaics.
The discovery by the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) was made near modern-day Uzès in the south of France during the construction of a school. The 4,000-square-meter (43,056-square-foot) site contains artifacts ranging from the Roman Republic era (1st century BCE) to the late antiquity (7th century), right through to the Middle Ages.
The town’s existence was first hinted at when researchers found an inscription saying Ucetia on a stone slab in nearby Nîmes. A few isolated fragments and mosaic pieces suggested the site of the mysterious Roman town, but it remained hidden until INRAP started to dig beneath the surface.
“Prior to our work, we knew that there had been a Roman city called Ucetia only because its name was mentioned on stela [inscripted stone slab] in Nimes, alongside 11 other names of Roman towns in the area,” Philippe Cayn of INRAP told IBTimes.
One of the main findings was a 250-square-meter (2,690-square-foot) area that the researchers believe was a public building, based on the fact it was once lined with grand columns. This building also features two large multi-colored mosaics with patterns, symbols, and animals, including an owl, duck, eagle, and fawn. Preliminary research says this building stood strong until the end of the 1st century CE.
Cayn added: “This kind of elaborate mosaic pavement is often found in the Roman world in the 1st and 2nd centuries, but this one dates back to about 200 years before that, so this is surprising.”
Another important discovery was a 500-square-meter (5,381-square-foot) urban dwelling, which contains mosaic decorations of geometrical patterns and dolphins. This building also contains several large dolia, large wine vessels, that suggests wine was produced here.
The archeologists believe there is still a lot of work to do and hope to continue their research on the site over the coming years. The site will be part of a peer-reviewed study once all the necessary groundwork is done and dusted.
Researchers investigating a 14th century burial ground have identified a rare case of “coffin birth” – a gruesome phenomenon in which a deceased pregnant woman’s fetus is expelled within the grave.
The remains of a mother and fetus were buried alongside those of two other children in the early days of the Black Death in Italy, however researchers cannot say for certain that they died of the plague [Credit: Fabrizio Benente (Universita di Genova – DAFIST)]
The event, which has seldom been reported in archaeology, is known as postmortem fetal extrusion. It results from a build-up of gas pressure within the decomposing body.
“In this case, we have a partial expulsion of a 38- to 40-week-old fetus, which was found to be complete and to lie within the birth canal,” Deneb Cesana, at the University of Genova, told Seeker.
The remains of the woman and her unborn baby were originally uncovered in 2006, interred with two other young individuals that scientists say were aged 12 and three years old. Only recently has the discovery been fully investigated.
The research was led by Cesana and her colleagues Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a plague historian at the University of Oslo, and Raffaella Bianucci, a bioanthropologist at the University of Warwick in England. Their work appears in the journal Anthropological Science.
The gravesite was found in the cemetery of the “ospitale” (hostel) of San Nicolao di Pietra Colice, located some 45 miles from Genova.
The hostel, which also housed a church, was situated in the Northern Apennines at about 2,600 feet above sea level, and was used as a resting place by travelers and pilgrims heading to Rome and trekking along the two major transit routes of the Liguria region.
“The woman was found laying slightly on her side, while on her left there were two young individuals of unknown sex,” said archaeologist Fabrizio Benente, of the University of Genova.
Benente, who was not involved in the anthropological study, directed the excavation campaign with a team of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and the University of Genova.
“This was the only multiple burial found at the cemetery,” he said. “The others were all single graves.”
(a) Skeleton of the adult female (b) Skeleton of the 12-year-old sub-adult (c) Skeleton of the 3-year-old sub-adult (d) Skeleton of the 38–40-week-old fetus [Credit: Cesana, D., Benedictow, O.J., & R. Bianucci]
He added that the corpses had been buried simultaneously and directly into the soil, and dated the burial to the second half of the 14th century.
The timing corresponded to the arrival of the Black Death in Genoa in 1348. The researchers hypothesized that the woman and the two children likely died of the bubonic plague.
