Tag Archives: Greenland

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

I’m sorry, I meant ‘Medieval Climatic Anomaly’

Temparature reconstruction plot from the IPCC's 2007 report

It took me a little while of thinking to work out why I don’t like the term ‘medieval climatic anomaly’, which I stumbled across following this notice at News for Medievalists (before that furore broke) about a new book, Herb Maschner, Owen Mason and Robert McGhee (edd.), The Northern World, AD 900-1400 (Salt Lake City 2009). It’s not that I’m immediately down on the book; firstly it looks quite important in its way (though why do so many of our climate proxies have to come from Greenland, which we already have reason to suspect may have been different? This has caused to me to wonder if there was sediment core work done on, say, Lake Geneva, and it turns out that such work is older than I am, so really, I ought to read more before sounding off. Anyway!) and secondly I haven’t read it yet and can’t tell exactly where between science and anthropology it falls and how much of either I might be able to follow. But there is this term, for what I know as the Medieval Warm Period, and it bothers me.

After a short while pondering it seems to me that it defuses the controversy of the term ‘Medieval Warm Period‘, of which after all we have seen enough just round these parts lately, but not necessarily in helpful directions. To call the warm peak an ‘anomaly’ suggests that it’s odd, ignorable, not significant, whereas what little I understand of these things suggests that these changes of graph are either cyclical or caused, what they aren’t is random. On the other hand, one of the battles over this (for all the wrong reason, it seems to me, but you know this) is whether any current change in our climate is ‘anomalous’, so maybe this is actually a stronger term. I’m just not sure it reads that way. Then the other thing is the abandonment of the descriptive adjective ‘warm’. The result is that someone who hadn’t met the term before wouldn’t easily see why it might matter. Now is that a crazy-filter, or a strange attempt to avoid courting persecution by activist sceptics by not ‘prejudging’ the issue? I hope not the latter, because that leads to Bad Science (as does that link) but the former is a bit objectionable too. Surely what needs to happen with this debate is that it reaches more people, not fewer? On the other hand, only a few months ago I was arguing that the material of this book shouldn’t be allowed to be influenced by that debate or be part of it…

As you can tell, I am a bit conflicted about how to discuss this whole issue. Not least because, if it should turn out on investigation that, actually, this here ‘medieval climatic anomaly’ wasn’t as important in Western Europe in the tenth century as has sometimes been preached, I lose my principal handle on social change in that period. And dammit, I like that handle.

Links of coolness (mainly featuring death or actual cold, but some brighter)

Well, I’ve been busy for so long that quite a lot of exciting stuff has come out of the ground or otherwise appeared on the web. First and foremost, it would seem that some of the stuff presented at that Bristol conference that I said I wasn’t allowed to talk about has now been released.

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

At the conference they had video from a microcamera intruded into the coffin of this man, who was once Barbarossa’s Chancellor, but hadn’t yet opened it. Now they have, which I learn from this article on The Times‘s website, in case your German’s not up to that first one, and I found the Times one because of this post by Michelle Moran at her History Buff blog. In case you can’t see, he is holding a chalice and a book. Go and look at the pictures! Rarely is a dead body so amazing.

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

So, I said I’d tell you and so I have. But of course just lately most of the focus has been on another set of dead bodies, the fifty-one apparently-Vikings at Weybridge, Dorset. A quick sken at the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog reveals ten separate articles just on the front page and I seem to remember that there were more. Here I think I should give the palm of coverage to my colleague Rory Naismith who has covered it for the Cambridge Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic’s blog here. If you want an expert’s take, there is one, albeit suitably cautious.

