This article was written as a literature trend and review article for a third year environmental archaeology course. The goal was to explore 15 articles dated after 1980 in 3000-3500 words. Thus its limits. I have added to the bottom of the bibliography some additional related papers. If you wish to offer others to add to the collection please feel free to contact me and I'll add them.
"The ideal farmstead had ample pastures, fields of barley—cultivated more to make beer than bread…"1McGovern's "Cows, Harp Seals, and Churchbells" serves as a good multi-causal discussion of the creation and collapse of the Norse Greenland colony as it was understood in 1980. It reviews a range of sources including various literary collections that are sadly less complete than the majority of Medieval European collections. The broad range of climate sources referenced including ice-cores, palynology, sea-level, faunal analysis and sea ice are more comprehensive than those previously available improving the previous climate models. McGovern is clear that grain farming never succeeded hence no beer without imports. The article focusses on the faunal evidence with table II doing a good job of presenting different classes of dwellings and their associated faunal remains. The author makes a point of the later scarcity of larger boats due to a lack of wood and iron. This is difficult to balance with the production of iron at the Vinland site, and the record of timber export from Labrador to Greenland – see for example the larch chests2 mentioned by Hoidel. Additional points worth noting in light of future articles include: a "rapid"3 settlement and collapse; palynology that indicates "no radical alteration of vegetation since Norse times";4 the dismissal of the Thule as the sole cause of the settlement collapse; and an estimated colony size of 5000-9700.5
We find the trope, common to this period, of the Norse being unwilling to adopt Inuit technologies. In this case the references are to skin clothing, skin boats, and harpoons. This idea is 'supported' by the absence of these items in the rather skimpy archaeological remains. This is a very difficult conclusion to draw from an absence of information in a record that is subject to a variety of taphonomic processes which may differentially impact one class of item over another. For example metal harpoons would be recognizable, valuable, and later easily reworked by Inuit salvaging sites left empty following the departure of the Norse. There is also a question of how needful a harpoon is to a culture that had barbed arrowheads and bows. Similarly skin clothing or boats may have been reused, may have deteriorated faster, or may have been simply less warm than the clothes that are found. None of these options are expressed by McGovern who simply latches on to the common trope and re-uses it in later pages as the primary 'solution' to the climatic shifts the Norse faced in the 14th and 15th centuries.
McGovern does a good job in the climatic change section of reviewing both the proxy indications (sea ice, ice-cores, tree rings) and the expected impact of the climate changes on items such as particular species of seals available to the diet as reflected in the archaeological record. Of particular interest is the discussion on the impact of the increasing variability of the climate on resource gathering.
An adaptive settlement pattern involving a shift to a shore based economy is also offered. This idea is particularly interesting as recent thought suggests that this may have happened as younger members of the society moved to Iceland. Disappointingly this article ends not with a bang but with a whimper as McGovern leaves us without a clear statement of what happened at the end of the colony.
Hoidal's "Norsemen and the North American Forests" is a brief article from the same period worth considering for its proofs of Greenlanders lumbering in North America and for its re-enforcement of the idea of the hostility between natives and Norse and the "lack of technology clearly superior"6 to the native level.
Between them these two early articles present many of the foundational elements of the understanding of the Norse Greenland settlement that will re-occur and be modified throughout later years.
In the 1990s a number of additional articles on the Norse settlements appear with Stull providing the best overview from an environmental viewpoint. Stull's placing of the size of the colony at 30007 based on the number of farms found is a third of the size McGovern suggests. Palynology also shows some change from McGovern's idea of "no radical change"8 with Stull indicating a shift from a pre-Norse tree dominated to post-Norse meadow plant dominated landscape - an idea which persists in later years. Stull also gives clear indication of grain production (rye) at least on a small scale (perhaps for beer) contrasting with McGovern's statement that grain farming never succeeded.
The discussion of the faunal remains and hunting techniques is based on McGovern's further work in the 1980s and thus resembles the discussion above. Since both McGovern and Stull rely on Rousell's 1941 work on the housing remains, again there is a strong similarity between the two papers.
