Disappearance of Greenland’s vikings – new theories

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

SOURCE

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Vikings raided cos they were desperate single men?

When the Vikings landed at the holy island of Lindisfarne in 793AD, it marked the beginning of hundreds of years of terrifying raids, which would earn the Norsemen a fearsome reputation as murderers and pillagers throughout Europe.

But the reason why groups took to the seas in the first place continues to divide historians, some blaming over-population in Scandinavia, and others seeing it as a preemptive strike against the seemingly unstoppable march of Christianity.

Now a new theory suggests that the Vikings actually had matters of the heart on their minds.

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9th-century ‘Doomsday stone’ found at Lindisfarne

 

Dr Mark Collard, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen and currently the Canada Research Chair at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, along with colleague Ben Raffield and Neil Price, Professor of Archaeology at Uppsala University , believes that changes in society had led to a desperate shortage of marriage partners.

The growth of polygamy and social inequality in the late Iron Age meant that richer men took many wives, or concubines, causing an inbalance in the male-female sex ratio.

Suddenly young poor men had little chance of securing a wife unless they became rich and well-known quickly, says Prof Collard. And raiding was a shortcut to heroism and treasure, he believes.

“What is clear is that the sex ratio would have been substantially biased and increasing through time, and even small amounts of bias can have a big effect,” he said.

“In a population where just a few powerful older men are able to have multiple concubines you end up with a large number of young single men quite rapidly.  Some men would have two to three wives, but the Norse sagas say that some princes had limitless numbers.

“So raiding was away to build up wealth and power. Men could gain a place in society, and the chance for wives if they took part in raids and proved their masculinity and came back wealthy.

“Because polygynous marriage increases male-male competition by creating a pool of unmarried men, it increases risky status-elevating behaviour.”

Surprisingly the idea was first put forward by the Norman historian Dudo of Saint Quentin who argued in his 10th century work, The History of The Normans, that the Viking raids were sparked by an excess of unmarried young men.

Similarly the English antiquarian William Camden in his 1610 work Britannia suggested that the ‘Wikings’ were selected from areas of overpopulation after they “multiply’d themselves to a burdensome community”.

Vikings disembarking in England during the second wave of migration (vellum)
Vikings disembarking in England, from a 10th-century Scandinavian manuscript

But in recent years the theory has lost support from historians with many believing that raids were a quest for retaliation against Charlemagne’s bloody campaign to force Scandinavian pagans to convert to Christianity – killing those who would not be baptised.

However Prof Collard believes new research into psychology, and other ethnographic studies of tribes, now make the new theory more plausible.

Recent studies found that aggression rises when there is a shift in the male-female sex ratio and where the percentage of unmarried men is greater, the rates of rape, murder, assault, theft and fraud also rise.

New research has also shown that Yanomamo tribes in South America resort to inter-village raiding for polygamous marriages.

Norse sagas such as The Saga of the People of Laxardal and the Saga of Harald suggest that by the time of the raids polygamous behaviour was normal in Scandinavia while the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal speaks of concubines.

And the archaeological evidence of the graves of Viking raiding parties also suggests that  sailors were young males, rather than seasoned soldiers.

“Acquiring portable wealth seems to have been the major objective of raiding groups. Undefended monasteries away from settled areas would have been ideal targets,” added Prof Collard.

“By the end of the 8th century a number of regional polities and petty kingdoms had developed in Scandanavia.

“It is possible that the combined effects of polygyny, concubinage and social stratification simply reached a tipping point that led to a surge in raiding.

“With elite men monopolising an increasing percentage of women, many low-status men would have found it difficult to marry unless they were willing to engage in risky activites to improve wealth and status.”

The new paper was published in the journal Evolution & Human Behaviour.

Source.

Mapping genes: Orkney Islanders are 25% Norwegian

They are proud of their Viking ancestors but are not as Norwegian as they might think. The lion’s share of the genes of Orkney Islanders can be traced to the native peoples who lived their several millennia before Norwegians invaded and annexed the islands in the 9th century.

Mapping genes

British and Australian researchers have mapped the genetic structure of today’s Brits. They found that the only place where the Viking inheritance is genetically strong is the Orkney Islands. Orkney were under Norwegian rule for centuries and as a result, 25 percent of Orkney Islanders’ genes can be traced to Norway.

