Norse in Greenland imported timber from North America, study finds

One of the things that Norse living in Greenland lacked was wood. A new study reveals that while some people could make use of local trees and driftwood, the wealthier people could have wood imported from North America and Europe.

Historical records have long suggested that medieval Norse colonists on Greenland (AD 985–1450) relied on imported material such as iron and wood. Until now, it has not been fully recognised where these imports of wood came from.


To study timber orgins and distribution on Greenland, Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir from the University of Iceland examined the wood assemblages from five Norse sites in western Greenland, of which four were medium-sized farms and one a high-status episcopal manor. All sites were occupied between AD 1000 and 1400 and dated by radiocarbon dating and associated artefact types. Her research is published in the journal Antiquity.

Imported objects identified in this study: a–c) oak planks and a barrel stave from GUS; d) oak barrel stave from Tatsip Ataa, L. Guðmundsdóttir / Antiquity

A microscopic examination of the cellular structure of the wood previously found by archaeologists on these sites enabled the identification of tree genus or species. The results show that just 0.27% of the wood examined were unambiguous imports, including oak, beech, hemlock and Jack pine. Another 25% of the total wood studied could be either imported or driftwood, including larch, spruce, Scots pine and fir.


Because hemlock and Jack pine were not present in Northern Europe during the early second millennium AD, the pieces identified from the medieval contexts in Greenland must have come from North America.

This confirms the historical sources, that the Norse did acquire wood from the east coast of North America. The sagas indicate that the explorers Leifur heppni, Þorleifur karlsefni and Freydís all brought back timber from Vínland to Greenland. The presence of North American timber shows that Norse Greenlanders had the means, knowledge and appropriate vessels to cross the Davis Strait to the east coast of North America at least up until the 14th century.

Wood-working debris and other unidentified objects: a–c) oak fragments from Igaliku; d) oak fragments from GUS; e) oak shaving from Igaliku; f ) beech shaving from Igaliku

In addition to the possibility of import, driftwood was one of the most important raw materials in Norse Greenland, making up over 50% of the combined assemblage.

Wood also came from Europe, likely including the oak, beech and Scots pine from this assemblage. Some may have come as ready-made artefacts, such as barrel staves, while reused ship timber could have been brought to use in buildings on Greenland.


Guðmundsdóttir concludes that the range of timber sources used by the Greenland Norse is further evidence that it this far corner of the medieval world was still very much connected via the ocean to other parts of the North Atlantic.

The location of the sites used in this study, L. Guðmundsdóttir / Antiquity

The article, “Timber imports to Norse Greenland: lifeline or luxury?,” by Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir, is published in Antiquity. Click here to access it.

Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir also co-wrote the article, “Timber as a Marine Resource: Exploitation of Arctic Driftwood in the North Atlantic,” in the International Journal of Wood Culture. Click here to read it.


Top Image: Location of the main resource areas and possible import routes to Norse Greenland, by L. Guðmundsdóttir / Antiquity