The Greenland Vikings

Selected quotes from- The Last Viking: West by Northwest, by John N. Harris, M.A.(CMNS).

As the twelfth century ended, the climate reversed. Ice crept southward, all over Europe snow fell lower on the mountain slopes, upland trees died. Pack-ice cluttered the coasts of Greenland, then tightened an Arctic noose to strangle movement.

Moreover, in describing recent research carried out at an Inuit site on the Burnside River south of the Kent Peninsula, Bryan Gordon of the Museum of Civilization ( Nadlok and the Origin of the Copper Inuit - Climate, Dating and Seasonality ) provides data that suggest the Passage may have become difficult if not impractical by 1450 A.D:

Nadlok's carbon-dated floors and levels show a 1450-1750 A.D. occupation in the Little Ice Age, a time of deteriorating climate when ocean temperature fell 1-3 deg. C and the Arctic summer front retreated 4-5 deg. of latitude. Sea ice stayed all year in sheltered Bathurst Inlet and east Coronation Gulf, inevitably disrupting sea-mammals and their hunters, but with little effect on caribou.

Nevertheless, it likely follows that prior to this time - the " Viking Age " between 800 and 1100 CE especially - that a warmer climate prevailed along at least the eastern approaches to the Northwest Passage if not its entirety. Indeed, as Charles W. Moore notes ( Did 14th Century Scandinavian Explorers Visit Midwestern North America? ):

For the first century or so of their Greenland colonization, the Vikings and their descendants enjoyed a reasonably prosperous and pleasant life there. Greenland's climate c. 1000 A.D. was in an extraordinarily warm phase, and the name Eric chose for his new land may not have been quite the real-estate promoter's con-job as has been assumed. Even 350 years later, after a general global cooling had altered Greenland's climate for the worse, Ivar Bardson wrote that " On the mountains and lower down grow the best of fruits, as big as apples and good to eat. There also grows the best wheat that exists." Life in Greenland was hardly the rough outpost existence we might expect....

However by 1200, climatic change allowed the arctic ice pack to creep farther southward, making navigation in Greenland waters increasingly hazardous -- even in summer. Ships came now only sporadically, and some years none called at all. In 1261, the Greenlanders felt obliged to accept union with Norway and subjection to the Norwegian crown, in return for which two ships would be sent per year. This effectively shut the Hansa markets off from Greenland trade, and sometimes even the promised Norwegian vessels didn't make it through the ice. The colonies' decline accelerated.

To what degree the warmer climate of the Medieval Warm Period may have simplified westward progress through the Northwest Passage during the earlier phases of Greenland's Viking history remains unknown, but the fact that it was warmer may shed further light on some of the northernmost Viking excursions along the western coastline of Greenland itself. As it so happens, archaeological research in the area around Coberg and Skraeling Islands on the Canadian side of Baffin Bay indicates a possible Viking presence just off the south-east coast of Ellesmere Island. In other words, at a point where the Vikings would be well positioned to make a run into the Northwest Passage and also augment their food supplies before doing so. Among other things the research in question uncovered evidence of a food production line, iron boat rivets and hints of a Viking presence as described below:

Further searches turned up box sections made of oak-- a common Scandinavian wood not native to arctic Canada-- parts of barrel bottoms, European-style knife blades and spear points, and medieval chain mail. In addition, a piece of woolen cloth found on Skraeling lsland reveals a weave pattern typical of Norse farming settlements in southern Greenland, founded in 986 by Eric the Red. An unlikely trade item for Eskimos, who wore tailored skins and furs exclusively, the cloth may well have reached the island on the back of a Viking. He may not have been the first Norseman to arrive, however. An enigmatic two-inch carving from an early 12th-century house may be a rough portrait of an earlier Viking visitor. Clearly native in style, the carving exhibits features the author believes are distinctly Norse: straight eyes, a straight mouth, a pointed chin, and what looks like a cap. A copper blade taken from the floor of the same house may confirm his hunch. If tests show the metal did not originate in North America, they may indicate that Norsemen encountered Eskimo settlements in the Smith Sound region even before the two peoples came in contact farther south in Greenland. Viking trading and exploration parties had reached Labrador by 1000. But clues of voyages farther north at this time were not discovered until three years ago, when the author began uncovering Norse artifacts in arctic Canada. ( Peter Schlederman, " Eskimo and Viking Finds in the High Arctic ", National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 159, No. 5, May 1981:578)


