In the 7th century AD a remarkable emphasis on coastal settlement is noted over wide parts of northwest Europe. Some of the settlements are rather small and display few traces of various activities, while others can be regarded as urban centers. These sites reflect a Carolingian rise in expansion, development of settlement, in productivity and commerce, and in political, military, and ecclesiastic organization.
At the close of the 8th century, a link was established through the Baltic with northwestern Russia and further southward, thereby linking the North to the rich Islamic world. Thousands of Islamic silver coins reached southern Scandinavia in a few decades, and from around AD 800 the Scandinavian societies, situated on the fringe of continental Europe, all became part of a world system of exchange. This development, which brought the pagan Scandinavian societies to the scene in the following centuries, introduced an expansive period of Scandinavian history that, among other things, included the colonization of the North Atlantic. This phase in Scandinavian history is sometimes termed the Viking Age. The background for the expansion was partly the economical, social, and political development within late Iron Age societies in Scandinavia, including the development of a superior shipbuilding technology.
The beginning of the Viking Age expansion is normally ascribed to the earliest written records of Scandinavian attacks on monasteries in Britain and Ireland: Lindisfarne (Northumbria) in AD 793, Jarrow (Northumbria) in AD 794, Ireland in AD 795, and Iona (Hebrides) in AD 795, 802, and 806. While these attacks seem to have had a more or less sporadic and unorganized character rather than that of a well-planned strategic agenda, they did, however, introduce the increasingly expansive trends developing within Scandinavian society around AD 800. The Viking Age (in a North Atlantic context often referred to as Early Norse) is traditionally accepted to cover the period c.AD 800-1050 and is followed by the Medieval (often referred to as Late Norse) covering the period c.AD 1050-1400.
During the Viking Age, the expansive Scandinavian societies were to play a rather dominant and decisive role in events not only in Ireland and England but also in mainland Scotland, the Scottish Isles, and in the entire process of land-taking (Scandinavian: landnam) in the North Atlantic. During the 9th and 10th centuries, the basis of a virtual Scandinavian Empire of the Western Seas was established, which included parts of Ireland and England, major parts of the Scottish mainland, the Western (Hebrides) and Northern Isles of Scotland (Orkney and Shetland), the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. This expansion ultimately ended in attempts to settle on the eastern fringes of North America around AD 1000.
Hereby, the North Sea region and parts of the North Atlantic were transformed into a cultural inland sea in what could be termed a Scandinavian sphere of interest. In the east were the Scandinavian homelands, primarily Norway and Denmark; in the west were the established new emigrant communities in Ireland, England, Scotland, and the Western and Northern Isles. In this inland sea the expansive, and initially pagan, Scandinavian culture was confronted and mixed with a Christian, Celtic culture, which was to put its imprint on the Scandinavian expansion further away in the North Atlantic.
The establishment of settlements in the North Atlantic is evidenced in written records (sagas, ecclesiastic annals, etc.), material culture, environmental records, place-names, and other linguistic relics. The written records include a range of Norse sagas, all of which were written centuries after the events that they claim to describe took place. Their information should be seen in this light, and be subject to a continuous critical approach and continuously tested against the evidence of archaeology and natural sciences.
The Scandinavian emigrant communities in the North Atlantic, in the words of the saga writers, were established primarily by a Norwegian peasant aristocracy, which at the end of the 9th century was forced to flee Norway as a result of their opposition to King Harald Finehair's attempts to gain sovereign supremacy over all Norway. According to the Saga of Harald Finehair, this happened following the so-called Battle of Hafrsfjord, outside Stavanger in Southwest Norway, which is supposed to have taken place c.AD 872. The saga states: "In the discontent when King Harald seized on the lands of Norway, the out-countries of Iceland and the Faroe Isles were discovered and peopled. The Northmen had also a great resort to Shetland, and many men left Norway, flying the country on account of King Harald, and went on viking cruises into the West Sea."
Although the sagas suggest a direct link between the events in western Norway and the earliest settle-
ment of the Faroe Islands and Iceland, there seems to be little doubt that there was also a strong Celtic element involved in the process. Thus, some of the early settlers mentioned in the written records had Christian or Celtic names, thereby indicating an alternative origin. This is also evidenced in artifact assemblages from archaeological sites. Furthermore, a number of place-names in the Faroe Islands and Iceland are clearly of Gaelic origin and modern Faroese also contains a number of linguistic elements, especially linked to farming and husbandry, derived from Gaelic. It is interesting to note that in the Faroe Islands identification of shielings sites of the Viking Age have demonstrated a connection between these and the place-name element œrgi, which is derived from Gaelic airge, thereby indicating that this farming practise had its roots in the Gaelic-speaking world.
