Vikings: The North Atlantic Sagaby Elisabeth Ward (Editor), William F. Fitzhugh (Editor)
Replete with color photographs, drawings, and maps of Viking sites, artifacts, and landscapes, this book celebrates and explores the Viking saga from the combined perspectives of history, archaeology, oral tradition, literature, and natural science. The book's contributors chart the spread of marauders and traders in Europe as well as the expansion of farmers and explorers throughout the North Atlantic and into the New World. They show that Norse contacts with Native American groups were more extensive than has previously been believed, but that the outnumbered Europeans never established more than temporary settlements in North America.
This book accompanies the National Museum of Natural History exhibition, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, presented in partnership with the White House Millennium Council.
- Smithsonian Institution Press
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Read an Excerpt
PUFFINS, RINGED PINS, AND RUNESTONES
The Viking Passage to America
by William W. Fitzhugh
Sometime between A.D. 997 and 1003 the world suddenly became a smaller place, as Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red of Greenland, brought his ship to shore in a wooded bay along the central Labrador coast in far northeastern North America. He wanted to inspect the local timber and find some fresh meat and water, but he was curiousand apprehensiveabout the column of smoke he saw rising from the forest near the mouth of a small stream. Until now there had been no sign of indigenous people in this new land, but he was not too surprised because relics of former inhabitants had been found near his home in Greenland. The prospect of encountering possible adversaries was not comforting. What kind of people could these be, and how would he fare with them?
Leif had been following the coast south for a week after crossing Baffin Bay from Greenland, accompanied by flocks of Atlantic puffins and flightless great auks. The lands Leif passed matched the descriptions he had heard several years earlier from Bjarni Herjolfsson when he had been blown off course sailing from Iceland to Greenland. Bjarni had reported that after traveling many days, the weather lifted and he found himself off a wooded land far south of his destination. Turning north, he followed the coast on his left; and after seeing the trees give way to barren mountains, he regained the latitude of Greenland. Turning east across the sea hesoon found himself with his countrymen.
Bjarni's tale kindled interest among Erik the Red and his sons, and several years later they planned a voyage to explore the lands Bjarni described. When Erik was riding down to join his ship, his horse stumbled, and taking this as an unlucky sign, he remained home, but Leif set out on his own. If these lands had good pasture and abundant timber, Erik and his family might find better lands than they had settled in Greenland and would prosper.
* * *
Leif Eriksson's arrival in North America in the year A.D. 1000 and the subsequent explorations he and his countrymen made in the North American lands he called Helluland, Markland, and Vinland mark a momentous turning point in world history. Prior to this time the dispersive process of migration and adaptation had resulted in the spread of humankind out from Africa, Europe, and Asia to the farthest reaches of the globe, even to such distant places as Patagonia, the Hawaiian Islands, and northernmost Greenland. With humans in contact with each other virtually everywhere else, only one gap remainedclosing the ring of humanity across the North Atlantic. Although there may have been others who succeeded in reaching America before him, at present their identity and ethnicity remains unknown, and so credit for completing this last stage of global exploration and settlement belongs not to Christopher Columbus or the other well-known European navigators but to a Norseman whose voyage just happened to take place exactly one thousand years ago. Leif's accomplishment was not due to one man or one voyage but was the culmination of two hundred years of Norse exploration and settlement in the North Atlantic.
The dramatic story of the Viking expansion west across the North Atlantic between A.D. 800 and 1000, which resulted in the settlement of Iceland and Greenland and the exploration and brief settlement of northeastern North America, is a chapter of history that deserves to be more widely known (map, p. 13). Thanks to recent advances in archaeology, history, and natural science, the Norse discoveries in the North Atlantic can now be seen as the first step in the process by which human populations became reconnected into a single global system. After two million years of cultural diversification and geographic dispersal, humanity had finally come full circle.