The locals tend to be enthusiastic about their Viking heritage, which has now also been strongly identified in their genes:

“The people here are very fond of Norway and I feel most welcome,” says Ragnhild Ljosland. The Norwegian researcher is an associate professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies at Orkney College in Kirkwall, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Dialect

Ljosland’s research is in language, not genetics. She explains that words in Orkney dialect often have a close historic relationship to Norway:

“I feel that the Orkney dialect is just as Norwegian as it is Scottish,” she says. Ljosland mentions vowels, which have remained the same. For instance the Norwegian båt and the English boat, or the names for farming tools and animals. As for birds the Norwegian skarv (cormorant) is a scarfe in Orkney, a teist is a tistie and a lomvi is a loomie.

Ragnhild Ljosland explains that in the 15th and 16th centuries Norway and the the rest of Scotland shared stronger linguistic traits. Contemporary Norwegian and Scottish speech was then closely related.

Using the landscape

The Centre for Nordic Studies has initiated a project which also covers the way the Vikings made use of the landscape when they settled in the Orkneys.

“The Vikings came here and found a landscape which was already in use, with farms, paths and burial mounds. These mounds look like the ones in Norway from the Viking Era, but they actually pre-date them,” explains Ljosland.

Picts

The same goes for the genetic make-up of today’s Orkney Islanders. It traces back much further than many have believed.  A surprisingly large amount of their genes stems from the Picts and other peoples who lived on the islands long before Harald Fairhair took control of them in 875.

The other Vikings who dominated parts of the UK – the Danes in Danelaw (or Danelagh) in Eastern England – have not left anything comparable to the DNA signature as the Norwegian Vikings in the Orkneys. In fact the population of the Orkneys is the most genetically distinct in the UK, thanks to a quarter of their DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. Most of the population in Eastern, Southern and Central England is fairly homogenous. Prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century, the last immigrants to significantly alter the British genetic make-up were the Anglo Saxons who came in the 5th century after the Romans left Great Britain.

No equivalent in Celtic DNA

The Celtic languages and culture are seeing something of a revival in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. But the latest research shows that the Celtic impact is more a matter of culture than genes. The Celts in Southwest England’s Cornwall, for instance, were far closer related to other English groups than to the Celts in Wales and Scotland.

The international team of researchers behind the charting of the British genes is from the University of Oxford, University College London and Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia. The collected DNA samples from a carefully chosen geographically diverse sample of over 2,000 Brits. All of those selected had grandparents who were born less than 80 kilometres from one another. This has given the scientists information about the genes of the local populations in three generations.

The data was then compared with samples from 6,200 persons in ten different European countries.

Professor Peter Donnelly of the University of Oxford, who co-led the research, said in a press release: “It has long been known that human populations differ genetically, but never before have we been able to observe such exquisite and fascinating detail. By coupling this with our assessment of the genetic contributions from different parts of Europe we were able to add to our understanding of UK population history.”

Source.

The Viking-Age Govan Stones

From bbc:

Govan is well-known as an industrial powerhouse which, over the past 150 years, has built an incredible number of the world’s largest ships.

However the town, now part of the city of Glasgow, has a long and largely-forgotten history as one of the earliest seats of Christianity in Scotland and the main church of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, the lost kingdom of the northern Britons.

In AD 870, Vikings, who had been based in Dublin, destroyed Dumbarton at the mouth of the Clyde, which had been a major power centre in the centuries after the Romans departed from Britain.

As a result Govan, further up the river, took on a crucial role in the new kingdom of warrior chieftains that emerged to resist the Vikings.

It is thought that the church at Govan may have been the main one for the kingdom of Strathclyde.

The Govan Stones are a collection of 31 recumbent grave stones, hogback stones and one remarkable sarcophagus from this period of history when warfare instigated by the Norse transformed the political landscape of Britain.

There had been 45 stones but a number were lost in the 1980s when the site of the neighbouring Harland and Wolff shipyard was demolished.

It is thought the stones from the 10th and 11th centuries, which had been lined up against a wall, were removed along with debris from the shipyard.

