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Was it treasured Walrus Ivory that drove Vikings to sail thousands of kilometers to Greenland?

One of the puzzling mysteries of the Viking settlement during the Nordic Middle Ages may be solved by archaeologists armed with a pioneering scientific method and some ancient walrus tusks.

The purposes behind ancient Viking trade routes between Greenland and northern Europe have remained largely mysterious. According to ScienceNordic, researchers for years have asked why people from northern Europe uprooted their entire lives and sailed thousands of kilometers across the Atlantic sea to settle down in Greenland, a remote land with a climate that makes farming difficult. Scientists believe the answer lies in walruses.

In a study published in the journal World Archaeology , researchers describe how new tests on archaeological walrus tusks and bone from Greenland are identifying potential sources of ivory during the early Middle Ages. Some 1,000 years ago walrus tusks were an incredibly valuable commodity. Used to make luxury goods such as fine jewelry, delicate utensils, religious items and gifts for royalty, previous archaeological finds have revealed that ivory was a major trade item for the Greenland Vikings, or Norsemen.

Walrus cows and yearlings (short tusks).

Walrus cows and yearlings (short tusks). Photo courtesy USFWS. ( Public Domain )

Jette Arne Borg, study co-author and curator of the National Museum of Denmark tells ScienceNordic, “Walrus ivory has been crucial to life in Greenland and had a major part in trade.

“[It] has been valuable all the way back to Roman times, but people become really aware of it during the Viking era.”

Was it the lucrative goods—and not farming, as previously speculated—that drew people across the Atlantic Ocean to reach Greenland, and vaster sources of walrus? Researchers now have the key to unlocking the answer.

Reproduction of Brattahlíð Viking church in Greenland, Erik the Red's estate in the Eastern Settlement Viking colony

Reproduction of Brattahlíð Viking church in Greenland, Erik the Red's estate in the Eastern Settlement Viking colony. (Flickr, CC BY 2.0 )

Hunting the Walrus

Karin Margarita Frei, study leader and a senior scientist at the National Museum of Denmark explains, asking: “One big question is: ‘where were the walruses caught?’

“We’ve found walrus tusk ivory in many places, and we know that there must’ve been some trade. But, biologically speaking, Greenlandic and Icelandic walruses are similar, which makes it impossible to investigate these trade routes.

Previously developed by Frei, a breakthrough method of revealing where a person has lived and traveled is going to enable scientists to distinguish between walrus populations, which was previously impossible using traditional analysis. Frei used these strontium tests to show that the famous Bronze Age Egtved Girl was not from Denmark , where the girl had been buried.

The coffin and remains of the Bronze Age Egtved Girl.

The coffin and remains of the Bronze Age Egtved Girl. With strontium analysis, researchers found the high-status teen was born and raised far from her burial site in Denmark. Credit: Karin Margarita Frei, National Museum of Denmark

ScienceNordic reports, “Strontium is transmitted to us through food and water many countries have a unique strontium isotope signature, which makes it possible to track peoples’ movement throughout their lives. Unfortunately, strontium isotopes in seawater are the same throughout all the world's oceans, and so the method is useless to show where a walrus tusk came from.”

However, Canadian researchers found that examining the lead in walrus tusks revealed differences between populations. This discovery enabled Frei and colleagues to test the lead in the ivory to determine for certain where the walruses came from, enabling routes to be traced.

The Rise and Fall of a Walrus-Based Economy

Europe’s economy was based on luxury goods during the years of the Viking ivory trade, and business boomed as nobles and elites invested in prestigious gifts. Historians can site that the ivory of 520 tusks was valued at six years’ worth of taxes to the king of Norway, Greenland’s ruler. But between 1200 and 1400 AD the economy transitioned to one dependent upon bulk goods such as wool and fish, and the products of farming, writes science magazine Hakai.

The Jedburgh Comb, a comb found in Jedburgh Abbey

The Jedburgh Comb, a comb found in Jedburgh Abbey. The comb was carved around 1100 from walrus ivory and this side is decorated with a griffin and a dragon. The comb only about 5 cm wide by 4.34 cm long, and is made from a single piece of walrus ivory. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Thomas McGovern, archaeologist and co-author of the study told Hakai, “The Greenlanders were left stuck in the old economy, they were left producing for the prestige goods market.”

Thus as Europe moved away from high-priced luxury ivory and toward bulk goods, Greenland no longer held position as a lucrative trade destination, and incentive to move to or trade with the remote island may have disappeared.

This work on studying lead signatures in walrus ivory artifacts in museums throughout Europe is hoped to fill in gaps in understanding about early Viking trade, and expand knowledge of the ancient routes.

Featured Image: Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000 ( Public Domain )

By Liz Leafloor

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