The early Scandinavian settlers in the Hebrides and the Irish Sea region integrated with the native Celtic and Christian population, and formed what could be termed a Hiberno-Scandinavian culture. The term "Hiberno-Scandinavian" refers to material culture traditions that are characterized by a fusion of elements that are derived from both Scandinavia and Ireland. The spreading of objects of Hiberno-Scandinavian character in the North Atlantic may well represent people who have become acculturated through the cumulative effects of processes such as trade and intermarriage.
The mixture of various cultural identities and traditions with different ethnic backgrounds is highlighted in the sagas, thereby presenting a picture of the North Atlantic as a melting pot in the Viking and early Medieval ages.
The expansion was not a homogeneous process that materialized under the different conditions that the Scandinavians encountered in the North Atlantic. Thus Scotland and the Scottish archipelagos of the Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland already had a native population and a history stretching back to the Neolithic and before. Scandinavian activity in Scotland in the early 9th century was probably of a sporadic and relatively nonpermanent character. Not until the late 9th century does this seem to have been of a more permanent character. The nature of the relationship with the native Christian Pictish (Celtic) societies is still a matter of discussion, with arguments ranging from a completely peaceful integration (the "peace-school") to a hostile almost genocide takeover of the islands by the Scandinavians (the "war-school").
Contrary to this, there is no unequivocal evidence of a permanent settlement in the Faroe Islands and Iceland prior to the Scandinavian arrival. The Faroe Islands as well as Iceland were, however, probably already known in the Celtic world. An Irish ecclesiastic Dicuil in his work Liber de mensura orbis, probably written at a Carolingian court on the continent around AD 825, describes the travels of Irish anchorites to islands north of Scotland. He further mentions that these islands, which are generally identified as the Faroe Islands and Iceland, were visited or even settled by Irish anchorites (hermit saints) as early as the 8th century, but that these were driven away by the arrival of the Scandinavians.
Radiocarbon datings in connection with pollen profiles in the Faroe Islands have recently indicated a dating of the earliest settlement here stretching back to the 7th-8th centuries AD. Large-scale excavations on a number of sites within the last decades have, however, produced no archaeological evidence to substantiate such an early date. If the implications of these early radiocarbon datings prove to be correct, that the Faroe Islands were settled before the 9th century, the matter remains as to whether it was by Irish or Scandinavian people.
Considerable distances often separated the newly established emigrant communities from each other, but at the same time they were strongly connected by a homogeneous culture with a background in their Scandinavian homelands. This homogeneity was expressed through traditions, partly in articles for daily use and the preferred raw materials, but also in the building customs as they were displayed in the vernacular architecture of the farmsteads.
There is hardly any reason not to believe that the initial emigrants brought with them what they found to be essential for the maintenance of an existence. At the same time it must be presumed that maintaining a stabile contact with the homelands may have proved difficult. To some of the settlers, there was probably only a limited desire to maintain such a contact. Bitterness and frustration over their forced political exile must have made it difficult for these emigrants subsequently to identify themselves with the new social and political order, which they had only recently fought.
The emigrants were faced with two problems, which were inextricably linked. On the one hand, they faced the task of establishing new communities, organizing them, and making them function; on the other hand, they would have had a need to create for themselves a new cultural identity. In this process they sought access to urban centers where they could trade their produce for staple goods, exotic merchandise, jewellery, etc. This they may very well have found in the urban centers established by them in Ireland during the 10th century, especially Dublin.
The emigrant communities were well organized with clearly defined rights of property and ownership of land and access to the natural resources, which were essential for the maintenance of a living. They were also communities with a political and legal administration that found expression, for example, in legal cases and disputes being settled at so-called things, evidence for the existence of which is still preserved in place-names such as, for instance, hingvellir (Iceland), Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Tingwall (Shetland), and Dingwall (Scotland). No doubt, such places existed in the Scandinavian settlements in Greenland too, but as we are left with no place-name evidence here they are difficult to identify.
The Scandinavian emigrant communities were characterized by a rural settlement, typically consisting of farmsteads spread over all the cultivable parts of the landscape. In the Faroe Islands, the nature of the landscape only left a limited number of places, mainly low-lying coastal areas, suitable for farming, and therefore the present-day settlement pattern, to a very high degree, reflects the settlement of the early Viking Age. The Faroe Islands probably contained no proper woodland but, according to pollen profiles, did have slopes covered by willow and creeping dwarf juniper.
