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The Viking-Age Govan Stones

From bbc:

Govan is well-known as an industrial powerhouse which, over the past 150 years, has built an incredible number of the world’s largest ships.

However the town, now part of the city of Glasgow, has a long and largely-forgotten history as one of the earliest seats of Christianity in Scotland and the main church of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, the lost kingdom of the northern Britons.

In AD 870, Vikings, who had been based in Dublin, destroyed Dumbarton at the mouth of the Clyde, which had been a major power centre in the centuries after the Romans departed from Britain.

As a result Govan, further up the river, took on a crucial role in the new kingdom of warrior chieftains that emerged to resist the Vikings.

It is thought that the church at Govan may have been the main one for the kingdom of Strathclyde.

The Govan Stones are a collection of 31 recumbent grave stones, hogback stones and one remarkable sarcophagus from this period of history when warfare instigated by the Norse transformed the political landscape of Britain.

There had been 45 stones but a number were lost in the 1980s when the site of the neighbouring Harland and Wolff shipyard was demolished.

It is thought the stones from the 10th and 11th centuries, which had been lined up against a wall, were removed along with debris from the shipyard.

The most imposing monuments in the Govan collection are the five massive sandstone blocks, commonly known as the “hogbacks”.

The solid stone blocks are not, as the name might suggest, representations of pigs but stones which are designed to make the tombs of the dead look like mighty buildings in the Norse style.

The hogbacks are found exclusively in areas of northern Britain settled by Vikings – southern Scotland, Cumbria and Yorkshire – and the Govan examples are by far the largest.

The bow-sided shape of the hogbacks is similar to the classic Viking house and the interlace patterns on them are also very Scandinavian in origin, according to Prof Stephen Driscoll, professor of historical archaeology at Glasgow University.

“It underpins this idea that this British kingdom of Strathclyde has some strong connections with the Scandinavian world,” he says.

“My feeling is that this is meant to represent a lord’s hall or a chieftain’s hall.

“This type of monument, these hogback monuments, you only find them in Britain. You don’t get them in Scandinavia and you don’t get them before the Vikings come here.

“So somehow the Vikings come here and see they are in this world where people carve stones all the time and they think ‘let’s carve us a suitable stone that resonates with us’.”

Although the beasts carved into some of the hogbacks could reflect pagan Viking beliefs, the fact that all these stones were found in a church yard suggests the settlers had taken to Christianity.

Even more impressive than the hogbacks is the monolithic sarcophagus which was found buried in the Govan church yard in the 19th century, without a body inside.

Prof Driscoll thinks this probably held the relics of St Constantine – the son of Pictish king Kenneth MacAlpin – who died in AD 876, ironically, fighting against the Vikings.

The sarcophagus of this Christian martyr, which is carved with hunting scenes and the same interlace that is seen on the other stones, was intended to take pride-of-place inside the church, Prof Driscoll says.

But it was probably stuck in the burial ground as an act of “iconoclasm” after the Reformation, he says.

“I think this sarcophagus is to house Constantine’s relics as part of making this church into an important place,” Prof Driscoll says.

“This is unique. There is nothing else like this in Scotland.

“It was just not something they did at the time. If you were being buried you would put them in the ground.

“Sometimes they lined the graves with slabs but mostly they would be put in the ground in a wooden box or just a shroud, no matter who they were.

“If you are king they may put something special on top but this treatment is unknown.

“I’m sure they would have seen Roman sarcophagi when they went on pilgrimage and things like that. So they would have had the sense that emperors belong in a sarcophagus.”

The other tombstones in the collection, though not as imposing to look at as the hogbacks or the sarcophagus, are also remarkable in the fact that they are only really found in Govan and Dumbarton, places which had a Royal association during the kingdom of Strathclyde.

Govan ceased to be important at the start of the 12th century when Glasgow emerged as one of the centres of the newly-ascendant kingdom of Scotland.

This massive changing of the old order meant that the old kingdom has been largely lost to history and only fragmentary records remain.

The tombstones at Govan were reused in the 17th and 18th centuries by local worthies, such as the Rowand family and William Bogle, whose name is inscribed into one of the ancient stones.

One of the stones was found in Jordanhill, on the other side of the river, where it had stood in the garden of one of the parishioners who had been given it as a gift.

Though there has probably been a church on the site since the 6th century, the current Govan Old church was only built in 1888 and is no longer in use as a parish church.

Prof Driscoll wants to raise the profile of the church and ensure its stones are given their rightful prominence.

A request from the British Museum to feature one of the hogbacks in a flagship exhibition Vikings Life and Legend, which begins in March, is an indication of the growing awareness of the importance of the sculptures.

Gareth Williams, curator of the British Museum Viking exhibition, said: “We wanted to go with one of the Govan ones because it is a particularly splendid example but also because we felt that it would be nice to put Govan on the map a bit more.

“It is a very important site and one which I think deserves to be better known.

“It is one of the best collections of early medieval sculpture anywhere in the British isles.”

The smallest hogback, which weighs about 500kg, will be removed from the church and taken to London on Monday, the first time it has left Govan in a millennium.

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why did Viking descendants abandoned Greenland?

From Spiegel:

On Sept. 14, 1408, Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdottir were married. The ceremony took place in a church on Hvalsey Fjord in Greenland that was only five meters (about 16 feet) tall.

It must have been difficult for the bride and groom to recognize each other in the dim light of the church. The milky light of late summer could only enter the turf-roofed church through an arched window on the east side and a few openings resembling arrow slits. After the ceremony, the guests fortified themselves with seal meat.

