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The Fate of Greenland's Vikings February 28, 2000
by Dale Mackenzie Brown


Arm of Ericsfjord, on which Eric the Red had his farm
(Dale Mackenzie Brown)

Some people call it the Farm under the Sand, others Greenland's Pompeii. Dating to the mid-fourteenth century, it was once the site of a Viking colony founded along the island's grassy southwestern coast that stretches in a fjord-indented ribbon between the glaciers and the sea. Archaeologists Jette Arneborg of the Danish National Museum, Joel Berglund of the Greenland National Museum, and Claus Andreasen of Greenland University could not have guessed what would be revealed when they excavated the ruins of the five-room, stone-and-turf house in the early 1990s.

As the archaeologists dug through the permafrost and removed the windblown glacial sand that filled the rooms, they found fragments of looms and cloth. Scattered about were other household belongings, including an iron knife, whetstones, soapstone vessels, and a double-edged comb. Whoever lived here departed so hurriedly that they left behind iron and caribou antler arrows, weapons needed for survival in this harsh country, medieval Europe's farthest frontier. What drove the occupants away? Where did they go?

[image]Map of Greenland showing settlements (Lynda D'Amico) [LARGER IMAGE]

The disappearance of the Greenlanders has intrigued students of history for centuries. One old source held that Skraelings, or Inuit, who had crossed over from Ellesmere Island in the far north around A.D. 1000, migrated down the west coast and overran the settlement. Ivar Bardarson, steward of the Church's property in Greenland, and a member of a sister settlement 300 miles to the southeast, was said to have gathered a force and sailed northwest to drive the interlopers out, but "when they came hither, behold they found no man, neither Christian nor heathen, naught but some wild cattle and sheep, and they killed as many of the wild cattle and sheep as they could carry and with them returned to their houses." The death of the Western Settlement portended the demise of the larger eastern one a century later.

Of the first 24 boatloads of land-hungry settlers who set out from Iceland in the summer of 986 to colonize new territory explored several years earlier by the vagabond and outlaw, Erik the Red, only 14 made it, the others having been forced back to port or lost at sea. Yet more brave souls, drawn by the promise of a better life for themselves, soon followed. Under the leadership of the red-faced, red-bearded Erik (who had given the island its attractive name, the better to lure settlers there), the colonists developed a little Europe of their own just a few hundred miles from North America, a full 500 years before Columbus set foot on the continent. They established dairy and sheep farms throughout the unglaciated areas of the south and built churches, a monastery, a nunnery, and a cathedral boasting an imported bronze bell and greenish tinted glass windows.

The Greenlanders prospered. From the number of farms in both colonies, whose 400 or so stone ruins still dot the landscape, archaeologists guess that the population may have risen to a peak of about 5,000. Trading with Norway, under whose rule they eventually came, the Greenlanders exchanged live falcons, polar bear skins, narwahl tusks, and walrus ivory and hides for timber, iron, tools, and other essentials, as well luxuries such as raisins, nuts, and wine.

Excavations of Erik's farm, Brattahlid ("Steep Slope"), in 1932 by Danish archaeologists (Greenland, which became Danish in 1814, is today a self-governing possession of Denmark), revealed the remains of a church, originally surrounded by a turf wall to keep farm animals out, and a great hall where settlers cooked in fire pits, ate their meals, recited sagas, and played board games. Behind the church they found ruins of a cow barn, with partitions between the stalls still in place, one of them the shoulder blade of a whale--a sign of Viking practicality in a treeless land where wood was always in short supply.

[image] Church ruins with outer protective wall designed to keep out farm animals (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE] [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

In 1961 workmen discovered near the barn a tiny horseshoe-shaped chapel built for Erik's wife Thjodhilde. When Erik and his supporters arrived in Greenland, the old Norse gods were still worshiped. Erik, a believer, upheld the ancient fatalistic philosophy of his Viking ancestors, but Thjodhilde converted to Christianity. Erik refused to surrender his beliefs, and Thjodhilde held steadfastly to hers. In time he granted her a small church 6.5 feet wide and 11.5 feet long, with room for 20 to 30 worshipers.

During the excavations of Thjodhilde's chapel and its immediate surroundings in the 1960s, Danish archaeologists uncovered 144 skeletons. Most of these indicated tall, strong individuals, not very different in build from modern Scandinavians. One male skeleton was found with a large knife between the ribs, evidence of violence on Greenland's frontier. A mass grave south of the church, containing 13 bodies. According to Neils Lynnerup of the Panum Institute of the University of Copenhagen, who performed forensic work on the remains, the bodies were male, ranging from teens to middle age, with head and arm wounds suggesting they may have died in battle.

