Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What Drew the Vikings to Iceland and Greenland? Was it Walrus?

In the first chapter of Ivory Vikings, "The Berserks," I argue that walrus tusks--or "fish teeth," as the Vikings called them--made the perfect cargo for a Viking ship: They were light, long-lasting, and highly prized.

Viking raids were bankrolled with fish teeth. Viking trade routes were built on them. Viking explorers sailed west out of sight of land in search of shiny, white walrus tusks. From the 8th to the 14th century--well after the end of the Viking Age--walrus ivory was the most sought after commodity of the North. It was Arctic gold.

You can read part of that chapter, an excerpt on the Vikings in Greenland and North America, on the website, here.

Before coming to my conclusions, I had tried to find every book or paper written about the medieval ivory trade, many of them by Thomas McGovern of CUNY and his colleagues. I had interviewed Jette Arneborg at the University of Copenhagen and Orri Vesteinsson at the Archaeological Institute of Iceland (whom I knew from my research for a previous book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman), as well as historian Helgi Thorlaksson of the University of Iceland; all three are experts on archaeological finds of walrus bones and teeth in Greenland and Iceland and on the Icelandic place names that refer to walrus.  

If I'd waited a year, someone else would have done all that research for me. Because someone else was on the trail of the Viking walrus hunters at the same time as I was. And they've reached some of the same conclusions.

Illustration by Jón Baldur Hliðberg
A few weeks ago a longtime reader of this blog sent me a paper published in April in World Archaeology titled, "Was It Walrus?" Two of the authors were Arneborg and McGovern.

The paper contains a beautiful review of all the available data on walrus hunting in Iceland and Greenland, from archaeology, place names, and the Icelandic sagas, and outlines the arguments for and against the idea that walrus triggered the Vikings' westward expansion.

The authors conclude, as I did, that "The new excavations and zooarchaeological work appear to support the notion of an initial settlement of at least parts of Iceland driven and 'financed' by walrus hunting and connections to Viking Age exchange networks." Soon, however, the Icelandic walrus herds were hunted to extinction. "In contrast, in Greenland current evidence suggests that walrus hunting may have always played a central role in economy and society."

See Karin M. Frei, Ashley N. Coutu, Konrad Smiarowski, Ramona Harrison, Christian K. Madsen, Jette Arneborg, Robert Frei, Gardar Guðmundsson, Søren M. Sindbæk (corresponding author at, James Woollett, Steven Hartman, Megan Hicks, and Thomas H. McGovern. “Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland.” World Archaeology, published online 20 April 2015 at

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29).

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29).

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