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

One more set of dead bodies with no images as yet, but in some ways more interesting, is a group of female burials that have been found at Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh, in Devon. The archæologist in charge, Sam Turner, is saying that this suggests there was a nunnery on the site. I see the reasoning, but I wonder, because of the dating, which from the article in the South Devon Herald Express to which David Beard linked at Archaeology in Europe, which continues invaluable, they say only that the site is at least 1000 years old. I think, reading between the lines, that this is because they have found a church underlying the current ruins, which are Norman (and only this ruined because of a fire in 1992, worse luck), and since those are Norman these must be Saxon. What the relation of the burials to either church is not clear from the short notes in the papers, or whether the bodies themselves have yet been dated, and I’d very much appreciate any further information anyone might have. The reason I’m cautious is that in 1018 there was a monastery, Buckfast Abbey, founded just down the hill from this sight, and so the dating is kind of crucial to work out whether the abbey was replacing a nunnery, moving in alongside, or merely a resumption of monastic life in male reform style on a site where female religious observance had ceased long before. Or, whether they’ve just struck a bit of the graveyard where women were, as these are not the first burials recovered from the churchyard (as you’d expect). So, cart before the archæological horse? Or genuinely archæological evidence of a very late Saxon double monastery? Apart from anything else, I note that in 2005 Andrew Reynolds and Dr Turner published this site as a monastery, so I’d very much like to know what the earlier evidence was, and will keep my eyes and ears open.1 Hey Andrew, you’re not reading are you? (Worth a try…)

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Away from bodies, but back to Vikings, and also relating to arguments that have been had here about our favourite bone of contention, it should be noted if you didn’t—I got it from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe again—that a new temperature index for medieval Greenland has been compiled from sea-shells pulled out of sediment cores, and shows a fairly severe collapse in the temperature in that area in the decades after the settlement of Iceland in c. 890. Of course, I’m more interested in the bit where they say, “winter temperature variability increased between 990 and 1120, a time when written records suggest that crops occasionally failed. By 1250, things heated up again and summer temperatures reached 10 degrees Celsius, possibly the highest in three centuries. Within decades, though, temperatures began to plunge again”, but the reminder that all our temperature data (and this is still true now) is local data first and foremost is salutary, because this is not really what we see in mainland Europe.

Mosaic floor from the Umayyad palace at al-Sinnabra

Likewise about things coming out of the ground, although in a very different area and of very different size (though possibly less significance: think on that, ye mighty…) is this summer palace of the Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya that Israeli archæologists have located at al-Sinnabra on the shores of the Lake of Galilee. I learn this from News for Medievalists, and I haven’t missed the recent controversy over their content, but this one links to the press release I’ve just linked, so I see no problem with tipping the hat here.2

Then, I’d also like to notice two things that are about texts rather than objects, firstly this excellent article by Patricia Cohen for the New York Times about how to archive Salman Rushdie’s computer files, which taps into so much stuff I’ve written here before about digital decay and the need for truly long-term digital preservation strategies, which I was pointed at from Cliopatria, and which contemplates, among other things, preserving the hardware on which the files were used so as to replicate the author’s mise-en-page, which is a wonderful idea. They make mention of a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device at Stanford University, basically a really advanced data recovery machine, and I’m quite glad there is one of those but I think we’ll need more…

And of course, as has correctly been observed by Goblinpaladin at Opinions of a Reformed Dropout, this is approximately the most brilliant thing in the world, a chap called Jackson Crawford who has taken it upon himself to rewrite the story of Star Wars as Old Norse saga, Tattúínárdœla saga. My Old Norse is basically non-existent, and he has provided English translations only reluctantly, but the actual effort of reimagining the characters and storyline into a Viking Age setting is a considerable part of his achievement. I’d say go read it but since he speaks of having 8,000 visitors per day I’d guess you probably already are. Nevertheless, just in case… Ah me how I love the Internet.

1. Andrew Reynolds & Sam Turner, “Discovery of a late Anglo-Saxon monastic site in Devon: Holy Trinity church, Buckfastleigh” in Archaeology International Vol. 5 no. 8 (London 2005), pp. 22-25.

2. I confess to some slight bemusement at the extent of this. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never met its operators, but I never thought Medievalists.net was anything other than self-promoting journalism. The selection of articles and the coverage given to fiction has always left that impression on me, and the choice of digitised scholarly work they choose to host also seems to embrace availability rather than discrimination. At least they are now consistently giving links. The whole thing has made me think a lot more carefully about how I use hot-linking, though. It’s always seemed to me a way to pass traffic to a deserving site and notify them that I’d borrowed their image, and the bandwidth implications had never struck me. They probably don’t arise with the number of visitors I get here, but all the same, and because often hot-linked images disappear, I should rethink that. Any thoughts from people I’ve linked to?

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…