Although their history is full of mystery and adventure, the Norse and their Viking ancestors are little known, misunderstood, and almost invisible on the American landscape. For most Americans, knowledge of American history begins with the voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, although the information about Leif Eriksson's voyage as indicated by the Vinland Sagas has been known since the early 1800s, the absence of physical evidence of Vikings in the New World (outside of Greenland) rendered this information speculative, at best, or moot. Other than a small group of Nordic scholars and enthusiasts, few people took seriously the possibility that Norse explorers had reached the North American mainland five hundred years before Columbus or had a legitimate claim to New World history. Even the five hundred-year history of Norse settlement in Greenland has never been seen to have an American perspective despite its physical proximity.
For this reason the discovery of a Viking site in northern Newfoundland in 1960 by Helge Ingstad and subsequent excavations by him and his wife, Anne Stine Ingstad (fig. 2), has to be considered a watershed event in New World history: for the first time physical evidence confirmed a pre-Columbian European presence in the Americas. Although this settlement did not lead to permanent settlement, and no other Norse settlement sites have been found, scores of Norse artifacts have since been found in a dozen or more Native American archaeological sites scattered widely throughout the eastern Canadian arctic and subarctic, and a Norse penny has been found even further south, in Maine. These finds do not include spectacular runestones and silver and gold hoards such as have been found Viking sites in Europe and Scandinavia (fig. 6); nor do they indicate that Vikings traveled deep into the heartland of America, as was proposed by many writers during the speculative stage of Viking studies in the New World from the 1830s to 1960. Nevertheless, when combined with new evidence from Norse settlements in the North Atlantic the knowledge recently gained from archaeology and natural sciences tells a story as significant and dramatic as that of Viking raids in Europe or Columbus's voyages for Spain. The question is no longer whether there was a pre-Columbian discovery of North America but rather how far south of Newfoundland the Norse explored and what impacts their contacts had on Native Americans, on their own societies in the Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland, and on Europe. Not least is the question of whether Nordic knowledge of the northwestern North Atlantic and its lands and peoples was transmitted to Europe from its medieval manuscripts and tradition-bearers in Iceland and Scandinavia, what information this consisted of, and whether it influenced later European exploration. For instance, was Icelandic knowledge of western lands passed to Christopher Columbus in his 1477 trip to Iceland? Some scholars believe that he or other European explorers such as John Sebastian Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Martin Frobisher, John Davis, and others (Stefansson 1942; Egilsson 1991; Quinn 1992; Seaver 1996) must have grasped the import of the Norse voyages. Columbus may have learned about the Vinland voyages from the Icelandic sagas or those who knew of them. The history of the West Vikingsthose early Scandinavians who ventured west across the North Atlantic to seek their fortunesneed no longer be understood solely on the basis of sagas and conjecture. Scientific evidence allows us to substantially revise the history of the discovery of America by giving due credit to the Nordic people who for most of the past thousand years created and maintained a gateway between Europe and North America.
"Vikings" and "Norse"
By the latter part of the eighth century the Norse had largely mastered the challenges of making a living in their Scandinavian homelands and had developed a remarkable ship that gave them the ability to seek adventure, profit, and new lands beyond the coastal farms of western Norway. In doing so, the early Norse earned a new identityVikingsin the eyes of their European neighbors which followed them far across the North Atlantic.
To many, the term "Viking" has become indelibly associated with seafaring warriors, explorers, and entrepreneurs, despite the fact that this word was only sporadically applied directly to the Nordic peoples by the British; the latter used it to refer to the "curse of the north" who regularly despoiled their coasts after the famous first raid on Lindisfarne monastery in A.D. 793. That date is generally taken as the beginning of the Viking Age, which lasted two hundred and fifty years until the Normans, descendants of the Vikings, crossed the channel to invade England in 1066. The term Viking is thought to have originated from a place in southern Norway called "Vík," which became an early center of Viking raiding fleets. The name soon came to refer to Norse-speakers, called "Northmen" by their southern adversaries, who sallied forth from "viks" ("bay" or "harbor" in Old Norse, or "refuge" in Old English) seeking adventure and profit. Those "bay men" who went off raiding were said to go "a-viking" or were simply called "vikings."
