Medieval Norse Trappers On Baffin Island

Icelandic sagas and a single archaeological site in Newfoundland document a Viking Period presence of Norse people in the Americas. Now National Geographic’s November issue has a piece (here and here) on new work in the field, lab and museum collections by Dr. Patricia Sutherland. It deals with a group of additional and somewhat later sites that may expand that evidence. Dr. Sutherland, of the Memorial University in Newfoundland, kindly answered some questions of mine via e-mail.

The best site is near Cape Tanfield on the south coast of Baffin Island. Dr. Sutherland emphasises the following evidence as suggesting the presence of people with life-ways set apart from the local Inuit-speaking Dorset culture.

  • Cordage spun from of hare and fox fur, not the locally common sinew.
  • Textile woven from such animal-fur cordage.
  • Whetstones with traces of iron and copper alloy on them.
  • Wooden tally sticks.
  • Remains of Old World rats.
  • Wooden building details with nail holes.
  • Cut building stone.
  • Foundations of unusually large and sturdy stone-and-turf buildings.

Note that while NatGeo’s writer calls the Tanfield settlers “Vikings”, Dr. Sutherland wisely calls them “Norse”. The sites are post-Viking Period, and even during the Viking Period, most people were never Vikings. That was a part-time men-only occupation, not an ethnicity.

To me, the absence of woollen textiles among the finds suggests that these sites were the permanent homes of Norse-speaking colonists, not temporary hunting stations in continual contact with the colonies on Greenland or Iceland. But the sites also have typical Dorset culture phases, and there is no reason to believe that the two groups avoided each others’ company.

As for the possibility of sourcing the spun cordage using stable isotopes, she says,

aDNA and stable isotope work has been considered and, in some cases, initiated for samples that have been microscopically identified as “exotic” for Baffin Island. The cordage from the Helluland sites that is made from hare fur has not been analysed in terms of stable isotopes. Cordage made from Arctic hair fur and woven textile fragments made with cordage from Arctic hare fur are rare in the assemblages from the excavated sites in Norse Greenland. But, in the Baffin sites, most of the cordage is made from the fur of Arctic hare and fox and clumps of fur have also been recovered. It seems quite unlikely that our finds are from Arctic hare from other regions. Also, in terms of determining origin using stable isotopes, it is my understanding that it can be problematic using hair or fur from animals that shed their pelts.

Dr. Sutherland describes the situation for radiocarbon dating as rather tricky due to factors ranging from destructive earlier fieldwork to the marine reservoir effect. But she appears quite certain that all the foreign influences are High Medieval and centuries later than the one Viking Period site mentioned above – Jellyfish Bay, L’Anse aux meduses, L’Anse aux Meadows.

So what we have here is High Medieval Christian Norse-speakers gone native in Arctic north-east Canada. Interesting stuff! But as so often – don’t believe the headlines.

Update same evening: Dr. Sutherland wrote me some corrections and clarifications, and she also kindly gave me permission to put a 2009 paper of hers on-line for anyone who wants to delve deeper into her work.

The Dorset culture people did not speak the Inuit language. If the aDNA analysis is correct, they were most probably related to northeastern Siberian peoples, and probably spoke a language related to those of that area. No woven textiles were found at the Helluland sites. The wood with nail holes is not building-material. “Trappers”? I would say more likely traders and/or hunters. … it is my view that these early Europeans did not “go native” and they did not establish permanent residence on Baffin Island.

Update 7 November: Serendipitously, today I found an article in Populär Arkeologi 2004 about this very matter, animal fur cordage and all. So it’s not really news. The news is that NatGeo has featured it.


Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #271 has a long interview with Mick Aston of Time Team fame. When asked how he got into archaeology, Aston paints a little vignette of the renowned High Medieval archaeologist, professor Philip Rahtz:

[At Birmingham in the mid-60s] Philip Rahtz had just been appointed, and was living in this lilac caravan on the university car park. There were all these letters about him in the university newsletter, asking “Who is this long-haired bearded hermit in the car park?” Anyway, Philip put up this little sign saying “Anyone who wants to go digging, come to me on Saturday”. I thought “That sounds good”. That was the beginning… and what an introduction!

