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Story of Viking Colonies’ Icy ‘Pompeii’ Unfolds From
Ancient Greenland Farm

Original context from New York Times May 8, 2001

The fate of Greenland’s Norse colonies has endured as a human mystery ever since the last Scandinavians vanished from this island, apparently two generations before Columbus rediscovered America for Europeans.

In one tale, Icelandic fishermen exploring a Greenland fjord in the mid-1550’s found the body of an old Viking, face down on the beach with an arrow in his back. In later times, heroic paintings dwelled on the theme of the aged and abandoned Norseman facing his final years alone, like an Arctic Robinson Crusoe, as sea ice closed in on his forgotten fjord.

In the early 1700’s, the Danish crown sent a missionary here with orders to re-Christianize Scandinavians presumed to have lapsed into paganism. Sailing up and down Greenland’s coasts, he found only natives in kayaks.

For centuries, scholars have debated whether the Viking colonies were wiped out by marauding native peoples, by plagues from Europe, by inbreeding, by economic impoverishment wrought by bishops sent from Rome or by abandonment by Scandinavian merchants’ refusal to risk their ships in Greenland’s increasingly iceberg-infested waters.

Now, through the use of modern scientific tools, new insights are emerging in studies of a Viking farm site at Nipaatsoq, about 50 miles east of here. Called ”The Farm Beneath the Sand,” this site lay buried under glacial sands for six centuries. Today, it is called the Viking Pompeii in the Scandinavian press.

”It seems as if the Norse simply packed the things they wanted to take with them and left the area,” Dr. Jette Arneborg, a lead archaeologist in the project, said from the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, where she is studying some of roughly 2,000 objects retrieved from the farm. ”We can’t see any chaotic abandonment. We found broken things, things they wouldn’t have minded leaving behind.”

The discovery of keys and locks suggests that chests that once stored valuables were moved at the time of evacuation. Objects left behind include cumbersome whale vertebra stools and a wooden weaving loom with about 80 weaving weights — believed to be the largest loom from the medieval era found in the North Atlantic.

The farm was part the Western Settlements, a community established around A.D. 1000 that grew to perhaps 1,500 people before the Norse abandoned the area around 1350, remaining in southern Greenland for another century.

At Nipaatsoq, blowing glacial sands covered the farm in the early 1400’s, sealing it until 1990, when two hunters reported seeing ancient wood protruding from an eroded stream bank. Excavation was completed in 1996, and Dr. Arneborg is now coordinating plans for publication next year of a book of reports by more than a dozen scientists who are analyzing soils, pollens, animal bones, ice cores, swatches of cloths, runic inscriptions, body lice and house flies to unravel the farm’s ”silent sagas.”

He included several artifacts from Greenland in a Smithsonian exhibit he curated last year, ”Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.” After opening in Washington last spring for the 1,000th anniversary of Leif Ericson’s landfall in North America, the exhibition moved to New York and is now at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. In coming months, the show will travel to Houston, Los Angeles, Ottawa and Minneapolis.

At the Viking site near here, artifacts were locked in permafrost and buried under several feet of sand. Many organic artifacts, like antlers, bones, skins and wood, did not decompose. All farm animals appeared to have been evacuated, with the exception of a stray goat, which took refuge in a barn. Six centuries later, its mummified remains were under the collapsed thatch twig roof.

”It seems that all the inhabitants left peacefully,” Dr. Joel Berglund, Greenland’s lone archaeologist and another leader in the dig, said. All artifacts will be housed here at the Greenland National Museum and Archive, where Dr. Berglund is vice director.

At the farm site, there is no indication that conflict with natives, now called the Thule people, precipitated the Norse departure. Virtually all Thule artifacts discovered at the farm were at the most recent layer of human occupation, indicating that migrating native hunters used the structure as a caribou hunting camp after the Europeans left.

What does seem to have contributed to the abandonment of the Western Settlements, archaeologists said, is climate change. The onset of a ”little ice age” made living halfway up Greenland’s coast untenable in the mid-1300’s, argues Dr. Charles Schweger, an archaeology professor at the University of Alberta, who has studied soils around the Farm Beneath the Sand.

Dr. Schweger said the Norse were no match for cooling temperatures, which caused a glacier several miles up a valley to expand. As this glacier grew, it also released more water every summer into the valley, causing turbidity in drinking water and raging floods that blanketed meadows with sand and gravel. Today the edge of Greenland’s ice cap is only six miles from the old farm site. But in the mid-14th century, it probably was far closer.

The farm’s evolving architecture also reflected the effect of cooling temperatures, Dr. Berglund said. Initially, a cluster of earthen walled buildings, the farm evolved over the centuries into one large building, with several small rooms, all under one roof. This ”centralized farm” maximized body heat of humans and animals. Noting that the main building seemed to be constantly undergoing changes, Dr. Berglund estimated that a total of 40 rooms were configured at the site over nearly four centuries of occupation.

Ground into the mud were remains of wild animals, their bones cracked open to yield the marrow. Studies of skeletons at a regional churchyard indicate that the Norse diet grew increasingly dependent on marine life, largely seals and fish, as it became increasingly difficult to maintain cows and sheep.

In another reflection of how climate change and degradation of meadows eroded the Norses’ pastoral economy, yarn found in the weaving room indicates that the weavers stretched their wool supply by mixing sheep wool with fur from caribou, polar bears, foxes and wolves.

Climate change was not the only factor that caused the Viking colony to decline. Europe’s trade with Africa for ivory was becoming easier, allowing comparatively inexpensive African elephant tusks to compete with Greenland’s walrus tusks, the Norse colony’s main item of trade.

Also, between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death wiped out about one-third of Europe’s population. This demographic implosion lured people from the periphery of the medieval world, researchers say, offering new economic opportunities in Europe’s depopulated heartland. Faced with the climactic cooling, the Norse here had the survival choice of ”going native” and living like Eskimos, or moving — to Greenland’s southern tip, to Iceland or to Scandinavia, where they could maintain their European lifestyle.

Greenland’s last Norse probably retreated to Iceland, only 200 miles east of Greenland at the closest point. Today, some historians speculate that Columbus heard accounts of North America from Icelandic sailors when he sailed near Iceland in the 1480’s. Dr. Fitzhugh, the Smithsonian curator of the Viking exhibit, said, ”The idea is that Columbus had been in the region of Iceland before going to North America.”