Stull also reiterates the idea of the Norse being so inflexible that they cannot adopt ideas from the Inuit – directly referencing McGovern in doing so. In his conclusion he reinforces this by setting up two extreme options. The Norse could stay with their failing system, or adopt totally the Inuit ways. The idea that the Greenlandic Norse might adopt a hybrid model, by assimilating elements of the Inuit culture as they did with other cultures, is never offered.
In "Change of Diet" we are presented with new data on the Norse Greenlander's diet that does not rely on McGovern's previous faunal analysis. Although very focused on two scientific measurements rather than a broad cross-disciplinary approach this article presents its results in a very readable fashion. The paper uses a Carbon 13-14 fraction to determine the percentage of diet from marine vs terrestrial sources, and then uses this fraction to correct the AMS dates to allow accurate dating of bone deposition. This presents a range of diet percentages for different time periods, thus allowing a new data point to balance the percentages of bone finds provided by McGovern a decade earlier.Arneborg lists the colony size as 4000-50009 re-enforcing the 1990's impression of a smaller colony than suggested in the 1980s. The idea that the faunal counts from the middens may not be a good proxy for the Norse diet is re-enforced by referring to Renfrew and Bahn's 1991 methodology paper. Taphonomic concerns around preservation of fish bones are expressed on along with suggestions for further isotope testing to determine the breakdown of marine elements in the diet. The most interesting conclusion of this paper is that the diet seems to have shifted from 20% marine protein in the early years to 80% in the later years.10 This would present a reasonable adaptation to a shifting environment, adding more marine resources as the support for the cows and sheep declined in the cooling period.
Fricke & O'Neil add a small but interesting element to the discussion of the timing of the cooling of Greenland through the use of oxygen isotope analysis of teeth to suggest a 6°C11 drop in temperature at the same timeframe suggested in other papers.
The decade beginning in 2000 brought a marked increase in the number of articles related to the Greenland Norse environment, perhaps in response to growing modern concerns around climate change.
Lynnerup & Nørby's "Greenland Norse" article again visits the question of the base population of the Greenland colonies continuing the trend of reducing the population estimate to just over 2000 people.12 The average level is suggested to have been 137713 with 25%14 of the population in the western settlement. There is also an early mention of the idea of the young people leaving the colony. This is coupled with the data that Scandinavia underwent a 60% plague related population reduction (30% in Iceland)15 at this time opening up more desirable lands and opportunities in the home countries. Their calculations show that an emigration rate of just 4 couples per year16 could have collapsed the colony in the accepted timeframe.
Their genetic analysis rules out a recurring suggestion that the Norse might have simply integrated into the Inuit culture since no trace of European mitochondrial DNA indicates no European women were among the ancestors of the current Greenland Inuit.
Oglive et al's "North Atlantic Climate" provides a clear indication of the growth of climate science by the 2000's with the breadth and depth of the climate model presented far exceeding earlier works. The first half of the article provides an overview and details the climatological elements (ocean currents, air movement patterns, sea ice, etc) that impacted both the Norse Era Greenland/Iceland and the modern (measured) climate. In linking this information to the past they rely on not only ice-core results but also marine sediment cores and documentary evidence to confirm the idea of Norse expansion during a warm period from 900 to 120017 with cooling periods around 1150 and 1370.18 The authors offer no speculation as to how precisely the change in climate may have led to the decline and demise of the Greenland colony. Barrett's 'Contact, Continuity, and Collapse' adds a great deal of depth to the discussion with Arneborg's 'Norse Greenland' chapter being of particular value through a review of the contemporary understanding. Much of the material has previously been touched on but the addition of (then) new information of additional imports from North America such as bison hair and brown bear fur in a 14th century context19 and Disko Bay whetstones20 extend further the date range of contact. The idea of the Thule picking up items at abandoned Norse farms is also expressed and is relevant to earlier discussions (see McGovern 1980). The (then) recent work at 'farm beneath the sand' is clearly impacting a number of elements not the least the extending the date for the western settlement's abandonment by a number of decades.Buckland and Panagiotakopulu's paper addresses the oddity of the lack of finds of fish bones by suggesting that the bones may have been ground up and used.21 The additional levels of detail coming from the 'farm beneath the sand' excavations are particularly apparent here not just in the discussions of the different types of flies found and their meaning to the abandonment process, but as the record contains additions for feeding mussel shells and seaweed to cattle indicating yet more adaption on the part of the Norse. At this point in the record it is worth re-iterating their point that "no site has yet yielded its last inhabitants"22 leaving the question of how the end came about open.