The most compelling finds were three skeletons interred close to the church wall, just beneath where the eaves would have been. According to medieval Church accounts, those buried closest to the church were first in line for Judgement Day. Who were these three individuals? The archaeologists' best guess was that they were none other than Thjodhilde, Erik and their famous son, Leif, who around the year 1,000 had set sail from Brattahlid on his epochal journey to America. Today, their bones rest on laboratory shelves in Copenhagen.

With the islanders' early success came a desire to have someone of authority oversee the work of the Church in Greenland. Early in the twelfth century they dispatched one of their leaders, Einar Sokkason, to Norway to convince the king to send them a bishop. Bishop Arnald was chosen for the job, despite the hapless man's protestation that "I am no good at handling difficult people." Apparently the Greenlanders had a well-developed reputation for contentious behavior. Still, they provided Arnald with one of their finest farms, Gardar, on a fjord not far from Brattahlid. Here they erected a cathedral, built of the local reddish sandstone and dedicated to the patron saint of seafarers, St. Nicholas; with a meeting hall capable of holding several hundred people; a large barn for 100 cows; and tithe barns to contain the goods that would be religiously collected from the farmers by priests and set aside for Rome.

[image]Ruins of the tithe barns where goods collected from the farmers in the Church's name were kept (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE]

Although the presence of the Church had originally uplifted the Greenlanders, it now became their burden. By the middle of the fourteenth century, it owned two-thirds of the island's finest pastures, and tithes remained as onerous as ever, some of the proceeds going to the support of the Crusades half way around the world and even to fight heretics in Italy. Church authorities, however, found it increasingly difficult to get bishops to come to the distant island. Several clerics took the title, but never actually went there, preferring to bestow their blessings from afar.

Foundation stone of the Norse cathedral (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Life went sour for the Greenlanders in other ways. The number of Norwegian merchant vessels arriving in their ports, though only one or two a year in the best of times, dropped until none came at all. This meant that the islanders were cut off from the major source of iron and tools needed for the smooth running of their farms and the construction and maintenance of their boats. Norway's long dominance of the northern sea trade withered as Germany's Hanseatic League rose to ascendancy. Although the league's bigger ships could carry more cargo than Norwegian vessels, they apparently never anchored in Greenland. The dangerous ocean crossing would have put them at too much risk for too little gain, especially now that elephant ivory, once difficult to obtain, could be gotten easily from Africa and replaced walrus ivory in prominence.

As the Greenlanders' isolation from Europe grew, they found themselves victims of a steadily deteriorating environment. Their farmland, exploited to the full, had lost fertility. Erosion followed severe reductions in ground cover. The cutting of dwarf willows and alders for fuel and for the production of charcoal to use in the smelting of bog iron, which yielded soft, inferior metal, deprived the soil of its anchor of roots. Pollen analysis shows a dramatic decline in these species during the Viking years. In addition, livestock probably consumed any regenerating scrub. Overgrazing, trampling, and scuffing by the Norsemen's sheep, goats and cattle, the core of the island's livelihood, left the land debased.

Greenland's climate began to change as well; the summers grew shorter and progressively cooler, limiting the time cattle could be kept outdoors and increasing the need for winter fodder. During the worst years, when rains would have been heaviest, the hay crop would barely have been adequate to see the penned animals through the coldest days. Over the decades the drop in temperature seems to have had an effect on the design of the Greenlanders' houses. Originally conceived as single-roomed structures, like the great hall at Brattahlid, they were divided into smaller spaces for warmth, and then into warrens of interconnected chambers, with the cows kept close by so the owners might benefit from the animals' body heat.

[image]Site of the great hall with sheep resting on the foundation. In a similar building, perhaps on the very spot, Leif Ericson may well have entertained family and friends with tales of his North American exploits. (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE]

When the Norsemen arrived in Greenland, they had the island and its waters to themselves. Now they had to contend with the Inuit, who were competing with them for animal resources. This was especially true in the Nordseta, the Greenlanders' traditional summer hunting grounds 240 miles north of the Eastern Settlement. For years the Norsemen had been traveling to the area; they killed the walruses, narwahls, and polar bears they needed for trade with Europe and for payment of Church tithes and royal taxes. They also boiled seal blubber, filled skin bags with the oil, and gathered valuable driftwood.

Inuit-Norse relations seem to have been fairly friendly at times, hostile at others. Few Inuit objects have been unearthed at the farms. Various Norse items, including bits of chain mail and a hinged bronze bar from a folding scale, have been found at Inuit camps in Greenland, mainland Canada, and on Baffin, Ellesmere, and Devon Islands. These are suggestive of commerce between the two peoples, but they may also have been seized by Inuit during raids on hunting parties in the Nordseta or plundered from farms.

