In Part I, we looked at the Viking colonization of Greenland, and the failure of their settlement in America. In Part II we saw the fall of the Eastern Settlement. Now we will look at an even more mysterious disappearance, that of the Western Settlement.
Of the two Viking settlements, the Western Settlement was both smaller and more marginal. With some 90 farms, it was a quarter the size of the Eastern Settlement and may have housed 1000 people at its peak, possibly only half that. It was much further north and had a two-month shorter growing season and a longer winter. The settlers farmed, but at much lower intensity than in the Eastern Settlement. There were advantages, however. The location was less susceptible to Atlantic storms that could reach the southern tip of Greenland, it had much less drift ice, and was much closer to the walrus hunting region in Disko Bay. A large harbour seal population was nearby, and the lack of drift ice meant this remained reliable until the 14th century. But it was isolated and visits even from the Eastern Settlement became infrequent. Traders from Norway also would not normally come this far.
Initially, there was good contact between the two settlements. The Western Settlement was involved with the Newfoundland exploration. But very little is known about the Western Settlement during later years. The community was doing well around 1300 when the last of the churches there was build. In 1327, taxes were paid in ivory, suggesting the annual hunts were still taking place. After that there was silence.
An excavation of one farm, V54 at Nipaatsoq, showed that the house was a complex of connected rooms, where sheep were kept in a room in the middle. The farm had burned down around 1225 but was rebuild with a stone facade, a sign of some wealth. Unexpectedly, a small silver shield (less than 2 cm in size) was found that was made locally but which has a pattern that is derived from the Scottish Campbell clan and was first used in 1296. The same pattern was carved on a piece of bone and on a soap stone. The human story behind this shield will never be known, but it points at some level of contact with a distant world.
An important investigation was done at the so-called ‘farm under the sand’ (‘GUS’ on maps). The remains of the farm were discovered under a thick layer of sand and gravel, along the bank of a small river. The small farm had been used for a long period of time, 300 years: it may have dated from the very first settlement. But it was not inhabited continuously. There were at least two periods when it was unoccupied and only roaming animals entered. In both cases the farm was subsequently rebuild and re-occupied. The times when it stood empty may have to do with overgrazing, or it may be normal family politics where children marry and move on, leaving no one to take over the parental firm. The farm was abandoned for the final time sometime after 1310. The end was caused by the small river: the site was overrun by river sand, presumably after flooding. (When the farm was found, it was covered in 1.5 meter of sand and gravel. However, this was deposited a few hundred years later, when the nearby glacier had expanded.) After every abandonment, including the final one, sheep kept visiting the now empty building. It was part of a normal cycle, with as only difference that after the last abandonment, no one ever returned. One of the rooms had been emptied and locked. The valuables had been taken: this was an organized evacuation, not a disaster.
Several other farms have been excavated. They show that life in the settlement went on as normal until the end. The farms were well build and well equipped. A bath house was uncovered on one farm, with a wooden floor made from ship’s timbers. A die made from walrus tusk gives some indication how the long winter months were spend. There was no indication of how and why these farms had been abandoned. However, in these farms some highly precious objects were found, such as iron thongs and looms. These would not have been willingly left behind by the owners; and this was not just in one farm but commonly. It seems likely that the owners had died rather than moved on. The farms had been left to decay; no one ever came back, not even for the wood which was perhaps the most valuable item. There was no one left who needed it.
They disappeared in silence. The last written account of the Western Settlement came from Ivar Bardarson, a priest who had been send to Greenland by the bishop in Bergen in 1342. A bit ironic, he was send mainly as a tax collector. At the time, taxes were due both to the government and to the church. The Greenland Vikings had last paid church taxes in 1327, as a shipment of ivory, but after that no more payments had come. Bardarson was send as a business manager, with the task to implement a parish system. He obviously send a positive message back, because the next year a trader went to Greenland and returned ‘richly laden with goods’, and 1346 and 1347 saw several further trade visits, as well as the very unusual occurrence of a small and not really ocean-worthy Greenland ship reaching Iceland. But all contact stopped in 1349 due to the Black Death in Europe. (The long journey kept Greenland safe from the plague: any ship carrying the disease would have succumbed long before arrival.) Bardarson was finally able to return to Norway in 1364.
His report is entitled “The Description of Greenland according to Ívar Bárðarson”, and was originally written around 1360. We do not have that original text: the existing version was compiled in Bergen from several other manuscripts, soon after 1500. We do not know how much of the text is original. For instance, there is a sentence on sailing directions from Iceland to Greenland, and the fact that the old route has become difficult due to the presence of sea ice, which may have been inserted by others. But most of the document is a listing of farms and this is thought to be reliable.