I turned up early – as I was a young, enthusiastic man – and was offered a cup of coffee. So then I needed to go to the loo. The loo door was covered in pictures of various ladies, some of whom I recognised. I thought to myself, “This is a very interesting world I’ve dropped in on”. And then off we went in his little Renault camper van. Every time we went around a bend, a drawer in the kitchen unit opened, and it was full of every type of contraceptive you can imagine. Then we’d go around another bend and it would shut again! For several years, we spent our weekends and vacs and non-term time travelling from site to site that needed digging, because it was going to be destroyed. It was one rescue dig after another.

Rahtz’s 1993 Festschrift is titled In Search Of Cult, reflecting Rahtz’s work with Medieval monastery sites. I think you can imagine the pun it inspired.

British Archaeology #127 has a piece on laser scanning of worked stone, in this case the various stones that form Stonehenge. There’s rock art on some of them, and I believe this to be a very important methodology for documentation of such carved stones and outcrops. It offers some objective data to juxtapose with the valuable and necessary naked-eye interpretation of these often faint markings. This should considerably dampen the tiresome old post-modernist claim that all rock art studies are irreducibly subjective. The image above is built from digital 3D measurements, not photography!

Airborne lidar scanning of entire landscapes is essentially the same method on a larger scale, and a six-page feature piece lays it out very well. Vast areas of earthworks covered in trees can now be mapped in minutes at an unimaginably higher level of accuracy and comprehensiveness than before. The examples given are a hillfort and a lowland fort, a settlement site, faint traces of ancient fields, an early modern ironworks and a group of 1940 off-shore anti-glider poles.

Populär Arkeologi 2012:3 is an issue particularly rich in good content. My dear friend Kristina Ekero Eriksson reports on the on-going large-scale excavations at Old Uppsala, which she also covers on a daily basis in the somewhat under-publicised project blog. Another friend of mine, Sven Kalmring, writes with Lena Holmquist about excavations at the hillfort next to Birka’s sister town Hedeby near Schleswig. Björn Hjulström reports on the Ströja mead-hall excavation (covered here back in July), which is very dear to my heart. And Niklas Eriksson writes about the huge well-preserved 16th century man o’ war Mars that was located in 2011 at 75 meters’ depth off Öland.

Skalk 2012:5 though was not one of the best issues this year. In science, reporting negative results and failed replications are important (and all too rare) tasks. But in popular science, why spend five pages telling the readers that fallow deer bones found in a Jutish gravel pit have not in fact been modified by Neanderthals, as believed by a 1950s osteologist? And why illustrate the piece with much younger bones from other sites that have been modified? I did however enjoy Annette Hoff’s feature on Boller manor in the 18th century, with its brief mention of a syphilis epidemic that hit 50 people and was blamed on a farmer with a “promiscuous lifestyle”. Smoking gun evidence for rural mores, far from the salons of sophisticated urban libertines! If only Philip Rahtz could have driven his camper van there, made friends with the local milkmaids and handed out some latex.

Subway Tweaker Woman

Riding the subway back into town today after a morning of looking at sites with an old course mate, I became aware of a loud woman a few seats away who would not sit still. Skinny, early middle age, simple clothes. At first I thought she was talking on her cell phone, but then I realised that she was talking to nobody in particular, keeping up a continuous monologue. What little I could make out was about DJs and clubs and 1990s pop stars. She was wearing a scruffy blonde wig, staring into space, her wide brown eyes quite beautiful in her lean face. At one point I thought she was trying to get my attention because she was leaning into the aisle and facing me, but when I made a little salute and said hello she paid no attention to me, just continued talking, looking quizzical, staring through me. And the constant movement – turning left, turning right, standing up, waving her arms, switching seats, doffing the wig, sitting down, donning the wig – and talking, talking. The people closest to her were fiercely ignoring her, just ducking a little when she flailed her arms. I believe she must have been tweaking on amphetamine. And I believe most Stockholm people my age will know who she was – a certain 1990s pop star. I wasn’t sure until I got home and googled for recent pictures of her.

