Saturday, September 3, 2016

Erik the Red Was An Eskimo: Some insect-Related Evidence

Whoever "Erik the Red," the apical ancestor of Bishops Thorlak Runolfsson of Skalholt and Brandur Saemundsson, fourth bishop of Holar, and namesake of so many places around Norse Greenland,* he was probably a Dorset Paleo-Eskimo.

Why? Start with this  view of the "Blair Witch Forest," as Kenowclimber calls it. (Well, not exactly, but it's the best picture.)

Kernowclimber: on the way up Mt. Nalumasortoq at the head of Tasermiut Fjord,  southwest Greenland.
The coastal waters off southern Greenland are usually crammed with ice in the springing of the year.  Landings down east, towards Cape Farewell, are better done from mid-July. If you want to go to Greenland in the early summer, you want to sail further north, to Nuuk. This is why Hans Egede, and Claus Paarss and for that matter Erik the Red, made their first landings there, and part of the reason that Nuuk has gone on to be the capital of modern Greenland. 

But while Erik the Red started at Nuuk, for some reason he made his settlement down east.  (Weather is cited as the reason, but, again, there is a reason Nuuk is the capital now.)

According to Ari the Wise's Book of the Icelanders, [1123/4], about twelve years before Olaf Trygvasson of Norway sent the Saxon priest, Thangbrand, to Iceland as a missionary, Erik led a fleet of ten chieftains in 25 ships from Iceland to Greenland. Eleven ships are lost to the ice, but the remaining 14 landed and took up at Brattahlid, Gardar, Hvalsey and Herjolfsnes, farm complexes in the Eastern Settlement --that is, in the far south and east of the west coast of Greenland. That would presumably include Klosterdalen, Kernowclimber's "Blair Witch Forest."

Erik and his fellow chieftains did not necessarily face dense, impenetrable scrub everywhere they landed. Graah describes finding natural meadow along the southeast coast as he proceeded north. However, this scrub ecology is the default state of the dry arable land of the Greenland littoral, and Nineteenth Century farmers often had to clear it to bring the old Nrse farms back into production. More importantly, Greenland's bogs like natural water meadows pretty much everywhere, produce luxuriant browse, and would have been convenient locations for opportunistic settlement.

Eriophorum (cottongrass); along with bog-bean the most striking native plant in Greenland bogs. It seems very unlikely, Ari the Wise aside, that either reindeer or Dorsets would ignore these habitats in the summers. By Rob Bendall, Attribution,

The traditional assumption is that the Norse burned the dryland scrub on arrival. While this thesis is no longer archaeologically supported, burning is an obvious, if stupid, strategy for speeding up the land-taking. They might have done it, if they had arrived in a massive fleet all in one summer. Then, of course, they would have died, because burning wouldn't speed up the process enough. You cannot clear a far, build shelters, and take a hay crop in a single year. And even medieval Norse weren't dumb enough (actually,weren't dumb at all) to think that they could, an so sign on to the project.

It's not that the colonisation is impossible. Small numbers of homesteaders could not have settled on suitable wetlands and rely on store food for the first winter or two. They would take awful attrition from scurvy the first few years, as Egede and Paarss did, however. More likely, the astonishing success of the Mennonites underlines a successful strategy, which is to come in small numbers and rely on winter hunting and fishing to make up the ascorbic acid deficit in store food. For that to be possible, you probably need the support of congenial local hunters, as well, and so a store of trade goods, but given what historic Greenlanders were willing to trade for iron needles, that isn't much of a barrier. From there you could build up to a supply of hay, adult animals, storage space, a tradable surplus of cream and whey, and from there a labour surplus sufficient to make your way by spinning and weaving, as the Mennonites did.

Not that these observations are in any way limited to Greenland. That first winter is a problem with all stories of largescale initial "land-takings." Surviving the first winter in large numbers is a challenge because relying on store food leads to scurvy. A "rapid" landtaking is certainly allowed, but only at the rate at which cattle generations mature --so perhaps a generation or so.