But this is not all. There are also unusual structures in the High Arctic on Ellesmere Island's Bache peninsula, e.g., Schlederman (1981:584) records that:

In 1978, prior to our work on Skraeling Island, we had begun to excavate one of the most exciting ruins Tore and I had located in our original survey. It was the stone foundation and part of the walls
of a late-period Dorset longhouse situated near the shore of Knud Peninsula just south of the Bach Peninsula. The house was an immense structure even by present standards, measuring 5 meters in width by 45 meters in length ( 16 by 148 feet ). It was not a house in the sense of an enclosed building, but a framework of waist-high walls built of boulders. I believe it served as the foundation for a row of skin tents such as the Dorset people doubtless used. One of the most striking features of the site was a long row of outdoor hearths located some distance from the house and extending 32 meters from end to end. The row contained 18 individual hearths, each one separated from its neighbor by a stone platform undoubtedly used for temporary storage of food. This multiple arrangement of outdoor hearths is unique; nothing like it has ever been identified among prehistoric
living sites in North America.

Unique it may be, but it is certainly understandable in terms of Viking incursions and provisioning needs, and because of its size and unique structure, far less understandable if restricted to Inuit
activities alone. How many of these longhouses are there in the Canadian Arctic? Far more than the casual reader might suspect, at least forty-five widely distributed across the Eastern and Central Canadian Arctic, even though they still appear to be largely ignored. Significantly, they also occur in the Ungava region of Northern Quebec, basically along the route that leads to the Northwest Passage and Hudson Bay. Farley Mowat described some of the Ungava longhouses in his recent
publication The FarFarers, ( Sea Books, Toronto 1999 ). The latter in fact took the trouble to visit this region during the summer of 1966. At Pamiok Island ( near the mouth of the Payne River on the west side of Ungava Bay ) he met Thomas Lee, a Canadian archaeologist from Laval University, Quebec. Farley Mowat's recollections of the location and Thomas Lee's comments are worth including here for reasons that will soon become apparent:

Almost every little hollow or more-or-less-level bit of ground on the island seems to have its stone tent ring, some of them 20 feet in diameter. There are also numerous depressions Lee said were the remains of semi-subterranean winter houses of ancient pre-Eskimo cultures. Near the east end of the island we came to three cairns, cylindrical and about six feet high. They don't look anything like the Eskimo inuksuit [stone markers] I've seen all over the Arctic. I made the point to Lee and he agreed: " Yes, too big. Too regular. Too well made. Not Eskimoan at all."

We trudged back along the south shore. The tide had fallen so far that the sea was only distantly visible across a vast, glistening plain of jumbled rocks, boulders and mud. Lee pointed out a sort of
broad pathway or ramp running seaward from the high-tide line. Somebody had put in a hell of a lot of work clearing it of the worst of its jagged rocks. Again Lee ruled out natives: "No Eskimo would go to that much trouble to make a boat landing. They wouldn't need to for kayaks and canoes. I think this must have been a haul-out for big boats."

Lee trotted me into a bit of shelter behind a ridge of frost- shattered rock, to the site he was digging. Not very impressive. A muddy rectangle about 45 feet long by maybe 15 wide, with turf, moss
and stones stripped away to a depth of a few inches, at which point the diggers had hit bedrock. I could just make out the remains of some low stone walls. Lee waited about 10 seconds for questions, then beat me to the punch. This is some sort of longhouse. Not the kind the Six Nations and other Indians built in the south, but its own kind. There are three like it on Pamiok -- two this size and one much larger. The Eskimos say there're several more to the north. Nothing like them has ever before been described in Canadian archeology. " I've traced the outline of this one. See, it's somewhat boat-shaped, with slightly curved sides and rounded ends. The walls were of stone and turf and low -- four feet at most. I've found little in the way of artifacts except a lot of Dorset-culture litharge [ scraps and flakes of flint ], much of it on top of rotted turf from fallen walls. Dorsets [a pre-Eskimoan culture] seem to have camped here after this longhouse was abandoned."

