Hostname: page-component-7d8f8d645b-2q4x6 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-05-28T13:37:06.343Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Timber imports to Norse Greenland: lifeline or luxury?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 April 2023

Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir*
Department of Archaeology, University of Iceland, Reykjavík, Iceland (✉


The native trees of Greenland are unsuitable for larger construction projects or shipbuilding. Instead, the Norse colonists (AD 985–1450) relied on driftwood and imported timber. The provenance and extent of these imports, however, remain understudied. Here, the author uses microscopic anatomical analyses to determine the taxa and provenance of wood from five Norse Greenlandic sites. The results show that while the needs of most households were met by local woodlands and driftwood, elite farms had access to timber imports from Northern Europe and North America. By demonstrating the range of timber sources used by the Greenland Norse, the results illustrate connectivity across the medieval North Atlantic world.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Alix, C. 2009a. Driftwood, timber and shrubs! Wood used by Ruin Islander Thule at Skraeling Island, Eastern Ellesmere Island, Canada, in Grønnow, B. (ed.) On the track of Thule Culture from Bering Strait to East Greenland: proceedings of the SILA conference “The Thule Culture: new perspectives in Inuit prehistory”. Copenhagen, Oct. 26th–28th, 2006. Papers in honour of Hans Christian Gulløv: 149–65. Copenhagen: National Museum.Google Scholar
Alix, C. 2009b. Persistence and change in Thule wood use, in Maschner, H. & McGhee, O.K.M. (ed.) The northern world, AD 900–1400 : 179205. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.Google Scholar
Andersen, E. & Malmros, C.. 1993. Ship's parts found in the Viking settlements in Greenland: preliminary assessments and wood diagnoses, in Clausen, B.L. (ed.) Viking voyages to North America: 118–22. Roskilde: Viking Ship Museum.Google Scholar
Arneborg, J. 2015. Norse Greenland: research into abandonment, in Kristiansen, M.S., Roesdahl, E. & Graham-Campbell, J. (ed.) Medieval archaeology in Scandinavia and beyond: history, trends and tomorrow: 257–71. Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag.Google Scholar
Arneborg, J., Lynnerup, N. & Heinemeier, J.. 2012. Human diet and subsistence patterns in Norse Greenland AD c. 980–AD c. 1450: archaeological interpretations. Journal of the North Atlantic 3: 119–33. Scholar
Bishop, R.R., Church, M.J., Dugmore, A.J. & Møller, C.K.M.A.. 2013. A charcoal-rich horizon at Ø69, Greenland: evidence for vegetation burning during the Norse landnám? Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 3890–902. Scholar
Böcher, T.W., Holmen, K. & Jakobsen, K.. 1968. The flora of Greenland. Copenhagen: Haase & Son.Google Scholar
Brouillet, L. et al. 2010. VASCAN, the database of vascular plants of Canada. Available at: (accessed 11 March 2021).Google Scholar
Caudullo, G., Welk, E. & Miguel-Ayanz, J.. 2017. Chorological maps for the main European woody species. Data in Brief 12: 662–66. ScholarPubMed
Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
Dugmore, A.J. et al. 2012. Cultural adaptation, compounding vulnerabilities and conjunctures in Norse Greenland. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 109: 3658–63. ScholarPubMed
Edvardsson, R. & Rafnsson, M.. 2006. Hvalveiðar baska við Ísland Fornleifarannsókn á Strákatanga í Hveravík, Kaldrananeshreppi 2005–2006 (NV no. 12-06). Náttúrustofa Vestfjarða: Bolungarvík.Google Scholar