And it only gets worse on closer inspection. Our picture of early Icelandic society is one with a shortage of timber, hence ships. (Otherwise, it is hard to salvage any sense from the story of Erik the Red's exile.) The availability of a fleet capable of carrying a thousand humans and their adult(!) animals contradicts this picture. Nothing daunted, Robert Ferguson acknowleddges the issues by first reporting all the details as straight up Wie es eigentlich gewesen, then observing that the 25 ships must have been heirlooms from the first settlement of Iceland, a century before. One can only imagine the recriminations back in Iceland when this fleet of painstakingly preserved heirlooms was thrown away in the Western ice --and wonder about the motivations of such such powerful and predominant chieftains.  

So I find this story unlikely. There is more. Ari's work, written at the behest of the  bishops of Skalholt and Holar, and, yes, quite possibly the same ones who claimed Erik the Red as an ancestor, is based on "the traditions of a small number of families, and expresses a clear ideological stance."[pdf, x] All stories about "landtakings" are intended to legitimate existing landholding families. Oral genealogy dating back past two centuries exists only to "maintain taboo," and it probably suffices to understand its ideological charge to point out that we haven't genealogies for the eleventh century Imperial German nobility of the Investitute Crisis of the era. The historians simply do not transmit this information, probably that it would make the self-interested motivations of all the main actors obvious. More, Ari edits the traditions of the landtaking he receives, at least if comparison with the Book of Settlement and the Christians' Saga is any evidence. Ari's intention is to consciously create a "myth of origins for the Icelanders involving migration over the sea and settlement in a 'promised' land." More particularly, it is a myth of origins for some of the prominent godar families who then monopolised both local power and parish livings. His narrative centres on Christian leaders appointed by Norwegian kings, and Norway becomes central to the narrative beyond any supportable reading of other texts. In the context of the conversion, the role of the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen is written out. Nor does Erik the Red enter the story accidentaly. His emigration makes Iceland centre instead of  periphery, source of, as well as destination of, migrations. The abandoned settlements of the skraelings in Greenland are consciously paralleled to the abandoned settlements of papars (Irish monks) in Iceland [xxv--vi], an approach that ought to be familiar from any of the numerous pre-modern historians who like the "migration" line. Formorians, Tyrrhenians, Tuniit --the function of the autochthone is either to vanish or to be the ancestors of the master race, hegemonically sprung from the soil. 

Is there an alternative explanation to a single large fleet in 985? Yes! The Mennonites! It is exactly like, as I keep saying, the establishment of small agricultural colonies, often by self-identified Scandinavians, and at other times by mainly Catholic missions, on the northwest coast of North America.

Oh, sure, Erik, you say: that's how it happened in your neck of the woods. But is there a reason, hopeless contrarianism aside, to move from "just asking questions" to a statement of fact?

Let's see.

Leif Erickson was born in Cashton, Wisconsin, in 1906, attended high school in Sidney, Montana, the University of North Dakota, and the University of Chicago. Married in 1932, he seems to have lived Missoula through a life marked by a series of bruising electoral defeats for the Montana Democratic Party, albeit reaching the State Supreme Court. He's in this blog because he defeated Burton K. Wheeler in the Democratic Senate primary in 1946 as part of a national wave of primary defeats for sitting senators; and also because of, let's face it, the name. Sidney is a productive agricultural town thanks to 51,429 acres of irrigated land comprising 450 farms, on a canal from the Glendive Dam of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project. Sidney is pretty staunchly Republican, and strongly preferred Donald Trump to the next closest candidate, Ted Cruz. Cashton, Wisconsin, has a population which is 0% Native American, per the latest Census (and 95.6% White). Sidney is 94.9% White and 1.8% Native American. 
A Very Serious Historical Project starts with a review of the sources. (Well, actually, the literature, but I'm going to skip that.) This is a blog post, not a Very Serious Project. Sources are sources. and this is a sexy enough subject that you are probably aware of your Kirsten Seavers, your Roberts Sawyer and Ferguson, your Alex Woolf, your (boo!) Jared Diamonds. However, the intention of a literature review is to show that you've read the stuff, and the avalanche of scholarly writing on the plantation of the North Atlantic shows precious little sign of being synthesised in the popular literature, so without further showing-off, I can say that I've "mastered" it as well as the next half-assed layman. Here, by the way, is an actual expert, doing a real literature review. I stand in awe. 