Bianucci’s analysis confirmed that three of the four individuals – the woman, the fetus, and the 12-year-old child – tested positive for the F1 antigen of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague.
“This is the first evidence of Y. pestis infection in 14th-century Liguria,” Bianucci said.
“Our finding supports the notion that the contagion, which had originally started from Genoa’s port area, progressively spread and disseminated through the main communication routes,” she added.
Anthropological investigations carried out and funded by the Archaeological Museum of Sestri Levante and the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria showed that the woman, who was about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was between 30 and 39 years old when she died.
It emerged that she had several ailments during her life. Her teeth revealed localized periodontitis and linear enamel hypoplasia – a band-like dental defect that denotes childhood physiological stress – while her bones showed evidence of other diseases.
The woman also suffered from congenital hip dysplasia and was likely affected by Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, a childhood condition that affects the hip, resulting in a permanent deformity of the head of the thigh bone (femur). She likely walked with a limp.
The skeleton of the 12-year-old showed signs of lesions that were possibly linked to metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. The 3-year-old child had no evidence of disease.
The researchers have not yet conducted DNA analysis that will determine the sex of the children and whether they have a relationship with the pregnant woman.
According to Benente, it is possible that they were her children. He believes that they ended up in the mountains, far from the villages, because the hostel of San Nicolao might have worked as a lazaretto, a hospital for people afflicted with contagious diseases.
“She was in advanced pregnancy and limping,” Benente said. “This wasn’t the best condition to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with two kids.”
According to the authors of the study, every conclusion is premature before DNA tests and further research are carried out.
“At the moment we can really only say that the skeleton of this unfortunate and frail woman is providing us with a new case of coffin birth,” Bianucci said, “which adds to the limited number reported so far.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
The skeletons of plague victims, a Tudor bowling ball and medieval ice skates fashioned from animal bones are among hundreds of artefacts on display at a new exhibition showcasing the most interesting finds made during the Crossrail excavations.
What’s been unearthed undoubtedly offers a fascinating insight into London life over the centuries – but what will be the archaeological legacy of what is Europe’s largest infrastructure project?
Tens of thousands of artefacts have been dug up during work to create the 42km (26-mile) Elizabeth Line, which runs from the east to the west of the capital.
With careful planning, 20 sites were excavated by archaeologists at locations where ventilation shafts were put in, where railways entered tunnels and where new ticket halls were to be built.
“We’ve managed to take a slice down through London but also across London,” said Jackie Keily, the curator of the exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.
One of Ms Keily’s favourite exhibits is a bowling ball discovered at the site of a Tudor manor house in Stepney Green.
“It’s amazing it survived,” she said.
“It had been in a moat which was boggy. Henry VIII brought in a ban banning commoners from bowling. It was only for the aristocracy.
“Stepney Green is now part of Greater London but it would have been a weekend retreat in the countryside.”
A chamber pot found beneath 19th Century terraced housing, also in Stepney Green, ranks as another highlight for Ms Keily.
“It dates back to when there were no indoor toilets or bathrooms,” she said. “This one is fabulous because it has a shocked-looking man saying: ‘What I see I will not tell’.”
The discoveries made were by no means restricted to those from Victorian, Tudor or medieval times though, with considerably older items being unearthed, including bison bone fragments in the part of the capital we now call Royal Oak.
Asked if there had been previous evidence of bison roaming there, Ms Keily said: “We kind of knew but it’s incredible to find the remains.
“There were three fragments of bison bone and one of reindeer from an antler. They were dated back to about 68,000 years ago.
“Some of the bones had traces of gnawing, possibly from wolves.”
Two finds from the Crossrail project have ended up among the 80 million specimens at the Natural History Museum: a piece of 55-million-year-old amber and two parts of a woolly mammoth jawbone. Both were discovered beneath Canary Wharf.
The bone find could prove to be important, as Jessica Simpson from the museum explains: “They can date the woolly mammoth specimen once it is off display and they might be able to determine when they became extinct in our region.
