Talking Failed Greenland Colony Blues

Studies and research into Norse archaeology of the Viking Age are really problematic.

Never mind the public misperception of the horny helmets. Never mind the controversy over whether Norse women were actual, in-the-flesh, straight-up Valkyries, or the occasional but collective aneurysm that surfaces every time a new re-enactor comes across this:


It goes much deeper.

There are excavated Norse sites dating to the Viking Age all over the place. South Uist, Buckquoy, Skaill, Birsay, Jarlshof.

Some were occupied for only a few years, a decade or two. A few, like South Uist, survived into the Middle Ages, more or less. But they ceased to be Norse pretty frequently, and, as noted, often ceased to be occupied at all. Not much is said about this: it is occasionally mentioned in the research that the settlement was abandoned after a certain point, but there is not even much speculation about why that might have happened. Usually, the archaeologists wax on ecstatically about the “pristine” context the settlement has, because nobody bothered to build over it.

Erik the Red “discovered” Greenland around 985 AD, when he was exiled from Iceland for three years for killing some people.  The colony survived for 500 years.

L’Anse Aux Meadows was used at least periodically for about twenty years and possibly a bit longer.


For some reason, though, whenever Greenland mentioned, it is always as “the failed colony on Greenland”. Always. There are whole National Geo specials about the failure.

Speculation as to why the New World site was not more utilized and exploited is the main topic for L’Anse Aux Meadows. Hardly anyone thinks about how amazing it really was that the Norse got there at all. Nope. The important thing is that they didn’t build a city the size of York, and spread their influence to every corner of the continent.


It seems to me that there is real and disturbing problem here and it is this: in those colonies where the assumption is that original inhabitants (the Picts or “Celtic people”) are presumed to have been slaughtered or forced to flee, the colony is deemed a success, regardless of how short the lifespan of the settlement was.


In those places where the original inhabitants were not the victims of genocide or displacement, the colonies are deemed failures.


If this is not indicative of some very deep-seated problems in how we view the past, then how else can we explain why the demise of a settlement that was in use for less than a quarter century is neither questioned or discussed, but a colony that hung on in very difficult conditions for twice as long as the United States has been a country is a “failure”?

It’s okay. You don’t have to answer right away.


I’ll wait.


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