New research has provided the first archaeological evidence that the Norse occupants of Greenland were sourcing timber from North America.
At the time when Norse colonists occupied Greenland, AD 985-1450, the native trees of the island consisted exclusively of low-growing, crooked or twisted species like juniper, downy birch, and grey willow. These were suitable for firewood, production of artefacts, and small-scale construction, but would not suffice for larger construction projects and shipbuilding. Consequently, several medieval sagas include references to wood imported to the island. However, the volume of these imports has long been the subject of debate, as has their place of origin.
The recent study, carried out by Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir from the University of Iceland, analysed samples of wood from five sites in western Greenland: four medium-sized farms and one higher-status episcopal manor, all occupied between AD 1000 and 1400. Microscopic examination was used to determine what types of trees the samples came from, and therefore whether they were native to Greenland, imported, or driftwood. Driftwood was a valued material in Norse Greenland, and several of the species identified, including larch, spruce, and fir, could represent either imported timber or driftwood. However, there were others, such as hemlock and Jack pine, which did not grow in Europe in the early 2nd millennium AD and so must have been imported from the east coast of North America. Interestingly, these species were only found at the high-status site, perhaps indicating that imported wood was a luxury available only to the wealthy, while most people simply made do with local trees and driftwood.
Also significant is the fact that a number of the imported examples date to AD 1300-1400, several centuries later than the only Norse site currently known in North America – the 11th-century L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland (CWA 110) – indicating that contact with this region continued for longer than previously realised.
The study, which has now been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.13), offers an important insight into the significance of different types of wood in Norse Greenland, as well as wider connections across the medieval North Atlantic world. It confirms that the Norse had the ability, knowledge, and vessels necessary to bring timber from North America until well into the 14th century, if not longer.