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A comparison of the Medieval fjord hydrography and climate regime of the main Norse settlements in Greenland demonstrates important differences in the timing of sea-ice expansion and storminess when comparing the Western and Eastern Settlement regions. The Western Settlement, as well as the northern hunting grounds around Disko Bugt, had already experienced major climate deterioration in the first decades after AD 1200. This regime shift in West Greenland included an expansion of fjord and sea ice (“West Ice”) in coastal waters as well as a drastic atmospheric cooling and an increase in storminess, mainly in the summer season. In contrast, environmental conditions in the Eastern Settlement deteriorated notably later, i.e., around AD 1400. At that time, ice conditions became much more severe, whereas the previously prevailing strong wind activity decreased, which was coeval with a general decrease in aeolian activity in West Greenland, eastern Canada, and NW Iceland. Summer blockage of the fjord entrance by thick, multi-year sea ice (“Storisen”) is a specific feature of the Eastern Settlement area, whereas in the Western Settlement region, the West Ice would have threatened Norse sailing in late winter. We may thus conclude that by shortly after AD 1200 living conditions in the Western Settlement had already became less attractive due to adverse effects of the early, regional climate deterioration. Since then, the Western Settlement was probably increasingly dependent on supplies from the Eastern Settlement, where milder climate conditions continued to prevail for another century. Increased summer blockage of the Eastern Settlement fjords by the Storisen beginning around AD 1400 would have imposed serious limitations to sailing and pasture productivity in coastal areas and is suggested to have played a crucial role in the final demise of the Eastern Settlement a few decades later.
Thirty-one sediment samples collected from midden layers at the Tatsip Ataa (E172) site located in the former Norse Eastern Settlement in Greenland were analyzed for insect remains. These efforts allowed for the identification of species believed to have been introduced involuntarily with Norse settlers upon colonization, while suggesting the origin of materials disposed of in the midden. Our analysis of outdoor insects and synanthropes also identified resources exploited from the local environment, suggesting that the midden represents the end result of a number of domestic activities including construction, maintenance, hygienic practices, and animal husbandry.
Accounts describing the Vatnahverfi region of Greenland are almost always effusive in their praise for the rich and bountiful nature of the landscape. Whether it was the dense scrub and woodlands, or the freshwater lakes and fertile green pastures, this landscape—contrary to elsewhere in the Eastern Settlement—is frequently assumed to have been an excellent location for Norse pastoral farming. Nevertheless, these observations are merely anecdotal in nature and based on the perceptions of archaeologists, or others who have visited the region. This paper asks whether Vatnahverfi was really the green and pleasant land that the literature would suggest, while exploring the rationale behind settlement in this region. Pollen-analytical data and associated proxies are deployed here in an attempt to assess whether the pre-landnám landscape was an attractive location for settlement, and to investigate vegetation and land-use changes consequent upon settlement. Pollen analysis allows an assessment of the natural capital of the pre-landnám (initial settlement) environment, which suggests that the central valley of northwest Vatnahverfi supported substantial Betula-Salix scrub or low woodland prior to landnám. The presence of woodland at landnám indicates the availability of a key resource (for fuel, building materials, or as fodder for livestock), and a cluster of early landnám-era dates have been returned on pollen sequences from farms in the center of Vatnahverfi. Data from pollen influx and coprophilous fungal spores associated with grazing animals also point towards this landscape having been particularly suitable for pastoralism. Poaceae (grass) pollen influx values, for instance, are often double those of farms in the Qassiarsuk region, suggesting higher hay yields with the potential to support larger numbers of domesticates. Radiocarbon age-depth modelling of pollen sequences suggests that abandonment of farms in the region may have begun from the mid-13th century AD, culminating in the 14th century.
Palaeoenvironmental studies from continental and marine sedimentary archives have been conducted over the last four decades in the archaeologically rich Norse Eastern Settlement in Greenland. Those investigations, briefly reviewed in this paper, have improved our knowledge of the history of the Norse colonization and its associated environmental changes. Although deep lakes are numerous, their deposits have been little used in the Norse context. Lakes that meet specific lake-catchment criteria, as outlined in this paper, can sequester optimal palaeoenvironmental records, which can be highly sensitive to both climate and/or human forcing. Here we present a first synthesis of results from a well-dated 2000-year lake-sediment record from Lake Igaliku, located in the center of the Eastern Settlement and close to the Norse site Garðar. A continuous, high-resolution sedimentary record from the deepest part of the lake provides an assessment of farming-related anthropogenic change in the landscape, as well as a quantitative comparison of the environmental impact of medieval colonization (AD 985—ca. AD 1450) with that of recent sheep farming (AD 1920—present). Pollen and non-pollen palynomorphs (NPPs) indicate similar magnitudes of land clearance marked mainly by a loss of tree-birch pollen, a rise in weed taxa, as well as an increase in coprophilous fungi linked to the introduction of grazing livestock. During the two phases of agriculture, soil erosion estimated by geochemical proxies and sediment-accumulation rate exceeds the natural or background erosion rate. Between AD 1010 to AD 1180, grazing activities accelerated soil erosion up to ≈8 mm century-1, twice the natural background rate. A decrease in the rate of erosion is recorded from ca. AD 1230, indicating a progressive decline of agro-pastoral activities well before the end of the Norse occupation of the Eastern Settlement. This decline could be related to possible climate instabilities and may also be indirect evidence for the shift towards a more marine-based diet shown by archaeological studies. Mechanization of agriculture in the 1980s caused unprecedented soil erosion up to ≈21 mm century-1, five times the pre-anthropogenic levels. Over the same period, diatom assemblages show that the lake has become steadily more mesotrophic, contrary to the near-stable trophic conditions of the preceding millennia. These results reinforce the potential of lake-sediment studies paired with archaeological investigations to understand the relationship between climate, environment, and human societies.
Midden excavations at Ø172 (Tatsipataa), on the eastern shore of the Igaliku fjord in southwestern Greenland, produced a significant textile collection consisting of 98 fragments. This collection is important as it stems from a well-contextualized and well-stratified sequence, allowing significant insights into the evolution and nature of cloth production in Greenland. Analysis of this collection showed that while the earliest fragments mirror Icelandic counterparts of comparable ages, the Ø172 collection changes considerably by the 14th century. From this point onward, Greenlandic women wove a weft-dominant cloth unique to Greenland. This cloth type has previously been noted in other, later, Greenlandic collections, but the Tatsipataa collection provides new evidence for the date of its first production. The sudden appearance of this distinctive weft-dominant Greenlandic homespun in the mid-14th century suggests that its production was a domestic adaptation to the initial climatic fluctuations of the Little Ice Age. Overall, the Tatsipataa collection suggests that Greenlandic textile production did not follow the evolutionary trajectory of Icelandic textiles, which became a form of currency from the early to the later Middle Ages. Instead, Greenlandic textiles appear to have been consistently produced for household consumption, without the intense standardization for trade observed in medieval Icelandic collections.