Articles

Enduring Impacts: Social and Environmental Aspects of Viking Age Settlement in Iceland and Greenland

Enduring Impacts: Social and Environmental Aspects of Viking Age Settlement in Iceland and Greenland

Enduring Impacts: Social and Environmental Aspects of Viking Age Settlement in Iceland and Greenland

By Orri Vésteinsson, Thomas H McGovern and Christian Keller

Archaeologia Islandica Vol.2 (2002)

Abstract: Comparison of archaeological, paleoecological and historical evidence from the Norse colonies in Greenland and Iceland suggests that the initial settlement of both countries was dominated by a small number of leaders who established a tight pattern of agricultural settlements based on animal husbandry, primarily cattle, subsidised by hunting and gathering. The evidence indicates that the distinctive subsistence economies and the social landscape created in the initial phase was to endure for hundreds of years. This imported economic strategy, suited to maintaining a particular social structure, had serious long term impacts on the local flora and soils and proved to be undynamic and unresponsive to change, creating grave problems for the Icelanders in the Late Middle Ages and early modern times and contributed to the extinction of the Greenlanders in the 15th century.

Introduction: The colonization of the islands of the North Atlantic during the Viking Age (ca. AD 750-1050) closed the last longstanding gap in human settlement of the circumpolar north, and produced the first contact between the peoples of Europe and North America. The process of discovery, migration, and colonization from Scandinavia and the British Isles northwards and westwards to Shetland, Orkney, Faroe, Iceland, Greenland, and (briefly) Vínland/Newfoundland has long been the subject of scholarly study. In the 19th and early 20th century most research was carried out by philologists and documentary historians aided by a few pioneering archaeologists and environmental scientists. In the past two decades, thanks to the work of many scholars based in both Europe and North America, a substantial amount of new evidence has been collected by archaeologists and environmental scientists and fresh interpretations of regional settlement, political organization, environmental impact, and response to climate change have been offered. Interdisciplinary approaches combining documents, diverse proxy climate data, archaeobotany, zooarchaeology (both vertebrate and invertebrate), settlement survey, tephrochronology, soil microstructure and regional geomorphology are now becoming commonplace, aided by the NABO regional research cooperative.


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