Fredskild, B. 1973. Studies in the vegetational history of Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland 198: 1245.Google Scholar
Frei, K.M. et al. 2015. Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland. World Archaeology 47: 439–66. Scholar
Gad, F. 1970. The history of Greenland: earliest times to 1700 (Volume 1). London: C. Hurst.Google Scholar
Grønnow, B. 1996. Driftwood and Saqqaq Culture woodworking in west Greenland, in Jacobsen, B. (ed.) Cultural and social research in Greenland 95/96: essays in honour of Robert Petersen: 7389. Nuuk: Ilisimatusarfik/Atuakkiorfik.Google Scholar
Guðmundsdóttir, L. 2013. Viðargreiningar á fornum kirkjuviðum frá 11. og 12. öld. Unpublished Master's dissertation, University of Iceland.Google Scholar
Guðmundsdóttir, L. 2021. Wood procurement in Norse Greenland (11th to 15th c. AD). Journal of Archaeological Science 134: 105469. Scholar
Guðmundsdóttir, L. 2022a. Utilisation of native woodland in Norse Greenland. Environmental Archaeology. First View. Scholar
Guðmundsdóttir, L. 2022b. Driftwood utilization and procurement in Norse Greenland. Acta Borealia 39: 138–67. Scholar
Haine, T.W.N. 2011. Greenland Norse knowledge of the North Atlantic environment, in Hudson, B. (ed.) Studies in the medieval Atlantic: the new Middle Ages: 101–19. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Scholar
Halldórsson, Ó. 1978. Grænland í miðaldaritum. Reykjavík: Sögufélag.Google Scholar
Hather, J.G. 2000. The identification of northern European woods: a guide for archaeologists and conservators. London: Archetype.Google Scholar
Hayeur-Smith, M. 2014. Dress, cloth, and the farmer's wife: textiles from Ø 172 Tatsipataa, Greenland, with comparative data from Iceland. Journal of the North Atlantic 6: 6481. Scholar
Hellmann, L. et al. 2013. Tracing the origin of Arctic driftwood. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences 118: 6876. Scholar
Ingstad, A.S. 1985. The Norse discovery of America. Oslo: Norwegian University.Google Scholar
Keller, C. 2010. Furs, fish and ivory: medieval Norsemen at the Arctic fringe. Journal of the North Atlantic 3: 123. Scholar
Krogh, K.J. 1982. Qallunaatsiaaqarfik Grønland: Erik den Rødes Grønland. København: Nationalmuseets.Google Scholar
Kuitems, M. et al. 2022. Evidence for European presence in the Americas in AD 1021. Nature 601: 388–91. ScholarPubMed
Larson, L.M. 1917. The king's mirror (Speculum regale—Konungs skuggsjá). New York: Twayne.Google Scholar
Ledger, P.M., Edwards, K.J. & Schofield, E.. 2014. A multiple profile approach to the palynological reconstruction of Norse landscapes in Greenland's Eastern settlement. Quaternary Research 82: 2237. Scholar
Ledger, P.M., Edwards, K.J. & Schofield, E.. 2016. The biogeographical status of Alnus crispa (Ait.) Pursch in sub-Arctic southern Greenland: do pollen records indicate local populations during the past 1500 years? Polar Biology 39: 433–41. Scholar
Ljungqvist, F.C. 2005. The significance of remote resources regions for Norse Greenland. Scripta Islandica 56: 1356.Google Scholar
Madsen, C.K. 2014. Pastoral settlement. farming and hierarchy in Norse Vatnahverfi, south Greenland. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Copenhagen.Google Scholar
Magerøy, H. 1993. Saga om austmenn: nordmenn som siglde til Island og Grønland i mellomalderen. Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget.Google Scholar
Malmros, C. 1994. Exploitation of local, drifted and imported wood by the Vikings on the Faroe Islands. Botanical Journal of Scotland 46: 552–58. Scholar
Magnusen, F. & Rafn, C.C. (ed.). 1838. Grönlands Hisoriske Mindesmærker. København: Det Kongelige Nordiske Oldskrift-Selskab.Google Scholar
