Pastoral Settlement, Farming, and Hierarchy in Norse Vatnahverfi, South Greenland

The Abstract and the PDF file have been kindly provided by Christian Koch Madsen who retains copyright. Christian can be contacted by email.

Christian Koch Madsen (2014) Pastoral Settlement, Farming, and Hierarchy in Norse Vatnahverfi, South Greenland. University of Copenhagen, Unpublished PhD thesis. 440 pp.


Around AD 1000 two settlements were founded in Greenland by Norse hunter-farmers: the larger Eastern Settlement in South Greenland and the Western Settlement ca. 500 km north in the inner parts of the Nuuk fjord region. The Norse settlers had a two stringed economy that combined pastoral livestock farming with cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses with extensive hunting, the latter also to sustain trade in wildlife luxury exports to Europe. This economy was based on a settlement pattern of dispersed farmsteads occupying the most fertile niches of the fjords, but extending the entire range of the landscape from the Ice Sheet to outer coast, and from lowland to highland, through specialized sites and shielings. This Norse settlement system lasted for around 450 years, the Western Settlement being abandoned in the mid- to late 14th century, the Eastern Settlement a century later.

In 2005, the Vatnahverfi Project was initiated, a research project under the National Museum of Denmark and coordinated by senior researcher Jette Arneborg, aimed at investigating regional level Norse settlement-, economic, and cultural patterns in a core area of the Norse Eastern Settlement: the Vatnahverfi. From 2005-2011 and in 2013, archaeological ruin group surveys were carried out in the Vatnahverfi, gradually expanding the research area to include the entire peninsula between the fjords of Igaliku Kangerlua and Alluitsup Kangerlua, an area of some 1560 km2. In these archaeological surveys, 129 Norse ruin groups – among them 18 newly discovered – and 798 individual ruins were DGPS-surveyed and uniformly documented. In 2010, a Ph.D.-scholarship was set up as part of the Northern Worlds initiative at the National Museum of Denmark to investigate this new Norse ruin group survey evidence.

The dissertation Pastoral Settlement, Farming, and Hierarchy in Norse Vatnahverfi, South Greenland concludes on these investigations and part of the Vatnahverfi-Project: the dissertation presents a detailed analysis of the Vatnahverfi survey evidence, as well as of comparative sites from elsewhere in the Eastern Settlement, a total of 1308 ruins divided on 157 ruin groups, abort one third of all the ruin groups registered in the Eastern Settlement. This evidence implies that the Vatnahverfi constituted a small community of an average ca. 225-533 people, inhabiting some 47 farmsteads and 86 shielings, some of the latter likely being small farmsteads at the peak of settlement. Most of these farmsteads seem to have been organized around eight evenly distributed larger farms or manors, the remainder probably being subsidiary farms belonging to cotters and tenants. Overall, analysis of population numbers, settlement- and land use patterns suggest a pastoral farming system heavily dependent on extensive landscape resources and intensive herding strategies.

New dates generated through the Vatnahverfi Project suggest that this community expanded in to stages: first settlement occurred just around AD 1000 in the inner and middle fjords, but only at locations near the fjords; the second state of expansion occurred around AD1050-1100, during which time the outer fjord, inland and highland areas were occupied. The new dates also suggest that settlement contraction began already from the mid-13th century AD. The contraction first involved abandonment of the outer fjord farmsteads, as well as closing down of small churches. From the late-14th century AD, shieling activities appear to have disintensified, and during the 14th century AD many farmsteads were apparently abandoned, although a few sites in primary farmlands continued into the 15th century AD.

As an explanatory model for this settlement development, the comparative case study of pre-modern Inuit farming has been used. Combined with ice core climate proxy evidence, the analysis suggests that a change towards a more intensive mode of farming was forced by climatic deterioration after AD 1250. Such a change was likely problematic for cottagers and tenants, which may have become more dependent on the large farms and manors. An analysis of food- and environmental securities within different societal strata at different times of settlement, coupled with a resilience theory perspective, suggests such deprivation in lower societal strata caused by poor access to labor and continued environmental stress could eventually have cascaded up through the system to seriously affect large farms and manors. If the Norse settlements in Greenland had one major problem, it was apparently shortage of people

Thesis (PDF file)