He led me up an easy slope and I almost stumbled over the ruin before I saw it. Boulders, tumbled every which way, blended so well with the mess of other rocks, it needed to be pointed out to me. Then I could make out the shape of what looked like a tomb for Gargantua. It was at least 80 feet long, maybe 20 wide, and bloody massive! In some places the walls still stood three feet high but were mostly broken down, with their boulders rolled into the central space. I say boulders because that's what a lot of them were. Lee guessed some weighed more than a thousand pounds. All were coated with a layer of lichens that must have taken hundreds of years to grow. Looking across this enormous jumble, Lee summed up his thoughts: " Difficult to believe this was built by Eskimoan people. What earthly reason would they have had? Eskimos may have sometimes pitched their tents inside these longhouses, and Dorset and Thule-culture [ paleo Eskimos ] probably did the same. But I doubt any of them built these longhouses." " Then who did?" He smiled quizzically. " Well, now, Mr. Mowat, I suppose that's for me to find and you to ask. At this stage a cautious professional wouldn't say. But I don't think you'll be surprised if I predict they'll turn out to be Europeans. Possibly Norse." ( Farley Mowat, The FarFarers, Seal Books, Toronto, 1999:6-11,
emphases supplied )

However, the main thesis proposed by Farley Mowat in The Farfarers differs markedly from this viewpoint, for as he explains in the introduction ( 1999:xv ), the thesis itself grew out of a " conviction that the Norse were not, after all, the first Europeans to cross the Western Ocean ". Although the latter - the " Albans "- become The Farfarers, Farley Mowat nevertheless still provides an excellent summary of the Norse viewpoint suggested by Thomas Lee's researches in the Canadian Arctic. Thus he continues:

In the years ahead, Lee and I became friends, exchanging findings and opinions. He supplied me with copies of his meticulously detailed archeological reports. I gave him the results of my research into early Norse history. In 1967 he went back to Ungava and found an even larger longhouse on another island a few miles north of the Payne. He then returned to Pamiok and began an intensive investigation of the big house there. This dig required three seasons to complete and yielded remarkably little enlightenment in view of the enormous amount of time and energy Lee expended on it. Nothing emerged to satisfactorily explain its purpose or identify its builders. It remained an enigma, beset with mysteries. One of these was how the Pamiok big house or, indeed, any of these
Arctic longhouses, could have been roofed. Lee's excavations ( together with those undertaken in later years by other archeologists on similar sites ) have failed to produce evidence of roof supports,
whether of wood or of such possible substitutes as whale bones. Furthermore, the nearest timber suitable for roof construction at the time they were built was at least 120 miles to the southward of
Pamiok, and 1,500 miles to the south of a group of similar longhouses found in the 1970s on the shores of Kane Basin in the High Arctic. The roof question has bedeviled every archeologist who has investigated it. Some have concluded the longhouses weren't " houses " at all and so need never have been roofed. But, if not houses, what were they? The orthodox opinion seems to be that they served some kind of ceremonial or religious purpose; but there is no evidence to buttress such a hypothesis and the distribution of the sites makes such an explanation inherently improbable. Lee suspected the structures were temporary shelters built by Norse voyagers visiting the region around A.D. 1000. Indeed, ground plans of Norse croft houses of that period in Iceland, the northern British Isles, and parts of Scandinavia resemble these Canadian Arctic longhouses. All are long and narrow, often with slightly curved side walls. Proportions and dimensions are generally comparable. There the resemblance ends. Norse (including Icelandic) longhouses were invariably roofed, with sod, turf, bark or thatch supported upon robust wooden frameworks which have, almost without exception, left archeologically identifiable traces. A number of years were to pass following my visit to Pamiok Island before the Arctic longhouses began revealing their mysteries to me. They first did so on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. (Farley Mowat, The FarFarers, Seal Books, Toronto, 1999 :11-12, emphases supplied )

Farley Mowat's proposed solution to this enigma turns out to be a very neat, highly functional way of wintering-over in the Arctic regions. In short, the latter suggests that the roofs in question were essentially the inverted boats of the Farfarers, thus he states:

