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2012 Rhind lecture 6: “Gone but not forgotten” by Professor Kevin Edwards

Final of the 2012 Rhind Lectures by Professor Kevin Edwards entitled “On the windy edge of nothing: Vikings in the North Atlantic world – ecological and social journeys”.

On the windy edge of nothing: Vikings in the North Atlantic world – ecological and social journeys.
The 2012 Rhind Lectures by Professor Kevin Edwards
13 April to 15 April 2012

Lecture 6: Gone but not forgotten
By AD 1500, or perhaps for the greater part of a century prior to this, the Norse presence in Greenland seems to have ended. Explanations have been many and varied, but include environmental causes (e.g. Little Ice Age cooling), competition over resources and conflict with the Inuit, migration in the face of economic and agricultural pressures, and even the surprising (succumbing to slavery; the devastation caused by a plague of caterpillars). Changes in land use are evident but not always in agreement – reduced activity or even intensification may be found for the same period – but over the course of settlement there is isotopic evidence for a change in subsistence from terrestrial to marine food. Ívar Bárdarson’s mid-14th century description of Greenland suggests that the Western Settlement had already been abandoned by around 1350. When the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede arrived in Greenland in 1721, there were no Norse, no Europeans, but only ‘wild people’. The Norse in Greenland continue to fascinate, whether as a contested topic in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, or in providing the archaeological core in a bid for UNESCO World Heritage status.

The Lectures
The westward movement of Scandinavian settlers (the Norse, or Vikings of popular culture) across the expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean was nothing short of phenomenal. In less than two centuries, from c AD 800, a diaspora of largely Norse peoples, their animals, crops, architecture, and uninvited guests such as insects and weeds, had spread 2500 miles from Norway and the British Isles to North America (voyages mirroring the journeys of other Scandinavians eastwards to Byzantium and beyond by way of Russia). They carried with them a common language and ways of doing things – social organization, laws and, from c AD 1000, Christianity; events that are recorded in sagas and other writings. What remains of this culture today are the relicts of settlement – farms, houses, churches and wider landscape settings – plus a rich ‘fossil’ component that can be accessed through the study of pollen, seeds, insects, bones, soils, isotopes and DNA.

The North Atlantic islands settled by the Norse were largely unoccupied and the importation of European agricultural practices had an immediate and profound impact upon what were at that time essentially ‘pristine’ landscapes. Almost uniquely, this provides an environmental baseline against which to assess human impacts upon landscape and the speed of degradation in environmentally sensitive areas. There is additional complexity because the journeying took place against a backdrop of climate change from the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ into the ‘Little Ice Age’.

Intriguing events, adventures and personal stories abound here, including those surrounding the reality or otherwise of pre-Scandinavian ecclesiastics in the Faroe Islands and Iceland; nationalism, Nazis and Iceland’s Pompeii; the attempts to discover Vinland; and the last reliable written sources for Greenland, which refer to an iconic marriage in AD 1408 at Hvalsey church and the departure of a boat in 1410.

With a focus upon the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, Kevin Edwards presents a select narrative of past and recent writings, archaeological enquiry and scientific research concerning the Norse settlement of the North Atlantic. For historical times especially, he also features the individuals behind the investigations.

The Rhind Lecturer
Kevin Edwards is Professor in Physical Geography and Adjunct Chair in Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen and Adjunct Chair in Anthropology in the City University of New York. He has held senior positions in Archaeology and Geography departments in UK universities and visiting positions in Copenhagen, Minnesota and most recently Cambridge. He has published extensively in the fields of Archaeology, Geography, Palaeoecology and Quaternary Science. For the past decade, he has been Principal Investigator on two major interdisciplinary and multi-national Research Programme Awards funded by The Leverhulme Trust for studies of human-environment interactions in the North Atlantic area.

Recorded at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.