So, literature. "History begins with myth," it is said. Check out, for example, Stephen Yeates, determined to show that the West-Germanic oecumene that spreads around the basin of the North Sea today dates back to Roman times and before. (In which case there were no Celtic-speakers for "Anglo-Saxons" or Vikings to displace --even in the Northern Isles.) Or don't, because it's an unfortunate book.

In this case, though, we're not making myth out of history (in this case, Bede). I'm being quite literal, as I begin with  Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, composed sometime around 1220, in part a  collection of myths about the Norse gods, similar to the ones that we have from ancient Greece. It may be supposed, then, to have some insight into the Scandinavian heathen religion, to present some kind of useful picture of that religion, hence society, and, given that the Edda[s] are the Bullfinchs' Mythology of the North, authorise the use of the "saga" literature that sprung up in their wake as the Illiad and Odyssey of the north. As authentic oral literature handed down by generations of skalds, they then contain some kernel of truth which the modern historian can extract by --well, since this a blog post and I can be rude if I want, by wishing real hard.

Important authentic source material of actual real ancient Norse religion.

As far as Scandinavia and Scotland are concerned, this not the perspective that most modern writers take on the sagas. The supposed value of the oral tradition has been deflated by fact checking, and "[F]ew scholars today would look at saga prose as a reliable historical source for events before the twelfth century"[23]  For the would-be historian of Greenland, this skeptical perspective has the unfortuate effect of eliminating the Vinland Saga and Greenlanders' Saga as valid historical sources. Since this leaves them nothing much to write about, the sagas are usually excepted from skeptical criticism, for some reason not unrelated to "wishing real hard."

In fairness, most of the literature I turned up in a Google search for "historicity of the sagas" consisted of impassioned defence of their historicity against the buzz-killing skepticism of all those mean old scholars. At the same time, it is worth meditating on the reason for those passionate defences. For all my rude comments about wishing, the Icelandic sagas constitute an astonishing collection of Medieval literature in the vernacular. Whatever their historicity, they are a window into the Atlantic past which we simply do not have from, say, mainland Scandinavia, Scotland, Wales or even England. That being said, we do have an equivalent collection from Ireland, and plenty of evidence that much more literature once existed than is now preserved. At this point it would not be unreasonable to ask just why some medieval literatures have been preserved, while others have not. The comparison between Ireland and Scotland is particularly telling. It seems clear that the dissolution of the monasteries played an important role, and this alone ought to be enough to focus our attention on the primacy of politics. 

So a literature review begins with securely dated, contemporary sources. At least once freed from the frustations of pretending to believe in the ancient authenticness of oral traditions, This means medieval ecclesiastical history, including histories of distinguished lines of bishops and archbishops, of churches, monasteries and saints. Whatever their merits or lack thereof, at least we have authors, and dates. We normally lack (ecclesiastical) politics, as medieval holy men pretend not to have any; but as they often do not pretend very hard, it is usually possible to find a glimmer of the actual conflicts in even the most unhelpful material. The Venerable Bede, who may or may not have been provoked into his best-known writing by the ongoing rivalry between Lindisfarne and York, wrote in his most important book that Thule was six days sail to the north of Britain, was above the Arctic Circle, that it had frozen seas a day's sail to its north, and, perhaps by implication (the Latin is presumably difficult) to lie at the North Pole. Dicuil, quoting clerics who had lived on Iceland "from the first of February to the first of August," elaborates on the extreme variation in length of days on Thule.

