Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Did Viking Greenland Collapse?

In 982 Eirik the Red discovered Greenland, according to the Icelandic sagas. The Viking colony there lasted 400 years, until 1408, when a wedding was held between an Icelander and a Greenlander—and that’s the last we hear of the Greenland Norse. Why, after surviving over 400 years, did these people disappear from history without a trace?

The puzzle of Viking Greenland captivates people, and I've written about it in three of my books, as nonfiction in Ivory Vikings and The Far Traveler, and as fiction in my young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, as well as on this blog. (You can read the section on Greenland from Ivory Vikings on, here:

One idea is that climate change worked in the Vikings' favor. Research in Europe had found signs of warmer temperatures between 950 and 1250, the so-called "Medieval Warm Period," which preceded "the Little Ice Age." But a new study of the Greenland ice cores (reported here: shows that the "Medieval Warm Period" (if it even existed) never reached Greenland. There was no change in the extent of Greenland's ice. Ruling out other factors, the researchers concluded that there was no warming in Greenland during the Viking centuries.

Thjodhild's church at Brattahlid. Photo by NMB.
Jared Diamond presents another theory in his popular 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He argues that the livestock the settlers brought with them, based on the Norwegian “ideal farm,” didn’t suit Greenland’s colder, drier conditions. 

Diamond writes: “Although Vikings prized pork above all other meats, pigs proved terribly destructive and unprofitable in lightly wooded Greenland, where they rooted up the fragile vegetation and soil. Within a short time they were reduced to low numbers.” For similar environmental reasons, he says, the Vikings were forced to limit the number of “honored cows” they kept and increase their herds of “despised goats.” A main cause of the “collapse,” in his view, is that the Norse refused to give up their unsuitable livestock and become dedicated seal hunters like the Inuit, who began moving south into Viking territory in the 1200s. He also thinks they turned up their noses at fish.

Eirik's Fjord, Greenland. Photo by NMB.
Despite the attractive environmental message in Diamond’s Collapse, I have problems accepting this model of the Viking diet. How do we know that Vikings prized pork and despised goat meat? 

Our main source for Viking culinary practices are the myths in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda. Snorri, writing in the early 1200s, gives the cow pride of place: Her copious milk fed the giant Ymir, from whose body the chief god Odin created the world. Pork is the meat eaten in Valhalla, the great hall in the Otherworld to which Odin welcomes warriors slain in battle; the same old boar is boiled each night in a huge cauldron, and in the morning he comes back to life. Odin himself is said to never eat, living on wine alone; yet in another tale, he and two lesser gods butcher an ox and roast it on a spit over a wood fire. A goat, meanwhile, produces mead instead of milk for the dead heroes in Valhalla to drink. Goat is also the favorite food of the war god Thor; the two goats that pull his chariot allow him to butcher and boil them every night. Provided that he saves every bone and wraps them up in the skins, unbroken, the goats will come back to life in the morning. Given the number of children named after Thor—one quarter of the names in the Icelandic Book of Settlements  are Thor combinations—his totemic animal seems unlikely to have been “despised.” Finally, three gods, Thor, Loki, and Njord, are all associated with fishing. In particular, Loki, the trickster god, is said to have turned himself into a salmon and invented a net.

Sandnes, Greenland. Photo by NMB.
When I interviewed her in 2006, Jette Arneborg, an archaeologist at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, pointed out to me a second problem with Diamond’s model of the Viking diet. It assumes that the Vikings were tidy, that they carefully cleared the table and carried all their dinner scraps out to the garbage midden. But there were no tables in treeless Greenland. And bones were valuable. Housewives collected them back into the pot and boiled them to make soup, then pickled them in whey to make “bone-jelly porridge.” Toys, dice, flutes, and game pieces were carved out of them, and needles and needle cases. They were crushed and dried and fed to cows as a calcium supplement or spread on the fields as fertilizer. Bones were tossed to the dogs or simply left on the floor.

Archaeologists have long bemoaned the squalid conditions of the Greenland Vikings’ floors. Layers of twigs, hay, and moss served an insulating function—they kept the permafrost from thawing and the floor from turning to muck. Sifting through samples of such carpeting, scientists have identified flies that feed on carrion and feces, as well as human lice, sheep lice, and the beetles that live in rotting hay. Shards of bone are scattered throughout, “a few clearly having passed through the gut of the farm’s dog,” one excavator writes. On the floor of the Farm Beneath the Sand, archaeologists even found fish bones.

Eirik's Fjord, Greenland. Photo by NMB.
In her office at the museum, a converted Renaissance palace in downtown Copenhagen, Arneborg seemed worlds away from her job as codirector of the dig at the Farm Beneath the Sand. She described her days to me: going in by helicopter, using sandbags to hold the river back, excavating three to four inches of soil, then waiting for the sun to melt the next layer of permafrost. Wrapping every bone, every chip of wood, in wet paper and bagging it in plastic, the glacial river roaring past inches away. An open box on her desk held two animal bones from Greenland; they had been sent to the diet-analysis group, where someone saw a cross had been cut into each one and returned them to her, reclassified as artifacts.

“Of course they ate fish,” she said. “We do have one fishhook. We have sinkers. We have pieces of what I think were nets. We have fish bones from inside the house. If we sieve very carefully, we find them.” Of the 24,643 bone fragments found inside the house, 8,250 could be identified: 166 bones were fish bones. Only one was from a pig.

