Paper by Mary Valante given at the Fourth Annual Appalachian Spring Conference in World History and Economics (2009).
Viking raiders first appeared on the shores of western Europe in the 790s. For the year 793 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record, “…terrible portents appeared…and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air…. and the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”, while the Annals of Ulster for 795 describe, “The burning of Rechru by the heathens, and Scí was overwhelmed and laid waste.” These early raids followed a distinct pattern – one or two ships, coastal raids , and hit-and-run tactics. But in the 830s and 840s, the patterns of raids changed suddenly and dramatically.
In Ireland, the Annals of Ulster record for the year 837 “A naval force of the Norsemen sixty ships strong was on the Bóinn, [and] another one of sixty ships on the river Life. These two forces plundered the plain of Life and the plain of Brega, including churches, forts and dwellings. The men of Brega routed the foreigners at Deoninne in Mugdorna of Brega, and six score of the Norsemen fell.” According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 838 “In this year came a great pirate host to Cornwall…”
The switch to larger raiding parties was swiftly followed by settlement, as in 841 Vikings first set up camp at Dublin. By the middle of the ninth century, it is clear that changes back in Scandinavia were having a direct impact on events in the British Isles, as shown by a takeover at Dublin in the 850s, and the arrival of the “Great Heathen Army” in Anglo-Saxon England in the 860s.
Some scholars have argued that the early raids were a deliberate “softening up” of Europe, a deliberate prelude to land-grabbing. But this view assumes that raiders were displaced farmers, victims of climate change or population pressures. I would argue instead that the earliest raids were the work of minor chieftains, stealing goods to trade at the new market towns in Norway and Denmark. The large-scale raids from the 830s onwards were the result of the success of the early raids, which allowed the market towns to become well-established and successful.
This in turn had provided funds for kings in Norway and Denmark to establish themselves more firmly, organize much larger raids, and then quickly to the deliberate founding or capture and settlement of new market towns in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. After the 850s, competition for power within Denmark and Norway, partially represented by vying for control of these same early towns, led once again to changes in Viking activities as seen especially in Ireland and England.
The earliest raiders targeted monasteries, relatively wealthy and usually undefended sites. People and portable valuables were their targets, “Howth was plundered by the heathens, [and] they carried off a great number of women into captivity” and “The heathens plundered Bennchor at Airtiu(?), and destroyed the oratory, and shook the relics of Comgall from their shrine.” The shrine, not the relics, held value the raiders could understand. Based on excavations of longships, a raiding crew would have consisted of about 30 men, led by their chieftain after planting and before harvest season.
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.
In 1721, missionary Hans Egede sailed a ship called The Hope from Norway to Greenland, seeking Norse farmers whom Europeans hadn’t heard from in 200 years in order to convert them to Protestantism. He explored iceberg-dotted fjords that gave way to gentle valleys, and silver lakes that shimmered below the massive ice cap. But when he asked the Inuit hunters he met about the Norse, they showed him crumbling stone church walls: the only remnants of 500 years of occupation. “What has been the fate of so many human beings, so long cut off from all intercourse with the more civilized world?” Egede wrote in an account of the journey. “Were they destroyed by an invasion of the natives … [or] perished by the inclemency of the climate, and the sterility of the soil?”
Archaeologists still wonder today. No chapter of Arctic history is more mysterious than the disappearance of these Norse settlements sometime in the 15th century. Theories for the colony’s failure have included everything from sinister Basque pirates to the Black Plague. But historians have usually pinned most responsibility on the Norse themselves, arguing that they failed to adapt to a changing climate. The Norse settled Greenland from Iceland during a warm period around 1000 C.E. But even as a chilly era called the Little Ice Age set in, the story goes, they clung to raising livestock and church-building while squandering natural resources like soil and timber. Meanwhile, the seal-hunting, whale-eating Inuit survived in the very same environment.
Over the last decade, however, new excavations across the North Atlantic have forced archaeologists to revise some of these long-held views. An international research collective called the North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation (NABO) has accumulated precise new data on ancient settlement patterns, diet, and landscape. The findings suggest that the Greenland Norse focused less on livestock and more on trade, especially in walrus ivory, and that for food they relied more on the sea than on their pastures. There’s no doubt that climate stressed the colony, but the emerging narrative is not of an agricultural society short on food, but a hunting society short on labor and susceptible to catastrophes at sea and social unrest.