The term Viking did not refer to the Nordic peoples who stayed home; those who shared a similar language (Old Norse) and cultural traditions that distinguished them from other linguistic or ethnic groups were known by various ethnic names, such as Goths, Svear, Norwegians, Danes. The pioneering Norse who discovered and settled lands in the Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland were never called Vikings. In the early landnám (land-taking) years, the language and culture of these pioneers reflected their homelandsprimarily southern and western Norwaybut by medieval times the Norse began to form distinct societies and nationalities that reflected Faeroese, Icelandic, or Greenlandic character, despite having a common Old Norse language. Collectively these ninth- and tenth-century Norse are sometimes also called West Vikings, although their traditions and history are primarily those of Nordic seafaring farmers rather than of the Viking marauders who terrorized Europe. Although the Norse ethno-linguistic term is much preferred and is especially appropriate for Nordic peoples of the North Atlantic, who derive primarily from Norway, the long history of the search for "Vikings" in North America and its modern popular use has made it the only term recognizable to a general North American audience, and so it is used here in a broad generic sense.
Vikings At Home
Until the end of the Viking period, circa A.D. 1050, most Norse lived as farmers on small plots or as retainers to kings or locally powerful chiefs and their supporters. Despite their reputation as shipbuilders, sailors, and warriors, the Norse identified themselves as farmers rather than as fishermen, hunters, trappers, or traders, even though individual Vikings might spend considerable periods of the year engaged in these tasks. Commercial fishing did not become important to Nordic peoples until the Middle Ages; hunting such sea mammals as walrus and whales was a seasonal rather than full-time activity. Even as late as A.D. 1000, except in a few trade centers such as Ribe in Denmark, Kaupang and Bo in Norway, York in England, and Dublin in Ireland, few Vikings engaged in specialized commercial production. On the other hand, carpentry and especially boat building were not trades; they were skills known to all Viking men, just as spinning, weaving, and clothes-making were known to all Viking women. But there were no activities more central to Norse identity than farming. Most farms occupied only a few thousand square feet of in-field pasture in which they grazed cows, horses, sheep, and goats, and if they were lucky, a small number of pigs. Farms varied in size according to geography and personal means, being larger in the fertile flat lands of Denmark and Sweden and smaller in the mountainous coastal terrain of Norway and the Atlantic islands. The majority of a family's time and energy went to nurturing their animals and tending crops.
The technological element upon which Viking expansion and influence depended was boat-building and maritime skill. Little was known about Viking ships until the late 1800s when a series of well-preserved finds were excavated from burial mounds in Oslo Fjord. The most spectacular of these was found in 1904 at Oseberg, revealing a nearly perfectly preserved ship that contained the burial goods and remains of a Viking queen and a female servant. Recent excavations of late Viking Age ships in Roskilde Fjord near Copenhagen have given maritime historians and archaeologists more detailed information on Viking ship types and their development, allowing their sailing characteristics to be researched by use of replicas (Crumlin-Petersen 1978, 1997). Tree-ring dating has provided a precise chronology for their construction and repair.
Vikings perfected vessels constructed with a lapstrake hull built up from a mortised keel without a heavy internal structure of ribs and supports, making the vessel both skeleton and shell at the same time. Iron rivets and washers replaced lashings to fasten lapped planks, adding strength to the hull. The addition of oars and sails gave Viking boats an advantage over all other watercraft of their day in speed, shallow draft, weight, capacity, maneuverability, and seaworthiness. Viking boats were designed to be dragged across long portages as well as to withstand fierce ocean storms. Such ships (fig. 3) gave Vikings the ability to trade, make war, carry animals, and cross open oceans and at the same time provided sufficient protection and security for the crew (Brøgger and Shetelig 1951).
The magic ingredients that made Viking ships possible were iron, carpentry skills, and abundant timber. Iron was more accessible than bronze, and while it had the distinct disadvantage of rusting, especially in saltwater, the availability of iron for tools and fastenings meant that even moderately well-off farmers could muster the materials and manpower to build a ship. Thus mobility was no longer the exclusive right of powerful chiefs, as had been the case in the Bronze Age. Swarms of Viking boats could be produced, and during the long midwinter farming break, the northern seas came alive with Viking crews out for valor and profit.
