On the windy edge of nothing: Vikings in the North Atlantic World

On the windy edge of nothing: Vikings in the North Atlantic World

Lectures by Professor Kevin Edwards (University of Aberdeen)

Given at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, on April 13-15, 2012

With a focus upon the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, Kevin Edwards will present a select narrative of past and recent writings, archaeological enquiry and scientific research concerning the Norse settlement of the North Atlantic.

Lecture 1: From Garðar to Garðar

Viking/Norse settlers were leaving their Scandinavian homelands and Norse-occupied areas of Britain and Ireland from at least the 9th century AD. They may not have been the first visitors to the North Atlantic islands, but they certainly left strong signs of their presence and of landscape impacts. The claims for a pre-Scandinavian population of Celtic monks (papar) on the Faroe Islands are examined along with evidence for early field systems and agriculture.

Lecture 2: A black box?

In many ways, knowledge of the Norse settlers in the North Atlantic has been least for the Faroe Islands. Recent and continuing archaeological and environmental investigations have made strenuous efforts to remedy this situation. Even if we have relatively few comprehensively studied archaeological sites, it is clear that the archipelago shared in a wider template of Norse settlement history and that this is apparent in its field monuments, landscapes and sediments.

Lecture 3: Who possesses this landscape?

Iceland has benefited from extensive archaeological research which has formed a counterweight to previous obsessions with the sagas and other writings. Nevertheless, the correspondence between the two forms of information can be instructive. Give or take a year or two, the settlement of Iceland seems to be certain from at least AD 871. Archaeologically based studies of settlement history in the modern period might be said to stem from the 1939 Þjórsádalur expedition which benefited from earlier Greenlandic experience, even though its purpose was almost derailed by the planned excavations of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe expedition. Subsequent research in Iceland has been a model in its integration of environmental and other scientific methods into considerations of human history, both as part of archaeological excavation and studies of wider landscape and environmental change.

Lecture 4: Wooded from mountain to sea

Ari the Wise may have declared that Iceland was ‘covered with woods between the mountains and the seashore’ at the time of settlement, but was this so? Furthermore, what was the status of woodland and when was it removed? Did land management conserve soils or was erosion a corollary of agriculture? How did the use of animals vary between coastal and inland areas? How does volcanic activity help us to examine landscape change? Iceland presents us with a remarkable laboratory in which to explore such questions for the Norse period.

Lecture 5: There were storms inside as well as out

According to the sagas, the Norse began to colonise Greenland shortly before AD 1000 (a fact now supported by palaeoenvironmental evidence). Erik the Red is championed in leading this process as the Eastern and Western Settlements were rapidly settled, leaving ‘ruin-groups’ in these landscapes numbering in their many hundreds. The surveys of Gustav Holm and Daniel Bruun, and the major excavations of Mårten Stenberger, Poul Nørlund and Aage Roussell (some of whom we meet in our considerations of Iceland), are augmented by modern archaeological assessments, excavations and environmental studies. Agriculture and the church loom large, and new light is shed on processes such as irrigation, land clearance, erosion and the character of the enigmatic Middle Settlement. Into this mix comes the question of Vinland, Leif Eriksson and a latter day Norwegian adventurer.

Lecture 6: Gone but not forgotten

By AD 1500, or perhaps for the greater part of a century prior to this, the Norse presence in Greenland seems to have ended. Explanations have been many and varied, but include environmental causes (e.g. Little Ice Age cooling), competition over resources and conflict with the Inuit, migration in the face of economic and agricultural pressures, and even the surprising (succumbing to slavery; the devastation caused by a plague of caterpillars). Changes in land use are evident but not always in agreement – reduced activity or even intensification may be found for the same period – but over the course of settlement there is isotopic evidence for a change in subsistence from terrestrial to marine food. Ívar Bárdarson’s mid-14th century description of Greenland suggests that the Western Settlement had already been abandoned by around 1350. When the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede arrived in Greenland in 1721, there were no Norse, no Europeans, but only ‘wild people’. The Norse in Greenland continue to fascinate, whether as a contested topic in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, or in providing the archaeological core in a bid for UNESCO World Heritage status.


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