Orlove's 2005 "Human adaptation" allows an opportunity to check how the information about the Greenland colony collapse is being seen in a wider context by scholars not as intimately familiar with the area as those discussed so far. Immediately we see the acceptance of lower population numbers with Orlove suggesting 3000.23 His assigned ending date of 1350-140024 for the entire colony rather than just the western settlement is clearly contradicted by other items above showing his incomplete knowledge of the subject matter. Orlove provides a decently complete review of the faunal remains, and interprets it with regards to activities such as sealing, hunting, and raising cattle in a way that mostly coincides with the other articles presented here. The suggestion that the Norse "did not receive, or seek, goods"25 both contradicts the evidence of Inuit items in Norse middens, and dismisses out of hand the idea that some of the trade goods sent to Norway might have come from Inuit hunters by trade. Orlove presents both the idea of the colony returning to Iceland, and the idea of a die-off, although preferring the die-off. He supports this with the discussion of the butchered dog remains without considering that the work might have been done by the Inuit when they were scavenging the site. In drawing his conclusions across the Mayan, Greenlandic, and Dust Bowl collapses Orlove stresses that they show elements of adaptations but with cultural limits, which reflects well the end of the Norse Greenland colony. Sadly this set of conclusions also includes the recurring trope that the Norse could not adapt properly due to unwillingness to adopt Inuit practices. Orlove also references Diamond's idea that there was "increased mortality"26 among the Norse which is simply not supported in the archaeological record.
Mikkelsen and Kuijpers offer another interesting geologic item that may have impacted the Norse Greenland colonies. Greenland is sinking, now and during the Norse period. Thus in addition to facing shorter growing seasons due to cooling, there was simply less physical area to graze on year over year. The sea level rise was over a metre27 during the period of the Norse settlement with the largest part of that coming at the end. For Brattahlid in specific this would have meant an extra 100m28 of the current fjord was available for grazing at the beginning of the settlement period with a loss of approximately 50ha over the life of the settlement. Another location to the north (perhaps a shieling) lost a further 200 ha.29 This rise in sea level may already have masked fishing locales located near the sea.The article also provides some additional context listing the water as 4°C30 warmer during the early Norse period, and the graveyards becoming permafrost at the end of the settlement.
In "Norse Greenland Settlement" Dugmore, Keller, and McGovern also strive to present a holistic review of the known information including suggestions for the collapse of the colony. In the historical recap section a broad range of factors for the decline and possible triggers for the collapse are discussed but unfortunately we also see McGovern's favourite target the "inability to adapt"31 coming out at least three times. It is nice to see, later in the article, that McGovern accepts the modern research about increasing marine protein in the diet and concludes that the Norse seal hunters were capable of feeding colonies and expanding the hunt as required with their own technologies. His earlier suggestions of a population approaching 10000 are also reduced in this paper to the now common 2000-3000.The article begins with an interesting twist throwing the well understood events into a new light of economic modeling – we are asked to consider that it may be that farming was there to support the walrus hunt, rather than the reverse. The conditions that impacted the walrus trade, such as the addition of elephant ivory into Europe are also discussed as is the possibility that these impacts might have pulled people back to Iceland from Greenland to help in the stockfish trade as the walrus trade declined. The logical conclusion of this train of thought when combined with the previous mention of seal hunting is that the Norse could have survived indefinitely, but that economically the colony became non-viable and was abandoned.
Another interesting idea presented is that the Thule migration eastwards may have involved them become more skilled and trained as warriors, while the Norse migration westward was selecting for farmers instead of warriors. If true this could have led to a balancing of the combat potentials of the two cultures. As was pointed out earlier the decline in population over the terminal phase of the colony requires only a handful of deaths or departures per year to collapse in the given timeframe. Low levels of conflict with a more trained culture could have provided part of that attrition.The 'high resolution' investigation by Edwards et al, uses a very tightly dated peat core from a location chosen to provide a more local pollen source than a large lakebed would. The paper reviews the standard facts using a mid-range population model of 4000-5000, and expresses the idea of cultural resistance to change as one reason for the end of the colony. The background does, however, rely heavily on McGovern's work, where the paleoenvironmental sections are more independent. Although the article makes no mention of barley in the Norse levels it does show the modern area with barley growing32 and a similar climatic profile to that of the Norse period.
The paper adds to the common pollen analysis by also recording charcoal in the samples. The pollen shift around the time of the settlement shows not only a large reduction in birch, an increase in herbs (including imported Norse herbs such as sorrel), and coprophilous pollens indicating grazing animals, but also a large increase in charcoal counts suggesting land clearance through burning. The pollen samples did include a few grains of hordeum which may indicate cereal plantings. Following those layers there are others that show signs of increased soil erosion perhaps caused by the tree clearances. The pollen analysis may also support some removal of birch trees before the date of the settlement of this farm. Such removal might be contemporaneous with pre-settlement hunters suggested by Dugmore. The high resolution of this study allows a discussion of whether (and when) activities may have shifted from one to the other of the farms in this valley, which is a very impressive level of analysis.
As with the 2000's the decade beginning in 2010 is showing a great deal of focus on the record of the Norse in Greenland, likely due to the same driver of modern climate change. Even though the decade is less than a third complete at the time of this writing, the papers easily obtained on the topic rival the previous decade in raw numbers. Perren et al present a complex analysis of lake cores comparing specifically the impacts of the Norse period and the modern period on those samples. Ledger et al examine a shieling environment such as mentioned in earlier papers but covered in far more depth in a multidisciplinary way.
The shielings discussed by Ledger et al represent a strategy of moving animals away from the home fields to more remote locations for part of each year to allow growth and haying in the home field and spread the load to a number of smaller locations. Since Edwards was an author on this paper as well as the previous 'high resolution' paper it is not surprising to find similar methodologies in use including examination of the charcoal levels. The settlement timeframe matches the high resolution site, although at a muted level which accords well with a remote location that is not yet inhabited. This is followed by a higher value horizon suggesting the shieling being opened, an intensification phase, and an abandonment phase, as expected, in the 1300s.33 The palynology of the site suggests a more complex life than that of a simple shieling with the site likely being developed into a full farm before being abandoned.
The introduction to Perren's work sets the stage for their analysis by placing the Norse Greenland population at the more recent lower levels, and repeating the usual ideas of a collapse triggered by climate change, thankfully without the suggestion of a resistance to change. The site selected reflects a very prosperous area during the Norse period and thus can be expected to show the greatest level of response to their presence. The palynology of the cores is very briefly discussed as it is not the focus of the paper but the results disclosed do follow the model outlined in previous papers. Much to the surprise of the authors the diatom and stable isotope analysis of the cores, however, show only a very low level of response to the climate shifts of the warming period and little ice age, and the associated Norse occupation indicating that the impact to the local climate was not huge. In the Norse period diatom markers consistent with soil erosion during the 1280-1350 Norse peak are seen34 as are other markers matching the activity, just at a muted level. There has been a much larger response since 198035 which allows the authors a chance to speak to modern climate change.
The overall progression of the published material about the Norse occupation of Greenland shows a fairly consistent set of activities and dates being progressively elaborated as more detailed analysis technologies and techniques appear through the years. There is an openness to the suggestion of new social interpretations, such as the possible economic model for the collapse – which is also elaborated on as time passes. Early ideas can, however, remain in place, even without proof, being repeated from paper to paper. The question that catches everyone's attention – what happened to the last of the Norse – remains as yet unsolved. The progressive layers of technology and technique have merely allowed the disproving of any currently known site as the 'last site' and the refutation of ideas such as a culture that slowly starved to death. Sadly it appears that we will still need to wait for publication of Peter Henriksen's paper detailing the full results of the 300 Kg of midden material from the early settlement period that contained burned barley grains36 in order to settle the question of growing grains in Greenland and find out when the beer went away.
