The Vikings' Silent Saga

By McGovern, Thomas H.; Perdikaris, Sophia | Natural History, October 2000 | Go to article overview

The Vikings' Silent Saga


McGovern, Thomas H., Perdikaris, Sophia, Natural History


What went wrong with the Scandinavian

Early in the ninth century, adventurous Scandinavians migrated to the northern British Isles (the Shetlands and Orkneys), around Britain to the Hebrides and into the Irish Sea, and still farther west to the apparently uninhabited Faeroe Islands. By A.D. 874 Scandinavian settlers, no doubt accompanied by substantial contingents of native British Islanders, were colonizing Iceland, and in about 985, Icelandborn Erik "the Red" Thorvaldson began the settlement of Greenland, recruiting mostly other Icelanders to join him as colonists. At the turn of the millennium, as recounted in Icelandic sagas first written down 300 years later, Erik's sons explored parts of the Canadian Arctic and the coasts of "Vinland"probably Newfoundland and adjacent Labrador. Any doubts that the Scandinavians did indeed reach the New World were laid to rest during the 1960s, with the discovery and excavation of L'Anse aux Meadows, a site in Newfoundland that dates to about 1000.

This westward expansion across the North Atlantic took nearly two centuries to complete, with each new colony, especially in its vulnerable early years, greatly dependent upon the preceding ones for settlers, livestock, and supplies. The enterprise hinged on the Scandinavians' excellent ships and their skill in navigating across large bodies of water, a seafaring advantage that also enabled them to plunder European shores (in addition to their westward push, Scandinavians-including Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns-penetrated south as far as the Mediterranean and east as far as the Caspian Sea). As raiders they were known as the Vikings, a term that is now loosely applied to all Scandinavian peoples of the Viking Age (ca. 800-1100) and also, sometimes, of the Middle Ages (ca. 1100-1500). The impetus for migration came from overpopulation at home as well as from increased conflict between minor aristocrats, conflict that was fueled by the new, plundered wealth.

But the chain of communities connecting mainland Scandinavia with the New World did not long survive. Archaeologists who have examined L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland tell us that this settlement lasted just a few decades, perhaps only a few years. Subjected, after 1300, to increasingly cool summers and greater amounts of sea ice, the Greenland colony, numbering between 3,000 and 5,000 souls, fell on hard times and died out by about 1450. Icelandic settlements succeeded in surviving these same hard times and still worse ones that followed-including periodic volcanic eruptions and, in the first half of the eighteenth century, famine and smallpox. Still, nearly a quarter of the island's population of 45,000 to 55,000 perished. In northwestern Europe, dismal living conditions were created by the development of commercial fishing, a harshly exploitative industry.

Where did these bright, ambitious, hard-working settlers go wrong? For an answer, we need to look beyond the Icelandic sagas and other written records-a precious but finite resource-and incorporate the testimony of pollen, soils, insect remains, human and animal bones, charcoal fragments, ice cores, and volcanic ash layers. The silent sagas contained in this archaeological, paleoenvironmental, and climatic evidence-assembled by many researchers during the past two decadestell us that part of the problem may have been the settlers' attempt to transplant a way of life that had worked in Scandinavia but ultimately proved unsuitable to the more marginal environments and less stable climates of Iceland, Greenland, and northern North America.

Animal bones and other materials collected from archaeological sites show that in their homelands, wealthy Scandinavians had large farmsteads with dairy cattle (also a source of meat), pigs, sheep and goats (exploited for wool or hair, as well as milk and meat), and horses (used for transport). The ideal farmstead had ample pastures, fields of barley-cultivated more to make beer than bread-and was located near sealing beaches, bird cliffs (providing meat, eggs, and eiderdown), and an inshore fishery that could be exploited yearround. …

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