Eirik's house at Brattahlid, Greenland. Photo by NMB.
In 2012, Arneborg and her colleagues published a series of articles summing up many years of work puzzling out the Greenlanders’ diet. Their conclusion? “Greenland’s Viking settlers gorged on seals.” A press release, linking to the scientific publications, is available here:

Rather than looking at the bones in the Greenlanders’ garbage middens, for this study the researchers analyzed the settlers’ own bones: 80 Norse skeletons preserved in the National Museum of Denmark. They used a technique called isotope analysis that compares the ratio between carbon-13 and carbon-15 in the bones to determine how much of the person’s diet came from land-based food and how much from marine-based food. It can even distinguish between seals and fish.

“Our analysis shows that the Norse in Greenland ate lots of food from the sea, especially seals,” Jan Heinemeier from the Institute of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University told a University of Copenhagen reporter.

So the Greenland Norse did not starve. Why their colony disappeared is still a mystery.

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

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

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

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Saga of Herdis, the Bishop's Wife

What is a saga? Confusingly, 140 texts written in Old Icelandic are labeled "sagas." Derived from the Icelandic verb "to say," saga implies neither fact nor falsehood. Today we place the Icelandic sagas in several genres--Family Sagas, Sagas of Ancient Times, Kings' Sagas, Contemporary Sagas (including the Bishops' Sagas), Knights' Tales, and Saints' Lives.

The best, the ones people usually mean when they say "the Icelandic sagas," are the Family Sagas. "The glory of the sagas is indisputable," they are "some sort of miracle," scholars gush. "In no other literature is there such a sense of the beauty of human conduct." Others praise the sagas' "earnest straightforward manner," their crisp dialogue and "simple, lucid sentence structure," their individualistic characters, their gift for drama, their complex structure, "the illusion of reality which they create," and their sophisticated use of "the same devices that we are accustomed to from modern suspense fiction." The Family Sagas are "a great world treasure," comparable to "Homer, Shakespeare, Socrates, and those few others who live at the very heart of human literary endeavor."

The Bishops' Sagas, on the other hand, have been dismissed by one expert as "backwards, stilted in style, and schlocky in hagiographical excess." No one gushes over the Saga of Bishop Pall. Few people, other than specialists, even read it--there's no English translation.

But that doesn't mean there aren't treasures to be found in it. The Saga of Bishop Pall is the only text to mention Margret the Adroit, the best ivory carver in all of Iceland, and the artist at the center of my book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them.

Another fascinating woman introduced in this saga is Herdis, the wife of Bishop Pall. Technically, Pall should have divorced her when he became bishop of Skalholt in southern Iceland in 1195. Church reformers had preached against clerical marriage for hundreds of years. The Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139 officially banned it. If previously married, upon consecration a priest must eject his wife and children from his home and take a vow of celibacy: The church should be his only bride.

Perhaps Pall tried. When he returned to Iceland from his consecration and moved into the bishop's quarters at Skalholt, he left his wife of 20 years and their four children behind at their family estate of Skard. A year later, however, Herdis and the children moved to Skalholt, and Herdis took over running the household. Whether she shared Pall's bed, we do not know; they had no more children. But foregoing her management skills was more than Pall could accept. According to the Saga of Bishop Pall, she was such a good manager that "she had been there only a few winters before there was enough of everything that was needed and nothing was lacking at the estate even if 120 people arrived, on top of the 70 or 80 in the household itself."

At the same time, Herdis continued to manage the family estate at Skard, which "stayed in good shape while she lived," says the saga, "for of all women she was the most zealous, both concerning her own work and that of other people, as experience well shows."

Skard lies between ice and fire. The roiling glacial river Thjorsa marks its western border, the foothills of the looming, cloud-shrouded volcano Hekla rise to the east. Skalholt is 15 miles away, as the raven flies; with two rivers to cross, it's not an easy horseback ride.

One day soon after Easter in 1207, the saga says, Herdis went to Skard to check on the farm there. With her went her son Ketil and daughter Halla, leaving Loft and his sister Thora at Skalholt. While she was there, the glacial river flooded. The ford across the Thjorsa became impassable.

Determined to return to Skalholt on the day arranged, Herdis hired a ferry. Ketil, then 16, and a priest named Bjorn crossed first, carrying over the riding gear and leading the horses, forcing them to swim behind the boat. One horse--Herdis's own--broke free of its rein and was swept down the river. Herdis did not respect the omen.

On the second trip, the wind gusted up. The ferry hit a shoal and flipped, spilling Herdis, her daughter Halla, and her niece Gudrun, as well as the deacon who oversaw Skard and a man named Sigfus, into the icy, turbulent water. Sigfus made it to land, exhausted. The others, while the priest and the boy watched, helpless, drowned. The women, especially, had no chance, weighed down as they were by their heavy wool gowns and cloaks, against a current strong enough to overcome a horse.

"When the news came to Bishop Pall's ears, suddenly, in the middle of the night," the saga says, "it seemed to everyone that God had nearly given him more than he could bear. He could not eat, he could not sleep, until the bodies were buried, though he tried to cheer up everyone else as much as he could."

The pathos of this description--"in the middle of the night ... he tried to cheer up everyone else"--suggests to some scholars that Loft, Pall's son, the one left at home, was the author of the saga. His brother Ketil died in 1215, about 22, but Loft lived to old age, entering a monastery late in life and dying in 1261, about 70 years old.

You can learn more about Bishop Pall and his family in Ivory Vikings. Read about it on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

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

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