Brattahlið, Greenland

Site Overview

Climate change and the first church in the New World

The Eastern Settlement (Qassiarsuk)

According to tradition, Erik the Red set out from Iceland with 25 ships when he was exiled from Iceland in 985, the result of having committed murder. Only 14 ships made it to Greenland, where the Vikings established two settlements – the Eastern and Western Settlements. It is calculated that the Eastern area contained around 200 farms and the Western around 100. The total population is estimated about 3,000 people. The Nordic settlement existed for around 500 years before it disappeared.

Brattahlíð was Erik the Red's estate in the colony he established on south-western Greenland. Erik named the land “Greenland” to try and encourage other settlers to join him. When he arrived, the climate was milder than today and it was possible to grow cereals in sheltered places, although livestock were the mainstay of the c.200 farms which initially flourished in the Eastern Settlement. The Vikings also exported walrus ivory and polar bear furs.

Climate Change

The climate began to deteriorate around 1300, falling to 6-8 degrees below today’s temperatures. This led to an increase in sea-ice which cut the settlement off from the rest of the Viking world. The Inuit then moved south and fought with the Vikings.

Although the Eastern Settlement continued longer than Viking settlement in other areas, it was completely abandoned by 1540, and possibly as early as the first decades of the 15th century.

First Viking Settlement - Brattahlið

The ruins of Brattahlíð can be found in the town of Qassiarsuk. It is an important place in Norse history: the first Viking settlement on Greenland, meaning it was technically the first town in America founded by Europeans.

At Brattahlíð you can meet Edda Lyberth and hear her exciting histories about the Vikings, like the strong-minded woman Tjodhilde, who was Erik the Red's wife. Their son, Leif Eriksson, was the first European to make landfall in North America, some 500 years before Columbus, and brought Christianity to the Viking community.

Tjodhilde was behind the construction of the first (probably) Christian church on the North American continent, in Brattahlíð. She had become Christian and had the church sited some distance from the farmstead so as not to antagonise Erik, who did not follow her into Christianity. A reconstruction of this chapel now stands near the original site, along with a replica of a Viking longhouse.

The remains of three large farms and a thing site are still visible, although most of the stone structures in the area are 14th and 15th century in date, with earlier remains beneath them. A longhouse, with typical curving long-walls, may be the remains of Erik the Red’s farm itself.

Qassiarsuk

In 1961, work started on the building of a school hostel at Qassiarsuk – a small modern village a few hundred metres away from Brattahlíð. During the course of the work, several human skulls were unearthed and, in 1962, five excavations took place here, which revealed a cemetery of c.150 individuals buried around a small (2m x 3.5m) turf-built church.

Some people think this church is the one referred to in 'Erik the Red's Saga', which says that Erik's son, Leif the Lucky, introduced Christianity to Greenland c.1000.

Nine of the skeletons were radiocarbon-dated and returned dates in the 1000-1100/1200 range (the uncertainty over the later date is caused by methodological factors). There were no later dates and there was very little intercutting of graves – which would imply the cemetery had a relatively short period of use.

Analysis of the skeletons show that few people lived beyond the age of 45. Those that didn't die in infancy, and managed to attain the age of 20, lived for an average of a further 15 years. Among the disarticulated remains of 13 people in a mass grave, were three individuals with head wounds caused by a sharp weapon such as an axe or a sword. It may well be that the occupants of this grave were victims of combat.

There is a statue of Leif Eriksson in Qassiarsuk.

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