At the time of the settlement, woodlands of birch dominated the lowlands of Iceland, separated by bogs and river estuaries. At higher altitudes, especially in the more mountainous interiors of the island, dwarf birch, willow, and grasses took over where the woodlands ended. The targets for the earliest settlement, as evidenced by the results of archaeological excavations on settlement sites and by the distribution of Viking burials, were the fertile protected lowland areas along the coast and in small plains and valley systems stretching into the interior. It seems that most of the habitable areas were occupied within half a century of the initial settlement. This is evidenced in pollen profiles, where a distinct decline in birch just after AD 871 indicates that an extensive clearance of the woodland took place.
Eirik the Red, through a number of explorations during the years 984-992, founded the Scandinavian settlements in Greenland. It was the protected fjords in the south (the so-called Eastern Settlement) and those further north along the West Coast near present-day Nuuk (the so-called Western Settlement) that attracted the settlers, who had their background in the Scandinavian settlements in Iceland. Under the climate optimum of the Viking Age and early Medieval, especially the landscape of the Eastern Settlement offered extensive fertile pastures, which could accommodate not only extensive numbers of sheep but also big cattle holds, as evidenced by the byres identified on several farms in the Eastern Settlement. Most of the building remains preserved in the Greenland landscape should probably be dated to the later phases of the Scandinavian settlement. However, recently a group of house foundations with curved walls of more classical Viking character have been identified and these may represent the very early stages of settlement.
The settlers of the North Atlantic brought farming systems and methods with them. The typical organization of the land would contain a settlement area (Scandinavian: tun) where the buildings would be located, surrounded by the infield or homefield that would be used for growing corn or hay for fodder. Outside the infield areas would lie the pastures or outfield areas used for the grazing of cattle and sheep. In some regions of the North Atlantic, like the Faroe Islands and Greenland, it has been demonstrated that shielings (Scandinavian: swter) were part of the settlement pattern and the subsistence economy. These shielings, used during the summer period, would be situated in the mountains in areas with good pastures and fresh water supply. They would consist of a limited number of small buildings and were used throughout the summer for the milking of animals, treating and storing of milk and other dairy products, and for the harvesting or collecting of winter fodder, for instance production of hay.
The subsistence economy of the farmsteads seems to have been primarily based on husbandry, where sheep and cows, followed by pigs, were the dominant species. The environment would also have appeared attractive to the early settlers in that it offered plenty of potential for fishing, fowling, and seal and whale hunting to supplement the economy. In the Faroe Islands and in the southern and western parts of Iceland, there was potential for barley growing. The corn production in some of the emigrant communities may have been of such a size that it required a mechanical milling process. Horizontal mills of the Viking Age have been documented in the Scottish Isles, and there are indications that they were also common in the Faroe Islands.
The farmsteads consisted of a number of buildings, basically of wooden construction, but protected by stone-built walls. The early dwellings had curved walls and two rows of roof-supporting posts dividing the building into three aisles along the axis. Centrally located in the buildings were the long hearths. Until the end of the 10th century, it seems to have been common practice that the byre and the dwelling were located under the same roof. This feature is characteristic of the Northwest European longhouse, which has a tradition stretching back at least 1300 years before the beginning of the Viking Age.
The Scandinavian longhouse of the Viking Age appears all over the North Atlantic. The wood-consuming buildings are strikingly similar in appearance and can hardly be seen as functional in these regions with their tree-sparse or even treeless landscapes. The homogeneity and almost standardized size and layout of the farmsteads in the North Atlantic emigrant communities indicate the importance of architecture to the emigrants. The house, being the forum for a number of activities, which were central to social and daily life, may therefore be regarded as a cultural emphasizer and must have had an almost symbolic importance to the settlers. The reason why the emigrants brought with them their architecture and building customs was that they had a very clear idea and concept of what a house and home was. The mobile farmers of the Viking Age could thus travel from one end of the North Atlantic to the other and still feel confident and safe everywhere, no matter what house they had to enter. They were, so to speak, traveling in a Scandinavian world.
The impressive wooden buildings required plenty of timbers, of which the new environment only offered little. Rather than imports, it is much more likely that the early settlers had to rely on driftwood, which could be collected at suitable locations along the coastline. The conditions for preservation of wood are very different between the individual regions of the North Atlantic. Thus, hardly any wood is preserved on archaeological sites in the Scottish Isles and rarely in Iceland. On the other hand, it is a common feature on many sites in the Faroe Islands and Greenland. The wood preserved on these sites reveals that the driftwood, to a large extent, consisted of larch and spruce transported all the way from Siberia. On Faroese sites, it is documented that these species were used for a number of purposes, including that of elements in the wooden construction of houses.
