..... GREENLAND ..... ..... EXPEDITION ..... .ORG
1975 UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS GREENLAND EXPEDITION

Climbing from Stordalens Havn in Cape Farewell Region

ARCHAEOLOGY : VIKING SETTLEMENTS

Personal Account - by Susannah Clark

 

 

On August 6th 1975, Pete Hunt and I set out on a journey into the Greenland wilderness in search of the Viking settlements that had been deserted in the 15th Century. The whole topic of these settlements has been well covered by the specialists: our investigation is unlikely to shed much new light on the subject.

Our objectives were two-fold. Firstly, with the help of our friend Karl Christenson, we were able to locate some of the new sites listed by Ove Bak. Secondly, as we were travelling on foot over rough ground and our loads were bound to be restricted, we hoped in our basic approach to get a closer feel for the land those early settlers inhabited and their way of life. Our food was to be supplemented by what the land offered, our luxury a flysheet with which we made shelter along the grey skirts of the seaboard, shores of stillness: the derelict stone circles that intermittently along our way betrayed the erstwhile presence of a summer campsite of the Greenlander, the more distant memory of the nordbo, when streams sounded like the laughter of fair-haired children, by the dull lapping of waves.

We set off up the valley from Stordalens Havn in an afternoon of warm sunshine and blue skies, the Greenland summer. The trip was to be characterised by its fine weather and the inevitable fly and mosquito. Around us was the smell of scrub and berry, occasional birdsong and running water; always the sounds of wind and running water in the northlands, echoing downstream from the high places. Above us loomed the spectacular mountain scenery in which we had climbed during the preceding seven weeks: blank rock walls, toppling pinnacles, falling glaciers, and brilliant snowfields. We were headed however for the milder land that rolls down seawards from these hills, where the Norse settlers would find rich fisheries, grazing land for their sheep, and occasional patches of soil offering a small yield: these were the factors which made the Viking settlements possible. We reached the col above Stordalens, and in the fading light found a large boulder against which we set our flysheet for the night. Outside it was cool and the sky filled with the unchanging stars, gazed at through the ages. I lay back on a bag of soft scrub and we thought how our walk was now underway.

In early morning we were awakened by the first mosquito, to the smell of berries and a light dew on the scrub. Slowly the full life of the morning entered us as we tossed off our slumbers and made an easy breakfast - another fine warm day. Reindeer moss made good tinder and adding willow scrub to this we soon had a good fire leaping skywards; this got rid of the mosquitoes for a while. Then followed a hard hot descent to Tasiussaq lake, down over lawns of thick crowberries, and lower still the ripe bilberries that tasted good. At last - the sea and the Norse coastlands! As we neared, the breeze rose off the water and rid us of the flies - a fresh sea smell and, out over the bay, gentler green hills rolling down to windy headlands, the sun dazzling on the waves. A short way from us we saw Karl Christenson and his family turning the hay behind his sheep farm; he was the last Dane to settle and set up a farm in Greenland, and we walked down to the field to see him.

Karl Christenson always gave us the most genuine welcome whenever we visited him, and we spent many hours speaking with him, in broken English, signs and drawings. To us he was of special interest: he was a modern settler who was enduring many of the hardships inherent in the Norse tradition. He had some luxuries, such as for lighting and warmth, a radio to keep him in touch with the outside world, and a supply of wood obtained when the American airbase at Narsassuaq was partially dismantled; for wood has a particular value in this almost treeless land. But his struggle to carry on is a late, perhaps the last, chapter in the story of the nordbo. Even his farm is a continuation of their tradition, set on the site of an old Viking homestead, with a small patch of fertile soil of no great size.

Like the early settlers, his hardest time was the initial period of load carrying, building and starting up. For a year and a half he lived in a tent and a small hut while he built his home. In the winter the snow was several metres deep - he showed us a picture 'as high as this house,' he said and it was. He now lives quite comfortably in a modest farmstead, well furnished. Each year he retains 300 sheep; the rest are slaughtered in September. His pasturage is very large, and even in the high coires where we had our advance camps we found that sheep tracks were often in evidence, restricted only by the sea, the high hills, and the largest rivers. Karl had tried raising yaks, but the pasture was too mean. In the summer he gets as much fish as he can from Tasiussaq inlet, bringing in good quantities daily in two small nets. Once he gave us 6 arctic sea trout which we ate in the mountains, and they tasted incredibly good. Along with seals that he shoots, he dries and salts the fish for the winter when the sea has frozen over to five feet or more, except for out in open water where herring can still be caught if necessary. In summer he grows radishes, and in winter he hunts fowl in the hills.

