The elusive Norse harbours of the North Atlantic: why they were abandoned, and why they are so hard to find

The elusive Norse harbours of the North Atlantic: why they were abandoned, and why they are so hard to find

By Natascha Mehler, Mark Gardiner, Andrew Dugmore, and Joris Coolen

Häfen im 1. Millennium AD. Bauliche Konzepte, herrschaftliche und religiöse Einflüsse, edited by Thomas Schmidts and Martin Marko Vučetić (Mainz: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums, 2015)


Introduction: In the 8th century, Scandinavians began to press westwards across the North Atlantic; exploring, raiding, colonizing and trading, their voyages took them to the long-settled islands of the northern British Isles with their long-established settlements and sophisticated iron-using culture and then on westwards to new lands.

Some people were settled in the Faroe Islands a few centuries before the start of the Viking Age, but their numbers were small and they left little trace; Iceland was a virgin, unsettled land and Greenland effectively so as little remained of the Dorset peoples in areas chosen by the Norse. Briefly, the Scandinavians made landfall in North America.

Crucial to this westward expansion, subsequent colonization and the development of extensive networks of trade and exchange were the seafaring skills of navigation and pilotage, the advanced boat construction with heavy lift capacity and the landing places that connected land and sea. Many harbours on the North Atlantic islands were continually used throughout the medieval period but no major urban centres developed until the 18th century. Most insular ports were simple landing places or natural harbours, consisting of a sandy beach where boats were pulled ashore, or a natural  jetty, to allow vessels of a deeper draught to be moored and unloaded with ease. The trading places that developed were only visited during the summer months.

These harbours formed the economic, political and social interface between the islands and northern Europe and, although seemingly insignificant, trade of considerable value and great importance was channelled through them, giving them a special role in the economic history of northern Europe.

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