Norse Greenlanders Traveled to North America and Europe for Timber for Five Centuries

When Norse colonists arrived on Greenland in the 10th century, they needed a lot of wood to build houses, storage buildings and ships. While most households relied on wood from trees that grew locally and on driftwood, which was plentifully available, Norse elites had their own ideas. They instead relied on high-quality timber imported from northeastern North America and Northern Europe to meet most of their building needs.

Norse settlers managed to survive the harsh conditions of Greenland for nearly 500 years, and throughout that time those who could afford it continued to acquire their wood from foreign locations.

This surprising discovery is discussed in a new study by University of Iceland archaeologist Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir that has just been published in the journal Antiquity. In her paper, Guðmundsdóttir details her efforts to trace the origin of wooden pieces and artifacts found at five Norse sites in Greenland, all of which were occupied from the 11th through the mid-15th centuries. Using a method of cellular-level study known as taxa analysis, she was able to distinguish between local wood, driftwood and imported timber. Her results showed that Norse Greenlanders had visited North America for much longer than had previously been known, motivated largely by a desire for timber that was of an extraordinary high quality.

Norse elites traveled far for their prized wood. Source: Felix / Adobe Stock.

Norse elites traveled far for their prized wood. Source: Felix / Adobe Stock.

For Norse Elites in Greenland, Only Imported Wood Would Do

With the precise data she obtained, Guðmundsdóttir was able to identify the species or genus of the trees from which the excavated ancient wood was made.  Timber from trees that grew far away and could not have reached Greenland as driftwood included samples of oak, beech, hemlock and Jack pine, and comprised a miniscule .27 percent of the total wood analyzed. However, about 25 percent of the wood she studied consisted of larch, spruce, Scots pine and fir, all of which could have been driftwood but also could have been imported. 

The five sites that produced the wood for analysis included four medium-sized farmsteads that would have been built by Norse settlers of more humble means. But the fifth site, identified as Igaliku, would have been settled and occupied by wealthier and more prestigious Norse elites, those who were recognized as leaders by the greater community of colonists.

Notably, all of the samples of imported wood were discovered at the last location exclusively.

“Driftwood was widely used in Norse Greenland and medium-sized sites sustained the majority, if not all, of their needs with either driftwood or from local woodlands,” Guðmundsdóttir wrote in her Antiquity article. “In contrast, the small amount of imported timber identified in this study (Scots pine, oak, beech, Jack pine and hemlock) all comes from the site of Igaliku.”

What this seems to show is that imported timber was a luxury item reserved for those elites who wanted it and could afford it.

The imported wood came primarily from Northern Europe, with Norwegian sources being most prominent. But hemlock and Jack pine didn’t grow in Europe in the early second millennium and could only have been harvested in eastern North America. Clearly the Greenlanders possessed the vessels and sailing skills necessary to establish enduring sea routes that crossed the often ice-choked Davis Strait to reach their neighboring continent, where they would have arrived at the northern shore of what is now the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Precious and valuable timber could be harvested here, and it seems Norse traders and lumbermen continued to visit looking for wood well into the 14 th century. This is an eye-opening revelation, because it upends previous assumptions about how frequently and for how long Norse Greenlanders were visiting North America.

Oak planks and barrel stave from Tatsip Ataa, L. Guðmundsdóttir. Source: Antiquity

Oak planks and barrel stave from Tatsip Ataa, L. Guðmundsdóttir. Source: Antiquity

Finding a New Home in Greenland

Greenland is the world’s largest non-continental island. It is located nearly on top of the world, bridging the gap between the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and northernmost Europe and the Canadian Artic.

Because of its frigid climate it is not capable of supporting a significant population. Nevertheless, there were indigenous people living on the island for thousands of years before Northern Europeans arrived, including the Paleo-Eskimo Dorset people who inhabited Greenland in the first and early second millenniums AD.

In 986, a fleet of 14 ships filled with colonists and commanded by the legendary Viking leader Erik the Red, who was exiled from his homeland of Norway after being charged with murder, landed on the west coast of Greenland. The Norse settlers , who were from Norway and Iceland, shared the island first with the Dorset culture and later with the people of the Thule culture, occupying closely grouped homesteads they built on the island’s southwestern tip.

Greenland is covered by ice sheets and frozen tundra, and there are just a few trees native to the island that were available for harvesting in the 10th century. In addition, supplies of these trees were limited, and the wood they produced was not acceptable for building large structures or sturdy, sea-worthy ships. Driftwood on the other hand was widely available, and was often of a higher quality than locally sourced timber. Without this extra source of raw materials, the capacity of the Norse to survive on Greenland would have been significantly reduced.

The Norse settlements in Greenland were quite successful and stable. There were likely no more than 2,500 Norwegians and Icelanders on the island at any one time, so the population remained sustainable. But by 1450 the Norse settlements had all collapsed and their residents had all returned to Scandinavia. While there is no definitive proof showing why the Norse left Greenland so suddenly, researchers blame a combination of climate change (the so-called Little Ice Age caused temperatures to plunge and droughts to develop in the North Atlantic region starting around 1300), epidemics, pirate raids and overexploitation of the land.

Ruins and artifacts from those times are all that remains of the Norse settlers who came to Greenland. But from their discoveries archaeologists have been able to fill in many gaps of knowledge about how the Norse lived and for a time even thrived in such a cold and unwelcoming region.  

Viking settlements in Greenland were successful but they needed to import wood for their timber houses. Source: Deivison / Adobe Stock.

Viking settlements in Greenland were successful but they needed to import wood for their timber houses. Source: Deivison / Adobe Stock.

The Medieval Norse´s Deep Interest in North America Fully Revealed

It has long been known that Norse settlers in Greenland relied to some extent on imported wood. Various Icelandic sagas written in the medieval period even told of the exploits of Norse explorers who visited North America to harvest timber to bring back to the island.

The most prominent of these adventurers was Leif Erikson , the son of Erik the Red who is credited as the first Norse explorer to land in North America. He is considered the likely founder and leader of the Norse settlement L’Anse aux Meadows , which the Greenlanders built on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland around the year 1,000. This is the only definitively confirmed European settlement found in the Americas dating to the pre-Columbian era, and L’Anse aux Meadows presumably functioned as a base of operations for timber harvesting in the region.

According to a Norwegian aristocratic manual written in the 13th century, the Konungsskuggsjá or King’s Mirror, “everything that is needed to improve the land [Greenland] must be purchased abroad, both iron and all the timber used in building houses.”

As a result of Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir’s scientific research, we now know that this claim is an exaggeration, and that there was no compelling need to import wood from elsewhere.

What the words of this royal manual show is that Norse elites living in Greenland did not see imported wood as a luxury but as a necessity, given their exalted status as people who deserved the finest things in life. Their preference for the best timber available is what maintained and sustained the connection between the Norse world and the North American continent for several centuries, and since the Norse had such an abiding economic interest in the region it is certainly possible that other Norse settlements will be discovered in northern Canada in the future.

Top image: Norse settlement with wood houses. Source: Hauber_Photography / Adobe Stock.

By Nathan Falde


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