Around 950 CE, Thorvald Asvaldson welcomed a son named Erik into the world. Red-headed Erik was born in Norway during the reign of Haakon the Good. But Norway would not be Erik’s forever home. Thorvald killed someone and as punishment, he was exiled from Norway.
Thorvald took his family to Drangar in northwest Iceland. The Vikings had begun settling on the island in the ninth century CE. By the time Thorvald and his family arrived in Iceland, competition for land had grown stiff. Erik the Red would be forced to leave Iceland in due course.
Erik the Red: A Legend is Born
Erik carved a path for himself by marrying well. He wed a local woman named Thjodhild Jorundardottir. They moved to Haukadale and started a family. Erik would have many children including Leif Erikson, Thorvald, Thorstein, and Freydis. It is not clear if Thjodhild was the mother of all of Erik’s children. Life in Iceland proved far from quiet and pastoral. The troubles began with a landslide that decimated the farm of Valthjof, Erik, and Thjodhild’s neighbor. Erik’s slaves were accused of intentionally starting the landslide.
Valthjof’s relative Eyjolf took revenge by murdering Erik’s slaves and Erik retaliated by murdering Eyjolf. He then moved away to another settlement in Iceland but trouble found Erik once more. After some dispute, he killed more of his neighbors. This time, the consequences were significant. Like his father before him, Erik was banished from his home this time by the Icelandic Althing in 982 CE.
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Erik took to the sea and found a place he had heard of before but never seen: the world’s largest island. This new place had an extreme environment with some 75% of it covered in ice and less than 25% of the land inhabitable. According to the sagas, in 985 CE, Erik convinced some three hundred Vikings in Iceland to go to this new place called Greenland. Twenty-five ships set sail. Eleven sank en route. Once in Greenland, the newcomers established two settlements on the island’s coast, named the Eastern and Western Settlements. According to the sagas, Erik settled in the Eastern Settlement.
Unlike Iceland, Greenland had been settled before the Vikings arrived. The Dorset people had been living in Greenland and the first Viking settlers found traces of their dwellings, boats, and artifacts when they arrived, according to the sagas. The Norse also found it a challenging environment, despite their idyllic name for the island. Most of Greenland was covered in ice, so Erik the Red and his followers settled in the few areas with vegetation. The Norse established farms near freshwater sources, where they would be able to farm and raise livestock.
Qassiarsuk: Home of Erik the Red?
According to the sagas, Erik the Red chose prime farmland in western Eriksfjord for his home. Erik’s farm came to be known as Brattahlið, meaning “steep slope.” As leader of the Icelandic colonists, Erik apparently held great authority. As such, Brattahlið became a place of significance and power in the new Norse world. The sagas cite Brattahlið as the location of one of the first churches in Greenland, following Thjodhild’s conversion to Christianity. But how much of the sagas can be believed?
As habitable land was limited in Greenland, curious explorers began poking around Eriksfjord in the nineteenth century CE. They found human bones and cloth fragments but nothing more. Then in 1926 Danish scholars Poul Nørlund and Aage Roussell uncovered a trapezoid-shaped coffin in Qassiarsuk. When they opened the coffin, it was empty. They continued digging and eventually found a body and a stone with a runic inscription. They had proof the Vikings had been in Qassiarsuk, but the grave was just the beginning of their discoveries.
In 1932, archaeologists led by Poul Nørlund with the aid of National Museum of Denmark and Swedish archaeologist Mårten Stenberger traveled to Greenland. In Eriksfjord, they found ruins of turf and stone and conducted large-scale excavations at the village of Qassiarsuk. Structures consistent with Norse architectural designs emerged from the earth. Initial excavations at Qassiarsuk revealed multiple farms and eighteen structures, including dwellings, barns, storehouses, and a church. The site is believed by many to be the legendary Brattahlið of the sagas and potentially the home of Erik the Red, though some skepticism remains.