The marriage of the Icelander and the girl from Greenland was one of the last raucous festivals in the far northern Viking colony. It all ended soon afterwards, when the last oil lamps went out in the Nordic settlements in Greenland.

The descendants of the Vikings had persevered in their North Atlantic outpost for almost 500 years, from the end of the 10th century until the mid-15th century. The Medieval Warm Period had made it possible for settlers from Norway, Iceland and Denmark to live on hundreds of scattered farms along the protected fjords, where they built dozens of churches and even had bishops.

Their disappearance remains a mystery to this day. Until now, many experts had assumed that the cooling of the climate and the resulting crop failures and famines had ushered in the end of the Scandinavian colony. But now a Danish-Canadian team of scientists believes that it can refute this theory of decline.

From Farmers to Seal Hunters

The scientists conducted isotope analyses on hundreds of human and animal bones found on the island. Their study, published in the Journal of the North Atlantic, paints the most detailed picture to date of the Nordic settlers’ dietary habits.

As the research shows, hunger could hardly have driven the ancestors of the Vikings out of their settlements on the edge of the glaciers. The bone analyses prove that, when the warm period came to an end, the Greenlandic farmers and ranchers switched to a seafood-based diet with surprising rapidity. From then on, the settlers focused their efforts on hunting the seals that appeared in large numbers off the coasts of Greenland during their annual migrations.

When settlement began in the early 11th century, only between 20 and 30 percent of their diet came from the sea. But seal hunting played a growing role in the ensuing centuries. “They ate more and more seal meat, with the animals constituting up to 80 percent of their diet in the 14th century,” explains team member Jan Heinemeier, a dating expert from the University of Aarhus, in Denmark.

His fellow team member Niels Lynnerup, an anthropologist and forensic scientist at the University of Copenhagen, confirms that the Vikings of Greenland had plenty to eat even as the climate grew colder. “Perhaps they were just sick and tired of living at the ends of the earth and having almost nothing but seals to eat,” he says.

The bone analyses show that they rarely ate meat from their own herds of livestock. The climate had become harsher on the island starting in the mid-13th century. Summer temperatures fell, violent storms raged around the houses and the winters were bone-chillingly cold. For the cattle that had been brought to Greenland, there was less and less to eat in the pastures and meadows along the fjords.

On the smaller farms, cattle were gradually replaced with sheep and goats, which were easier to rear. The isotope analyses show that pigs, valued for their meat, were fed fish and seal remains for a while longer but had disappeared from the island by around 1300.

The farmers, who had switched their focus to seal hunting, apparently did hardly anything to avert the decline of their livestock economy. The scientists’ analyses of animal bones show that the Greenlanders didn’t even try to help their cattle survive the long, icy winter by feeding them something of a starvation diet of bushes, horse manure, seaweed and fish waste, a widespread practice in regions of Northern Europe with similar climatic challenges until a few decades ago.

It also appears that epidemics were not responsible for the decline of farm life on the island. The scientists did not discover more signs of disease in the Viking bones uncovered on the island than elsewhere. “We found normal skeletons, which looked just like comparable finds from Scandinavian countries,” says Lynnerup.

An image of Eric the Red, the legendary founder of the first Nordic settlement on Greenland.

Increasing Isolation

So, if it wasn’t starvation or disease, what triggered the abandonment of the Greenland settlements in the second half of the 15th century? The scientists suspect that a combination of causes made life there unbearable for the Scandinavian immigrants. For instance, there was hardly any demand anymore for walrus tusks and seal skins, the colony’s most important export items. What’s more, by the mid-14th century, regular ship traffic with Norway and Iceland had ceased.

As a result, Greenland’s residents were increasingly isolated from their mother countries. Although they urgently needed building lumber and iron tools, they could now only get their hands on them sporadically. “It became more and more difficult for the Greenlanders to attract merchants from Europe to the island,” speculates Jette Arneborg, an archeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. “But, without trade, they couldn’t survive in the long run.”

The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.

Although the descendants of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots,” says Arneborg. “This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline.”

An Orderly Abandonment

In the final phase, it was young people of child-bearing age in particular who saw no future for themselves on the island. The excavators found hardly any skeletons of young women on a cemetery from the late period.

“The situation was presumably similar to the way it is today, when young Greeks and Spaniards are leaving their countries to seek greener pastures in areas that are more promising economically,” Lynnerup says. “It’s always the young and the strong who go, leaving the old behind.”

In addition, there was a rural exodus in their Scandinavian countries at the time, and the population in the more remote regions of Iceland, Norway and Denmark was thinning out. This, in turn, freed up farms and estates for returnees from Greenland.

However, the Greenlanders didn’t leave their houses in a precipitous fashion. Aside from a gold signet ring in the grave of a bishop, valuable items, such as silver and gold crucifixes, have not been discovered anywhere on the island. The archeologists interpret this as a sign that the departure from the colony proceeded in an orderly manner, and that the residents took any valuable objects along. “If they had died out as a result of diseases or natural disasters, we would certainly have found such precious items long ago,” says Lynnerup.

The couple that was married in the church on Hvalsey Fjord also left the island shortly after their wedding. In Iceland, the couple had to provide the local bishop with written proof that they had entered into a bond for life under a sod roof according to the rules of the mother church. Their reports are the last documents describing the lives of the Nordic settlers in Greenland.

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , ,

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