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Members and guests filled Crookham Village Hall last Wednesday to hear Kristian Pedersen, from the University of Edinburgh, discuss Norse exploration of the North Atlantic and settlement in the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and America.
He cited fascinating archaeological evidence to support our understanding of these migrations.
Although the attack on Lindisfarne in 793 has attracted much attention, there is evidence of a Viking presence on the Shetland Islands a century or so earlier.
It is possible that Norse adventurers were first invited to settle by a Pictish king to counter the influence of the kings of Dalriada at a time when coastal lands had been depopulated following a prolonged period of stormy weather.
From the Scottish islands, the Norse Vikings extended their presence into the Irish Sea and across the North Atlantic.
The majority of these seafarers came originally from the Hordaland area around Bergen and the Norwegian coastal fjords, where agriculture was, at best, marginal. Landless young men satisfied their wanderlust and sought opportunity to the west.
The Scottish islands offered agricultural land at least as good as that of their homeland. However, unlike the Danes, who had established a centralised kingdom, which also sponsored overseas raids, Norwegian society remained relatively fragmented and controlled by local warlords.
They used trading ships (knarr), which could carry up to two tons of cargo, rather than warships.
Whilst the Vikings covered large areas, theirs was not a mass migration. The settlers, generally, did not possess great wealth or power. Their society was far from equal, composed largely of tenant farmers, although powerful figures, but not commanding royal personages, did emerge. Their migrations coincided with the Warm Medieval Period, which would have enhanced agricultural prospects in marginal lands.
In the early years of the 9th century, Norse settlers began arriving in the Faroe (Sheep) Islands, possibly following earlier trade routes. Many came from Norse bases in Scotland. Their presence probably upset Celtic monks who had already arrived, seeking quiet contemplation.
The Faroes were a difficult area to occupy, but the Norse introduced livestock and established stone farm houses, very similar to Highland Black Houses and protected by turf cladding. Present settlements in the islands are often located on top of the earlier ones.
After the Faroes, settlers, again including many from Scotland, often with their Scottish partners, moved on to Iceland, which was uninhabited and offered a more productive landscape. Remains of a larger house, the likely scene of ritual animal sacrifice, have been found in northern Iceland, but in 1000 AD the island became Christian by democratic vote. After initial success, agriculture suffered a sharp drop in productivity.
Eric the Red, exiled from Iceland, made his way to Greenland, which we assume he knew of already, and established a presence in the south and west of the island. He then invited other farmers to create viable settlements.
Farming remained pastoral, but arid summers necessitated irrigation systems to sustain it. A lot of materials had to be imported in exchange for trade goods. By the 15th century, and coinciding with worsening climate conditions, these settlements had largely been abandoned.
Eric the Red’s son Leif Erikson certainly reached America, where there is archaeological evidence of a Norse interaction with the Inuit from the 10th/11th centuries, and a settlement in Newfoundland at L’Anse aux Meadows, which seems to have lasted for some 50 years before being abandoned.
There remains many gaps in our knowledge of these significant population movements and new evidence is likely to emerge to change our perceptions.
Lively questioning from the audience testified to the interest the subject had aroused.
Following the society’s annual general meeting on Wednesday, April 6, at 7.30pm, Richard Carlton and John Nolan will review last season’s Flodden Hill, Wark and Norham excavations. Visitors are very welcome.