Excavations at Qassiarsuk recovered a whetstone engraved with Thor’s hammer, suggesting that some of the Norse Greenlanders maintained connections with the Norse pantheon of Viking Age Scandinavia. However, Nørlund and Stenberger also found ruins of a church in Qassiarsuk. This church dated after the tenth century and cast doubt on Qassiarsuk’s association with Erik the Red. The Greenlandic conversion to Christianity was a major plot point in the sagas. Could there really have been a Brattahlið without Thjodhilde’s Church?
During the 1932 excavations at Qassiarsuk, Nørlund uncovered turf and stone walls that he interpreted as structures for temporary visitors along with tent rings and hearths. This evidence has suggested to some archaeologists that there may have been a possible assembly or Althing site at Qassiarsuk. Written sources record lawmen living at Brattahlið, casting doubt over whether it could have functioned as an assembly site. These sites allowed Norse chieftains to exert control over regional workings and consolidate their power, but their archaeological footprint is still under investigation.
Caribou, Seals, and Walruses…Oh My!
During the 1932 excavations, archaeologists also found a midden or trash deposit filled with animal bones. Greenland was different from medieval Scandinavia in many respects including its wildlife. In Greenland, walruses, harp seals, and harbor seals frequented the waters. Seal bones are abundant at excavations of Norse farms in Greenland. Middens also contain the bones of caribou, showing that they were hunted as well.
Bones of cattle, sheep, and goats attest to other uses of animals for dairy products and wool. Chemical analysis shows that the Norse adopted a more marine-based diet over time. Additional analysis has revealed that marine protein was consumed more in the Eastern Settlement than in the Western Settlement.
The Vikings also encountered large herds of walrus in Disko Bay. Hunting walrus proved a lucrative enterprise for the Norse, who were invested in the European ivory trade. However, archaeologists are not convinced that the pursuit of walrus was a primary factor in the Norse settlement of Greenland. Rather research has indicated that at the peak of Norse settlement in Greenland exports of walrus ivory to Europe were high.
Erik the Red and the End of the Viking Adventure in Greenland
In 1003 CE, a new wave of immigrants arrived in Greenland. They brought much to the island including a wave of powerful germs. Erik the Red succumbed to an epidemic that ravaged Norse Greenland just as a new millennium dawned. As a pioneering explorer, colonist, murderer, and leader, he is remembered as one of the last of the legendary Vikings. His place of rest remains a mystery.
In 1961, the construction of a school hostel in Qassiarsuk encountered human skulls. The bones were sent to a lab, where analysis confirmed that they were from the period of Norse colonization. Excavations began in earnest and archaeologists and physical anthropologists excavated a small turf church and a burial ground. They excavated 155 burials around the churchyard.
An analysis of the skeletal remains showed that men and women had been segregated with the women buried in the northern section of the churchyard and the men buried in the southern section of the churchyard. Archaeologists tested nine of the skeletons using radiocarbon dating. The bodies dated to c. 1000-1100/1200 CE. Several aspects of this discovery intrigued those familiar with the saga version of Erik the Red. It looked as if Thjodhilde’s church had been found at last. If so, could archaeologists expect to find Erik the Red nearby?
In the early 1400s CE, Greenland witnessed the wedding of Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson, the burning of a witch at the stake, and the disappearance of the Vikings from the island. Scholars have proposed many theories to explain the Norse vanishing act in Greenland. Most explanations look outside of Greenland to external catalysts. There was a volcanic eruption in the thirteenth century that cooled the climate, and increased sea ice and ocean storms.
Progressive sea level rise may also have changed life in Greenland. Around the same time, European nations opened trade routes with sub-Saharan Africa, where elephants added unprecedented competition to the ivory market. And then there was the plague which decimated Greenland’s European trade partners.
While any or all of these explanations may have spurred the Viking abandonment of Greenland, scholars remain divided as to whether there was a single dramatic event, a mass exodus, or a gradual population decline. In all cases, Erik the Red’s legacy in Greenland remains nothing short of legendary, and archaeology has only begun to detail the story of the Norse in Greenland.