Tag Archives: Orkney

Vikings in the Atlantic: confusion and Christianity

A friend of mine who rejoices in that most ambiguous of titles, ‘independent scholar’, was telling me in a pub the other day that he was trifling with some research on the possibility of Irish settlement in Iceland before the Vikings got there, which still seems to be somewhat under-explored, such research as there is being a little on the, er, free-standing side of things. So I was interested and encouraging, and then came home, later on looked at blogs and discovered that all the archaeology in the world is suddenly coming to light on this very question! I exaggerate, but, have a look at this, which is about Greenland.

There is a debate (isn’t there in all of my entries?) about Norse Greenland. In the first place, it has become deeply involved in arguments over climate change and the so-called medieval warm period, because it seems that the Vikings were able to get much more out of southern Greenland’s green land than can nowadays be got. There is also however a debate over what happened to the Norse settlement, and this debate has one way or another to take into account the Inuit tribes who were at this time apparently spreading from Northern into Southern Greenland. The timing of this spread is in dispute, the evidence is scanty, but it’s obviously crucial; were the Norse, who were certainly in occasional contact with the Inuit, actually driven out by them? or were they just unable to cope with a failing climate, uncognisant of an environment which turned out not to be as much like home ecologically as their farming methods had assumed, and/or unwilling to adopt Inuit techniques like seal-hunting from kayaks that ensured survival in these tough conditions for the Northern people?1

Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, nowadays

Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, nowadays

In this argument there has developed a good-guys bad-guys division between two Inuit or pre-Inuit cultures, the Dorset culture, who seem to have not made it very far into Greenland and to have disappeared from the record soon after 1000, and their apparent successors or supplanters the Thule Inuit, who did better, came south and formed the basis of the Inuit population that remains in Greenland to this day. When the Vikings first arrived, their contacts must have been with the Dorset people, and therefore in the far north, occasional, and presumably not very significant for the settlements in the south. If someone did drive the Norse out of Greenland, it would have to have been the Thule people. Debates about when exactly the Dorset culture faded from the record are still lively, but there’s no way it’s fourteenth-century late. So.

The new research I linked to above, however, goes in the other direction. At Kimmirut in Baffin Island a site has been dug which has produced woven yarn and tally-sticks, neither of which are paralleled from any other Dorset site and which therefore suggest contact with outsiders. The reporting archaeologist has some ideas about where some of this stuff is coming from, because:

Other artifacts from the area, such as a small wooden carving of a mask, missing its nose, also suggest face-to-face contacts with Europeans.

That’s because, although the mask is carved in a Dorset Inuit manner, it shows a long and possibly bearded face with straight and heavy eyebrows, wearing what may be Viking headgear.

Nonetheless, the problem lies in the dating, because the yarn apparently dates to some hundreds of years before the Viking settlements in Greenland were a going concern. (The article doesn’t say how they dated it, but even C14 doesn’t miss by whole centuries.) As the article says:

So, as Sutherland said, if you believe that spinning was not an indigenous technique that was used in Arctic North America, then you have to consider the possibility that as “remote as it may seem,” these finds may represent evidence of contact with Europeans prior to the Vikings’ arrival in Greenland.

They quite carefully refuse to pronounce on whether or not the yarn must be of European-style manufacture, but it’s interesting all the same. If Irish on Iceland, Irish on Greenland? And if on Greenland, Baffin? Brendan come home, all is forgiven…

Aerial view of the Brough of Deerness

Aerial view of the Brough of Deerness

Meanwhile, on another lump of rock where there certainly was Norse settlement, it’s turned out not to be quite what was expected. When the Vikings took over in Orkney, they are usually supposed to have been raw and pagan still, fresh from Norway or wherever, and generally taking no prisoners. A really good place to fortify yourself in such an endeavour is this Orcadian stack, Brough of Deerness, on which we have for some time known there was some settlement. That settlement includes a church, which again we knew had a precursor, but now the precursor has been dug, and it turned up a coin of King Edgar of England (959-75). That might pretty much make it contemporary with the Viking take-over, though of course Vikings didn’t always take their coins in for reminting when it was ordered and it’s possible that coin had been in circulation a good long time by the time it was deposited. All the same, it may suggest that one thing the new warlords did was set up a chapel, or at least, keep one going. As the excavating officer, Dr James Barrett of Cambridge, says: “It shows us that, even in the most Scandinavianised regions of Viking Age Britain, power was maintained by eventually accepting the local religion, in this case Christianity.” So remodel your Viking chieftain image accordingly…

(Hat tip for both of these to David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, which also ran this article at the same time about the much-better-known Norse settlement at l’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland and its visitor centre.)


1. I actually got my picture of this from Jared Diamond’s Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive (London 2005), which is not exactly medieval history and definitely has a case to make. I should probably do some more reading round this if they’re going to keep finding stuff…