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Since the first visits by Europeans to the ruin of the Hvalsey Fjord Church after the beginning of the DanishNorwegian colonization of Greenland in 1721 there are numerous descriptions of a crack in the east gable of the church and a corresponding tilt damage of the eastern part of the south wall. As a new investigation of the church showed that the south wall was not stable, a restoration project was carried out in 1999, where the leaning wall was partly straightened and stabilized with concrete cast underneath the foundation stones. An archaeological excavation along the south wall prior to the restoration documented that the eastern part of the wall partly rests on older graves, indicating that the stone church must have had a predecessor of which no traces have been found. The presence of these graves beneath some of the foundation stones is assumed to be the main cause for the damage to the wall.
When the skeletons from Herjólfsnes were examined after excavation in Greenland, it was hoped that they might shed light on the fate of the Norse colonies there. They were examined at a time when biological anthropology was very much concerned with issues such as race, racial intermixture, and racial degeneration. For the examining scientists, the skeletons from Herjólfsnes did seem to support theories of an isolated, degenerate, and sickly population, doomed to extinction. Indeed, some of the results of these analyses still crop up in present-day publications.
Based on his archaeological investigations in 1935 at the Hvalsey Fjord farm and church (ruin group Ø83) and at the neighbouring ruins (ruin group Ø83a), the Danish architect Aage Roussell linked the two sites together, stating that the Ø83a buildings had functioned as a subsidiary “dairy farm” to the main farm at Hvalsey (Ø83). Excavations in 2004 showed that the buildings at Ø83a had been in use for a short period only, and artifacts found in 1935 together with the layout and design of the houses point to a date in the early period of the Norse settlement. Roussell did not identify a dwelling at Ø83a, but we argue that one of the houses at Ø83a could have been a dwelling and that the two sites—the Hvalsey Fjord farm (Ø83) and Ø83a—were two individual farms. We suggest that the Ø83a-farm most probably was the predecessor of the Ø83 Hvalsey farm. For unknown reasons, the earlier farm was moved to the Ø83 site.
This paper explores the accounts of Norse Greenland in the medieval Icelandic sagas, looking past the Vínland sagas to examine ways in which Greenlandic settings are employed in the “post-classical” saga-tradition and other texts. The style and content of these tales varied over time, but the recurrence of certain conventional patterns indicates that stories set in Greenland retained important thematic continuities for Icelandic saga audiences. From as early as the 12th century, Icelandic writers identified Greenland as a peripheral space in the Norse world, connected with Iceland, but markedly distinct and remote. This marginalization is evident in the Vinland sagas and developed further in the post-classical tradition, which made Greenland a place of exile in which Icelandic heroes were tested by extreme adversity in the settlements and wilderness. Embodying the preoccupations of Icelandic writers and audiences, these writings tell us little about historical realities in Norse Greenland; but they do show how details of geographical and historical lore were subsumed and transformed in the Icelandic narrative tradition.
While the beginnings of Christianity in Greenland are very poorly recorded, the settlement has played a prominent role in the discussion of paganism, the conversion, and early Christianity in the Viking world, thanks to the sagas in which Greenlanders feature. In particular, the range of religious practice that is reflected in the literary representations of the past is very striking; the rituals of the seeress, Thorbjorg, the Christian practice of Eric's wife, Thjodhild, and Gudrid's pilgrimage to Rome and profession as a nun offer contrasting perceptions of lived religion in the late Viking Age. While the absence of other relevant sources relating to Greenland is clearly a disadvantage, it leaves us free to question entrenched assumptions about the early religious life of the community.
While, as elsewhere, the conversion to Christianity in Greenland would have had a practical impact, ranging from the creation of political and economic alliances to changes in social custom (including burial and memorialization), I argue in this paper that Greenland might have been somewhat different from other Scandinavian communities overseas. Discussing and drawing on the written and material record, I propose that we might gain from resisting the narrative of Christian convention, which requires sudden, dramatic, and emphatic change, in favor of a different understanding of religious practice. If we entertain the possibility that some societies may have had more room for religious diversity than Christian sources would allow, it could be argued that the early community of Greenland, instead of conforming to Christian stereotype, experienced an extended period of diversity; a mixed society encompassing traditional religious practice and a largely domestic Christianity could have continued for some time until Christianity gained a sufficient degree of institutionalization to impose a more conventional Christian way of life.
The subject of this paper is the medieval Greenland trade, emphasizing the country's export commodities and modes of communication with other countries. On this topic there are many questions, but unfortunately few answers based on hard evidence. Much is therefore open to speculation and the conclusions are more in the line of hypotheses than actual theories.
This article forms the beginning of a planned edition of Greenlandic runic inscriptions. It deals with the runic inscriptions from the Vatnahverfi area, found on various forms of domestic utensils—first and foremost on fragments of soapstone, so-called loom weights. The inscriptions indicate that the tradition of writing in Norse Greenland played an important part in the expression of Christianity, and that it had the purpose of maintaining connections with the Scandinavian Christian world.
In his 1941 thesis, Aage Roussell established a typology for the dwellings of the Greenland Norse. While some of his conclusions have since been dismissed, Roussell's typology itself has not been subject to a fundamental review, although there are problems with it. This paper reviews Roussell's typology for the dwellings of the Greenland Norse and suggests a revised typology and terminology. It argues that the medieval architecture of the Greenlanders may have been more inspired by contemporary Scandinavian architecture than Roussell imagined, and that the so-called passage house is very sparsely represented in Greenland.