Arneborg, Jette, Jan Heinemeier, Niels Lynnerup, Henrik L Nielsen, Niels Rud, and Árný E Sveinbjörnsdóttir, "Change of diet of the Greenland Vikings determined from stable carbon isotope analysis and 14c dating of their bones", Radiocarbon 41.2 (1999): 157-168
Arneborg, Jette, "Norse Greenland: Reflections on Settlement and Depopulation" in Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic, Edited by James H. Barrett, 163-182 Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2003
Buckland, Paul C, and Eva Panagiotakopulu, "Archaeology and the Palaeoecology of the Norse Atlantic Islands: a Review", in Mortensen, A. and Arge, S.V., eds. Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic, Annales Societatis Scientiarum Foeroensis Supplementum XLIV. Tórshavn 2004: 136-150
Dugmore, Andrew J., Christian Keller, and Thomas H. McGovern, "Norse Greenland Settlement: Reflections on Climate Change, Trade, and the Contrasting Fates of Human Settlements in the North Atlantic Islands", Arctic Anthropology 44.1 (2007): 12-36
Edwards, Kevin J., J. Edward Schofield, Dmitri Mauquoy, "High resolution paleoenvironmental and chronological investigations of Norse landnám at Tasiusaq, Eastern Settlement, Greenland", Quaternary Research 69.1 (2008): 1-15
Fricke, Henry C. and James R. O'Neil, "Oxygen Isotope competition of human tooth enamel from medieval Greenland: Linking climate and society", Geology 23.10 (1995): 869-872
Hoidal, Oddvar K., "Norsemen and the North American Forests" Journal of Forest History, Vol. 24.4 (Oct., 1980): 200-203
Ledger, Paul M, Kevin J Edwards and J Edward Schofield, "Shieling activity in the Norse Eastern Settlement: Palaeoenvironment of the 'Mountain Farm', Vatnahverfi, Greenland", The Holocene 23.6 (2013): 810-822
Lynnerup, Niels and Søren Nørby, "The Greenland Norse: bones, graves, computers, and DNA", Polar Record 40 (2004): 107-111
McGovern, Thomas H., "Cows, Harp Seals, and Churchbells: Adaptation and Extinction in Norse Greenland" Human Ecology, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Sep., 1980): 245-275
Mikkelsen, Naja and Antoon Kuijpers "The Norse in Greenland and late Holocene sea-level change", Polar Record 44 (2008): 45-50
Ogilvie, A. E. J., L. K. Barlow and A. E. Jennings, "North Atlantic climate c. AD 1000: Millennial reflections on the Viking discoveries of Iceland, Greenland and North America", Weather 55(2000): 34-45
Orlove, Ben, "Human adaptation to climate change: a review of three historical cases and some general perspectives", Environmental Science & Policy 8 (2005): 589-600
Perren, Bianca B, Charly Massa, Vincent Bichet, Émilie Gauthier, Olivier Mathieu, Christophe Petit and Hervé Richard, "A paleoecological perspective on 1450 years of human impacts from a lake in southern Greenland", The Holocene, 22.9 (2012):1025-1034
Stull, Scott D, "Colonization in a marginal zone: the Norse in Greenland", Crosscurrents, 4 (1990): 1-15
Svend E. Albrethsen and Christian Keller, "The Use of the Saeter in Medieval Norse Farming in Greenland", Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 23, No. 1/2 (1986), pp. 91-107
Jette Arneborg, Niels Lynnerup, Jan Heinemeier, Jeppe Møhl, Niels Rud, and Árný E. Sveinbjörnsd&pacute;ttir, "Norse Greenland Dietary Economy ca. AD 980–ca. AD 1450: Introduction", Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 3 (2012):1–39
Barlow, L. K., Sadler, J. P., Ogilvie, A. E. J., Buckland, P. C., Amorosi, T., Ingimundarson, J. H., Skidmore, P., Dugmore, A. J. and McGovern, T. H. (1997) "Interdisciplinary investigations of the end of the Norse Western Settlement in Greenland". The Holocene, 7, pp. 489-499
Vincent Bichet, Emilie Gauthier, Charly Massa, Bianca Perren, and Hervé Richard, "The history and impacts of farming activities in south Greenland: an insight from lake deposits", Polar Record.
