Wealthy Norsemen imported wood to Greenland | Polarjournal
The ruins of a Norse house (Photo: Peter via Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Norse settlers living in south-western Greenland were able to rely on driftwood and native dwarf woody plants for building material for houses and ships and for heating, an Icelandic archaeologist has found. Only better-off settlers imported wood from Europe and North America

Norse settlers living in Greenland between 985 and about 1450 would not have had access to forests as we know them. The available trees grew to the size of a shrub, making them suitable for little more than small structures. Nevertheless, settlers had enough material to build ships and houses. And, based on historical findings, it was assumed that the Norse were able to maintain their settlements on the edge of the Greenland ice sheet for so long because they imported the timber and firewood they needed.

Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir, an archaeologist at the University of Iceland, examined wood samples from five former Norse homesteads under a microscope and determined the tree species used at the time in order to determine where the wood came from. The findings were published in Antiquity.

Ms Guðmundsdóttir examined 8,552 wooden artifacts and fragments brought to light during archaeological excavations at Norse sites in south-western Greenland. Her findings indicate that half of the samples came from driftwood, which, together with native woody plants, may have completely met the needs of medium-sized settlements. Less than one percent could be clearly attributed to imported wood, and these had mainly been found at present-day Igaliku, which, during the period of Norse settlement, was known as Garðar, the site of the first cathedral built in the Americas. This, according to Ms Guðmundsdóttir, suggests that only high-ranking settlers had access to imported wood. She found no evidence that importing wood there was necessary. Rather, it seems to have been used purely as a show of luxury.

Among the tree species native to Greenland, only the polar willow can produce enough wood for use as building material (Photo: Julia Hager)

The imported wood — mostly pine, oak and beech — was likely brought to Greenland by settlers from northern Europe. However, Ms Guðmundsdóttir was able to match some of the samples to North American tree species, which means that settlers in Greenland were able to build ships that could cross the Davis Strait at least into the 14th century. Ms Guðmundsdóttir interprets her findings to mean that voyages from Greenland to North America were made throughout the period of Norse settlement in Greenland, and that they procured resources from North America for much longer than previously thought.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Guðmundsdóttir, L. (2023). Timber imports to Norse Greenland: Lifeline or luxury? Antiquity, 97(392), 454-471. doi:10.15184/aqy.2023.13

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