There is only a brief mention of his visit to the Western Settlement. He was asked by the leader of the Eastern Settlement to go there because of reports that the ‘skraelings’ (Inuit) had taken over the site. He took several ships and an armed party, and sailed up the Ameralik and Lysufjord fjord to the largest farm where he investigated six farms, four small and two large. His findings made it clear that no taxes should be expected from it:
In the Western Settlement stands a large church, named Stensnes [Sandnes] Church. That church was for a time the cathedral and bishop’s seat. Now the Skrœlings have destroyed all of the Western Settlement; there are left some horses, goats, cattle, and sheep, all feral, and no people either Christian or heathen.
It mentions that they went on shore to kill the roaming animals (for meat, presumably). Bardarson concluded that the settlement had failed completely after an attack by the Inuit. The details are dubious. The style of writing is clearly different and sketchy compared to the rest of his writing and seems to have been written by someone else. Cattle and horses would not have survived the winter and feral cattle are therefore implausible. Sheep and goats are hardier. It seems fair to assume he went and found it to be deserted, but details such as the feral cattle seem dubious. The destruction that is mentioned is also not supported by the archaeology which only found abandonment: there is no indication for any outside attack. The failure lay within.
The report does suggest a fairly sudden failure, where the Eastern Settlement did not know what had happened. Most likely, the disappearance of the people was discovered during the annual walrus hunt, and Bardarson’s trip was the next summer. Bardarson would have planned a visit anyway as the Western Settlement was a quarter of this task. It would likely have taken place after he had finished his main work in the Eastern Settlement and must have been brought forward. We can guess that it was in the late 1340’s or early 1350’s. It cannot have been later than 1363, or earlier than 1343.
It appeared the settlement had failed within a few years, perhaps even within a single year. The dead had been buried but we do not know where or by whom.
Archaeology has moved on since the days of excavating bricks and ornaments. The possible solution to the mystery of the Western Settlement came from an unexpected angle: flies.
When the Vikings came, they brought their insects with them as unwanted cargo. Some lived in the houses, some on the meat, some in the manure. The Vikings flies liked warmth and when the Vikings left, their flies went extinct too. The flies were as domesticated as the cows. When the Vikings brought animals into their houses for the winter, the flies would have had a field day. At the start of summer, when the animals were thrown out, the Vikings would shovel the content of the house out as well (pretty smelly, one can imagine, after 7 months of dung production), and start afresh. The floor debris found in the houses therefore dates from the last year of habitation, and this includes the remains of the flies.
The flies at the farm at Nipaatsoq showed that conditions had broken down. There is one particular fly which breeds in meadow grass: its remains are commonly found in the farms. But this fly disappeared in the top layer. Evidently, the fodder for the final winter was of poor quality, and contained little grass. There was an abundance of flies that feed on warm (and human) faeces. These flies were not unusual in the farms but never in these numbers. At the very top of the layer, the warm-weather flies disappear and the local cold-temperature flies take over. Carrion flies appear in the bedroom. Carrion flies are common in Inuit settlements but not in the Viking farms: they left no meat to go spare. What did these carrion flies eat?
There is an obvious clue to what the human occupants ate, in that final winter. The butchered remains of five cattle were found in the house. They had eaten their herd. The scattered and butchered remains of two large hunting dogs showed that they met the same fate. The bones were found in the larder, the hall and the bedroom: the people had stopped taking care of the house. The other bones that were found were from hares and ptarmigan. These provide meat but no fat, and a person cannot survive on them in arctic conditions. It is called ‘rabbit starvation’.
Did the occupants survive the winter? We do not know. The remains of a calf and lamb shows that they lasted at least until early spring. Did they die in the bedroom? No human remains were found: perhaps someone buried them but who or when we do not know.
Excavation of other farms repeated the story. At Tummeralik (a mid-sized farm) five dogs had been killed and eaten; in the much larger farm at Sandnes, nine dogs met this fate. At the fields of the farm beneath the sand, DNA analysis in a soil core showed that cattle disappeared within at most a few years. Either they had been killed and eaten, or they did not survive without human attendance.
It is a stark tale. This was no organised evacuation: it was hopeless starvation. It paints a picture of people trapped inside for the winter, with insufficient food to see them through. Butchering of dogs has been known in Iceland as well. When food ran low, farmers would kill the dogs rather than running out of meat to feed them. But in Iceland, new dogs could be bought. In Greenland, the loss of their dogs would have meant that after the winter there would be no hunting, and no meat. It was desperation.
The event must have taken at least two years. There had been a bad summer without hay, most likely because of snow cover in the prime growing season. There was insufficient hay harvested to feed the cattle during winter. The meat ran out, indicating that the caribou and/or seal hunts had failed as well. The inhabitants faced a desperate winter in which they ate every living animal in the house, and finally ran out of food. When the brief summer came, the survivors buried the dead, but there were not enough of them to rebuild.
When did this happen? Carbon dating indicates it happened around the mid 1300’s although with a large uncertainty. The loss of cattle around the farm beneath the sand is dated to 1352+-36 years. The description by Ivar Bardarson is consistent with this: the disaster struck somewhere around 1350, and was so fast that by the time the hunters of the Eastern Settlement noticed their absence, none were left alive.
