April 20, 2001
The farm under the sand
Researcher challenges conventional thinking on disappearance of Viking community
n 1991, two caribou hunters stumbled over a log on a snowy Greenland riverbank, an unusual event because Greenland is above the tree line. Closer investigation uncovered rock-hard sheep droppings. The hunters had stumbled on a 500-year-old Viking farm that lay hidden beneath the sand, gift-wrapped and preserved by nature for future archeologists.
Gården under Sandet or GUS, Danish for the farm under the sand, would become the first major Viking find in Greenland since the 1920s.
"GUS is beautifully preserved because, once it was buried, it was frozen," explains University of Alberta Anthropologist Dr. Charles Schweger. "Things that are perishable and normally disappear are found at GUS."
A specialist in Arctic paleo-ecology and geo-archeology, Schweger joined the international archeological team that would spend the next seven years sifting through sand at GUS.
The famous Viking, Eric the Red, probably didn't know where he was headed when, adrift on the North Atlantic in 981 AD, he bumped into the southern coast of Greenland. Eric returned to Iceland three years later and enticed about 500 fellow Vikings to follow him and settle the new country.
"The Norse arrived in Greenland 1,000 years ago and became very well established," says Schweger, describing the Viking farms and settlements that crowded the southeast and southwest coasts of Greenland for almost 400 years.
"The Greenland settlements were the most distant of all European medieval sites in the world," said Schweger. "Then the Norse disappear, and the question has always been: what happened?"
Time was not on the archeological team's side. Earlier digs had explored the southern tip of Greenland, the most settled area of the country where Eric the Red first landed. These early digs merely scratched the surface because the archeologists were interested in the buildings and architecture, not what lay beneath. The GUS site was up the West Coast, deep inside a fjord. The river was advancing, swallowing the site, so it was it was important to act quickly.
The University of Alberta, Greenland and the Danish government combined resources and pushed ahead on the first Greenland excavation since the 1930s. The team would excavate the complete site, looking at the entire history and development of the farm, not just the surface buildings.
Schweger recalls vividly the day the team uncovered GUS. Smells frozen in permafrost for 500 years exploded into the air. "It stunk to high heavens," says Schweger. "There was no question about this being a farm." The Viking ships that had brought Icelandic adventurers to Greenland may have been mini versions of Noah's Ark with sheep, goats, horses and Vikings sharing the crowded space. The Greenland Vikings raised sheep and fabricated woolen garments. The centre of the farm was a typical Viking longhouse, the communal building where Vikings gathered around the fire. The settlement flourished. In the North Atlantic, walrus, seal and whale were abundant and the Greenlanders made rope from walrus hide and controlled the European walrus tusk market.
Every summer, the team raced against the river. In 1998, when researchers finally abandoned GUS to the river, 90 per cent of the site had been excavated. Artifacts packaged and taken to the lab include pieces of cloth and sheep combs used to remove wool without shearing the animal. The site gave up metal hinges, locks, keys and wooden barrels. The Vikings appear to have traded their northern wares for metal and wooden products unavailable in Greenland. For them, a trip to Iceland or Norway was like a shopping spree at Home Hardware.
We know about Eric the Red and the Greenland settlement because years after the Vikings had given up their pagan ways, Snorri Sturluson collected Viking stories and penned the Icelandic sagas. "The Icelanders wrote everything down," says Schweger, puzzled that the literature says nothing about what happened to the Norse in Greenland.
What did happen? Theories abound. Tryggvi Oleson in his 1963 book, Early Voyages and Northern Approaches, proposed a theory which still has some credibility. He believed the Vikings and northern aboriginal people intermarried to produce the unique Thule people, ancestors of the modern Eskimo.
One reigning expert on Norse extinction in Greenland is Dr. Thomas McGovern from City University of New York. McGovern is also chair of the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization, an international research association interested in the relationship between changing climate and people in the North Atlantic. He believes the Norse did not adapt completely to Greenland because they never adopted Inuit ring-seal hunting techniques. The Inuit used buoys or floats and hunted ring seal from kayaks or through the ice. These techniques do not appear in Norse culture. McGovern and other paleo-ecologists also believe the Norse were poor farmers.
But Schweger says the evidence comes from the southern or eastern settlement where the excavations only looked at the surface. "There is a lot of sediment thrown around, and it suggests to these researchers that the Norse were poor farmers. The theory is poor agricultural practices caused the sod to break up, and the winds eroded this and blew sand all over the landscape."
While Danish and Greenland researchers look at GUS buildings and artifacts, the U of A's role is to study organic material. Cross-sections of the GUS soil contain evidence that challenge McGovern's theories and offer brand-new understanding of the Vikings in Greenland.
"The ring seal is only one species of seal. The Norse hunted everything else - walrus, whales, harbour seals," says Schweger, moving quickly to part two of his McGovern challenge. The argument that the Vikings were poor farmers doesn't make sense upon close examination of the GUS organic material. "There is no evidence that they were destroying their fields. Quite the opposite. They were improving upon them."
It is not surprising that the Greenland Vikings chose to farm at the mouth of a fjord. The Vikings who settled Iceland and later moved to Greenland were originally from Norway, where farming technology grew up around fjords. The centre of a fjord farm is a meadow where animals graze during winter months.
Cross-sections of the GUS soil show the Vikings began their settlement by burning off Birch brush to form a meadow. Over the next 300 to 400 years, the meadow soil steadily improved its nutritional qualities, showing that the Greenland Vikings weren't poor farmers, as McGovern and others have suggested. "At GUS, the amount of organic matter and the quality of soil increased and sustained farming for 400 years," says Schweger. "If they were poor farmers, then virtually all the farming in North America is poor farming."
Schweger believes the sand that packaged and preserved GUS, also ruined the site, polluting the river the Vikings relied on for fresh water. The soil was healthy and nutritious. Then, suddenly, farming stopped and the soil was encapsulated in sand.
A massive ice sheet covers about 85 per cent of Greenland, about 2,600,000 cubic kilometres of ice - enough to raise sea levels by 6.4 metres if it were to melt. Sheets of ice sliding down the mountain toward GUS may have pushed sand over the eastern coast of Greenland, burying the Viking settlements. The sand slide was probably a major catastrophic event, comparable to an earthquake.
The Danish Antiquity Society will publish the GUS findings once the international lab results have been tabulated and debated. The team that sifted through sand summer after summer may tell the world new stories about the Vikings who farmed and traded in the North Atlantic then suddenly, and inexplicably, disappeared.