The homogeneity of the Scandinavian emigrant culture is also expressed in the implements and raw materials that were essential for daily life. The archaeological material from the Viking settlements in Scandinavia, and particularly in Norway, is to a large extent dominated by soapstone (steatite). This soft stone material is abundant at Viking settlements in Norway, where it was used for a wide number of purposes. The artifact assemblages from the excavated archaeological sites in the North Atlantic include, for instance, sherds of various types of vessels, loom weights, line- and net-sinkers, and spindle whorls, all of soapstone.
Likewise, whetstones of schist were very essential tools in daily life. A number of the whetstones were produced of a light, coarse-grained schist. Whetstones of this material have been found all over the Viking world, and the raw material has recently been identified as originating from a particular mountain in Eidsborg in Norway. The provenance of a more bluish, fine-grained schist, which was also used for whetstones all over the Viking world, has regrettably not yet been identified. The emigrants brought with them traditions for using both types.
Furthermore, the artifact assemblage includes wooden objects such as timbers, bowls, spoons, barrels, etc., and iron implements, bronze jewelry, and so forth.
A major problem for the emigrants was that the separate archipelagos had different conditions to offer them. Shetland and Greenland, for instance, are gifted with abundant outcrops of soapstone as well as schist and sandstone, while the Faroe Islands and Iceland have neither of these. Thus in Shetland especially, because of the short distances, there was easy access to the raw materials that were basic to a Scandinavian tool assemblage. Contrary to their fellow emigrants in Shetland, the emigrants in the Faroe Islands and Iceland were forced to import finished products, semimanufactured or even raw materials for their own production of tools, or to gradually adapt to the environment and increase the exploitation of local resources. The economic conditions thus were sometimes extremely different in the individual communities.
The culmination of the attempts by the Scandinavians to colonize the North Atlantic occurred during the opening years of the second millennium. For a long time, the sagas provided the only evidence for this event, while firm archaeological evidence could not be presented.
The sagas contain details of sailing routes between Greenland and the North American continent, and also descriptions of landscapes along the sailing routes. Thus, the sagas mention landscapes termed Helluland, Markland, and Vinland, which have now generally been identified as Baffin Island, the Labrador coast and, presumably, Newfoundland, respectively.
After decades of search for material evidence of Scandinavian settlement, a site was eventually located and excavated at L'Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland in the 1960s. It contained the remains of three turf-built buildings of Scandinavian character. There was no evidence of byres and the general impression of the settlement was that it was a short-lived one, maybe a way-station. It has been suggested that it may represent one of the actual events mentioned in the sagas. The site only produced a limited number of finds of diagnostic Viking character, of which the most important were a spindle whorl of soapstone and a ringed pin of Hiberno-Scandinavian type.
Although there is still a lack of evidence of a more permanent Scandinavian settlement in North America, there seems to be no doubt that the Scandinavian communities in Greenland frequently traveled there, probably to collect timbers, which were much needed as they, except for driftwood, were nonexisting resources in Greenland. The last vessel, according to written records, bound for Markland to acquire lumber, left in 1347.
Recently, a series of remarkable radiocarbon dat-ings of the 7th-8th centuries AD have been obtained on presumed Scandinavian objects of organic materials such as antler, wood, and strands of yarn found in Dorset Inuit contexts in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island. If these dates prove to be right, the revolutionizing implication is an unexpectedly early Scandinavian presence in the Eastern Arctic.
The question of how and when the Scandinavian communities in the North Atlantic became Christian is a matter of ongoing discussion. The process is no doubt reflected in burial practices, but in some areas the evidence is still rather sparse. Thus, only two Viking cemeteries have been located in the Faroe Islands. They contain a number of poorly constructed and poorly equipped graves. It is difficult to establish whether these burials are pagan or Christian in character. In Iceland, on the other hand, a total of c.300 pagan burials are recorded. These are normally of simple constructions and are not very visible in the landscape. The burials are usually poorly furnished compared with contemporary graves in Norway. The Icelanders, like the Faroese, are said to have formally accepted Christianity around the year AD 1000. A strong Hiberno-Scandinavian element in the entire settlement process, however, may mean that the emigrant societies contained strong Christian elements from the very beginning.