All of this is well-known, and normally summarily dispensed with by Ari's observation that the papars used to live in Iceland, but were driven out by the heathens, and that they left behind them various artefacts showing that they were Christians from Ireland. Since they also left behind their skull types, blood groups, DNA and names (Njal's Saga), the literature has long been divided between those who think that Ari had issues; those who think that the Icelanders are pure-of-race Norwegians; and those who think that he second clause explains the first. In practical terms, if people were coming to and from Iceland in the early 700s, then we should probably give up the fight over various radiocarbon dates (which looks increasingly defensive as the dates keep accumulating, and anyway relies heavily on criticising dates for wood samples while ignoring (mostly) equally anomalous faunal dating) and just accept that there were settlers there in the Seventh Century (also; mind that the authors don't actually say this, and I take it as an inference from their descriptions of the archaeological data). Even if I would not quarrel with the weaselly "first effective settlement in the latter half ofo the Ninth Century." I would hardly be the first, after all, as Ari is not saying that there weren't, nor even that they were just a bunch of ocean-wandering eremites. What he's saying that they don't count. (They are particularly troubling if you want to make men active in the early 1000s into the historic heroes of the Christianising of Iceland. Apostasy is no laughing matter in 1120. Or, you know, any time, if you're talking conservative North Atlantic academics.)

Our next source, to rehash well-trodden ground, is Adam of Bremen's Book of the Deeds of the Bishops of the Hamburg Church. In it, Adam gives substantial details of the See of Hamburg-Bremen's role in the establishment of the Icelandic church which do not appear in Ari, and are less than fully detailed in the anonymous Christians Saga. In it, Adam describes Iceland, and adds that Greenland, whose name derives from the sea-verdigrised skin of its inhabitants, has recentlly given up piracy in favour of Christianity. He adds that beyond Greenland there is Vinland, a miraculous land of self-sown wheat, where grapevines flourish spontaneously. The fact that bread and wine are the substances of the Eucharist ought to make us suspicious even before the trope is found in various miracle-accounts of monks voyaging in the Western Sea. Unfortunately, the lure of the search for "vines" on the eastern coast of North America is so strong that no-one consider the alternative etymology from Old Norse "Meadow-Land," even after the actual settlement was discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows. The argument, such as it is, is that Old Norse is too old.

Adam was not, of course, to know that there was a New World over there, which would eventually be inhabited by large numbers of people with their own weird issues, with which Ari the Learned might have found common ground. What he thought was important was that Bishop Isleifur Gissurarson (1006--1080), son of Gissur Teitsson, was the first Bishop of Skalholt, establishing his see at the family farm of Skalholt, and was ordained in 1056 by Adalbert of Bremen, underlining Adalbert's claim to be an exalted position within the ranks of archbishops by virtue of the number and location of his suffragen bishops. He does not mention, because it is after his time, that Bishop Isleifur's son, Gissur, was consecrated by the archbishop of Magdeburg, as the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen was under the interdict at the time due to the ongoing Investiture Crisis.

It is not clear to me that he mentions numerous other Icelandic bishops referenced in the Book of the Icelanders, including "John the Irishman," "Bernard from England," "Rudolph," or the "three from ermskir," referenced in still another saga, ingeniously interpreted by an earlier generation of enormously erudite Icelandic antiquarian clerics as referring to Armenia in a theological sense. (Ermland is another candiate. While it isn't obvious why a province of Polish Prussia is sending missionaries, there is a Bishop of Magdeburg mixed up in matters.) The Book of the Hungry Eaters shows that Adalbert hardly ignored these "wandering bishops," sending to Iceland that they were excommunicate heretics. (Hence the Paullite hypothesis.)
The Teutonic knights, evangelising Old Prussia. The Prussians are the ones  with axes, evangelising back. Any Prussians who reached Iceland would presumably prefer this method of evangelising.