Norse mention of the Inuit is curiously scant in the surviving documents. An old story tells of hunters coming across "small people," the Skraelings, with whom the Greenlanders apparently fought. The text says that when these people "are hit, their wounds turn white and they do not bleed, but when they die there is no end to the bleeding." The next account is that of Ivar Bardarson in his Description of Greenland; Bardarson reported on the take-over of the Western Settlement by the Skraelings, with the implication that they had killed the inhabitants. Years later, another source describes a Skraeling attack in the Eastern Settlement, in which 18 Greenlanders met their deaths and two boys and a woman were captured. As Canadian archaeologist Robert McGhee has pointed out, there is no physical evidence of massacres, the destruction of Norse property, or the takeover and reuse of Norse shelters by the Inuit, and nothing in Inuit tales of Inuit-Norse contact to back up Bardarson's claim.

One valley farm, excavated in 1976 and 1977, revealed just how desperate some of the Greenlanders had become. During a freezing winter, the farmers killed and ate their livestock, including a newborn calf and lamb, leaving the bones and hoofs on the ground. Even the deerhound, probably the companion of many a hunt, may have been slaughtered for food; one of its leg bones bore the knicks of a knifeblade. Similar remains were found on another farm, but if, like their masters, the animals were starving, their fatless meat would have offered little nourishment.

Whoever killed the animals was used to living in squalid conditions. The bone-littered earthen floors had been spread with an insulating layer of twigs that attracted mice and a variety of insect pests. Study of the farms' ancient insect fauna revealed the remains of flies. Brought inadvertently from Europe, the flies were dependent for their survival on the warm environment of the Norse houses and on the less than sanitary state of the interiors. Radiocarbon dating of their remains revealed that they died out suddenly when these conditions ceased to prevail around 1350, presumably when the structures were no longer inhabited. Some of the rooms had been used as latrines, possibly out of habit or because the occupants were reluctant to venture out into the searing cold. An ice core drilled from the island's massive icecap between 1992 and 1993 shows a decided cooling off in the Western Settlement during the mid-fourteenth century.

Ruins of a barn. Upright stones divided the cow stalls; a whale shoulder blade (white partition on right) also served as a divider. (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

A church graveyard at Herjolfsnes on the southernmost tip of Greenland sheds further light on the final days of the Eastern Settlement. Reports reached Danish archaeologists in the 1920s that the cemetery was being washed away by the sea and that bones and scraps of clothing from the graves were strewn on the beach. The archaeologists hurried to save what remained. The skeletons revealed a hard life; teeth showed heavy wear and the joints of many adults were thickened by rheumatism. Though the flesh had rotted away, the heavy woolen apparel the dead wore to the grave remained intact. No fewer than 30 robes, 17 hoods or cowls, five hats, and six woven stockings (knitting had yet to be invented) emerged from the frozen earth. Most of the robes were heavily patched, but were in good enough condition to be wearable.

The clothes were thought to reflect French and Dutch fashions, an unexpected find in a country supposedly out of touch with the rest of the world at the time. The generously cut hoods provided ample covering for shoulders and featured a long, decorative streamer known as a liripipe that hung down the back and could be wrapped across the face or around the hands to provide extra warmth. The most intriguing find seemed to be a tall cap, rather like a stove-pipe hat but flared at the back and without a brim. The archaeologists thought they recognized it as a Burgundian cap, which they had seen in European paintings of the high middle ages. Yet oddly here it was in Greenland. How were they to explain this anomaly?

Because of its location, Herjolfsnes had been the first port of call for ships from Iceland and northern Europe. Archaeologists wondered who might have come to Greenland after Norse traders ceased to arrive. The most likely answer was English sea rovers or Basque whalers. According to their own tradition, Basques founded a whaling station in Newfoundland as early as 1372. They had only to follow Leif Eriksson's route north to reach Greenland. The archaeologists working on the site surmised that these Basques might well have stepped ashore sporting the new fangled Burgundian cap, which some fashion-starved Greenlander rushed to copy. This suggested that the islanders, no matter how cut off they may have been from Europe, still hungered for things European.

The questions persist: what happened in the end to the last of the Greenlanders? what fate did the people who laid their loved ones to rest in this graveyard by the sea meet? who buried them when they died, and where? did the Greenlanders give up the island and depart for North America, as was said of the western settlers? It is hard to imagine such a mass-migration occurring, if for no other reason than that the islanders lacked the boats to carry it out. Without a ready source of nails, bolts, and wood for repairs, any ships that may have survived from earlier days would have made a leaky fleet indeed.

