Viking Settlers in Greenland Imported Wood from North America

Archaeologists have long suggested that medieval Scandinavian or Viking settlers in Greenland (AD 985-1450) relied on imported materials like iron and wood. However, the origin of this wood import has remained a mystery until recently. Now, scientists have used wood taxon analysis to determine that five Scandinavian settlements in Greenland imported, drifted, and distinguished local wood.

Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir from the University of Iceland examined wooden communities from five Scandinavian regions in Greenland, including four medium-sized farms and a high-status bishopric estate in West Greenland. All settlements were known to be inhabited between AD 1000 and 1400, based on radiocarbon dating.

Wood samples found in Scandinavian settlements in Greenland - Viking Settlers
Wood samples found in Scandinavian settlements in Greenland |Image Source: Guðmundsdóttir, L. (2023).

Previously, microscopic examination of the cellular structure of wood found in these areas by archaeologists identified the wood species or types and the results were published in the journal Antiquity.

The results showed that only 0.27% of the examined wood, including oak, beech, Eastern White Pine, and Red Pine, was definitively imported. The other 25% of the total wood examined could have been imported or wood from driftwood like Black Spruce, Larch, Yellow Birch, and Spruce.

As Eastern White Pine and Red Pine were not present in northern Europe at the beginning of the 2nd millennium, the pieces found in medieval contexts in Greenland must have come from North America. This confirms historical sources that suggest that Scandinavians obtained wood from the eastern coast of North America. Sagas indicate that explorers Leifur heppni, Þorleifur karlsefni, and Freydís all brought wood from Vínland to Greenland.

In addition to the possibility of importation, driftwood was also one of the most important raw materials for the viking settlers, making up more than 50% of their wood supply. Wood, including oak, beech, and Yellow Birch, possibly also came from Europe, and some may have been brought in as finished products like barrel staves, while reused ship timber may have been brought to Greenland for use in construction.

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