The most imposing monuments in the Govan collection are the five massive sandstone blocks, commonly known as the “hogbacks”.

The solid stone blocks are not, as the name might suggest, representations of pigs but stones which are designed to make the tombs of the dead look like mighty buildings in the Norse style.

The hogbacks are found exclusively in areas of northern Britain settled by Vikings – southern Scotland, Cumbria and Yorkshire – and the Govan examples are by far the largest.

The bow-sided shape of the hogbacks is similar to the classic Viking house and the interlace patterns on them are also very Scandinavian in origin, according to Prof Stephen Driscoll, professor of historical archaeology at Glasgow University.

“It underpins this idea that this British kingdom of Strathclyde has some strong connections with the Scandinavian world,” he says.

“My feeling is that this is meant to represent a lord’s hall or a chieftain’s hall.

“This type of monument, these hogback monuments, you only find them in Britain. You don’t get them in Scandinavia and you don’t get them before the Vikings come here.

“So somehow the Vikings come here and see they are in this world where people carve stones all the time and they think ‘let’s carve us a suitable stone that resonates with us’.”

Although the beasts carved into some of the hogbacks could reflect pagan Viking beliefs, the fact that all these stones were found in a church yard suggests the settlers had taken to Christianity.

Even more impressive than the hogbacks is the monolithic sarcophagus which was found buried in the Govan church yard in the 19th century, without a body inside.

Prof Driscoll thinks this probably held the relics of St Constantine – the son of Pictish king Kenneth MacAlpin – who died in AD 876, ironically, fighting against the Vikings.

The sarcophagus of this Christian martyr, which is carved with hunting scenes and the same interlace that is seen on the other stones, was intended to take pride-of-place inside the church, Prof Driscoll says.

But it was probably stuck in the burial ground as an act of “iconoclasm” after the Reformation, he says.

“I think this sarcophagus is to house Constantine’s relics as part of making this church into an important place,” Prof Driscoll says.

“This is unique. There is nothing else like this in Scotland.

“It was just not something they did at the time. If you were being buried you would put them in the ground.

“Sometimes they lined the graves with slabs but mostly they would be put in the ground in a wooden box or just a shroud, no matter who they were.

“If you are king they may put something special on top but this treatment is unknown.

“I’m sure they would have seen Roman sarcophagi when they went on pilgrimage and things like that. So they would have had the sense that emperors belong in a sarcophagus.”

The other tombstones in the collection, though not as imposing to look at as the hogbacks or the sarcophagus, are also remarkable in the fact that they are only really found in Govan and Dumbarton, places which had a Royal association during the kingdom of Strathclyde.

Govan ceased to be important at the start of the 12th century when Glasgow emerged as one of the centres of the newly-ascendant kingdom of Scotland.

This massive changing of the old order meant that the old kingdom has been largely lost to history and only fragmentary records remain.

The tombstones at Govan were reused in the 17th and 18th centuries by local worthies, such as the Rowand family and William Bogle, whose name is inscribed into one of the ancient stones.

One of the stones was found in Jordanhill, on the other side of the river, where it had stood in the garden of one of the parishioners who had been given it as a gift.

Though there has probably been a church on the site since the 6th century, the current Govan Old church was only built in 1888 and is no longer in use as a parish church.

Prof Driscoll wants to raise the profile of the church and ensure its stones are given their rightful prominence.

A request from the British Museum to feature one of the hogbacks in a flagship exhibition Vikings Life and Legend, which begins in March, is an indication of the growing awareness of the importance of the sculptures.

Gareth Williams, curator of the British Museum Viking exhibition, said: “We wanted to go with one of the Govan ones because it is a particularly splendid example but also because we felt that it would be nice to put Govan on the map a bit more.

“It is a very important site and one which I think deserves to be better known.

“It is one of the best collections of early medieval sculpture anywhere in the British isles.”

The smallest hogback, which weighs about 500kg, will be removed from the church and taken to London on Monday, the first time it has left Govan in a millennium.

Why did Viking descendants abandoned Greenland?

From Spiegel:

On Sept. 14, 1408, Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdottir were married. The ceremony took place in a church on Hvalsey Fjord in Greenland that was only five meters (about 16 feet) tall.

