Evaluating Perspectives on the Collapse of Viking Greenland

For centuries archeologists have hypothesized about the causes of the demise of the Greenland Vikings. Most theories are relatively similar, though there are many points that archaeologists disagree on: chiefly perspectives on adaptation, and the roles of environment, economy, and identity.

Climate change has come into focus, with some describing it as the main cause of the collapse while others seeing a more minor role. Archaeologist, Matthew Mason argues that climate change was the most significant reason for the Greenland Vikings disappearance. Mason states that the initial Medieval Warm Period was misleading, causing the Vikings to adopt farming, which was unsustainable in the Little Ice Age (Mason 2018). However, archaeologist Nicolas Young, believes that blaming climate change is not only an oversimplification, but ethnocentric. Young explains that as the Medieval Warm Period only affected parts of Europe it is ethnocentric to give it a central role. Young believes that economics mainly underlie the collapse as the climate was cold and harsh the entire time the Vikings lived in Greenland (Connor 2015).

Another economic argument suggests that an over reliance on tusk ivory – thought to be the main item of trade with Europe – led to the  Greenland Vikings demise. Some archaeologists believe that Russian ivory coming to the market in the 14th century devalued the Viking ivory. Furthermore, as climate worsened, storms made Walrus hunting harder, leading to an ivory shortage and declining profits (Kintisch 2016).

A less popular perspective, highlighted by Mason and Connor, is the role of religion in the collapse. Connor explains that resources were directed to the building of Churches and Cathedrals, led to deforestation and soil erosion (Connor 2015). Mason argues that the Vikings rejected hunting as outdated and associated it with Paganism, though it sustained the Inuits. This rejection lead to food shortages and environmental destruction from failed farming attempts (Mason 2018).

Mason argues that there was an “unwillingness to move away from practices of European identity” and this inflexibility in identity doomed the Vikings. The idea of the Viking’s inability to adapt is one of the most popular theories. Mason argues that the Vikings inability to adapt is evident in their failure to switch from crops and farming methods meant for richer, European soil (Mason 2018). However, archaeologists Arneborg and McGovern believe that the vikings did partially adapt. McGovern uses the contradiction in Seal hunting as evidence: although the Vikings did not use spears to hunt like the Inuits, appearing to reject this adaptation, they did hunt seal extremely successfully even as climate changed (CUNY Media 2011). Arneborg finds evidence for adaptation in the Viking’s rejection of livestock practices when they became profitless in the worsening climate (Kintisch 2016).

Whether it was environment, economics, ingrained identity, adaptation, or some yet-to-be-discovered cause, the story of the Viking collapse provides Archaeologists with a model to study the rise and fall of societies. The ultimate cause of the demise of the Greenland Vikings may serve as a warning and framework for directing our own thinking on sustainability and adaptation in modern societies

Above is an image exemplifying the harsh climate of Greenland today, comparable to the environment of the Viking period.

Above is an image exhibiting ruins of Greenland’s Hvalsey Church, an example of one of the religious buildings built as highlighted by Steve Connor.

Reference List

Connor, Steve

2015 Geologists have all but ruled out claims the Medieval Warm Period accounts for Greenland’s colonisation from 986AD. Electronic document, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change-did-not-force-vikings-to-abandon-greenland-in-15th-century-a6761026.html, accessed November 11th, 2018.

CUNY Media

2011 How Nature Vanquished the Vikings of Greenland. Electric document, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TncIO4SRBic, accessed November 11th, 2018.

Eli Kintisch

2016 Why did Greenland’s VIkings disappear? Electronic document, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/11/why-did-greenland-s-vikings-disappear, accessed Nov 6th, 2018.

Mason, Matthew

2018 What Environmental Data Can Tell Us about the Greenland Vikings. Electronic document, https://www.environmentalscience.org/environmental-data-greenland-vikings, accessed November 5th, 2018.

