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Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland

Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland

By Karin M. Frei, Ashley N. Coutu, Konrad Smiarowski et al.

World Archaeology, Volume 47, Issue 3 (2015)

Crosier head, 1050-1100, made of walrus ivory. Photo by Zde / Wikimedia Commons
Crosier head, 1050-1100, made of walrus ivory. Photo by Zde / Wikimedia Commons

Abstract: Walrus-tusk ivory and walrus-hide rope were highly desired goods in Viking Age north-west Europe. New finds of walrus bone and ivory in early Viking Age contexts in Iceland are concentrated in the south-west, and suggest extensive exploitation of nearby walrus for meat, hide and ivory during the first century of settlement. In Greenland, archaeofauna suggest a very different specialized long-distance hunting of the much larger walrus populations in the Disko Bay area that brought mainly ivory to the settlement areas and eventually to European markets. New lead isotopic analysis of archaeological walrus ivory and bone from Greenland and Iceland offers a tool for identifying possible source regions of walrus ivory during the early Middle Ages. This opens possibilities for assessing the development and relative importance of hunting grounds from the point of view of exported products.

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Introduction: The Norse expansion into the North Atlantic is remarkable testimony to the maritime transformation of the early medieval world. Sailing technology and skills developed in the ninth and tenth centuries in Scandinavia allowed the settlement of diaspora communities in Iceland and Greenland, with further foraging into the North American continent which had impacts upon both human communities and island ecosystems that persist to the present day.

This diaspora is a legacy of the ‘florescence of piracy, trade, migration, conquest and exploration across much of Europe’ which defines the Viking Age. The rising impact of long-range seafaring by the Norse settlers, traders and raiders can be seen as part of a global pattern of the late first millennium ce. Aspects of the maritime expansion that is associated with the Viking Age in the northern seas of Europe are paralleled by developments in other maritime regions of the world in the same period, e.g. in eastern Africa and in insular Southeast Asia.

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Seafaring catalysed the creation of new areas of settlement and diaspora communities, and created sustained networks of interaction that introduced new regions and products into existing exchange cycles. As a consequence, the world of the early Middle Ages came to be integrated by flows of material culture that reached almost a global scale, as illustrated for example by the spread of ninth-century Abbasid (Islamic) coins from eastern China to Iceland.

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