North Atlantic and Arctic Encounters: Historical Ecology and Social Archaeology

Thursday, May 16, 2019 - 9:00am to 4:30pm
  • Thomas McGovern - CUNY
  • Grace Cesario - CUNY
09:10 AM: New Horizons at L’Anse aux Meadows
Presentation format:
  • Paul M. Ledger - Memorial University of Newfoundland
  • Véronique Forbes - Memorial University of Newfoundland

The UNESCO World Heritage site of L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland is the only accepted site of pre-1492 presence of Europeans in the Americas. In August 2018, we undertook fieldwork to sample a naturally accumulating column of peat to use in a high-resolution multi-proxy assessment of the environmental impacts of Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. Instead, we encountered a new cultural horizon located 30 m east of the Norse ruins. Here we report our fieldwork at this iconic site and a Bayesian analysis of legacy radiocarbon data, which contrast with previous conclusions and suggest the Norse settlement may have endured for up to a century. In light of these findings, we reflect on how the new cultural horizon and its floral and faunal content may relate to indigenous and Norse activity at L’Anse aux Meadows.

09:40 AM: Towards an archaeology of weather: understanding the past land-use management of the Svalbarð estate, Iceland
Presentation format:
  • Paul Adderley - University of Stirling
  • James Woollett - Laval University
  • Najat Bhiry - Laval University
  • Guðrún Alda Gísladóttir - Institute of Archaeology, Iceland
  • Uggi  Ævarsson - The Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland

Climate is commonly invoked as the major force in determining landscape use during the early years of the Norse settlement of Iceland.  In contrast, the later post-settlement period is increasingly understood from excavation and analyses of the material culture associated with farming practices, as well as literature-based and geomorphological perspectives.  While climate evidence provided by regional proxies such as ice-core data interpretation is increasingly and readily available, the linkage from these data to patterns of landscape use and management remains largely speculative based on long-term correlations between climatic shifts and past regional economies.  Such changes typically have multi-decadal timeframes such that the decision making of individual farmers remains unexplored.  In this paper we seek to address this scale and in doing so approach an archaeology of weather. 

A site-specific approach examines homefield areas – areas of intense management – across a set of farm-sites on the Svalbarð estate, North East Iceland with novel high-temporal resolution instrumented analysis of above- and below-ground temperature and moisture conditions.  Using a combination of scaling methods and hindcasting, this study reveals land management practices were used to moderate soil temperatures and hence homefield productivity.  This enables a new view on how past farming communities were able to adapt and to maintain landscape productivities during year-to-year changes in weather patterns.

10:30 AM: The contrasting histories of Svalbarð and Hjálmarvík, two neighboring farms in Thistilfjord, NE Iceland (10th to 19th century)
Presentation format:
  • James Woollett - Université Laval, Centré d'études nordiques
  • Céline  Dupont-Hébert - Université Laval, Centré d'études nordiques
  • Guðrun  Gísladóttir - Fornleifastofnun Íslands, Iceland
  • Uggi  Ævarsson - Minjavörður Suðurlands, Iceland

This study contrasts the settlement and landscape histories of two neighboring farm sites in Thistilfjord, NE Iceland.  Research conducted by the Archaeology of Settlement and Abandonment of Svalbarð Projecthas determined that both sites were settled in the late 10thcentury AD in what was likely the initial wave of Viking-era settlement of the region.  These sites appear to have been the most favoured sites in their vicinity as they both had access to a mix of terrestrial and marine resources and long histories of persistent settlement lasting into the modern era.  Nevertheless, Svalbarð and Hjálmarvíkhad much different histories; Svalbarð became a church farm and the center of a sprawling estate while Hjálmarvík shrank from a middle-rank farm into a tenant farm around AD 1300 and again afterwards into an outlying fishing, herding and grazing station belonging to Svalbard. Zooarchaeological analyses of animal remains from middens of these two sites define clear changes in the subsistence economies of Svalbarð and Hálmarvík, notably regarding the relative importance of herding and dairying and the manner in which marine resources were appropriated at these sites.  The diminishment of Hjálmarvík at circa. AD 1300 was accompanied by a large-scale transfer of access to the marine resources that had formerly sustained Hjálmarvík, to Svalbarð.  At the same time, a specialised sheep-herding economy was installed at Hjálmarvík, for which the coastal farm was poorly equipped.    


11:00 AM: The Farms of Hunters: Medieval Norse Settlement, Land- and Sea-Use in Low Arctic Greenland
Presentation format:
  • Christian Koch Madsen - Greenland National Museum & Archives

The Norse that settled in Greenland between c. AD 985-1450 depended greatly on local to regional Arctic marine resources for both subsistence and oversees trade. However, the practical and social organization around this marine economy have only left a limited imprint on the archaeological record, which today appears dominated by evidence of terrestrial farm- and shieling activities. The Winter is Coming Project (WiCP) considers long-term Norse settlement, organization, and land- and sea use in environmentally marginal parts of the Greenland settlements. Initial findings suggest that the Norse living in such areas adjusted their farming and land use strategies to exploit their advantageous access to Arctic marine resources, i.e. becoming “marine farms.” Initially at least, this adaptation appears to have been successful and probably enough to mitigate the first negative effects of the "Little Ice Age" beginning in the 13th century. The study thus aims to outline complex ecodynamics across varying spatiotemporal scales-from single feature to regional settlement patterns-to outline a long-term historical ecology of medieval Norse settlement in Low Arctic Greenland.