Rosie R. Bishop, Mike J. Church, Andrew J. Dugmore, Christian Koch Madsen, Niels A. Møller, "A charcoal-rich horizon at Ø69, Greenland: evidence for vegetation burning during the Norse landnám?", Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 3890-3902
Buckland, P. C., Amorosi, T., Barlow, L. K., Dugmore, A. J., Mayewski, P., McGovern, T. H., Ogilvie, A. E. J., Sadler, J. P. and Skidmore, P. (1996) "Bioarchaeological and climatological evidence for the fate of Norse farmers in medieval Greenland". Antiquity, 70, pp. 88-96
Gunhild Eriksdotter, "Did the Little Ice Age Affect Indoor Climate and Comfort?: Re-theorizing Climate History and Architecture from the Early Modern Period" Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Volume 13, Number 2, Spring 2013, pp. 24-42
Jonathan Grove, "The Place of Greenland in Medieval Icelandic Saga Narrative", Journal of the North Atlantic, 2:30-51. 2009.
Anne-Sofie Gräslund, "How Did the Norsemen in Greenland See Themselves? Some Reflections on 'Viking Identity'", Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 2:131-137
Gunnar Karlsson, "The Ethnicity of the Vinelanders", Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 2:126-130
Christian Keller, "Furs, Fish, and Ivory: Medieval Norsemen at the Arctic Fringe", Journal of the North Atlantic, 3(1):1-23. 2010
Lilla Kopár, "The Use of Artistic Media in Norse Greenland", Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 2:102–113
Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, "The Significance of Remote Resource Regions for Norse Greenland", Scripta Islandica 56 (2005): 13-54
Ingrid Mainland "Pastures lost? A dental microwear study of ovicaprine diet and management in Norse Greenland", Journal of Archaeological Science 33 (2006) 238-252
Ingrid Mainland, Paul Halstead "The Economics of Sheep and Goat Husbandry in Norse Greenland" Arctic Anthropology, Volume 42, Number 1, 2005, pp. 103-120
Charly Massa, Vincent Bichet, Émilie Gauthier, Bianca B. Perren, Olivier Mathieu, Christophe Petit, Fabrice Monna, Jacques Giraudeau, Rémi Losno, Hervé Richard, "A 2500 year record of natural and anthropogenic soil erosion in South Greenland", Quaternary Science Reviews 32 (2012) 119-130
Thomas H. McGovern, Gerald Bigelow, Thomas Amorosi and Daniel Russell, "Northern Islands, Human Error, and Environmental Degradation: A View of Social and Ecological Change in the Medieval North Atlantic" Human Ecology, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Sep., 1988)
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Thomas H. McGovern, Albina Palsdóttir, "Preliminary Report of a Medieval Norse Archaeofauna from Brattahlið North Farm (KNK 2629), Qassiarsuk, Greenland", NORSEC Zooarchaeology Laboratory REPORT No.34 (2006)
R. Monastersky, "Viking Teeth Recount Sad Greenland Tale", Science News, Vol. 146, No. 20 (Nov. 12, 1994), p. 310
Eva Panagiotakopulu & Peter Skidmore & Paul Buckland, "Fossil insect evidence for the end of the Western Settlement in Norse Greenland", Naturwissenschaften (2007) 94:300–306
Julie M. Ross, Cynthia Zutter, "Comparing Norse Animal Husbandry Practices: Paleoethnobotanical Analyses from Iceland and Greenland", Arctic Anthropology, Volume 44, Number 1, 2007, pp. 62-86
J. Edward Schofield, Kevin J. Edwards and J. Andy McMullen, "Modern pollen–vegetation relationships in subarctic southern Greenland and the interpretation of fossil pollen data from the Norse landnám", Arctic Anthropology, Volume 44, Number 1, 2007, pp. 62-86
Longbin Sha, Hui Jiang and Karen Luise Knudsen, "Diatom evidence of climatic change in Holsteinsborg Dyb, west of Greenland, during the last 1200 years", The Holocene 22(3) 347–358 2011
Jonathan Wooding, "A paradise for the extractive industries: European reports of land to the West from St Brendan to the Newfoundland voyages", Parergon, Volume 12, Number 2, January 1995, pp. 97-114