It must have been difficult for the bride and groom to recognize each other in the dim light of the church. The milky light of late summer could only enter the turf-roofed church through an arched window on the east side and a few openings resembling arrow slits. After the ceremony, the guests fortified themselves with seal meat.

The marriage of the Icelander and the girl from Greenland was one of the last raucous festivals in the far northern Viking colony. It all ended soon afterwards, when the last oil lamps went out in the Nordic settlements in Greenland.

The descendants of the Vikings had persevered in their North Atlantic outpost for almost 500 years, from the end of the 10th century until the mid-15th century. The Medieval Warm Period had made it possible for settlers from Norway, Iceland and Denmark to live on hundreds of scattered farms along the protected fjords, where they built dozens of churches and even had bishops.

Their disappearance remains a mystery to this day. Until now, many experts had assumed that the cooling of the climate and the resulting crop failures and famines had ushered in the end of the Scandinavian colony. But now a Danish-Canadian team of scientists believes that it can refute this theory of decline.

From Farmers to Seal Hunters

The scientists conducted isotope analyses on hundreds of human and animal bones found on the island. Their study, published in the Journal of the North Atlantic, paints the most detailed picture to date of the Nordic settlers’ dietary habits.

As the research shows, hunger could hardly have driven the ancestors of the Vikings out of their settlements on the edge of the glaciers. The bone analyses prove that, when the warm period came to an end, the Greenlandic farmers and ranchers switched to a seafood-based diet with surprising rapidity. From then on, the settlers focused their efforts on hunting the seals that appeared in large numbers off the coasts of Greenland during their annual migrations.

When settlement began in the early 11th century, only between 20 and 30 percent of their diet came from the sea. But seal hunting played a growing role in the ensuing centuries. “They ate more and more seal meat, with the animals constituting up to 80 percent of their diet in the 14th century,” explains team member Jan Heinemeier, a dating expert from the University of Aarhus, in Denmark.

His fellow team member Niels Lynnerup, an anthropologist and forensic scientist at the University of Copenhagen, confirms that the Vikings of Greenland had plenty to eat even as the climate grew colder. “Perhaps they were just sick and tired of living at the ends of the earth and having almost nothing but seals to eat,” he says.

The bone analyses show that they rarely ate meat from their own herds of livestock. The climate had become harsher on the island starting in the mid-13th century. Summer temperatures fell, violent storms raged around the houses and the winters were bone-chillingly cold. For the cattle that had been brought to Greenland, there was less and less to eat in the pastures and meadows along the fjords.

On the smaller farms, cattle were gradually replaced with sheep and goats, which were easier to rear. The isotope analyses show that pigs, valued for their meat, were fed fish and seal remains for a while longer but had disappeared from the island by around 1300.

The farmers, who had switched their focus to seal hunting, apparently did hardly anything to avert the decline of their livestock economy. The scientists’ analyses of animal bones show that the Greenlanders didn’t even try to help their cattle survive the long, icy winter by feeding them something of a starvation diet of bushes, horse manure, seaweed and fish waste, a widespread practice in regions of Northern Europe with similar climatic challenges until a few decades ago.

It also appears that epidemics were not responsible for the decline of farm life on the island. The scientists did not discover more signs of disease in the Viking bones uncovered on the island than elsewhere. “We found normal skeletons, which looked just like comparable finds from Scandinavian countries,” says Lynnerup.

An image of Eric the Red, the legendary founder of the first Nordic settlement on Greenland.

Increasing Isolation

So, if it wasn’t starvation or disease, what triggered the abandonment of the Greenland settlements in the second half of the 15th century? The scientists suspect that a combination of causes made life there unbearable for the Scandinavian immigrants. For instance, there was hardly any demand anymore for walrus tusks and seal skins, the colony’s most important export items. What’s more, by the mid-14th century, regular ship traffic with Norway and Iceland had ceased.

As a result, Greenland’s residents were increasingly isolated from their mother countries. Although they urgently needed building lumber and iron tools, they could now only get their hands on them sporadically. “It became more and more difficult for the Greenlanders to attract merchants from Europe to the island,” speculates Jette Arneborg, an archeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. “But, without trade, they couldn’t survive in the long run.”