These "missionary," or "wandering" bishops open up the prehistory of bishops in the high Atlantic quite neatly, but that's to go a bit far from the Icelandic sources, now firmly historical, which tell us that Iceland's second see, the now-abandoned Holar on the north coast, was raised for Jon Ogmundsson, the first to be ordained by the Archbishop of Lund, created in the wake of the first phases of the Investiture Crisis to give the Danes a national archbishop. This experiment being a success, first the Swedes and then the Norwegians were given their own national archbishops, at Uppsala and Nidaros, and the metropolitan seat of the Icelandic bishops wandered with this process to end up at Trondheim. That the seat of religious sovereignity later came to colocate with political control at the shrine of St. Olaf, Eternal King of Norway, and commercial monopoly, is probably not accidental.

This brings up another set of sources of some relevance, albeit often strained and indirect: the insular annal tradition. Annals, supposedly year-by-year chronicles of events in the first millennium, which is so obscure for us, exist in Ireland and in England, and, arguably, in Scotland, as well. England is represented by a single chronicle (although others may be extracted in some medieval histories), the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  Ireland supposedly has numerous chronicles, beginning earlier than the Anglo-Saxon, a huge boon to Dark Ages scholarship. Unfortunately, on closer examination they are all derived from a hypothetical Chronicle of Ireland, kept at Iona from 432 to 740, and then at Kells, Clonard, and perhaps from there to Armagh. If the chronicle used by John of Fordun was real, it was also derived from the CI, but via a version kept, perhaps at Dunkeld, says Alex Woolf, who goes on to parse the evidence to suggest that lacunae in this presumed Annals of Dunkeld imply a "northern" partner site. If it existed, it would be boring if it were Portmahonack, exciting if it were the presumptive "Pictish" monastery at the Brough of Birsay, nearest landfall to Iceland, Faeroes excepted. (Remember that if crazy, quarrelsome Stephen Yeates is right, these imagined Eighth-Century Orkney monks would have spoken a North Germanic language, Norn.)

Apart from the appearance of Olaf, King of Lochlann and husband of Aud the Deep-Minded, the direct connection between the various chronicles and Iceland is small. But! Charles Doherty, reviewing the tenth century transformation of Irish society [here], only in part due to Viking activities, underlines its "feudalisation" or militarisation, a reorganisation of the landscape to supply the tax revenues necessary to field armies. One of the great protagonists of this effort is Amlaib Kuaran [Olaf Guthfrisson]. Intriguingly, Olaf was a sponsor of the Columban church, and eventually retired to Iona.

That is, he retired to the Holy Isle more than a century after it had been abandoned, and the relics of holy Colum Cille had been translated to Kells and Dunkeld, where it was celebrated in the composite "Cross of St. Patrick and St. Columba." Or Dunkeld, if we choose to believe Alex Woolf. This tends to suggest that Iona survived (it's not like I'm the first to make this argument: the difficulty of reconciling mid-Ninth Century abandonment with a 1548 inventory of the graves of "48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings" is a bit challenging) and would have objected to the idea that any translation had taken place at all. Like the more recent Union Jack,  in the cross of "St. Patrick and St. Columba," one cross might have been more equal than another. Dublin's Columba absorbs Brigit; Patrick absorbs Columba (and Comgall). The same story does at least as well for the absorption of Lindisfarne by Durham as Simeon's pious miracle story of the translation of Cuthbert. (In which, read literally, you get the entertaining image of husky monks shouldering the saint's stone catafalque and hustling off up the hill with it ahead of pursuing, and apparently easily-winded, Vikings.)

 Apparently a documentary about the eight-year sojourn of the monks of St. Cuthbert in the wilderness before coming to Caistor-le-Street. Some historical inaccuracies may be present. 