See also Notice Board Screed and Singer And Jowly Do Drugs On The Commuter Train.

Scifi, Rocketry and Occult Silliness

Jack Parsons (1914-52) was a rocketry pioneer, a science fiction fan and a deeply committed occult follower of the aged Aleister Crowley. I recently read the 2004 edition of John Carter’s biography of the man, Sex and Rockets. The Occult World of Jack Parsons.

Despite such promising material, it’s not a very engaging or well-written book. It’s largely about rocketry and occultism, but neither field is contextualised very well. There’s lots of detail but not much in the way of a bigger picture. And Carter equivocates in his attitude to occultism. Sometimes he seems to believe in it, sometimes he makes fun of it, but he misses no opportunity to reproduce swaths of ceremonial babblings dreamed up by Crowley and Parsons. I’m not interested in what spells they chanted or whom they buggered (“strictly for magical reasons, my dear, I promise”). I want to know what they thought it would accomplish and what other people thought about them for it.

Occultism is exceptionally silly. Picture a robed Jack Parsons chanting Crowleyan invocations and masturbating onto a piece of parchment for several days while L. Ron Hubbard (as occult secretary) watches, takes notes and occasionally fakes cryptic messages From Beyond.

Hubbard was a con man. Eight months into his acquaintance with Parsons, the future founder of Scientology tired of humouring Parsons’s supernatural beliefs and disappeared with his host’s considerable savings and young girlfriend, the future Mrs. Hubbard.

This phrase from Parsons’s account of a vision he had in 1948 shows that he’d been reading Lovecraft: ”… went into the sunset … and into the night past accursed and desolate places and cyclopean ruins, and so came at last to the City of Chorazin. And there a great tower of Black Basalt was raised, that was part of a castle whose further battlements ruled over the gulf of stars.”

All in all Parsons comes across as a sad figure who bloomed early as a brilliant engineer and then got mired in occult confusion and deception.

On My Mind Right Now

  • My landscape students in Växjö did extremely well on the exam: 79% passed with distinction. And they were extremely kind in their evaluation of the course, which took place before the exam.
  • I’ve been put in charge of an on-line course in upplevelseproduktion, tourist site production, and so will spend the entire academic year of ’12/13 as an employee of the Linnæus University at 20-25% of full time. Yay!
  • My buddy Martin is sending me the manuscript of his new novel for test reading.
  • Fornvännen’s autumn issue just came from the printers with a lot of good stuff, and we’re handing the winter issue to the graphic designer next week. Same with Folkvett. Fornvännen’s spring issue for 2012 will soon appear on-line.
  • I’m a guest rogue, gästkanalje, on the next episode of the Kvack podcast.
  • Helping my mom getting the boat out of the water tomorrow at her summer house.
  • Jan Apel very kindly gave me his flint dagger database and I have identified five or six daggers that were deposited in lakes during the Early Bronze Age in my study area.
  • Christina Fredengren and I have decided to publish our studies of Bronze Age deposition in a co-written book.
  • I’ve received 10 kg of elk meat from Stensjö as an employment benefit from the Royal Academy of Letters. I’m also buying a free-range lamb from Borg, another of the Academy’s properties.

What’s on your mind right now, Dear Reader?

Prophets Who Conveniently Receive Divine Encouragement To Screw Kids

Let’s make a list of religious prophets! But only the ones who, having convinced their faithful followers that they spoke the word of God, suddenly received revelations to the effect that God totally wanted them to fuck children or adolescents. I know of three to start with. Let’s have some more, with references!

