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Hvalsey (Greenland)

Ancient Norse Farmstead and Church

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Ruins of Hvalsey Fjord Church in Greenland

Ruins of Hvalsey Fjord Church in Greenland

Frederik Carl Peter Rüttel

Hvalsey Fjord Farm refers to the archaeological ruins of a medieval Norse (Viking) farmstead, located in the Eastern Settlement of Greenland. The site's Danish name translates to Whale Island; it is called Qaqortukulooq (Qaqortoq Fjord, the "White Place") in the Inuit language, and archaeologists have given it a most prosaic name: Ruin Groups 083 and 083a.

Buildings at the main part (083) of the apparently high-status farmstead included an impressive church, a storehouse located on the beachfront, a feasting hall where the farmer entertained guests, and several large byres for cattle. Many of the more substantial buildings are still at least partially intact. The main cluster of buildings is comparable to ruins dated AD 1020-1200.

Hvalsey Church

Hvalsey Church is the most well known of the site components, because it was mentioned in a letter home by Icelandic visitors to Greenland in 1409. The letter records that following the proclamation of the wedding banns on three consecutive Sundays, Icelanders Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdotter were married in Hvalsey Church on September 19th (or maybe 16th, secondary sources vary) of 1408, with Brand Halldorstson, Thord Jorundarson, Thorbjorn Bardarson, and Jon Jonsson as witnesses.

Ominously, this letter is the last documented action in the Eastern Settlement before its abandonment, probably a few decades later.

Described in the sagas as the "loveliest church in Greenland", Hvalsey's ruins are still intact and being photographed by tourists from around the world.

Ruin Group 083a

One kilometer (~six tenths of a mile) east of the main farm and church is another cluster of buildings, located close to the inlet of Tasiusaq, and considered by the earliest excavators to have been the "dairy farm" for the main group. The farm buildings are on small dry rises on the north side of two small lakes. Eight Norse ruins, three outdoor cooking pits, an Inuit naanngisat ("hopping stones") and numerous Inuit ruins have here been identified by archaeologists.

Walls of the structures were made of rather small stones and solid turf blocks: the eastern part was likely a barn or residence, the western part a byre, judging by the placement of a stone slab used as a stall partition. In front was a courtyard paved with flagstones.

Two large outdoor cooking pits were found, the largest of which measured 140 centimeters (55 inches) at the rim, and 65 cm (26 in) at the base. The sides of this pit were straight and lined with flat slabs; the bottom contained a 5 cm (2 in) thick layer of charcoal.

Artifacts recovered from the "dairy farm" were very sparse, and included a spindle-whorl of soapstone, a line-sinker for fishing, and a handful of iron nail fragments. Based on the 2004 archaeological investigations, group 083a seems to have predated the main 083 group: its building style is comparable to the Narsaq house radiocarbon dated between AD 855-1155. Researchers suggest that rather than being a dairy farm component of the main farmstead, 083a was an earlier farmstead. The paucity of artifacts may have resulted from the inhabitants moving all their goods to the new farmstead.

Archaeological Research

Apparently abandoned by the Norse in the mid to late 15th century, Hvalsey Fjord Farm was visited in 1721 by the missionary Hans Egede, at the behest of the Danish king, who wanted to know if there were any isolated Norse communities left in Greenland. Egede excavated a few pits in the region, and reported back that although he found no Norse, the Qaqortoq fjord ruins were currently occupied by Inuit villagers.

In 1935, extensive excavations were conducted at Hvalsey Fjord by Danish architect Aage Roussell, and again by K. Thorvildsen in 1964. In 2004, Jette Arenborg and colleagues conducted additional tests, including a new survey of the remaining ruins and focusing on Group 083a.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Viking Age, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Arneborg J, Larsen F, and Clemmensen N-C. 2009. The “Dairy Farm” of the Hvalsey Fjord Farm. Journal of the North Atlantic 2(sp2):24-29.

Gladwell M. 2005. The Vanishing: Review of Jared Diamond's Collapse. The New Yorker: January 3, 2005.

Lynnerup N. 2009. The Human Skeletons from Herjólfsnes. Journal of the North Atlantic 2(sp2):19-23.

Mikkelsen N, Kuijpers A, Lassen S, and Vedel J. 2001. Marine and terrestrial investigations in the Norse Eastern Settlement, South Greenland. Geology of Greenland Survey Bulletin 189:65–69.

Schofield JE, Edwards KJ, and Christensen C. 2008. Environmental impacts around the time of Norse landnám in the Qorlortoq valley, Eastern Settlement, Greenland. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(6):1643-1657.

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