If, like me, you suspect that the chroniclers use the "Vikings" as scapegoats for the infra-Christian struggles that led to the modern ecclesiastical geography, you can see an argument that claims about when the Vikings were active, and where, may be viably fenced off. The curious absence of Danish raiders on the Continent before the civil wars of Louis the Pious, for example, may be because there were no Vikings before that date. That, anyway, is the reward for re-interpreting supposed Viking outrages in England and Ireland in the 790s in terms of attacks, perhaps by heathen mercenaries, perhaps centuries-later historians, on Lidisfarne, Wareham [1,2,3,4 interesting-looking pdf if you want to follow the track of my speculations, as this is already too many words wasted on them] and Iona, among less notable places.

In short, it is possible to read the chronicles evidence against the grain to move "Viking" activity forward past the middle of the 800s and so rule out "Viking vigour" as an explanation of the settlement of Iceland, and even reviving the Columban church as a very late participant. Oh, and while I'm cataloguing speculations, let's throw in Stephen Yeates' theory that Norn was already being spoken in the Northern Isles and northern Ulster[!!!] in sub-Roman times. Suppressing Viking vigour implies suppressing it in the settlement of Greenland; bringing the classic church-settlement-on-deserted-islands-with-locally-elected-bishops forward into the Tenth Century clears the way to placing one at Gardar, which at least has the merit of being a great deal more plausible than that a pagan landowner just handed Gardar over to an incoming Norwegian bishop.

Moving forward a bit, we have Viking enthusiasts to credit for plunging into the Vatican archives and finding two letters from the Popes concerning Greenland. In 1448, Pope Nicholas VI wrote to the bishops of Skalholt and Holar, explained that the Greenlanders had been without a resident bishop for many years, and implored them to appoint and send one.

So hold up here. I know that our romantic eye is drawn to the ends of the Earth, but neglected, "desert "sees and parishes were a universal scandal of mid-fifteenth century Europe. You could find these neglected Christians within a day's ride of Venice --at least according to the papal critics of the Patriarch of Venice, an inside-baseball criticism that was answered by probably the most important recorded "You're wrong because SCIENCE! non sequitur. Sigh.] The presumed plight of abandoned near-heathens. As it happens, Nicholas has a very specific agenda here in regards to Nidaros and Skalholt, which is  laid out here in regards to Archbishop Henrik Kalteisen and Bishop Marcellus of Skalholt,  (OMG, check this out!) Note that the Bishop of Skalholt remained happily ensconced in Copenhagen, auctioning off Icelandic fishing rights, while delegating the titular Bishop of Gardar to run Skalholt. In this respect, it is kind of sad that Vinland never got a bishop, since presumably the Bishop of Vinland would have hung about in Gardar, collecting rents, and we would actually have whatever history of Greenland that Martin V might have been relying on. Fifty years later, Alexander VI, wrote his own letter on the state of Greenland, in the way of a passport, issued  in the first year of his reign, which asked good Christians to provide, free, the means by which a brother named Martin could reach Gardar. Alexander was firmly in the Spanish camp, and his Curia was simultaenously involved in composing the bulls Inter caetera and Dudem siquidum, so that it is at least arguable that the Gardar letter is part of the intellectual project of conceptualising  a "New World," with Greenland part of it.

That "Vinland" had a better claim to be that New World was soon enough realised in Denmark and Iceland. Compiling what was known about both Greenland and Iceland became part of the project of combing out the old Icelandic parchments to meet new needs. It being a few years yet to the Germanic revival in English literature