The settlers in Greenland probably only remained pagan for a short time. Being settled in the 980s and allegedly having accepted Christianity around AD 1000, we are probably only dealing with one generation of pagan settlers, which may explain why no pagan burials have so far turned up. The early phases of Christianity in the North Atlantic saw the appearance of small church buildings surrounded by dykes. These churches were probably proprietary churches, associated with major farmsteads, rather than proper community churches as known from later. The Faroe Islands received its own bishopric in 1152 or 1153 (Kirkjub0), Iceland in AD 1135 (Skalholt), and Greenland in c. AD 1125 (Gardar, Eastern Settlement). The Scandinavian communities in the North Atlantic gradually came under the Norwegian church order.
The Scandinavian Empire of the Western Seas at its highest peak comprised, besides the homelands, the urban centers in Ireland, large parts of Scotland, the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, the settlements in Greenland, and perhaps even the presumably very temporary and fragile outposts in North America.
The settlers created their own emigrant identity that, in the course of the 10th century, was expressed in combining traditions from their Scandinavian homelands, as for instance the building customs, with a shieling system and types of personal equipment, which had their roots in the Hiberno-Scandinavian world. Among the most popular items were the so-called ringed pins of Hiberno-Scandinavian type, produced in the Hiberno-Scandinavian towns in Ireland, especially Dublin. The spreading of various types of personal equipment from the Scandinavian settlements in Ireland to the emigrant communities in the North Atlantic probably not only represents a transmission of ideas but also a movement of people.
Thus, the period until c.AD 1100 was characterized by a rather independent emigrant culture, whose identity was the product of an interplay between Celtic and Scandinavian traditions. The following centuries, however, bore the stamp of an increasing Christian influence in the emigrant communities and the consequences of their becoming, as taxlands, an integrated part of the medieval Norwegian church and kingdom.
The Scandinavian bastions in Ireland were brought to an end by the 12th century. After a battle at Largs, near Glasgow, in 1263, the engagement in Mainland Scotland also had to stop, and the Scandinavian element rapidly disappeared. The Western Isles were given up in 1266. The Northern Isles of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland, with their motherland Norway came under Danish supremacy in 1380. They remained under Scandinavian control until 1469 when the Danish king pawned them to Scotland as a dowry for his daughter. An already-initiated scottifi-cation of the islands now intensified, but the Scandinavian language Norn was still spoken in Shetland until around the year 1800. Today, the former Scandinavian settlements in Ireland and, especially, Scotland first and foremost reveal themselves in an abundance of place-names of Scandinavian origin. This is most distinct in Shetland, where as much as 98% of present-day place-names are regarded as being Scandinavian in origin.
The Scandinavian communities further away in the North Atlantic remained Scandinavian in identity, for which there are several reasons. Firstly, these islands and archipelagos had not, or at the most very sparsely, been inhabited previously, and therefore had no Celtic or Pictish heritage that Scandinavian emigrants had to deal with. Secondly, their very remoteness meant that they did not attract too much attention. By the end of the Medieval, they had been degraded to being on the fringe of Europe.
Of all the Scandinavian emigrant communities established in the Viking Age in the hitherto uninhab ited areas of the North Atlantic, only one did not survive. The death of the Scandinavian settlements in Greenland, probably by the end of the 15th century, is still a fascinating mystery. A number of possible explanations have been offered, such as, for instance, an increasingly stressing interaction with the Thule Inuit, probably over hunting grounds, climate deterioration, population decline, and cultural isolation. These explanations may very well all be elements in the process. It seems that cattle husbandry was failing, which is reflected in an increasingly marine diet over time as evidenced in skeletal material, and no doubt the decline in climate in the Medieval also played its part. However, it cannot be ruled out that the Scandinavian Greenlanders left the country or otherwise disappeared before the Thule Inuit expanded into their settlements. Broken contacts with Scandinavia, and even Iceland, from the 15th century onwards will almost certainly have exposed the Greenlanders to English fishing and whaling activity. Whether this contact was peaceful, or whether the Greenlanders, forcedly or voluntarily, ended up as manpower in an increasingly urbanized and demanding European market is unknown. It has been put journalistically: "Young Greenlanders ending up as workers in Bristol or Hull—their genes now walking like the ghosts of as many research propositions on the disappearing Norsemen."
The Scandinavian Empire of the Western Seas lasted, as a whole or in part, for approximately 500 years before it turned into history. The memory of a glorious past, however, still lives on in sagas and tradition up until the present day.
Steffen Stummann Hansen
See also Eirik the Red; Eriksson, Leif; Norse and Icelandic Sagas; Vikings; Vinland
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