Historian Poul Holm of Trinity College in Dublin lauds the new picture, which reveals that the Greenland Norse were “not a civilization stuck in their ways.” To NABO archaeologist George Hambrecht of the University of Maryland in College Park, “The new story is that they adapted but they failed anyway.”
Ironically, just as this new picture is emerging, climate change once again threatens Norse settlements—or what’s left of them. Organic artifacts like clothing and animal bones, preserved for centuries in the deep freeze of the permafrost, are decaying rapidly as rising temperatures thaw the soil. “It’s horrifying. Just at the time we can do something with all this data, it is disappearing under our feet,” Holm says.
In 1976, a bushy-bearded Thomas McGovern, then 26, arrived for the first time on the grassy shore of a fjord in southern Greenland, eager to begin work on his Ph.D. in archaeology. The basic Norse timeline had already been established. In the ninth century, the advances in seafaring technology that enabled Scandinavian Vikings to raid northern and central Europe also opened the way for the Norse, as they came to be known in their later, peaceful incarnations, to journey west to Iceland. If the unreliable Icelandic Sagas, written centuries later, are to be believed, an enterprising Icelander named Erik the Red led several ships to Greenland around 985 C.E. The Norse eventually established two settlements, with hundreds of farms and more than 3000 settlers at their peak. But by 1400, the settlement on the island’s western coast had been abandoned, according to radiocarbon dates, and by 1450 the inhabitants in the Eastern Settlement on the island’s southern tip were gone as well.
Data gathered in the 1980s by McGovern and others suggested that the colonies were doomed by “fatal Norse conservatism in the face of fluctuating resources,” as McGovern, now at Hunter College in New York City, wrote at the time. The Norse considered themselves farmers, he and others thought, tending hay fields despite the short growing season and bringing dairy cows and sheep from Iceland. A 13th century Norwegian royal treatise called The King’s Mirror lauds Greenland’s suitability for farming: The sun has “sufficient strength, where the ground is free from ice, to warm the soil so that the earth yields good and fragrant grass.”
Bone samples suggest that even small farms kept a cow or two, a sign of status back in Norway, and written records mention dairy products including cheese, milk, and a yogurt called skyr as essential parts of the diet. “There were no activities more central to Norse identity than farming,” archaeologist William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C., wrote in 2000.
Geographer Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, popularized this view in his 2005 bestseller, Collapse. The Norse “damaged their environment” as they had done in Iceland, Diamond asserted, based on analyses of dust that suggested erosion caused by felling trees, agriculture, and turf cutting. While foolishly building churches with costly bronze bells, Diamond said, Greenland’s Norse “refused to learn” Arctic hunting techniques from the Inuit, who hunted seals and fish year-round. He noted grisly evidence of calamity at a few sites in the Western Settlement: bones of pet dogs with cut marks on them, suggesting hunger; and the remains of insects that feast on corpses, suggesting too few survivors to bury their loved ones. “Every one of [the Norse] ended up dead,” Diamond said in 2008.
This narrative held sway for years. Yet McGovern and others had found hints back in the 1980s that the Norse didn’t entirely ignore Greenland’s unique ecology. Even Diamond had noted that bones of seals comprised 60% to 80% of the bones from trash heaps, called middens, found at small Norse farms. (He believed, though, that only the poorer settlers ate seal meat.) Written sources reported that the Norse routinely rowed up to 1500 kilometers to walrus migratory grounds near Disko Bay in western Greenland. They returned with countless walrus snouts, whose ivory tusks they removed and prepared for trade with Europe. The Norse paid tithe to the Norwegian king and to the Catholic Church in ivory, and traded it with European merchants for supplies like iron, boat parts, and wood. But McGovern dismissed the walrus hunt as “a curious adjunct,” he recalls, echoing the scholarly consensus that farming was central.
Three decades later here at Tasilikulooq, a modern Inuit farm of green pastures flanked by lakes, a couple of McGovern’s students and others are busy exploring the remains of a medium-sized farm that once housed sheep, goats, horses, and a few cows. Two graduate students in rubber overalls hose 700-yearold soil off unidentified excavated objects near a midden downhill from a collapsed house. A brown button the size of a nickel emerges on the metal sieve. “They found one more of those buttons,” says archaeologist Brita Hope of the University Museum of Bergen in Norway, smiling, when word makes it back to the farmhouse the nine-member team uses as a headquarters for the month-long dig. “We could make a coat,” a student jokes.
But the function of the button matters a lot less than what it’s made of: walrus tooth. Several walrus face bones have also turned up at the farm, suggesting that the inhabitants hunted in the communal Disko Bay expedition, says excavation leader Konrad Smiarowski of the City University of New York in New York City. These finds and others point to ivory—a product of Greenland’s environment—as a linchpin of the Norse economy.
One NABO dig in Reykjavik, for example, yielded a tusk, radiocarbon dated to about 900 C.E., which had been expertly removed from its skull, presumably with a metal tool. The find suggests that the early Icelandic Norse were “experienced in handling walrus ivory,” NABO members wrote in a 2015 paper; it follows that the Greenlanders were, too. Although historians long assumed that the Norse settled Iceland and Greenland in search of new farmland, some researchers have recently suggested that the hunt for ivory instead drove the settlement of both islands. Walrus in Iceland were steadily extirpated after the Norse arrived there, likely hunted out by the settlers.
The high value that medieval Europe placed on walrus ivory would have provided plenty of incentive to pursue it in Greenland. Craftsmen used ivory in luxury ornaments and apparel, and in objects like the famous Lewis chess set, discovered in Scotland in 1831. In 1327, an 802-kilogram parcel of Greenland tusks was worth a small fortune—the equivalent of roughly 780 cows or 60 tons of dried fish, according to tithing records analyzed in 2010 by University of Oslo archaeologist Christian Keller. “The Norse had found a cornucopia in the North Atlantic, a marine ecosystem just teeming with walruses and other animals,” says historian Holm.
They exploited it not just for ivory, but also for food, Smiarowski says as he huddles in a dimly lit side room here to review recent finds. One bag contains bones collected from a layer dating to the 1350s. A long, thin, cow bone had been split open, probably to eat the marrow. But most of the bones are marine: scraps of whale bone, jaw and skull fragments of harp seals, a bit of inner ear of a hooded seal. These two species of seal migrate north along Greenland shores in the spring, and Smiarowski thinks the Norse likely caught them with boats and nets or clubs.
In 2012, NABO researchers clinched the case that the Greenlanders ate a marine diet by analyzing human bones in Norse graveyards. Animals that live in the sea have ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes that differ from those found in terrestrial animals, and this isotopic signature is passed on to the people who eat them. The Norse bones show that as the settlement developed from the 11th to the 15th century, their diet contained ever more marine protein. Far from clinging to livestock as temperatures fell, the Norse instead managed a successful subsistence system with “flexibility and capacity to adapt,” wrote the author of the 2012 paper, Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Nor were the Norse incompetent farmers, as Diamond and others have suggested. Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.
Such findings, along with the ivory evidence, have transformed ideas about Norse society, says McGovern, whose beard is now white. “You start to see old data, like the seal bones in the middens, in a new light. It’s exciting to get a chance to revise your old thinking before a younger colleague can,” he says. “We used to think of Norse as farmers who hunted. Now, we consider them hunters who farmed.”
It was a sustainable lifestyle for hundreds of years. But in the 13th century, economics and climate began to conspire against the Norse. After 1250, a cooling climate posed multiple threats to a marine-oriented society reliant on seal and walrus. (Global average temperature fell by about a degree during the Little Ice Age, although scientists have struggled to quantify local cooling.) Even before the big chill set in, The King’s Mirror describes ships lost and men who perished in ice. Historians and climatologists agree that as the cold spell continued, ice would have clogged the seas farther south and for longer each year, disrupting voyages. And concentrations of salt particles in glacier cores indicate that seas became stormier in the 15th century. Norsemen hunting migratory seals or walrus on the high seas would have been at increasing risk. The nomadic Inuit, by contrast, hunted seal native to the fjords, and rarely embarked on open-ocean hunts or journeys.
Not only did the climate disrupt trade, but the market did, too. Around 1400, the value of ivory in Europe fell as tusks from Russian walrus and African elephants flowed into the continent.