Meades, S.J. & Meades, W.J.. 2019. Flora of Newfoundland and Labrador. Available at: (accessed 1 November 2021).Google Scholar
Mehler, N. & Eggertsson, Ó.. 2006. Gerðafræði tréíláta frá Stóruborg: Lokaskýrsla. Reykjavík: Fornleifastofnun Íslands.Google Scholar
Mooney, D.E. 2014. The use and control of wood resources in Viking Age and medieval Iceland. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Aberdeen.Google Scholar
Mooney, D.E. 2016. A ‘North Atlantic island signature’ of timber exploitation: evidence from wooden artefact assemblages from Viking Age and medieval Iceland. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7: 280–89. Scholar
Mooney, D.E., Pinta, É., & Guðmundsdóttir, L.. 2022. Wood resource exploitation in the Norse North Atlantic: a review of recent research and future directions. UBAS 13: 187208.Google Scholar
Nedkvitne, A. 2019. Norse Greenland: Viking peasants in the arctic. London: Routledge. Scholar
Nørlund, P. 1929. Norse ruins at Gardar: the episcopal seat of mediaeval Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland 76: 1170.Google Scholar
Ólafsson, G. & Albrethsen, S.E.. 2000. Bærinn undir sandinum. Rannsókn á skála í Vestribyggð á Grænlandi. Árbók hins íslenzka fornleifafélags 1998: 130–39.Google Scholar
Ólafsson, G. & Albrethsen, S.E.. 2016. Building phases at GUS and the myth about the Greenlandic centralised farm, in Turner, V.E., Owen, O.A. & Waugh, D.J. (ed.) Shetland and the Viking World: papers from the seventeenth Viking congress, Lerwick: 105–12. Lerwick: Shetland Heritage.Google Scholar
Pinta, É. 2018. Norse management of wooden resources across the North Atlantic: highlights from the Norse Greenlandic settlements. Environmental Archaeology 26: 209–21. Scholar
Robichaud, A., Ehrman, J.M., Mood, B. & Laroque, C.P.. 2012. Description and wood identification of native coniferous tree species in the Maritimes from dendroarchaeological material (MAD Lab Report 2012–17). Sackville: Mount Allison Dendrochronology Laboratory, Mount Allison University.Google Scholar
Roesdahl, E. 1995. Hvalrostand elfenben og nordboerne i Grønland. Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag.Google Scholar
Schoch, W., Heller, I., Schweingruber, F.H. & Kienast, F.. 2004. Wood anatomy of central European species. Available at: (accessed 3 March 2021).Google Scholar
Schweingruber, F.H. 1990. Microscopic wood anatomy: structural variability of stems and twigs in recent and subfossil woods from Central Europe. Birmensdorf: Eidgenössische Forschungsanstalt WSL.Google Scholar
Seaver, K.A. 1996. The frozen echo: Greenland and the exploration of North America ca. A.D. 1000–1500. Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press. Scholar
Smiarowski, K. 2010. E172 Tatsip Ataa midden excavation: 2009 & 2010 preliminary excavation report. New York: CUNY.Google Scholar
Storm, G. 1888. Islandske Annaler indtil 1578. Christiania: Grøndahl & søns bogtrykkeri.Google Scholar
Sveinsson, E.Ó. & Þórðarson, M (ed.). 1935. Eyrbyggja saga (Ísleknzk fornrit 4) Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag.Google Scholar
Vebæk, C.L. 1993. Narsaq: a Norse landnáma farm. Meddelelser om Grønland: Man and Society 18: 346.Google Scholar
Vésteinsson, O. 2014. Archaeological investigations in Igaliku: excavations in the meadow 20122013. Reykjavík: Fornleifastofnun Íslands.Google Scholar
Wallace, B. 2003. The Norse in Newfoundland: L'Anse aux Meadows and Vinland. Newfoundland Studies 19: 543.Google Scholar
Wallace, B. 2009. L'Anse aux Meadows, Leif Eriksson´s home in Vinland. Journal of the North Atlantic. Special Volume 2: 118–29. Scholar