Goodgulf Greyteeth.
that mainly meant arguing your way out of the supposed Spanish monopoly on the New World. Jonathan Grove does a nice job here of describing the then-available saga literature on Greenland and showing the way that it subordinates history and geography to literary themes --as literature should! Nevertheless, facts were what was wanted, and everything not-too-fantastic was shoved into a "Greenlandic Annals" by a seventeenth century Icelandic writer with rather less to work on than the contemporary who produced the Icelandic Annals. The takeaway here is of an eleventh-century bishop who sailed west to find Vinland and never came back; a ship bound from Markland to Greenland that was blown off course to Iceland in 1347; and that plenty of mariners were shipwrecked on the east coast of Greenland (or, in one case, carried there by an ice floe), usually with unfortunate results. There's not much to be made here: Kirsten Seaver grasps at the ship-blown-off-course as evidence that the Greenlanders were cutting timber in Labrador, which may well be; but we should remember that the conventional identification of the three landfalls of Helluland, Markland and Vinland on the way to the New World are also the landfalls of a spiritual journey from Hell to Limbo to Paradise. It's not that voyagers would not have touched on Baffin Land and Labrador on their way to Newfoundland (or Boston). It's that the saga-writers didn't necessarily know or care. Their mental map served different purposes, and so was very, very different from ours, in which one voyages westwards towards reincarnation ratherr than salvation.

By 1600 or so, traders and explorers were firmly installed in the Davis Strait, in contact with Thule-culture Inuit, and well aware that there used to be Greenland Norse on the shore. The story of "Jon the Greenlander," usually coupled with Ivar Bardarson's story of a deserted Western Settlement, will serve as a literary coda. Jon, several times shipwrecked in Greenland, met the presumed last Greenland Norse, dressed in sealskin, his iron knife whetted down to a sliver, dying lonely, the last of the Greenland Norse. (It's like he shops at my store!) Close the curtains: the story of the Greenland Norse is over, and it remains only to draw a moral from a period specific list.**

So that's the literature, and what it says. My own take is that we want a history of Greenland so badly that we've been taken in by Ari the Wise, who is about as reliable on Greenland as Herodotus is on Miletos. That is, the Vikings founded Greenland in the same way that Athenians founded Miletus. It's a useful story to tell, but utterly meaningless. There was a Miletus before the Athenians, and Ari himself is the first historian to tell us that there were Greenlanders before the Norse, and only the craziest Nineteenth Century white supremacist would think that there were no continuities between the two, even if you can plausibly argue for "few." The line between the two groups is a line between politically-useful entities.


Again with Ari: "Skraeling" remains, including skin boats, are found in Greenland by the colonising fleet. Much chin-wagging follows on the subject of why the Dorsets might have abandoned these productive lands just before the arrival of the Norse, the prevailing conclusion being that the Dorsets just couldn't cope with the Medieval Warm Period, the weather in southern Greenland in this period being just too nice for them. This has required modern archaelogists to roll the presumed range of the Dorsets from Newfoundland, but contradicting old archaeology is a small price to pay for a neat narrative. Finds of Norse artefacts in Dorset and Thule contexts show interaction, although surprisingly recent writeups of the archaeolog show a continuing reluctance to acccept race-mixing. (Here we see "one [recovered] artefact per two years of living in close proximity to each other" cited as evidence of "minimal" contact between three populations numbering in the low thousands. At least we've moved on from talking about superior and inferior races to blaming Norse "conservatism!")

What we know is that the Dorset population had essentially vanished by 1500, leaving no genetic legacy behind in the Thule Culture Inuit. In general I think that writers on this subject --writers in general-- are too inclined to downplay the vigour of the Inuit. Admittely, the Eastern Arctic was a marginal zone in comparison to the Alaskan heartland, where the Inuit participated in a political context that trembled on the verge of state creation.
Those Koryak Eskimo archers again.  War is the health of the state.
The question is: why bother with the Eastern Arctic, and the answer usuallly given is access to iron. Analysis of Greenland iron blooms tends to show that the Greenland Norse didn't produce their own, and were so mainly useful as trading intermediaries. Once Thule whalers came into direct contact with Europeans, they weren't of much use, and their fate was pretty much sealed. That the local Inuit probably regretted the fact is shown by how eagerly they welcomed the Mennonites, but the Mennonites had one thing that the Greenland Norse lacked: a steady supply of money from "telescopic evangelists."