  • Muhammad, Islam’s Prophet. In sura 33:50, God told the Prophet: “We made lawful for you [several categories of women]. Also, if a believing woman gave herself to the prophet—by forfeiting the dowry—the prophet may marry her without a dowry, if he so wishes. However, her forfeiting of the dowry applies only to the prophet, and not to the other believers.”. He then married a 9-10-year-old.
  • Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s Prophet. When the Prophet was 37 (or possibly 25) God told him that polygyny would be a new covenant, that anyone rejecting it would be damned and that if his first wife complained about this then Christ would destroy her. Smith married at least nine teenage girls, the youngest of them aged 14.
  • David Koresh, Prophet of the Branch Davidians. Having established the Waco compound, the Prophet announced a new theology called the New Light, which prescribed polygamy for him only. He then promptly began sleeping with the 12 and 14-year-old daughters of two cult members.

Gothic Greetings From Velvet-Season Crimea

My dynamic friend and colleague Frans-Arne Stylegar has managed to liberate a respectable sum of Norwegian oil money to fund a collaboration with Ukrainian archaeologists under the direction of professor Igor Khrapunov. The first results of this collaboration have been two international conferences on the theme “Between Two Seas. Northern Barbarians From Scandinavia To The Black Sea”. I was kindly invited to take part in the second one, at the beach resort of Gaspra near Yalta on Crimea’s Black Sea coast, from which I now report to you, Dear Reader.

The reason that scholars in Ukraine and Norway might have something to talk about at all can be summarised in one word: Goths. Written sources allow us to follow this mobile and successful East Germanic-speaking ethnic group backward through time and across Europe from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire in the 6th century to the mouth of the River Vistula in the 1st century. Each step in this migration has a reasonable counterpart in an archaeological culture.

Prior to that, we don’t know if the Goths moved and, if so, whence. In the 6th century they believed that they had come from southern Sweden across the Baltic Sea. This idea of an early migration is not supported by the archaeology, and it should be noted that in the 6th century, all Germanic-speaking groups cultivated tribal mythology that placed their origins in Scandinavia. It is however uncontroversial that there have always been some level of contact between Sweden and the Vistula estuary throughout the millennia, particularly among the elite.

A more specific description of the conference’s theme might be “Evidence for contacts between the Baltic and the Black Sea shores in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries”. I don’t have much to add to this discussion, but I have been involved with Swedish cemeteries that have recently yielded finds of exclusive Black Sea glassware which aren’t widely known. So in addition to presenting a survey of this new evidence, I decided to summarise recent Scandinavian debate on the conference’s theme that Eastern colleagues may not be aware of.

The thinking habits of North-western and Eastern European archaeologists are very different. It’s probably fair to say that the most Westerners see the Easterners as theoretically backward, and most Easterners see the Westerners as quite extraterrestrial. At the conference I have been continually dismayed at the Easterners’ habit of making unproblematic equations between archaeological entities and historically documented ethnic labels. And perhaps worse: if the written sources name three ethnic groups, then my Eastern colleagues will look for three archaeological entities – not two, not four. Several presenters even believe that they can recognise ethnic groups from the shapes of people’s skulls, even though we are dealing with a period of extreme ethnic mobility, mixing and upheaval. And ethnicity is after all in a person’s mind, not in her bones. (Americans, please quit using that word as a euphemism for race!)

The great strength of the Easterners, in my opinion, is the value they place on an intimate knowledge of the source material. Few Scandinavian academics can compete with them on that arena. It is thus no surprise that the Scandinavians at the conference are mainly museum and excavation unit employees, with a few retired academics. Myself, I’m seen as a conservative and naïvely empirical scholar in some Scandinavian academic circles. Yet in this company I’m a radical theoretician.

Nevertheless, I wish to thank Frans Arne, Prof. Khrapunov and the Kingdom of Norway warmly for supporting my participation here. It is by far the most generous conference invitation I have ever received: “If you can show up at Simferopol airport on Wednesday 3 October with a prepared presentation, then we will take care of everything for you while you’re here.”

