According to written sources a group of Icelanders – lead by Eric the Red – settled in Southwest Greenland c. 985 AD. They settled in the Eastern Settlement and in the Western Settlement almost simultaneously. Further, according to written sources, the Western Settlement was depopulated in the middle of the 14th century, whereas the last written evidence of life in the Eastern Settlement is dated 1408 AD.
Archaeological finds and radiocarbon dates suggest that the Eastern Settlement remained populated at least until the middle of the 15th century. Presently, archaeology and radiocarbon dates do not form a basis for questioning the other dates.
Geographical areas of the Norse settlements and settlement pattern
The Eastern Settlement is identical with Nanortalik, Qaqortoq and Narsaq municipalities in present days' Southwest Greenland. The so-called "Middle Settlement", congruent with the municipalities of Ivittuut and Paamiut also belonged to the Eastern Settlement.
The Western Settlement was located in the eastern parts of present days' Nuuk municipality. The farms of the settlements were distributed at sites favourable to animal husbandry, i.e. close to freshwater and where the Norsemen could establish pastures.
Social organisation of the Norse society
The Norse society was hierarchic. Society position was evaluated in relation to control of resources and religious status. The settlement pattern and differences in economy and architecture suggest that farms with a church were central places.
Analogous with the better known Icelandic situation it is assumed that churches were privately owned and that relationship between the central church-owning farmers and the other farmers was that of either kinship or religious and/or economical dependence, e.g. a landowner – tenant relationship.
Natural resources - resource use
The settlement pattern shows the dependence of the Norse farmers on plant resources – the natural vegetation. Grasses, sedges and scrub were the vegetation basis for the animal production, and turf formed a significant ingredient of the house building tradition.
Animal bones from the Norse middens show marine resources to have been important too. Among the marine mammals seals dominate the bone collections. The Norsemen must have caught seals to use both meat, hides and pelts as well as blubber for oil. Caribou were also hunted both for meat and for hides and pelts. Arctic and High Arctic mammals like walrus, narwhal and polar bear were important trade items with Europe.
Soapstone was used for vessels in the household. Other minerals were used as hones (different sandstones) and fire strikers (different chert and chalcedony). Bones, antlers and, to a lesser degree, tusks were used in the household as well. Driftwood was an important component in house building and in the construction of household vessels. Driftwood was also used for other domestic utensils and furniture.
Evidence from Norse middens shows that the Norsemen subsisted on both the domestic animals – primarily cow, sheep and goat – and the indigenous fauna. Among the latter seals dominate the Norse bone collections. Caribou and, to a lesser degree, whales, small mammals, such as Arctic hares, and different species of birds also formed part of Norse subsistence. Fish bones are almost absent in the middens, yet without doubt the Norsemen utilised the abundance of Arctic char in the fjords and rivers.
The individual age of the domesticated animals suggests that they were kept primarily for the secondary production of milk, butter, cheese and wool. Distribution of animal bones suggests social and economical differences in the Norse society.
Exchange and trade Norse and Europe
The Norse settlements in Greenland were not self-sufficient. According to the mid 13th century publication "The King's Mirror" ("Speculum regale"), Norsemen in Greenland had to import iron and timber for house construction, and they exported skins, hides and pelts of cattle, sheep and seals as well as rope and walrus tusks.
Although no large quantities of iron artifacts have been found in the excavated farms, iron bars (iron raw material) were indeed found at the Eastern Settlement farm E167. Imported timber has not been identified. In the initial Landnam period, elite farmers organised the trade. In 1261 AD the Norse settlements became affiliated to the Norwegian crown, and Norwegian kings introduced the royal trade monopoly. The elite farmers in Greenland apparently still kept their central status after 1261.
Exchange and trade – Norse and Thule & Norse and Dorset
Norse items found in Thule culture and in Dorset culture context and early Thule culture items found in Norse context show contacts between in the involved cultures. The nature of the contacts remain controversial and are still debated. Exchanges or trade between Norsemen in Greenland and Thule and/or Dorset people cannot be rejected. To the Norse is must have been especially favourable to acquire walrus tusks through trade with Eskimo groups.
History of research
The Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede (1686-1758) has been described as the first Nordic archaeologist in Greenland, as he was the first European to dig inside the Hvalsey church ruin (1723). During the 18th century several Danish expeditions described and mapped Norse ruins in both the Eastern and the Western Settlement. Around 1832 members of the newly established "Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries" (Det Kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab) in Copenhagen, took the initiative to describe the history of the Norse Greenlanders. Settlements were mapped systematically and selected sites were archaeologically investigated. The work was published in three volumes entitled "Grønlands Historiske Mindesmærker" from 1839-45. Archaeology was continued by Daniel Bruun who worked in the Eastern Settlement in 1894 and in the Western Settlement in 1903. The golden age of Norse archaeology in Greenland was from 1921 to 1939, when archaeologists from the National Museum of Denmark conducted large-scale excavations of the famous sites in the settlements, including Herjolfsnæs in 1921, The Bishop's See at Gardar in 1926, and Eric the Red's farm at Brattahlid in 1932.
In 1981 the jurisdiction for the ancient monuments in Greenland was transferred to Greenland Home Rule, and today research in Norse Greenland archaeology takes place both at the National Museum of Denmark and at the Greenland National Museum & Archives in Nuuk. In the last decades, Norse Greenland archaeology and North Atlantic research in general, have been internationalised and today important research projects take place within the framework of the international research network NABO (North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation).