Resources, mobility, and cultural identity

... in Norse Greenland AD 980-1450.

By Jette Arneborg


By colonisation and establishment of independent communities on the North Atlantic Islands Scandinavian Vikings from the early 9th century extended the territory of their Scandinavian homelands into what has later been called the North Sea Kingdom. The realm was kept together by a common culture, trade and a well-developed maritime technology. The unlike lands offered the newcomers different options and challenges. In the south-eastern North Atlantic (Shetland, Orkney, Hebrides and Isle of Man) the Vikings extensively assimilated into the native population. On the virgin islands of Faeroe Islands and Iceland the communities proved capable of surviving whereas the Greenland colony became extinct after about 500 years.

Settlement on Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland was based on a mixed economy that considered both subsistence and trade. Animal husbandry, the ownership to land, and an elite of large farmers or chieftains was the backbone of the social system. Both Faeroe Islands and especially Iceland may have been involved in the North European staple economy as suppliers of wool and textiles. Current evidence even suggests that they at a very early stage traded dried fish. In contrast the Greenlanders kept on as providers of arctic prestige goods such as furs and walrus and narwhale tusks.

Seemingly, already from the initial settlement the economy of Faeroe Islands and Iceland pointed towards the future and the Middle Ages which were characterized by a centralized and market based long-distance trade of staples. The Greenlanders profited by the social and economic centralization that turned the North European decentralised Viking communities into centralised kingdoms with a centralised religious worship. The upcoming kings and the upper officials of the Roman Church were large-scale consumers of prestige goods from Arctic Greenland.

The Icelandic settlers introduced a pasture economy to their new land in south Greenland. Grassland was a prerequisite for the settlement in the first place. Being a precondition, the wish for land may however not have been the pull factor for the settlers; the marine resources of the Arctic, well-established trade systems in Scandinavia and markets for Arctic commodities in North Western Europe might have played a major role for the decisions taken. Regardless, connections to, and trade with the homelands were prerequisite for settlement in Greenland since vital resources for the maintenance of the Norse culture – such as iron - were not available in Greenland.

Research programmes and projects with coordinated objectives now take place in Northern Norway, Iceland, Faeroe Islands and Shetland. The goal of the programme in Greenland is to contribute to these international and interdisciplinary studies to
reconstruct the interdependent and complex history of the Norse North Atlantic communities.

Programme objectives

The specific aim of the programme is to discuss landnam (landtaking) strategies and depopulation in the light of the interplay between the two economic spheres of the Norse Greenland economy: subsistence economy based on the resources of the local, settled area in south Greenland and trade with the homelands based on North and East Greenland resources.

At the time of settlement the climate was characterized as relatively mild and moist and with little sea ice (Medieval Warm Period). From the 13th century the colder climate increased, summer temperatures lowered and the sea ice in the fjords improved. Simultaneously, wind activity increased to culminate in the mid 14th century. How did the Norse settlers adapt to and live in the landscape they settled, and how did the dynamic environment and changing conditions influence the community and the social and economic strategies and decisions taken? How did long-distance contacts with Scandinavia influence the Norse Greenland community, and, if any, how did contacts with Palaeo-Eskimos (the Late Dorset Culture) and Inuit (the Thule Culture) develop?

Based on studies of material culture, resource utilisation, and mobility of the landholdings, long-distance hunting and changes in the social-economic conditions it is the aim of the programme to describe the development from landnam to depopulation.

Focus is on the interaction between humans (action), systems (structure) and environment with humans as actors. Identity, mobility, communication, and human strategies are key concepts for the understanding of the development of the Norse Greenland society. Rather than focussing on the last period of settlement the intentions of the project are to explain the development from landnam to depopulation within the three-phase model: Landnam – expansion – decline.

The objectives should be addressed from:

  • The view of settlement, society and economy (The Vatnahverfi Project, Churches, Christianity & Chieftains)
  • The world system, or global view: Communication and transatlantic contacts: trade and exchange with Scandinavia and the other North Atlantic societies and contacts with Greenland Palaeo-Eskimos and Inuit people (Churches, Christianity & Chieftains).
  • The ecological view: Interacting resources: Climate, terrestrial and marine economy. (Collaborating projects – see list below).

Present projects attached to the programme

The Norse Settlement in the Vatnahverfi region, South Greenland ca. AD 985 – 1450. Responsible: Jette Arneborg.

Greenland Isotope Project. JA participation. Expected completed 2006.

Churches, Christianity and Chieftains. Responsible: Jette Arneborg.

First Settlers of the North Atlantic: An Isotopic Approach. JA participation. Project responsible: Professor T. Douglas Price. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2006 – 2009. Financed by National Science Foundation. Strontium, lead and oxygen isotope studies of human remains.

PhD project. 2007 – 2009.

In the present SILA-period (2005 – 2008) the following projects are attached to the programme:

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