Image Sources 

Stockinger, Nther and Spiegel

2013, Ruins of Hvalsey Church, Hvalsey, Qaqortoq, Greenland. Electronic document, https://abcnews.go.com/International/archaeologists-find-clues-viking-mystery/story?id=18183196, accessed Nov. 11th, 2018.

Kelly, Gwyneth

2015, Minutes. Electronic document, https://newrepublic.com/minutes/125135/glaciers-reveal-greenland-wasnt-warm-vacation-vikings-all, accessed Nov. 11th 2018.

Additional Sources

1. https://newrepublic.com/minutes/125135/glaciers-reveal-greenland-wasnt-warm-vacation-vikings-all

2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-greenland-vikings-vanished-180962119/

Crystal Skull Forgery

In the mid 1800’s Crystal skulls began to circulate, some even finding their way into museums – claiming to be made by pre-Columbian peoples. Although these allegedly magical artifacts raised suspicion among historians and archaeologists for almost a century, they remained in museum collections. However, in 1992 one notable example, The Smithsonian Skull, was donated anonymously to the British Museum, and this event finally moved American and British archaeologists to begin research that led to the debunking of these mysterious artifacts.

Though the Smithsonian Skull was donated anonymously, many other similar crystal skulls were traced back to the 19th century French antiquity dealer, Eugene Boban. Boban had sold the skulls to art dealers claiming they were ancient aztec artifacts, exploiting the imagination of the ignorant buyers. With this forged pre-Columbian provenance, the skulls found their way into both the British Museum and The Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

As research on these skulls commenced, the initial evidence of falsification was the fact that the Smithsonian skull had come from an undocumented site. Furthermore, as crystal can not be carbon dated, no absolute dating method had ever been used to test the authenticity of the skulls. However, archaeologists used relative dating to compare the style of real Aztec skull symbolism to the crystal skulls, and a discrepancy was found in representation of teeth. In the crystal skulls, teeth had been created in linear, symmetrical rows – unlike the more natural pattern of the Aztec designs. Archaeologists also used relative dating methods to compare surface etchings. On the surface of an authentic, Aztec, crystal goblet, etchings showed variance – signs of a handcrafted object. However, the crystal skull etchings showed the use of a rotary wheel, which was only introduced after the Spanish Conquest. The relative date Archaeologists had begun to consider of at least the late 1500’s, was then cross checked using an X-ray diffraction system. The researchers found leftover residue of silicon carbide: an abrasive material used for smoothing in stone carving workshops beginning in the 20th century. Lastly, iron-rich chlorite mineral traces that were found in the crystal of the skull suggested that the crystal material wasn’t even naturally occurring in the Yucatan region, but rather from Brazil or Madagascar.

    The story of the Smithsonian Skull highlights the importance of empiricism in archaeology. Though Babon did sell fake artifacts, he had also traded real ones – making it likely that he knew he was selling forges, but let his personal bias and motivations for profit allow him to look past this. On the other hand, British and American researchers had to look past their own possible, natural biases in order to question the authenticity of the crystal skulls – which up to this point had been ignorantly assumed to be pre-Columbian. Lastly, this series of events shows the importance of the use of multiple dating methods to cross check, and how relative dating can become crucial in artifacts that do not allow absolute dating methods.

The image above is an authentic pre-Columbian skull mask carved in stone from the 1st century AD.

The image above is the Smithsonian Skull sent to the British Museum in 1992.

Work Cited
“Ancient Costa Rica Stone Underworld Skull Deity Death Mask.” Busacca Gallery , www.busaccagallery.com/catalog.php?catid=157&itemid=6383.

Everts, Sarah. “Crystal Skulls Deemed Fake.” CEN RSS, American Chemical Society, 4 Mar. 2013, https://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i9/Crystal-Skulls-Deemed-Fake.html

“Is This Crystal Skull Really Ancient?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/history/a-real-crystal-skull/.

“The Smithsonian Skull .” Chemical and Engineering News , https://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i9/Crystal-Skulls-Deemed-Fake.html

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