Catherine Chisholm, and not Mrs. Jellyby. 
The idea of Thule Culture Inuit absorbing the last Greenland Norse has usually trembled on the verge of taboo, such evidence to the contrary as might be presented relying heavily on the lack of "blond Eskimos," Vilhjamur Stefansson's purported identifications notwithstanding.

It's always projection. 
McGovern, here, gives a typical formulation. The Greenland Norse did not take up harpoons, and so could not hunt seals from the ice; but of course harpoons are found in Thule sites. The distinction here is, again, circular. We know Greenland Norse sites by their technological suite, which happens not to include harpoons, and Thule sites by their diagnostic suite, which does. That people slipped betwen lifeways seems at least as plausible as five centuries of "conservatism."

Obviously many of these concerns can be set aside if the Greenland Norse were never particularly Norse. Certainly their fields weren't. Arcaheoentomology, a surprisingly long-established field in North Atlantic studies, have shown that while human activities imported numerous insect speices into the Faeroes and Iceland, they are absent in Greenland. (Panagiotakopulueis et al; Buckland.) This is not the only way of ruling out a "massive land-taking," but it is an interesting one. Another way of reading the evidence is one of an initial, pre-Norse agricultural settlement, perhaps "early" in the same way that the Faeroes and Icelandic settlements are "early." That is, radiocarbon dates precede the land-taking, although in Iceland and the Faeroes, we stipulate that the early land-taking idd not involve arable grain farming. (In Greenland, this stipulation is unnecesary, since no arable farming was ever established. I do not see radiocarbon dating of flax or linen.) The vehement resistance to these early radiocarbon datings by the Icelandic archaeological community needs to be taken onboard here: I find many of their counter-arguments unconvincing, but I would, wouldn't I? (Plateauing in the date curves are detected from volcanic tephra layers which have been known to be dated by radiocarbon methods. Disentangling the arguments for plateaus from an allegation of circularity is not easy.) Sutherland's dates for the early "Norse"-Dorset contacts are also early --c. 800, a century before the landtaking, but one hardly knows what to make of them. Sutherland's husband, Robert McGhee, has long been on record as finding many Saqqaq artefacts on Greenland Norse sites, and finding them "curious." (I suspect that he means to imply something here. )

Vesteinsson has argued for a model in which first-coming settlers possessed surplus livestock which they could sell or rent to newcomers, who could then be settled on already-claimed land as dependent farmers. This is is his "Skallgrimr Model" (auto-downloading pdf), which is all very well if we had any evidence for such well-provided magnates before the twelfth century at the earliest. We do not. We have, and, again, I'm just quoting the supposedly supernaturally-well-informed Ari the Wise, here, monastic settlements.

Who? Irish monks of the Columban, or some other, less-well documented monastic family, sailing for walrus tusks and spiritual enlightenment. Why favour them? Because we know they were active, and because I suspect that Viking magnates have been projected into the past. As for fingering Dorset Culture Paleoeskimos as our settlers rather than Vikings, this goes to a well-established lack of actual Vikings for the settling, massive or not. (Populations being too low in Norway and Iceland to support the emigration.)

At the end of this post, my apology for going over long and consuming far too much of my research time on it, is the paleo-entomological evidence, although obviously the bulk of the post is exercising a desire to engage with the literature and ask for a more skeptical approach to its political history. Clearly the absent issue that demands nailing down is the radiocarbon evidence for "early landtakings." Another day, then, if I can find a way not to tread old ground around here.

*The presence of so many "Erik's Place," "Erik's Fjord," "Erik's Island," and so on is . . . interesting. The saga text strongly suggests a folk etymology. The reason that all those wild places in Greenland are named for Erik [Ever-/Alone-/One-Ruler] is that they are named for an actual, historic Erik the Rude/Wild/Red.

**Suggested morals for a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book on the Greenland Norse: : absentee bishops are bad; Catholicism is bad; mercantilism is bad; whites are the superman, but inclined towards race-suicide; climate change is bad; human beings are environmental wreckers who need constant lecturing from thought-leaders; Newfoundland winters are bad.

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