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Trials of the Greenlandic Vikings

How vikings interacted with their environment, and their environment with them.

Published onApr 29, 2022
Trials of the Greenlandic Vikings

The people known as Vikings are thought of in terms of their many exploits. One topic which is relatively unknown is Viking activity in Greenland. Vikings settled Greenland around the same time as a climate anomaly. This oddity in climate has been called both the Medieval Warm Period and the Medieval Climate Anomaly. This anomaly resulted in an increase in temperature of 1-2o C. If this doesn’t seem like much, it’s a similar increase such as we’ve seen in our own time.1

Did climate affect the Viking settlement of Greenland? And if so, what other factors affected them? The short answer is yes, and many other factors such as economic and cultural.

The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) helped and hurt settlement. One way it helped was by allowing for longer summers and milder winters. Longer summers would have brought increased harvests while milder winters allowed sea ice to be reduced, making sea travel to and from the island easier. It’s important to realize that while yes, Vikings did raid, pirate, and pillage, they were also farmers and fishers. They brought with them a dairy economy, and the means and knowledge to farm, hunt, and fish.2

Farming would have been essential to starting a colony. Being on an island, as far west as you could be for the time, self sustainability would have been crucial. Wind based erosion, on top of the challenges of making the land farm-able and maintaining that farm-ability, would have been a hardship.

One team of scientists has found evidence of soil erosion caused by wind. <span class="soundcite" data-id="1258759990" data-start="0" data-end="8071.999999999999" data-plays="1">Strong wind activity</span> seems to have been active during the MWP. An increase in atmospheric circulation over Southern Greenland would have had many effects. One effect was increased soil erosion. Sediment cores

Example of sediment cores

taken from Greenland’s coasts show periods, or pulses, of intense wind activity in the form of sand deposits. These strong wind pulses would have lasted decades and stripped valuable top soil while depositing sand. These strong winds also assisted in bringing polar waters back to the shores. This would have made things difficult for travel by decreasing the amount of time the coasts were ice free.3

When the Vikings arrived in Greenland, they would have encountered a land which had never been farmed. Farming in an area which has never been farmed is challenging enough. Adding wind based soil erosion only increases the difficulty. Attempts were made in an effort to “Europeanize” the landscape. One effort made was the creation of irrigation channels. A new practice was lining the irrigation channels with kitchen waste and compost materials in order to reduce water loss. Another effort was to enrich the soil with manuring techniques. Some sites were found to have used a manure type called "plaggen". This involves using turf as bedding for the livestock, and collecting this material, plus the manure, after a period to apply it to a plot of land. These efforts were made in opposition of wind based erosion. As weather conditions continued to down spiral, limited resources forced the people to prioritize where their crop saving efforts went. This would result in increasing areas where growing crops wouldn’t be viable, but also specific areas focused on land enrichment.4

Trade is an important part of life for a community with few naturally occurring resources. One of the more in demand items was Ivory. Walrus ivory was a hot commodity when Vikings first settled Greenland. Ivory was used for artistic purposes, specifically carvings.

10th Century Anglo-Saxon Reliquary Cross

Figure of Jesus is carved from Walrus Ivory

In the centuries following the start of settlement, walrus ivory began to fall out of favor. The walrus ivory trade was hurt by elephant ivory. Elephant ivory was always around, but over time it began easier for artisans to procure. Muslim Arab traders made connections and soon elephant tusks reached ports such as Constantinople, Italy, and France. Elephant ivory was seen as a luxury item. One example of this is how Charlemagne’s artisans only used elephant ivory in their crafts, even when it was hard to come by. Economic activity with the mother country, Norway, also declined. Among many reasons, one main reason was the overbearing nature of the Church. The Norwegian church continued to increase taxation of the Greenlanders to the point where communication and trade ceased between the two. Greenland found a new trading partner with England and began transitioning to the accumulation of a new trade resource, stockfish. Stockfish became so economically important that in Iceland accounts of wealth and taxes were listed in amounts of stockfish.5

The gentle warming of a harsh frozen land, followed by intense weather conditions, rising sea levels6, changing economic factors, and increasingly unstable farming conditions were just some of the factors which led the Greenlanders to initially settle, then leave the island. More research into Greenlandic Norse settlement is needed.

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