The choice of material (or artistic medium) is an important part of the creation of an artifact. At the same time, it is also an indicator of artistic traditions and cultural influences. This article offers an overview of the use of some of the most widely used and, in cultural terms, most significant materials (metal, bone, ivory, wood, and soapstone) as artistic media in Norse Greenland, with special attention to availability (and its limitations), the choice of alternative media, and the influence of the Church on the use of artistic media. The survey reveals, on the one hand, some level of resourcefulness of the Norsemen in Greenland to adapt to local circumstances, and on the other, their strong adherence to European Christian culture.
The historicity of the Vinland sagas has been widely discussed for more than a century and examined from a vast number of perspectives: as literature, history, geography, oral traditions, anthropological records, and validation of archaeological phenomena, as well as personal perceptions as travel guides to Norse landings in North America. The views have varied with the disciplines. While literary historians regard most of their content as fictional, historians have suggested greater validity, but found it difficult to distinguish the kernel of reality from later constructs. Dissecting the sagas according to modern folkloristic methods applied to oral traditions elsewhere, Gísli Sigurðsson suggested that it might be possible to get a grip on the historical core. I argue in this paper that the archaeological findings at L'Anse aux Meadows shed a new light on the sagas, indicating that, like the Íslendingabók of Ari the Wise, they contain more facts than is generally credited them.
This paper searches for the most logical answer to the question about the ethnicity of the European people who attempted to settle permanently on the continent of North America around the turn of the 11th century. Were they Norwegians, Icelanders, Greenlanders, or just Norsemen? Following a short study of the ethnic identities of Icelanders and Norwegians in the Viking Age, the answer suggested is that the Vinelanders had a double ethnic identity, a Greenlandic and a Norse one.
The concept of identity can be seen from different angles and understood on different levels. In the context of Viking identity, we can contrast two possibilities: 1) that there was an overarching Scandinavian cultural unity in the Viking Age, or 2) that there were distinct cultural identities in different parts of what is often called the “Viking world.” In fact these options are not mutually exclusive; both could easily be true and probably are. In this paper, identity is discussed based on archaeological, literary, and iconographic sources. The focus is on the North Atlantic settlements, especially Iceland and Greenland, and the extent to which Norsemen regarded their connections with Scandinavia as homeland connections. Many factors affected the sense of belonging of a Norse group with Scandinavian roots, including language, names, religious customs, and material culture. House constructions suggest that building traditions were transferred even if the materials needed were not always locally available. Comparisons are drawn with other, more recent situations, and examples are given from the emigration of Swedes to America in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Swedish-Americans have a dual identity. they feel both as Swedes and (above all) as Americans. It is suggested that something similar was true for the Norse settlers in Greenland; they were Greenlanders, but at the same time, their Scandinavian roots continued to be significant.
The isolation of the two Norse Greenlandic settlements, from each other as well as from the rest of the world, is a well rehearsed topic. Ideas about communications within the two settlements are, on the other hand, not much developed. One way of looking at intra-settlement communication is through the parish system. The parishes arguably reflect the community structure, but they also provided the framework for much of the social interaction in the everyday lives of ordinary Greenlanders.
The parish system can be reconstructed by analysing the different types of churches and their spatial and chronological distribution in relation to the location of farm sites. Based on fleldwork in southern Greenland as well as comparisons with Icelandic data, a reconstruction of parishes in Eystribyggð is proposed. This analysis reveals significant differences between the structure of Greenlandic and Icelandic parishes, the former being more centralized but also much larger with correspondingly less pastoral care available to each household. These differences highlight the particular nature of Norse Greenlandic society and may help to explain why that society came to an end in the late middle ages.
The following paper describes the great expeditions to Greenland in 1605–1607 that sought to rediscover this lost part of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom. Closely connected to these efforts was a later expedition in 1619 to find the assumed Northwest Passage north of America to India and China. This ambitious strategy was launched by King Christian IV, who had a strong political and economical interest in the expeditions. However, he certainly displayed a genuine interest in the unknown fate of the Nordic settlements as well.
Was there a sacred Norse geography in the North Atlantic region during the Viking and Early Middle Ages? In this study, the locations of Late Iron Age pagan Norse graves in West Norway and Iceland are analyzed and compared. The analysis also includes medieval church-sites in these regions, as well as in Norse Greenland. The approach is that of landscape archaeology, and two sets of analyses are used: an attribute analysis where the locations of pagan burials and medieval churches are situated relative to landscape attributes, and a distance analysis where the distances from graves and churches to the original farm cores are analyzed. The results show distinct differences in landscape organization between Norway and Iceland, both concerning pagan burials and church locations. No pagan Norse graves are yet known in Greenland, but the church locations are compared to Norway and Iceland. The church locations in Greenland have features in common with both Iceland and Norway. The political organization and church politics in the three countries are discussed, and the results of the analyses are tentatively associated with historic events.
In the early 20th century, scholars identified two possible Greenlandic assembly sites at Brattahlíð and Garðar, respectively. Later scholars, with one exception, have neither refuted nor corroborated this, and research on this topic has therefore not significantly moved forward in the last 100 years. In this article, the two proposed assembly sites are examined in the light of recent research. It is demonstrated that there are striking similarities between the Greenlandic and Scandinavian and Icelandic assembly sites, which strongly support the identification of the former as assembly sites. Further archaeological fieldwork is, however, needed in order to clarify the issues raised in this paper as well as providing new evidence, particularly for dating.
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