Even as surviving from marine resources became more difficult, the growing season on land shortened, and the meager pastures yielded even less. But soil and sediment analyses show that the farmers, too, tried to adapt, Simpson said, often fertilizing and watering their pastures more intensively as temperatures dropped. “We went in with the view that they were helpless in the face of climate change and they wrecked the landscape,” Simpson says. Instead, he says, these “pretty good managers” actively adapted to the cooling climate. In the end, however, their best efforts fell short.
At the grand bishop’s seat of Gardar, 35 kilometers away by boat from the modest farm at Tasilikulooq, grass grows around the ruins of a cathedral, the bishop’s residence, and myriad other buildings probably built by stonemasons shipped in from Norway. Stone shelters here once housed more than 100 cows—a sign of power in medieval Scandinavia.
If the Greenland settlement was originally an effort to find and exploit the prized natural resource of ivory, rather than a collection of independent farmers, the society would have needed more top-down planning than archaeologists had thought, says Christian Koch Madsen of the Danish and Greenlandic National Museums in Copenhagen. His work and other research support that notion by revealing orchestrated changes in the settlement pattern as the climate worsened.
Madsen carefully radiocarbon dated organic remains like wood from the ruins of 1308 Norse farms. The dates show that Gardar, like other rich farms, was established early. But they also suggest that when the first hints of the Little Ice Age appeared around 1250, dozens of outlying farms were abandoned, and sometimes reestablished closer to the central manors. The bones in middens help explain why: As temperatures fell, people in the large farms continued to eat beef and other livestock whereas those in smaller farms turned to seal and caribou, as Diamond had suggested. To maintain their diet, Greenland’s powerful had to expand labor-intensive practices like storing winter fodder and sheltering cows. He thinks that larger farms got the additional labor by establishing tenant farms.
The stresses mounted as the weather worsened, Madsen suspects. He notes that the average Norse farmer had to balance the spring- and summertime demands of his own farm with annual communal walrus and migratory seal hunts. “It was all happening at once, every year,” Madsen says. Deprivation in lower societal strata “could eventually have cascaded up through the system,” destabilizing large farms dependent on tithes and labor from small ones. The disrupted ivory trade, and perhaps losses at sea, couldn’t have helped. The Greenland Norse simply could not hold on.
It adds up to a detailed picture that most archaeologists studying the Norse have embraced. But not everyone agrees with the entire vision. Fitzhugh of NMNH, for one, questions the reconception of the colony as an ivory-focused trading post and still thinks farming was more important. “They couldn’t get enough ivory to maintain 5000 people in the Arctic,” he says.
Fitzhugh does agree with Madsen and others on how the final chapter of the Greenland saga may have played out. Despite the signs of crisis at a few Western Settlement sites, those in the Eastern Settlement show no sign of a violent end. Instead, after farmhouses collapsed, remaining settlers scavenged the wood from them, suggesting a slow dwindling of population. The challenge for the average Greenlander to survive drove “a constant emigration” back to Iceland and Europe, Fitzhugh hypothesizes, “which could bring the Eastern [Settlement] to a close peacefully, without starvation or death by Inuit.”
The NABO team hopes future grants will allow them to fill out that picture. They’re eager to start new excavations in the Western Settlement, where artifacts could shed light on any contact between the Norse and Inuit, a historical possibility about which there are little hard data.
Time is running out. The Tasilikulooq excavation yielded well-preserved artifacts including wooden spoons, bowls, and a small wooden horse. But McGovern fears that its success may not be repeated. Thirty years ago most sites in the Eastern Settlement contained preserved bone, hair, feathers, and cloth. A NABO survey of 90 sites has found, however, that most organic samples “had pretty much turned to mush” as the permafrost thawed, Smiarowski says. Tasilikulooq was one of only three sites spared.
Hans Egede, the missionary, wrote that he went to Greenland 500 years ago to save its people from “eternal oblivion.” Today’s archaeologists fear a different oblivion—that Greenland’s prehistory will be lost unless it is quickly unearthed. As pioneers who weathered climate change, the Greenland Norse may hold lessons for society today. But the very changes that make those lessons urgent could keep them from ever being fully deciphered.