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Harbours in the North Atlantic (AD 800–1300): the investigation of harbours in the Shetland Islands and Greenland

DFG Projekt-SPP-Häfen: PD Dr Natascha Mehler, Joris Coolen MA, Prof. Dr Claus von Carnap-Bornheim

The project Häfen im Nordatlantik/Harbours in the North Atlantic (800-1300) (HaNoA) is part of the Special Research Programme Harbours from the Roman Iron Age to the Middle Ages. The archaeology and history of the regional and trans-regional transportation systems (SPP 1630), sponsored by the German Research Foundation. Two field campaigns were undertaken in 2014, in the Shetland Islands and Greenland.

The research in the Shetlands in May concentrated on Unst, the northernmost of the Shetland Islands. Thanks to the many years of investigations by the Shetland Amenity Trust and the University of Bradford, the state of research on the Viking Age settlements is particularly good, although there has not yet been any specific investigation of their associated harbours. Most of the Viking Age longhouses on Unst lie in the immediate vicinity of the coast, as do the longhouses in the settlements of Underhoull and Sandwick, which were investigated within the framework of the HaNoA project. Despite the short distance between them, the topography of the two sites is very different, a fact that clearly demonstrates the problems encountered in many North Atlantic harbours. Lundawick Bay near Underhoull provides a relatively sheltered natural harbour, whereas the settlement at Sandwick lies on a very exposed, wide sandy beach. However, the numerous fish remains, brought to light during the excavation of a longhouse dating to the 12th/13th centuries, show that the inhabitants of the latter settlement depended on good access to the sea.

At both Underhoull and Sandwick, a large number of aerial photographs were taken from a kite, which then permitted the generation of high-definition models of the terrain. These models reveal an archaeological landscape of great potential with structures dating from the Late Iron Age to modern times clearly visible on the surface. In addition to the large-scale models of the terrain, detailed photographs were taken of individual structures, especially the boathouses. From the geo-archaeological point of view, the dynamics of coastal erosion and sedimentation are of particular interest. Today, there are sandy beaches and dunes at both Sandwick and Underhoull. Observations from soil profiles and computer simulations of these and other beaches on Unst are expected to demonstrate the processes that led to their present appearance and show how the coast may have looked in the Viking Age and Middle Ages.
    Underwater archaeological investigations at Underhoull revealed a loose accumulation of stones, in a straight line more than 50 metres long and several metres wide, in the southern part of the bay: overgrown with abundant seagrass, it is also clearly visible on the aerial photographs. It is a man-made structure, possibly the remains of a stone landing stage. It may also have been connected with the construction or operation of the nearby medieval church at Lund, where there are also the tombstones of two 16th century Hanseatic merchants from Bremen.

The second field campaign was in August, in southern Greenland, where there were numerous 10th to 15th century settlements of the so-called Norsemen, a group of people who had immigrated mainly from Iceland and Norway. Sites were investigated at Qaqortukulooq (Hvalsey), Igaliku (Garðar), Igaliku Kujalleq (Undir Höfði) and Qassiarsuk (Brattahlíð). The weather was perfect during the three-week stay, which, unfortunately, was not an advantage for aerial photography from a kite. Consequently, many of the ruins were photographed and recorded from the ground instead. Of special interest are the so-called warehouses, a type of building only found on Greenland, that seem to have existed in every harbour. These dry-stone buildings, up to 13 metres long and 4 metres wide, often stand on rocky outcrops that are accessible from the water or are located in the immediate vicinity of a good landing place. The warehouses at Igaliku are particularly impressive. The use of warehouses for the temporary storage of goods for exchange and trade is recorded in the written texts of the sagas about the settlement of Greenland.
3D model

3D model of a warehouse ruin at Igaliku, Greenland. It measures 13.5m by 4m and was built up against the rocks. (Illustration: Ronny Weßling and Joris Coolen)


The harbour at Igaliku, the former Episcopal residence Garðar, is a good example of how the topography, and consequently the operation, of medieval harbours can only be identified and recorded with interdisciplinary cooperation. The collaboration between underwater archaeology and geomorphology showed that an offshore island, on which the ruins of a warehouse are standing, was still attached to the mainland in the Middle Ages and probably formed a natural landing stage. However, this hypothesis still has to be confirmed by further, more precise, depth measurements and a critical re-examination of the existing models of the rise in sea level during the Holocene.
Aerial View

View of the harbour at Igaliku, Greenland. There are the remains of medieval warehouses on two of the three off-shore islands: the small island on the left was attached to the mainland in the Middle Ages (Photograph: Ronny Weßling).


The first phase of the HaNoA project will be completed in mid-2015 with a final field campaign in Iceland. An application has been made to the German Research Foundation for an extension of the project with an evaluation and publication phase.

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