Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Records don't tell the whole story

One topic that pulled me into archaeology was my fascination with the Norse exploration of North America.  Early on as an undergrad I had grand designs centered on working in this field, only to have numerous professors and teaching assistants assure me that there was zero interest and no future in this area.  Granted, Norse sites in North America are anything but plentiful, and it would have been quite a niche field to get into.  But I do wonder sometimes...

What brought about this bit of reminiscence was a recent piece in Science Daily regarding the climate history of Greenland and the effect it had on the various cultures settled there.  Recent ice core samplings appear to give credence to the "Little Ice Age" theory regarding the demise of the Norse Greenland settlements, although the proximal factors likely included conflict with the Inuit populations (as well as an unwillingness to adopt "Skraeling" survival strategies), raids from European pirates, and the erosion of the soil from over-farming.  What is interesting is that the Norse Greenland settlements represented a literate society which provided some record (albeit sporadic) of social and environmental factors relevant to its eventual demise.  For example, the Landnamabok (Book of Settlements) describes famine winters in which "the old and the helpless were thrown over cliffs."

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