Were the Greenlanders killed off by the Black Plague? Iceland's population had been reduced by as much as two-thirds when an epidemic struck in 1402 and dragged on for two years. Norway had suffered similarly. Had the Greenlanders also been afflicted, mass graves would tell the tale of the dying, and none from this period have been discovered.

Were the islanders subject to intermittent pirate raids? It is conceivable that ship-borne marauders, rather than Skraelings, could have descended on the Western Settlement, but who could they have been? Basques? Perhaps. The archaeological date for the "Burgundian cap", set at A.D. 1500, has since been over-turned by radiocarbon dating. The new date for the cap is around 1300, suggesting that it reflected Nordic rather than southern European fashion. Such high-crowned caps are mentioned in Icelandic sagas from 1200-1300 and have been found as examples of women's fashion from this period. Archaeologists initially questioned the feasibility of the theory of an attack on the Greenlanders by Basques, believing the cap to be exemplary of Basque-influenced fashion, which seemed to preclude the possibility that the Norse settlers and the Basques were enemies. The re-dated cap is no longer evidence of friendly Greenlander-Basque relations, and the Basques are once again possible culprits in the mystery of the disappearance of the Greenlanders. English and German pirates also made several brutal attacks on Iceland in the fifteenth century; possibly they struck Greenland as well, though the new dates for the Greenlanders' clothing suggests minimal, if any, contact with Europeans.

One Inuit story, recorded by Niels Egede, a Dane who grew up in Greenland during the eighteenth century when Denmark recolonized the island, lends some credence to the story of European raids. The narrator, whose ancestors had passed down the tale, recounts how three alien ships sailed in from the southwest "to plunder." In the ensuing fray, several of the Norsemen, to whom he refers as Norwegians, were killed. "But after the Norwegians had mastered them," he relates, "two of the ships had to sail away and the third they captured. The next year a whole fleet arrived and fought with the Norwegians, plundering and killing to obtain food. The survivors put out their vessels, loaded with what was left, and sailed away south, leaving some people behind. The next year the pirates came back again, and when we saw them we fled, taking some of the Norwegian women and children with us up the fjord, and left the others in the lurch. When we returned in the autumn hoping to find some people again, we saw to our horror that everything had been carried away, and houses and farms were burned down so that nothing was left."

Once again the absence of any archaeological evidence of such violence leaves the tale unsubstantiated. Of all the houses so far studied in the Western Settlement, only one can be said to have been destroyed by fire. If such raids happened in the larger Eastern Settlement there would be signs of the havoc they wrought. The churches of both colonies seem to have been stripped bare, but a people intent on protecting their contents would have removed the sacred items and hidden them or, if the Greenlanders were indeed the irreligious rapscallions some sources say they were, sold them.

[image]A Danish monument to Eric the Red at Brattahlid (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the end, the answer to the Greenlander question may be a lot less dramatic than the theories that have surrounded it in mystery. Thomas McGovern of New York's Hunter College, who has participated in excavations in Greenland, has proposed that the Norsemen lost the ability to adapt to changing conditions. He sees them as the victims of hidebound thinking and of a hierarchical society dominated by the Church and the biggest land owners. In their reluctance to see themselves as anything but Europeans, the Greenlanders failed to adopt the kind of apparel that the Inuit employed as protection against the cold and damp or to borrow any of the Eskimo hunting gear. They ignored the toggle harpoon, which would have allowed them to catch seals through holes in the ice in winter when food was scarce, and they seem not even to have bothered with fishhooks, which they could have fashioned easily from bone, as did the Inuit. Instead, the Norsemen remained wedded to their farms and to the raising of sheep, goats, and cattle in the face of ever worsening conditions that must have made maintaining their herds next to impossible.

McGovern also believes that as life became harder, the birthrate declined. The young people who did come along may have seen a brighter future waiting somewhere else. The depredations of the plague in Iceland and in Norway could have created vacancies overseas that able-bodied Greenlanders might have filled. Through the years there may have been a slow but persistent drift of Greenlanders to those places that had been home to their ancestors, further reducing the island's dwindling population.

Not everyone would have left; some must have stayed on their homesteads, unable to give up old attachments and resolved to wait out their fate. One such stoic was found lying face down on the beach of a fjord in the 1540s by a party of Icelandic seafarers, who like so many sailors before them had been blown off course on their passage to Iceland and wound up in Greenland. The only Norseman they would come across during their stay, he died where he had fallen, dressed in a hood, homespun woolens and seal skins. Nearby lay his knife, "bent and much worn and eaten away." Moved by their find, the men took it as a memento and carried it with them to show when at last they reached home.

Dale Mackenzie Brown, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, was the editor of Time-Life Books' archaeology book series, Lost Civilizations.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America