As many explorers would discover the hard and sometimes fatal way, surviving the harshly inimical Arctic winter is no easy matter. Food and shelter are the prim requisites. Food can be found by those who know where and how to look, but finding shelter may be something else. Aboriginal Arctic dwellers solved that problem with the snow house. Valuta seekers found their solution in boat-roofed houses, a construction which had been traditional with them for centuries past. Their own vessels, upturned on foundation walls built of stones and tightly clinked with moss or sod, could protect them from the most extreme winter weather. (Farley Mowat, The FarFarers, Seal Books, Toronto,1999:187, emphases supplied)

The latter also notes further that:

It is no accident that the largest assemblage of boatroofed house foundations in the high north is concentrated around polynyas. Most are in the Smith Sound region, the remainder being adjacent to polynyas as far south and west as Devon, Little Cornwallis, Bathurst, and Somerset islands.
One striking exception exists near the mouth of the Kuuk River on the west coast of Victoria Island. Slightly over one hundred feet long, this low-walled structure discovered by Dr. Robert McGhee, head of the scientific section of the Archaeological Survey of Canada, stands alone on a desolate stretch of stony beach. Of the right dimensions to have supported two vessels overturned end to end, it may have been built by farfarers seeking an unclaimed polynya or forced far to the west by adverse ice conditions. On the other hand, McGhee has pointed out that the Kuuk River leads to a glacial deposit of native copper known to have been exploited by the Inuit, which could have been a
source of copper for valuta seekers too. Probably because of its isolation, the Kuuk River example is the best preserved of the forty- five boat-roofed foundations so far described or excavated. Most of the others have been quarried by natives for stones with which to build tent circles, meat caches, and shelters. Thule-culture people, impelled by a powerful animosity towards the original builders, may even have deliberately destroyed some of the foundations by systematically tumbling their walls. However, more than enough remain to provide a good idea of what the structures must once have looked like, of how they were built, and of how they functioned. Although varying from about thirty to a hundred feet, the majority are of the order of fifty feet in length. Except for those few designed to support two, or even three, ships set end to end, they have an average length-to-width ratio of 3.5 to1, roughly the same as that of north European working ships from circa A.D. 1000. Walls were built only high enough to accommodate the curving of the covering vessel and to provide internal headroom. Few seem to have been even as much as four feet in height. Since there is little soil or sod in the high Arctic, foundations were constructed entirely of stones
( sometimes very large ones ) chinked with moss and lichens. In the sub arctic they were generally built of sods ballasted with stones. Turf and sods reinforced with wood provided building materials south of timber line-- a combination that time has reduced to almost invisible mounds. Most were sited close to the high-tide and storm line. In several instances, rocks fouling a landing beach seem to have been cleared away to protect fragile vessels from damage when they were hauled ashore. Once emptied of gear, ballast, and supplies, a fifty-foot skin boat would have been light enough to be manhandled to a mating with a prepared foundation. Larger vessels may have been moved on rollers, then overturned and eased into position using their own spars as levers.

There seems to have been only one (necessarily low) door located in a side wall. There were no window openings, but well-oiled sea mammal skins are remarkably translucent. During the long winter night, the houses would have been lighted and, in the high Arctic, perhaps heated ( Inuit style ) by lamps fuelled with sea-mammal oil. Farther south, where wood was available for fuel, smoke could have presented something of a problem. But it would have been no trick to cut a smoke-flap in the " roof," an aperture that could have been easily patched before the vessel again took to the water.

Heating the entire interior of a large boat-roofed house would have been difficult. However, heatable cubicles could have been fashioned using animal skins ( preferably caribou ) for ceilings and curtain walls. This is a system I have myself used to good effect in the barren lands of Keewatin. Boat-roofed houses would have provided spacious, comfortable accommodations for the times when they were being built and used. They would also have ensured the best possible
protection, from weather and from hungry animals, for the vessels themselves during the long winter months. (Farley Mowat, The FarFarers, Seal Books, Toronto,1999:189-191, emphases supplied)

Note: This article was first culled by Jan Lamprecht, the author of Hollow Planets


Pages of Interest:

Polar Warming   Curvature Anomalies   Ring Around the Opening  

Circular, Compacted as if Linear   Mammoth   Chapter Four from Gardner  

Radarsat   ZR-1  Antartic Ozone Image   Icebergs from the Inner Earth

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