“The last known woolly mammoths were roaming a small part of northern Siberia about 4,000 years ago.”
For Ms Keily, the discovery that will perhaps provide the most significant element of Crossrail’s archaeological legacy is the human remains found at Liverpool Street.
Don Walker, senior human osteologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, analysed some skeletons found at Charterhouse Square in Farringdon.
He said of the discovery: “It was important because we found documented evidence of a Black Death cemetery dating to 1348 or 1349.”
Isotope, radiocarbon and DNA analysis was performed in an effort to reveal details such as how a person’s diet had changed during their lifetime and where they were likely to have lived.
Mr Walker said: “We don’t know much about how infectious diseases interacted with people in the past.
“If we can understand the evolution of infectious diseases such as the plague that will help us understand how diseases will behave in the future.”
Asked what the impact of the Crossrail excavations would be, he said: “I think it goes beyond archaeology and I’m certain there will be some benefits for future medical work as well.”
Dr Piers Mitchell from Cambridge University is president of the Paleopathology Association and was part of the team that found Richard III’s skull in a Leicester car park.
Asked if Crossrail would go on to be viewed as a significant project in British archaeology, he said: “The problem with Crossrail is you only get a little vertical shaft, a little box to excavate.
“That gives you a little vignette of life in the past. It’s a little bit frustrating.
“They’ve got lots of little circles and they are trying to interpret London from that.”
But he added: “Only time will tell. If interesting papers are published and we learn more about diseases of the past and how they are changing, it’s going to be a good resource to teach students with.”
Jay Carver, lead Crossrail archaeologist, believes the project will be held up as an example of how developers, engineers and archaeologists can work together and share finds with the community.
He said: “Every 10 years there’s a mega-project that involves a lot of archaeology; previously there was the Eurostar tunnel and then Terminal 5 at Heathrow.
“With each project we are developing the way we work with construction and engineering. In the past archaeologists and engineers have been at loggerheads.
“I think it’s been a really successful project.”
And it’s a project that is set to continue, with plans in place for Crossrail 2, the proposed north-south line from Epsom in Surrey to Broxbourne in Hertfordshire.
Stephen Fry has said he does not want to be a “numby” – not under my backyard – but, as a supporter of the Curzon Soho, objects to the plans as they stand.
And the Victorian Society warns Wimbledon is among the areas that face losing important architecture to Crossrail 2’s bulldozers – although a Transport for London spokesperson said: “Demolition is always our last resort.”
Back in east London at the Museum of London Docklands – a stone’s throw away from where engineers are putting the finishing touches to the Canary Wharf Crossrail station – Jackie Keily reflects happily on the impact of the several years of excavations.
“It’s been an amazing project,” she said.
“To be able to archaeologically take a slice through London east to west is pretty amazing.”
Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail runs from Friday 10 February to 3 September 2017 at the Museum of London Docklands.
Juletiden is upon us and it already seems quite likely that there won’t be any ‘white Christmas’ this year. However, there was some snow leading up to mid-December but it didn’t stick around for too long. The ice, on the other hand, did, and I was happy to have invested in a solid pair of boots to help prevent undignified falls and broken bones. In case you didn’t know, Trondheim is a very hilly town and just when you think you can’t be standing higher than you already are, there’s another steep street leading upwards. So imagine then braving these ridiculously steep hills with their frozen streets up and down on a daily basis! It is indeed challenging, to say the least.
However, not all is gloom and doom. Trondheim’s central square was hosting a lovely Julemarkedet (Xmas market) which was all too short if you ask me, it…
VSLM decided to branch out and start a new blog dedicated solely to Art Nouveau (Jugendstil as a preferred denomination in these parts) architecture in Norway, or city of Trondheim, to be more precise.
Jugendstil in Trondheim is meant to be a visual compendium of architecture, therefore, it will mainly feature photographs accompanied by info on buildings, architects and some trivia, where applicable. It is a work in progress which will probably take some time as there are over 300 buildings to document, but you are more than welcome to join us on this adventure!