Vikings and the Viking Age
The territorial expansion of the Vikings from their Scandinavian homelands that began in the last decades of the eighth century was the fundamental historical reality that created the Viking Age. This expansion started as seasonal raids on the northern and western British Isles by Norwegian Vikings, who first invaded the Shetlands and Orkneys and then used these as bases for staging raids on northern Scotland, Ireland, and the west coast of England (figs. 4, 5). Danish Vikings struck along England's eastern coast and along the northwestern shores of the mainland south of Denmark. Norse chiefs had already become familiar with these lands through trading activities, and within a few decades after the strikes began, the purpose of the raids became more economic and political. Soon, Vikings were trading and extorting money (called danegeld) more than they were raiding, although the raids continued sporadically throughout the British Isles and western Europe for the next two centuries, and even extended to Spain, the Mediterranean, and North Africa.
Over time Vikings who went raiding later returned to regions they had first visited as marauders and took wives and land and settled there permanently, leaving younger and more boisterous generations to go a-viking elsewhere. In this way Viking population and lands expanded rapidly during the ninth and tenth centuries, and soon farming, trading, and diplomacy became as common as raiding and pillaging for Vikings living abroad. Danish Vikings expanded enclaves along the eastern coast of Britain and on the continent, eventually founding Nordic population bases in these regions. Soon towns were established in Dublin and York, and Normandy became a Nordic territory. At the same time that these raids were beginning in western Europe, Vikings from Götland and Sweden were exploring, raiding, and building economic relationships to the east through the eastern European and Russian rivers systems leading to the Black Sea, the Caspian, and the eastern Mediterranean. Swedish Vikings became powerful traders, politicians, and mercenaries in these regions, and founded a dynasty that ruled Kiev.
Vikings who ventured west, primarily Norwegians and those who had resettled in the northern and western British Isles, embarked on a different course, settling the islands of the North Atlantic as farmers and hunters who supplied medieval Europe with such exotic goods as ivory, falcons, and precious fur, in addition to wool and other products. These hardy Norse farmers reached the Faeroes by 825 and Iceland, which may already have been sparsely occupied by reclusive Irish monks, by 870. By 930 a population of thirty thousand Norse had become established in Iceland and all of its arable lands were occupied in a process known to the Norse as landnám (land-taking). Thereafter, communication with Norway and the British Isles was maintained on a regular basis. By 930 the Icelandic Parliament was founded, and in 982 Erik the Red, outlawed from Iceland, set off to explore Greenland, returning to Iceland in 985 to lead a colonizing effort that founded Greenland's Eastern and Western Settlements.
On or about 1000 Leif Eriksson explored lands west and south of Greenland which he named Helluland (Rock Slab Land), Markland (Forest Land), and Vinland (Wine Land), and during the next decade or so other Vinland voyages were made by members of his family who remained on the western shores of the Atlantic for several years. Thereafter Vinland explorations ceased, and during the following three hundred and fifty years until the Greenland colonies were abandoned, about 1450, the Norse in this distant settlement remained oriented primarily to Iceland, Norway, and the British Isles. Finds of Norse artifacts in Native American archaeological sites show that throughout this period, however, Greenlandic or Icelandic Norse occasionally visited Markland for timber and made sporadic contacts with native peoples in northwest Greenland and the Canadian arctic.
