Norse in Greenland Imported Timber from America
A recent study by Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir 1 has shown that imports of timber from America to Greenland were taking place from AD 1000 and 1400. The author writes:
“The native trees of Greenland are unsuitable for larger construction projects or shipbuilding. Instead, the Norse colonists (AD 985–1450) relied on driftwood and imported timber. The provenance and extent of these imports, however, remain understudied. Here, the author uses microscopic anatomical analyses to determine the taxa and provenance of wood from five Norse Greenlandic sites. The results show that while the needs of most households were met by local woodlands and driftwood, elite farms had access to timber imports from Northern Europe and North America. By demonstrating the range of timber sources used by the Greenland Norse, the results illustrate connectivity across the medieval North Atlantic world.” 2
The study examined wood from five Norse sites in Greenland. One site, Gården Under Sandet was from the Western Settlement, the other four sites were from the Eastern Settlement. Three were medium sized farms and one, Igaliku, was a high status site which has been identified as the episcopal manor Garðar. 3
The study identifies the timber resources of Greenland as derived from native woodland, driftwood and importation. 4 The geographical location of Greenland means that the tree flora is limited to a small number of species, most of which are low-growing and crooked or twisted.
The main driftwood trees found in Norse Greenland are larch, spruce, and to a lesser extent Scots pine, white pine, and fir.
The study concluded that eight of the samples were identified as originating from North America. In conclusion the author writes:
Most of the wood specially imported to Greenland originated from Northern Europe, most likely Norway, while there is evidence of sporadic imports from North America. These findings highlight the fact that Norse Greenlanders had the means, knowledge and appropriate vessels to cross the Davis Strait to the east coast of North America at least up until the fourteenth century. As such, journeys were being made from Greenland to North America throughout the entirety of the period of Norse settlement in Greenland, and resources were being acquired by the Norse from North
America for far longer than previously thought. 5
Locations of the main resource areas and possible import routes to Norse Greenland
image: L. Guðmundsdóttir
1, Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir (2023), “Timber imports to Norse Greenland: lifeline or luxury?”, Antiquity, Volume 97, Issue 392
2, ibid, p. 454.
3, ibid, p. 458.
4, ibid, p. 455.
5, ibid, p. 468.