Yesterday we rode a bus and jeeps to the last place on the planet where Gothic is known to have been spoken natively (by an Asian-eyed 18th century fellow who looked like a Tartar): the mountaintop fastness of Mangup. It has at various times been the home of Goths, Orthodox monks, Muslim Tartars and, most exotically to me, Karaites, a group of tartarised Jews who follow the Torah but not the Talmud. Breathtaking view, beautiful High Medieval fortifications and church ruins, intriguing subterranean rooms that are difficult to date because all the culture layers have been cleaned out from them. Walking down the long path through the leafy woods past the Early Modern Karaite cemetery to the valley floor, my legs eventually began to tremble in a familiar post-coital manner.

My sumptuous hotel room has a balcony fronting on the Black Sea, in which I swim daily. We enjoy three great buffet meals a day. Post-Soviet recovery is apparent everywhere. The scent of evergreens is always on the wind. In the evenings my Russian colleagues sing beautifully in a moonlit bower with a bottle of local wine. Early autumn is known as the Velvet Season here in Crimea – between the oppressive summer heat and the rains of early winter. No wonder this is Eastern Europe’s Côte Azur.

London Weekend With Both The Young Dudes

Spent Friday though Sunday in London with Junior and his buddy, both 14. My original plan had been to find a gaming convention with both a video game track and a boardgame track. But failing that, I got tickets for the Eurogamer Expo at the Earls Court Convention Centre in London, which is all video games. My once substantial interest in such has long evaporated, but I kept the Saturday free for other activities.

In order to be sure to get the boys into the fair I had to buy a ticket for myself as well, and I checked out the place without finding anything that caught my interest. It was all in all a fine setup and well worth visiting for the aficionado. But three things were positively repellent: the dominance for first-person military simulations, the poor wifi, and the (admittedly few) booth babes in scanty clothing. A small but considerable proportion of the attendees were girls and young women. I find it really embarrassing that they should have to confront skinny bottle-bleached models in orange hot pants. And as a male I’m insulted by exhibitors who think I’ll be more interested in their products if their representatives show cleavage. By all means, more women in the booths and as attendees! But as knowledgeable and interested people, not as walking Barbie dolls.

Friday while the boys were revelling in the digital, I went to the British Music Experience, a pop music museum housed in an annexe to the O2 event arena. Saw a lot of pop memorabilia and video clips and had a good time on my own. Then I picked up the young gentlemen, had a proper curry dinner and played two games of Munchkin at the hotel.

Saturday we went to the Science Museum, spending most of our hours there checking out the Alan Turing Centennial Exhibition and rocketry history in detail and participating in Google’s Chrome exhibition with interactive music, robots drawing in sand and more. The boys didn’t want to leave. The music thing was particularly cool, with a large room full of acoustic instruments jacked up to computers and all controlled by a sequencer. Some instruments were programmed by people on the net and others by us who visited the exhibition. Fun! I was also thrilled to see a V2 and learn that those rockets were the first spacecraft — though only in order to reach England fast. Then we walked along the Embankment from Westminster to the Millennium Bridge and spent an hour mudlarking at sunset on the riverbed as it was successively revealed by the ebbing tide. It’s one big culture layer: mostly brick, roof slates and bone, but also pottery, clay pipes, glass, flint and more. Judging from the darkened but otherwise pristine state of the bones, an 18th century culture layer has recently been washed out here. Then fish & chips at a Lebanese place and reading until bedtime.

Sunday the boys went back to the fair and I had lunch with Ed, one of the finest students who dug at Skamby in ’05, and his charming wife Olivia. Good people, good times! Then I shepherded the young masters back home (subway, train, plane, bus, subway, commuter train), our only mishap being that airport security confiscated the bullet-shaped caps of the freebie memory sticks they had scored at the fair.