During this seven hundred-year period northern Europe, the British Isles, and Scandinavia underwent extensive technological, social, political, and religious change. At first these changes were instigated by the Norse, whose Viking raiders plunged western Europe and the British islands into chaos and terror, influencing the politics of nation formation in these regions. By the tenth century political and religious changes instigated by Viking contacts and activities in western Europe and the British Isles had begun to transform the social structure of the Viking homelands. The independence of individual Viking leaders and chieftains was curtailed as political and economic power became centralized in trade centers controlled by the kings and regional elites. Christianity was making inroads into the traditional pagan Norse religious base, and the lives of the average Norse at home were increasingly constrained. With the formal conversion to Christianity by the emergent kings of Denmark and Norway in the last decades of the tenth century, and about one hundred years later in Sweden, the Catholic Church began to exert major influence in economic and political affairs. The defeat of King Harold of England by William the Conqueror of Normandy in 1066 effectively ended the Viking Age; raids ceased and the political and economic integration of Scandinavia, Europe, and the North Atlantic settlements moved forward rapidly.
Although the Viking Age was officially over, the everyday lives of Norse settlers in the North Atlantic continued more or less unchanged, with strong ties to Norway and the British Isles. Fishing and hunting supplemented the farming economy, and few technological or farming innovations were introduced. As the climatic optimum waned and was replaced by colder, wetter, and more variable weather, the economic situation of the small Norse populations in the North Atlantic islands and Greenland declined. Further isolation occurred when Europe emerged from the Crusades. Trade routes to Africa and the Near East opened, undercutting the value of Greenlandic walrus ivory and dimming the lights of the Greenland Norse and their Norwegian and Icelandic trade partners.
In short, the West Viking story may be likened to a Nordic wave that surged out of Scandinavia and the northern British Isles at a peak period of the Viking Age and raced across the North Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland, and northeastern North America during a period of unusually warm, stable climatic conditions. By the time the western front of this wave attained its maximum reach during the Vinland voyages, Viking prospects had already begun to decline in Iceland, which by then had been occupied for one hundred and fifty years, and many of its landnám resourcesits "natural ecological capital" (Cronon 1993)were being depleted by overgrazing and human and animal population growth. Greenland would suffer the same decline in the fourteenth century as unstable weather and lower temperatures intersected with rising human population and intensified exploitation of this remote land's tenuous agricultural resources. By then the Nordic wave was about to retreat from Greenland to Iceland, where it would remain until the economics of fish replaced stock farming as the primary resource capital.
The West Viking Expansion
The North Atlantic landnám had an entirely different motivation than that pursued by Vikings who sought opportunity through banditry, raids, or military or political action in the populated lands to the south. The latter activities produced profits at considerable risk; one had to defeat or displace the present owners. For this reason many Norwegian Norse found it more convenient to take their risks at sea. After having exhausted opportunities to settle lands in the marginal farming regions of upland or northern Norway, sea-savvy Norse farmers turned west, following the open horizons of the Atlantic. The Faeroes were only three hundred and fifty miles west of Norway, a two-day sail under favorable conditions, and a day or two further the gleaming 7,000-foot high dome of Vatnajökull Glacier rose above Iceland. Both provided the Norse with empty lands full of rich resources. News of these new lands must have spread quickly through West Norway as well as among the Norse settlers who had moved earlier into the northern British Isles. By 930 the richest Iceland farms had all been taken and newcomers were having to settle for poorer lands, often working as tenant farmers for immigrants who had preceded them to Iceland by only a decade.
Many theories have been advanced to explain the events that propelled Vikings outward from their northern homelands: developments in ship construction and seafaring skills; internal stress from population growth and scarce land; loss of personal freedom as political and economic centralization progressed; and the rise of state-sponsored Christianity over traditional pagan belief have all been cited. Probably all are correct in degrees; but the overriding factor was the awareness of the opportunities for advancement abroad that lured Norsemen to leave their home farms. By taking on lives as soldiers of fortune, Vikings who faced declining opportunities at home could dramatically alter their prospects: becoming wealthy, reaping glory and fame in battle, and achieving high status as leaders and heroes based on their own abilities and deeds, provided that lucka crucial ingredient in every Viking venturewas on their side. With success abroad, one could advance rapidly to positions of prestige and power in the relatively open structure of Viking society; or, by the same token, an unlucky stroke might put a man in an early grave. In either case, in the worldview of the pagan Viking, one's fate was inevitable.