11:30 AM: From the land and by the sea: a methodology to study the use and provenance of wooden materials in the Norse Greenlandic Settlements
Presentation format:
  • Elie Pinta - Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne / UMR 8096

The search for Arctic commodities led the Medieval Norse to the edge of the known world. Starting around the first half of the 9th century A.D, populations from Norway and the British Isles settled the North Atlantic islands. In the Faroe Islands, Iceland or Greenland, the Norse kept strong cultural, economic and political relationships with mainland Europe. For people whose originally come from Northern Europe, trees and timber are an essential part of their landscape, mythology and material culture. In the poorly wooded landscapes of the North Atlantic islands, they still managed to rely on wood and timber as a fuel source, a construction material for homes and boats, and in the production of tools and objects.

In this paper I will present a methodology which has proven useful providing answers as to the provenance of wooden materials used by Norse Greenlanders. In addition to using locally available timber, archaeological and historic sources have proven that the Norse also relied on imported materials, although it is still difficult to assess to which extent or how to identify areas of origin of these resources. Furthermore, there is a possibility that the origins of the timber used in the Norse Settlements could have differed according to aspects such as location, trade patterns or political connections between each area of settlement. Native, drifted or imported, wherever the timber used by Norse Greenlanders might have come from, the sea provided them with the materials they needed.

01:40 PM: Wood utilisation in Norse Greenland. The effect of the little ice age on wood procurement in Greenland during the late middle ages.
Presentation format:
  • Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir - University of Iceland

The demise of the Norse colonies in Greenland in the 14th and 15th centuries have long been debated with most explanations revolving around isolation and harsh environmental conditions. This led to the collapse of the Norse settlement since they were not able to adapt to these environmental changes. The demise of the Norse colonies is most likely more complicated picture and therefore necessary to look at it from more angles. Wood was one of the most important recourses used for housebuilding, boats, tools, vessels and fuel. It has been assumed that the Norse were reliant on import and had inadequate access to wood resources. Until now no systematic research has been carried out to throw light on this matter. Wood assemblages from two sites in Eystribyggð are being identified to get the discussion about wood utilistation on firmer grounds, the episcopal see at Garðar (Igaliku) and middle status farm Ø172 in Vatnahverfi.  Both sites have produced thousands of wooden artefacts, off-cuts, chips and twigs which will support inferences about where the Greenlanders got their wood, whether there was a lack of this resource and how the wood use changed as the climate got colder and harsher. Today climate change is threatening arctic sites with good woord preservationLi and it is quite clear that as climate gets warmer this material group is under great threat. It is therefore necessary to get as much information about wood use before it is too late. 

02:10 PM: Marine Fishing in the Viking Age to Medieval Period Faroe Islands
Presentation format:
  • Seth Brewington - Lehman College, CUNY

Marine fishing has long played a critically important role in the subsistence and market economies of the Faroe Islands.  While the earliest historical documentation for fishing in the islands dates to the 14th century CE, archaeological evidence for earlier periods has until recently been extremely limited.  In this paper I present archaeofaunal evidence for the role of fishing in the Faroes from the 9th to 13th centuries.  This evidence suggests an early focus on gadids, particularly cod (Gadus morhua), some of which was likely air-cured.  An apparent decline in fishing in the 12th and 13th centuries coincides with the transition to a more terrestrially-focused domestic economy, and an increased emphasis on sheep farming and wool production.  The available data thus suggests a significant contrast between the Faroe Islands and typical contemporaneous Icelandic sites, where an increasing demand for local exchange and foreign export of dried fish drove an intensification of marine fishing.

03:00 PM: Fish in old Paper and Latrines. Environmental History Data revealed from Medieval and Early Modern Hanseatic Documents and Fish Bones from archaeological Sites
Presentation format:
  • Hans Christian  Küchelmann - German Maritime Museum, Leibniz Institute for German Maritime History, Bremerhaven, Germany
  • Florian  Dirks - German Maritime Museum, Leibniz Institute for German Maritime History, Bremerhaven, Germany

Central aim of the project is the extraction of marine environmental history data from historical documents and archaeozoological fish remains. The project draws on research undertaken from 2015-2018 within the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea - Interdisciplinary studies of the Hanseatic League" at the German Maritime Museum Bremerhaven. During this project a large amount of historical documents concerned with the 15th – 17th century trade of the Hanseatic League with the North Atlantic islands (Iceland, Shetland, Faroes) kept in archives in Northern Europe have been identified, transliterated and made publically available in a database (HansDoc). The documents contain lots of marine environmental history data particularly about Gadidae species, which were subject of the large-scale stockfish trade. Additionally, we aim to mine the evenly extensive historical sources on Hanseatic herring trade. Another focus of the previous Hanse project were fish remains from archaeological sites related to Hanseatic trade. There is now a complete inventory of all Gadidae bones recovered from sites in Germany and these can be used to address further research questions like provenance identification, geographic and diachronic distribution and development patterns, etc. using morphological, osteometrical and biomolecular analyses.

These data will form a valuable part in international research and approaches to reconstruct and restore past marine ecosystems like e.g the History of Marine Animal Populations Project (HMAP), the Oceans Past Initiative (OPI), the Northern Seas Synthesis Project or the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

03:30 PM: “Dirty Brown Rags: Cloth Recycling in the Norse Colonies of the North Atlantic”
Presentation format:
  • Michele Hayeur Smith - Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University

This paper will focus on women, subsistence and cloth recycling in Norse societies of the North Atlantic. Various estimates have been given for the amounts of time required for processing and producing both wool and cloth in the North Atlantic, as well as for the amounts needed by households over the course of seasons, years, or other spans of time. In this paper production times involved in spinning and wool consumption rates will be discussed. These have direct implications for subsistence and household organization in Norse Greenland. With these figures in mind, how did Norse women meet their textile needs in a cooling climatic environment, and with changes in hunting and subsistence patterns? One way was to resort to cloth recycling, as an extensive practice found across the North Atlantic.