The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.

Although the descendants of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots,” says Arneborg. “This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline.”

An Orderly Abandonment

In the final phase, it was young people of child-bearing age in particular who saw no future for themselves on the island. The excavators found hardly any skeletons of young women on a cemetery from the late period.

“The situation was presumably similar to the way it is today, when young Greeks and Spaniards are leaving their countries to seek greener pastures in areas that are more promising economically,” Lynnerup says. “It’s always the young and the strong who go, leaving the old behind.”

In addition, there was a rural exodus in their Scandinavian countries at the time, and the population in the more remote regions of Iceland, Norway and Denmark was thinning out. This, in turn, freed up farms and estates for returnees from Greenland.

However, the Greenlanders didn’t leave their houses in a precipitous fashion. Aside from a gold signet ring in the grave of a bishop, valuable items, such as silver and gold crucifixes, have not been discovered anywhere on the island. The archeologists interpret this as a sign that the departure from the colony proceeded in an orderly manner, and that the residents took any valuable objects along. “If they had died out as a result of diseases or natural disasters, we would certainly have found such precious items long ago,” says Lynnerup.

The couple that was married in the church on Hvalsey Fjord also left the island shortly after their wedding. In Iceland, the couple had to provide the local bishop with written proof that they had entered into a bond for life under a sod roof according to the rules of the mother church. Their reports are the last documents describing the lives of the Nordic settlers in Greenland.

Mystery of Viking mass grave found in Dorset solved

Our post on brutally slain Vikings, gets an epilogue!

From dailymail:

A mass grave found in Dorset contains the bodies of an elite ‘hit squad’ of invading Viking warriors, experts claim.

All decapitated and buried alongside their severed heads, the 54 skeletons were discovered in 2009 by workmen digging a road.

Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end.

Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together in a documentary to be screened tonight.

Dr Britt Baillie’s research suggests they were a fearsome brotherhood of killers who had a strict military code – never to show fear, and never to flee in the face of an enemy unless totally outnumbered.

They either were, or modelled themselves on, the Jomsvikings – a hit squad founded by Harald Bluetooth, the Norse king who died around 970 who masterminded a stream of vicious raids on the south coast of England.

Named after their stronghold at Jomsborg on the Baltic coast, their history is shrouded in myth but at a time the Vikings were feared across Europe, they were regarded as the most terrifying of all.

But on this occasion, the men, barely into their twenties, were ambushed by the local Anglo-Saxon villagers.

Stripped and humiliated, they were rounded up and axes and swords brought down on their necks, before their remains were tossed into a ditch.

Dr Baillie believes the murders, at Ridgeway Hill in Dorset, probably took place during the reign of Aethelred the Unready who ruled from 968 to 1016.

A chronicle, commissioned by his second wife, Queen Emma notes there was a group of Viking killers in England at the time, led by a fearsome warrior called Thorkel the Tall, said to be a Jomsviking.

Dr Baillie said: ‘Emma’s record connects Jomsvikings to England at exactly this time.

‘Clearly these men had shown a level of bravery similar to the Jomsviking code. So while we cannot be certain about who they were, there are a number of tie-ins that take us down that route.

‘The legends and stories of the Jomsvikings travelled around the medieval world and would almost certainly have been indicative of some of the practices of other bands of mercenaries or may even have been imitated by other groups.’

Aethelred the Unready was tormented by Vikings and ordered all Danish men living in England to be killed on the November 13, 1002- St Brice’s Day – which became known as the St Brice’s Day massacre.

Remains have been found in Oxford and it is thought that massacres also took place in London, Bristol and Gloucester but the remains found here are unique.

Unlike the frenzied mob attack that took place at Oxford, all these men were murdered methodically and beheaded in an unusual fashion from the front.

This is actually mentioned in Jomsvikings legend which states: ‘I am content to die as are all our comrades. But I will not let myself be slaughtered like a sheep. I would rather face the blow. Strike straight at my face and watch carefully if I pale at all.’

It was discovered last year that the skeletons had stripes filed into their teeth, suggesting this was a way they demonstrated their bravery.