To the Norse the discovery of western lands and peoples was only an incremental addition to knowledge accumulated in the course of many previous voyages by earlier Norse explorers who, aided by remarkable advances in ship technology, had been venturing further and further out into the North Atlantic since the mid-700s. Although the Norse were the first to establish viable populations in these regions, they may have learned of these lands from Irish monks who in turn may have been preceded by such figures as Saint Brendan, the sixth-century Irish abbot whose semi-mythical voyage has inspired endless speculation. Even Brendan may not have been the first to venture into the northwestern seas: in 330 B.C. a Greek mariner named Pytheas reached the northern British Isles, if not the Faeroes or Iceland. As the Vikings sailed west new lands kept emerging from below the horizon: first the Shetlands and the Faeroes, then Iceland, Greenland, and finally North America. Navigating without instruments, by the winds and swells, by the movements of birds, and by keeping the height of the noonday sun at a constant altitude, they traveled from land to land in little more than a two- or three-day sail. As soon one land had been colonized, they pressed on to other uninhabited lands further west. The problem was not how to find these lands; it was how, as northern seafaring stock-breeders, they could use them.
The rapidity by which the western islands were populated was not merely a function of opportunity and motivation; these economic strategies and technology had been developed to a great degree along the fjords and islands of western Norway and in the earliest Norse settlements in the Orkneys and Shetland Islands. The West Norwegian agrarian economy, which was based on sheep, goat, pig, cow, and horse farming, was immediately transferable to the northern maritime climate of the North Atlantic islands with little loss except for the inability to grow grain in all but the most favorable locations; and the Norse economy was almost completely self-sufficient. Animals produced transport, food, and dairy products, and raw materials for nearly everything the Norse needed, including woolens for clothing and sailcloth. Woodworking, shipbuilding, and even iron smelting and blacksmithing were familiar home skills. What could not be produced at home could be obtained by local exchange or by trade. The latter provided such luxury goods as fine textiles, jewelry, glass, and precious metals, high-quality weapons, and exotic foods such as sugar, grain for bread and beer, and wine, which was associated with church ritual. Once leaving the mainland, however, most of these luxuries became very expensive, and in most cases were foregone. The lack of iron and timber for building ships and houses and for use as fuel was the principal constraint in offshore life. These drawbacks did not cause major disruption of Norse life in the remote Atlantic communities; rather they ensured that communication with the mainland was maintained regularly, at least partially to preserve social and political relationships. West Vikings were not about to be relegated to a cultural backwater, but the islanders had to find ways to pay for mainland luxuries, and it was here that life in the North Atlantic turned on a harsher edge.
Just as credit for the discovery of the Faeroes and Iceland may lie elsewhere, modern research suggests that the West Viking expansion may not have been exclusively a Norwegian enterprise. DNA studies show modern Icelanders to have a significant amount of Celtic ancestry, perhaps as much as 10 to 20 percent, explaining the dark eyes and curly hair seen in Iceland today. (Conversely, similar studies indicate that the Iceland and Norwegian mouse have identical DNA, suggesting that Norwegians owned the ships that carried most settlers westward.) Linguistic and oral history also reflects a strong Celtic strain in Icelandic language, making one wonder whether Celtic literary tradition may be partly responsible for Icelanders' prodigious creation of stories and sagas, which were probably not part of their Norwegian heritage. Icelandic language today is closer to the Old Norse of Viking times that any other Nordic language, partly as a result of its geographic isolation and partly from dedicated efforts, exerted over generations, to consciously maintain the language and alphabet, as well as personal naming traditions. Genetic isolation and breeding management have also preserved old Icelandic breeds of horses, cattle, sheep, and dogs. It has been forbidden, for instance, to import horses into Iceland since the twelfth century. This law was stimulated by the flood of Arabian horses that appeared in Europe at the end of the Crusades, threatening to swamp the gene pool of the specially bred Icelandic horse, which was better suited to local conditions.
Meet the Author
WILLIAM W. FITZHUGH is the director of the Arctic Studies Center and curator in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. ELISABETH WARD is a curatorial specialist of the Vikings exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
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