Norse Greenlanders found to have imported timber from North America


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Norse greenlanders impCredit: Antiquity (2023). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2023.13

Archaeologists have used wood taxa analysis to distinguish between imported, drift and native wood from five Norse farmsteads on Greenland.

Historical records have long suggested that medieval Norse colonists on Greenland (AD 985–1450) relied on imported material such as iron and wood. Until now, it has not been fully recognized where these imports of wood came from.

To study timber origins and distribution on Greenland, Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir from the University of Iceland examined the wood assemblages from five Norse sites in western Greenland, of which four were medium sized farms and one a high-status episcopal manor. All sites were occupied between AD 1000 and 1400 and dated by radiocarbon dating and associated artifact types.

A microscopic examination of the cellular structure of the wood previously found by archaeologists on these sites enabled the identification of tree genus or species, and the results were published in the journal Antiquity.

The results show that just 0.27% of the wood examined were unambiguous imports, including oak, beech, hemlock and Jack pine. Another 25% of the total wood studied could be either imported or driftwood, including larch, spruce, Scots pine and fir.

Norse greenlanders imp 1Credit: Antiquity (2023). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2023.13

Because hemlock and Jack pine were not present in Northern Europe during the early second millennium AD, the pieces identified from the medieval contexts in Greenland must have come from North America.

This confirms the historical sources, that the Norse did acquire wood from the east coast of North America. The sagas indicate that the explorers Leifurheppni, Þorleifurkarlsefni and Freydísall brought back timber from Vínland to Greenland.

In addition to the possibility of import, driftwood was one of the most important raw materials in Norse Greenland, making up over 50% of the combined assemblage.

Wood also came from Europe, likely including the oak, beech and Scots pine from this assemblage. Some may have come as ready-made artifacts, such as barrel staves, while reused ship timber could have been brought to use in buildings on Greenland.

Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir, Timber imports to Norse Greenland: lifeline or luxury?, Antiquity (2023). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2023.13