There was, we felt, a continuity over the years about this way of life, a real link with the north folk who had passed and whose traces we sought. But it is a life of strong contrasts, a real frontier struggle, epitomised by the polar bear skull on the mantelpiece shot from 25 yards outside his house. After the fine scenery, plentiful fish and good smells of the long summer days, come the dark and severe winter, the unexpected storm, the impossible mountains that rise towards the ice-cap beyond the small dwelling and its strip of land. Continuity was always precarious here and ceased in the fifteenth century with the inexplicable disappearance of the nordbo. There was probably a climatic change that made the ground untenable, the winters growing longer and colder. They passed unrecorded out of history. Karl Christenson recognises this precarious struggle and is not sure how long he can go on. Around him in the pastures he can see the ruins of a tradition of which he may be the last inheritor.

We talked into the late afternoon so that evening came upon us almost unnoticed. We said goodbye to Karl and set off in the failing light, watching an amazing red sunset over the western waters, passing strings of drying fish hung out over the crimson-coloured waters, sea and sky burning darkest red and then becoming almost indistinguishable in the darkness of night.

 

 

The next day we cut over the hills to the cod-filled Amitsuarssuk fjord, where flotillas of fish inexplicably queued up to be caught on a length of string and an improvised piece of bent wire. It was a detour of some miles in order to locate a site with a secretive craggy cave. It was a day to be remembered, overcast, humid, and pestilential with clouds of small-fly that got in hair, up nostrils, down throat, and under clothes, generally making the simplest activities nearly intolerable. Moreover, when we identified Site 100 it seemed to be, in Pete's immortal and disillusioned words, 'Just a pile of old boulders.' The supposed walls of what Herr Bak believed to be a possible farm seemed to be simply the banks and boulder debris of an old stream channel. It was a disappointment. However, as a breeze rose to give some relief from the insects, overhead an eagle came across the fjord to see what we were about. We pitched our flysheet on a nice site by the stream, ate, and went to sleep. Next thing it was daybreak again, the short northerly night was over and the sun had returned. We set up a camp over the hills at another sea-inlet also called Tasiussaq, a pleasant spot where bilberries were plentiful and there weren't as many flies. I tried tickling the trout, but was always too quick or too slow. We enjoyed some sunny weather during our protracted dalliance here among the bilberry fields. But once again, Site 48 this time failed to materialise, although certainly this was a hospitable place in which to have settled.

However one evening, after retracing our steps to recover some food we had dumped from our heavy packs, we were walking hard to return to our flysheet before dark. We were stumbling through the thick undergrowth, and keeping an eye out for a 'small farm'. I got soaked a couple of times, falling in a stream and a boghole. The sunset had passed and the last light was failing in the west. Just as we had concluded we would never find it, I stumbled across the outline of a small house. It was only 20 ft by 8 ft and lay some 200 yards east of the valley river. It was sheer good luck, and a turning point. Pulling aside willow scrub we found the regular pattern of a stone wall, and there at dusk as we uncovered growth of many years we found the small farmstead. An intensity and enthusiasm had descended on us unexpectedly. As hastily as we arrived, we pressed on into the night leaving the lonely farm behind, and the stars were over the icy peaks. A shooting star fell out of the darkness. Long after dark we stumbled back to the flysheet. A mystery and calm had come down on us, and we fell contently asleep.

