Learning From the Viking Age

Studying climate shifts in the Arctic and how people coped.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

No one would ever call the Vikings environmentalists.

For several centuries after they arrived in Iceland in 874 AD, they began leveling trees and overgrazing their sheep, cattle and pigs, laying waste to much of the once productive land.  Moreover, this serious erosion took place during a time of significant climate change, including a late warming period not unlike what the world is experiencing today.    

“The Vikings are poster children for environmental destruction,” said John Steinberg, a research scientist at the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “They were burning and chopping as fast as they could, and during a time of variable climate. What they did really came back to haunt them. That’s why it’s important that we understand how the environment responded. It can help predict what might happen to us.’’

Steinberg and his collaborators, Heather Trigg, also of Fiske, and Douglas Bolender, visiting professor of anthropology at Kenyon College, are analyzing ancient pollen samples from the Viking Age Iceland, unearthed from two selected farmsteads in Skagafjörður, an area in the north. The scientists want to figure out what environmental changes occurred during that period, and why.

“Because the Arctic had greater shifts of climate during past periods of climate change and the environments are more easily degraded, it may be one of the best past examples of how people dealt with the dramatic climate changes we are now seeing across the globe,”  Bolender said.

The National Science Foundation is funding the work with $94,902, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. “Six hundred years ago climate change and corresponding environmental destruction caused conflict and strife in Viking Age Iceland,’’ Steinberg said.  “Our study provides an example of conflict over dwindling resources that politicians and policy makers should heed. If we want to understand how the people in the Arctic behaved during this global warming period we are in now, this is the kind of research that is going to tell us , because that’s what the Vikings had to deal with.’’

The project is “creating jobs for aspiring researchers and planning the future of our planet,’’ Bolender added. “What better way to stimulate our economy?’’

The pollen, from birch, willow and mountain ash, the most common trees found in Iceland, is buried in different layers of soil combined with volcanic ash.  Researchers are able to reliably date the pollen based on recorded knowledge of when the volcanoes erupted. The layers are different colors, the result of volcanic residue, and each color represents a different time period.

“We are using the ash to date the pollen because we know when the volcanoes blew,’’ Steinberg said.  “The layers are different colors: black from 850, before the Vikings got there; green, from when the Vikings arrived; grey, from 1000; and there is a white one from 1104.  These are thin layers of volcanic glass.  Using them, you can get a perfect picture of the soil history.  When you combine these thin layers of volcanic ash interspersed with soil, you have a soil profile that reads like a book.’’

More importantly, it also gives scientists a clearer picture of when and how the Vikings began to alter their damaging behaviors.  “We can see what the environment was like before the Vikings arrived, how it changed, and how they eventually responded to the destruction with more sustainable practices,” Bolender said.

Researchers are counting and identifying pollen grains, creating an environmental reconstruction of how these specific plant communities changed over time based on climate conditions and human activities, such as excessive clearance of the forests. 

“We’ve now counted more than 25,000 pollen grains and each grain was extracted from the soil,’’ Trigg said.  “We have pollen techs who sit there in front of a microscope identifying each grain of pollen.  In general, we’ve identified more than 100 different pollen taxa in Iceland, which is not known for its pollen diversity. We have found that the pollen from weedy plants gives us a better picture of the local environment.”