Gardar - Viking Estate in the Eastern Settlement of Greenland

Elite Estate of Eirik the Red's Daughter

Ruins of Gardar, Village Igaliku, Igaliku Fjord, Greenland
Ruins of Gardar, Village Igaliku, Igaliku Fjord, Greenland. Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Garðar (sometimes spelled Gardar and known in the archaeological literature as E47) is the name of a Viking age estate on Greenland, part of the Eastern Settlement. The Norse colonization of Greenland began in 983 AD, and, according to the Viking sagas, was led by Eirik the Red, a restless Norseman from Iceland. According to the Viking saga Sturlubók Landnáma, a settler named Einar who came with Erik settled in this location near a natural harbor.

The Greenlander Saga reports that Garðar was eventually the home of Erik's daughter Freydis. Garðar is within what is today the modern village of Igaliku, itself founded about 1800.

History of Gardar

Garðar was reported to be the location of the Eastern Settlement's general assembly (Þing or Thing), where groups of the settlers would meet to discuss issues and solve legal issues. In AD 1124, an episcopal see was established at Garðar, and the first bishop, Arnald, arrived in 1126, moving into Freydis' home.

Garðar's estate held between 75 and 100 head of cattle, in addition to unknown numbers of sheep and goats. This amount of livestock would have required some 15 hectares of fodder each year to keep the animals alive during the winters and summer droughts. Recently, archaeologists have discovered a complex water management regime, with dams and irrigation channels, to water the hay during summer droughts and protect it over the winter.

Other Viking Age farm components identified at Garðar include the remains of a blacksmith's workshop and a permanent well.

The last bishop at Garðar, Alfur, died in 1378; documentary evidence about the Garðar estate ends in 1409, although it is uncertain whether people continued to live there until the Eastern Settlement was abandoned entirely, ca 1450-1550.

Irrigation Dams

The extensive system of water control system at Gardar included a series of dams which crossed the small streams draining the hills to the north of the bishop's residence. This system provides an indication of the scale of hay collection required to maintain the farm. Gardar's episcopal residence had access to a large territory, compared to other farmsteads, but it was a largely dairy-based system, which required a collection of substantial fodder for the long winters.

The system also involved contoured irrigation channels, which were constructed using standard medieval Norse techniques found in both monastic and secular systems. Ecological investigation of the soils within the channels suggests that the irrigation channels fell part abruptly, likely at the time of the departure of the last farmer in the Eastern Settlement and the collapse of the settlement.

Recent Research at Gardar

Zooarchaeological studies on the animal bone at Gardar have identified numerous walrus-bone fragments at the bishop's manor, especially the maxillary bones left over from the extraction of walrus tusks. These materials were analyzed using stable isotopes (Frei et al 2015), and researchers Frei et al.

have tentatively concluded that they bones support the notion that Gardar was initially settled by walrus hunting. In Iceland, walrus was part of a broader economic base, but in Greenland, walrus may well have played a central role. The emphasis on walrus led to increasing market isolation and may have added to the finally unsuccessful adaptive pathway for the Greenlanders.

In a study of a handful of Norse site in Greeland, Alexandra Sanmark (2009) looked at the published evidence from excavations at Garðar and Brattahlíð for the presence of structures called booths which are commonly associated with the general assembly (Thing). Booths are where the participants were housed during the meetings of district assemblies. In addition to written evidence, Sanmark found archaeological evidence for at least five booths, rectangular turf and stone structures located near the shore.

Archaeology at Gardar

Archaeological investigations of Garðar were first conducted by Poul Norlund in the 1920s. Geo-archaeology research was led by a group from the University of Aberdeen in the early 21st century.

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