With little remaining food except what we could gather, we now intended to push southwards to the well-preserved ruins at Herjolfnaes, opposite Frederiksdal, and to the nearby 'Harbour of Sand' from whose beach the Vikings are believed to have set out on their perilous journeys back to Scandinavia. Our good fortune was holding out and the following day was the hottest yet as we set off southwards, down the long peninsula. A few miles south of the bilberry campsite we found several eskimobebyggelse; they were probably fishing huts, close by the shore. It was a fine day by the sea and as we gained height we had a great view of a pattern of islands and blue lakes stretching south to the Atlantic and its mighty blue-white icebergs, everything sparkling in the sun. This was very wild country. Huge valleys and untrodden mountains fell sharply to the sea. At a flatter spot we came down upon the indistinct ruins of a large settlement, Site 49, on a raised area 50 yards up from the shore. There were several buildings, none particularly well-preserved, at this the sole hospitable spot before the coastline became steep and broken. Nearby we camped, Pete lit a woodfire that burnt through the dusk, I stuffed my bed with crowberry scrub for a good night's sleep. The coast became rougher and next day, while lowering our rucksacks down an awkward rocky corner, we lost them both over a two hundred foot cliff. They came to rest breathtakingly close to a further drop down into the fjord and we clambered down to retrieve the contents that were scattered over the hillside. The long day grew overcast and with tired bodies we finally arrived at the great sandy arena which rolls down to 'Sandhavn'.

That day the bay at the very tip of Greenland seemed indeed a dreary place that might have seen the separation of loved ones, sad farewells, and uncertain departure over the ice and waters. As it got darker we pressed on, with summary searches for a couple of sites revealing nothing. The final miles to the south were particularly bleak and desolate, just the wind and the grass and very little else, except grey clouds piling in from the Atlantic. We had finally got to Herjolfnaes and, passing obvious ruins, we chose a sheltered spot for the flysheet and ate and went out, very tired after a hard day. The night brought fairly heavy showers of rain.

The weather was clearing up next morning, a low mist coming in over the ice from the open seas, and then dispersing. It was perhaps the worst day for flies. After breakfast we saw the remains of a farm near our camping site, and then strolled over to the fine remains of a Norse church. This site, 11m x 6m, has been excavated by professional archaeologists. In the afternoon Queen Margaret of Denmark - on a royal tour of Greenland - landed surrealistically by helicopter to have a look at these ecclesiastical remains of the church and its neighbouring graveyard. Ten minutes later she and her entourage of officials were away again, with their helicopter and all traces of modern civilisation. Judging by the number of church ruins that have been located, the Norse settlers must have set their standards by a simple Christian faith, far removed though their setting might have been from the rest of the civilised world. We remained with the flies and these ruins; they have an enduring quality about them, stubbornly unchanging, the remnants of a faith come into the land.

We moved on round the other side of the peninsula with its lofty mountains, now at the tail end of our 'Norse feich trip'. We headed north up Narssapsarga, camped on the seashore, and continued over pleasant shores until we returned once more to Amitsuarssuk fjord. From here we continued to Karl's sheep farm and pitched our flysheet on high windy gravel above the north Tasiussaq inlet. There followed a larger meal than we had eaten for many days - we knew that we could easily reach basecamp and friends the next day. For the last time we enjoyed stewed bilberries which we had gathered during the day. In the lull of the serene growing evening came a realisation that our feich trip and the expedition itself was all coming to an end. Over the waters the hills in the west stood still and unchanging, the dispersing clouds almost motionless, hung over the calm seas. No sound or movement came from the sheep farmer's house along the coast. I felt full of the good things, pleasantly unwashed, resolved. Looking over at the enduring sanctity of the high places, the sad song of the hills, where time comes to rest, I could feel how fine it would be to settle here by the still waters. But in the intensity of a few moments you tend to forget the hard realities and responsibilities of the living world. In the morning the spell was broken, rain was pouring in, and we left Karl Christenson and the viking seaboard and headed away.

Postscript:- from Bratahlid

At the end of the expedition we had to wait several days before flying out from Narsassuaq. We had travelled back into relative civilisation. We felt unkindly separated from the Greenland we had known. There were hotels, crowds, tractors, even cars and worse still we felt like tourists ourselves. Some of us hitched a ride across the bay to get away a little, and enjoyed walking over some hills in fine weather to a hamlet of Norse remains in a lonely back valley. On our last night, camped up on a hill above Erik the Red's settlement at Bratahlid we lit a large bonfire which spat and sparked in the dark. It was a still cool night and we sat out under those infinite shining heavens watching the fire burn out. Then the aurora started up quivering across the icy northern skies, mysterious, urgent, inexplicable. Crouched beneath these sparkling lights, with the smell of woodsmoke and scrub and berry in the air, little seemed to have changed since our Norse forebears and their families dwelt there, over the heaving centuries, and no doubt as mystified and overwhelmed at such impossible and unfathomable sights.

Susannah Clark

 

 

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