Part of the answer to the mystery of the Western Settlement appeared in April 1982. This was when El Chichon blew up, perhaps the most underrated eruption of the 20th century. El Chichon was ‘only’ a VEI 5 but it compensated by a massive sulfur amount, and it managed to explosively put this into the stratosphere. Its climate effects were countered by the strong El Nino of 1983 and this is one of the reasons that the eruption is under-appreciated. The world still cooled in 1983 and 1984, but only by 0.2 to 0.3 C. Wind patterns played a role: Europe warmed from the stronger southwesterlies, while Greenland cooled.
When the impact was modelled shortly after the eruption, it predicted that the volcanic cooling would be strongest in the far north, and especially in the spring of 1984. This 2-year delay is caused by local effects. The cooling in the far north regions comes from snow which reflect more sunlight, and from sea ice which stops the sea from warming the air. In 1983, the winter snows would have stayed on the ground longer, and this would allow sea ice to form earlier and more extensively, with its effect in the spring and summer of 1984.
The predictions were shown to be correct: the winter of 1983/84 in Greenland was exceptionally cold. And this was especially so in the region of the Western Settlement, where January temperatures were down by 10C compared to normal, and spring was 2C colder than usual. July was normal, but August again was 2C too cold. The two arms of the fjord along which the main farms were build were blocked by a patch of dense pack ice and some lighter ice into June. Normally, these fjords are navigable in April. In early June 1984, the only snow-free area in the southern half of the Western Settlement was the small valley surrounding the Sandnes manor. By late June the ice had gone but little grass had grown.
If this had happened in the time of the Western Settlement, the ice would have made it very difficult to reach the seal areas at the head of the fjord in time for the spring hunt, while late grass growth would have reduced the amount and quality of the hay.
The Pinatubo eruption of 1991 also led to two cold winters in western Greenland, with temperatures of 2 to 3 C below average. The area around the Western Settlement had the largest change, and seems to be the most sensitive. This is because the sea here is normally ice-free, but a very cold winter can bring in the ice. That gives a much larger change than in an area which normally already had sea ice.
What would the impact have been? Models for farming yields have been run, which estimate fodder consumption and domestic consumption in the Western Settlement. They show that their way of life was remarkably resilient against bad years. Their mixed farming/hunting strategy provided insurance against failures. A 30% drop in hay production could easily be accommodated. Even a 70% drop was survivable by reducing the size of the herd and increasing the hunt. A recovery period would be required in order for the herd to rebuild. However, if several very bad years followed each other in close succession, the herds could drop below a critical level. And if the next summer was delayed, the herd would need fodder for longer and this could cause disaster.
Human consumption could also become problematic. Hunting opportunities were limited in the early spring. Only the ringed seals could have made a difference but the Vikings did not hunt these, for lack of harpoons. The hunt for harbour seals and harp seals in June was crucial in bad years, as it provided fat when most needed. The settlement appears to have failed in May or June, as indicated by the presence of a calf and lamb and the fact that the cattle manure had not been cleared. If ice had blocked access to the sea and perhaps for the same reason the harbour seals had not appeared, after a few bad years this could have doomed the settlement.
What do we know about the climate in these years? The plot shows North American tree rings. It shows the longer term trend and the cold years of the 1450’s discussed in the previous post. But is also shows a significant decline in the 1340’s. Something had gone wrong with the world around 1345.
Ice cores have confirmed this. They show two large eruptions in the 14th century: one (possibly a double) eruption occurred around 1330 in the northern hemisphere, and a tropical eruption hit around 1345. The second eruption was the largest, and this is our main suspect. The same eruption has also been blamed for the Black Death. It caused very wet summers in Europe, and just as had happened in 541 AD, this allowed the rats and their fleas to spread. From 1347 onward, the Black Death devastated Europe and closed the trade with Greenland. And at the same time, and from the same volcano, the Western Settlement was dying.
For both the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement, the end coincided with a significant volcanic eruption. We cannot prove these caused their demise. But the eruptions would have had an impact. The settlements could cope with a bad year. They could also cope with the slow cooling from the Little Ice Age, which allowed them time to adjust their farming methods. But a major eruption can cause several bad years in succession. That tested their resilience to the limit. And perhaps already suffering from lack of trade, falling population and depletion of resources, it pushed them beyond those limits.
There are lessons to be learned from the failure of the distant and isolated Viking settlements on Greenland and Newfoundland. We are not an island: to build a new world, sometimes we do need help from the old world. But we should not forget their human story, of normal people trying to run their lives in such a beautiful but forbidding place. For many years they succeeded, against all odds. In the end, the odds became too much; the nation they build passed on to others. But we should remember them, in their successes, their adventures, their failures, but above all in their humanity. They too were people like us.
Albert, June 2021