Saga Video

Archeology provides another way to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the Greenland Norse. When the Icelandic sagas dealing with Greenland began to be compiled in Grønlands Historiske Mindesmaerker in 1838-45, Danes began to dig for artifacts in the old Norse ruins and the archeological search for the Greenland Norse started in earnest. Today, interpretations of these finds and modern excavation has debunked early theories of disease, genetic deterioration, or conflict with the Inuit. Most likely, the extinction resulted from a complex set of events related to climatic cooling, over-population, and economic stress. No single event sealed the fate of the Norse; instead it was a series of actions over time which led to a slow, downward spiral.

During the first two hundred years the Norse thrived in their new though remote northern lands. The inner fjords of southwest Greenland filled with people and animals. Cemetery excavations project population estimates of 4-5000, with most people living in the Eastern Settlement. Ruins of more than 300 farms, twenty-two churches, a nunnery, and many cemeteries have been found and mapped, and many have been excavated. Finds indicate a thriving community whose institutions, culture, and subsistence remained firmly European, while construction of elaborate churches demonstrate their Christian beliefs seem to have grown steadily stronger.

Joel Berglund on Subsistence

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Archeology has revealed much about how the Norse adapted to life in Greenland. Bones of domestic animals such as cows, sheep and goats and remains of objects such as tubs used for storing dairy products indicate an economy similar to other Norse societies, especially in the early settlement period. However, later deposits reveal that the Greenlanders ate more caribou, seals, and other wild game than other Norse societies. As the climate began to deteriorate, the evidence of the dietary proportion of game-especially seals-on the smaller farms increased dramatically. These findings suggest that the Greenland Norse were adapting to a changing climate, but perhaps not sufficiently.

Modern archeology has revised biological theories of Norse extinction. Studies of Norse skeletons show little change in stature over time, and little evidence of genetic disease or mixing with the Inuit. Also, all the remains of the Norse are found in burials, which would contradict theories of widespread catastrophic disease or starvation. No one knows where the last Greenlanders went, but the excavated human remains suggest they were relatively healthy and that their decline, or departure, was gradual.

Farm Beneath the Sand
Farm Beneath the Sand

Recently archeologists have excavated a remarkably well preserved farm, called the Farm Under the Sand (Danish for Gard Under Sandet), which had been deep frozen since the time it was last occupied. Located in the Western Settlement, which was the first to be abandoned according to historic accounts, this excavation shed light on the fate of that more northerly community. The farm complex had been carefully cleared of belongings, indicating that it was not attacked nor abandoned hastily. But the discovery of a goat found underneath a collapsed wall reveals that animals had been left behind, much as described in Ivar Bardarson's report.

Contrary to early theories blaming Inuit for the demise of the Norsemen, there is no archeological evidence that Inuit aggression resulted in the abandonment of either the Western or the Eastern Settlements. Interestingly, the excavated human bones show no evidence of massive warfare, ruling out widespread conflict with the Inuit. New radiocarbon dating has shown that the less aggressive Dorset people were not replaced by the more aggressive Thule Inuit until they reached the Nordsetur by the mid-1300s. Even after this time, there is a surprising absence of Inuit artifacts in the Norse houses, indicating very little contact. While Norse artifacts like scissors, shears and bronze church bell fragments have been found in Inuit sites from Disko Bay to the Eastern Settlements, they were most likely scavenged for use after the Norse disappeared, since the Inuit sites date to the 15-16th centuries. Still, a growing Eskimo presence must have been a concern for the Greenland Norse in the later years of the colony.