Global Integrative Studies, School of


Date of this Version


Document Type



Published in: Seeking a Richer Harvest: The Archaeology of Subsistence Intensification, Innovation, and Change, pages 193–216

Volume edited by: T. L. Thurston and C. T. Fisher

Series: Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation

Published by: Springer, 2007


Copyright 2007, Springer; used by permission.



Just over a thousand years ago, Scandinavian voyagers crossed the grey waters of the North Atlantic to briefly explore the coast of North America. These now well publicized transatlantic trips were part of larger economic, environmental, and social developments of the Viking Age, and were the product of an Iron Age chiefly society with a complex economy incorporating both classic “prestige goods” and “staple goods” components. The Viking Age expansion was the result of linked factors of economic intensification, military and technological advances, climate change, and intense com-petition among chiefly elites and between elites and commoners. The period saw escalating Nordic impact upon north-west Europe and a dramatic expansion of European settlement into the offshore islands of the North Atlantic. This paper will focus upon the economic development of two of the most western of the Norse Atlantic settlements, Iceland and Greenland, and seeks to bring fresh data to bear on the knotty problem of pre-state economics. In both examples, complex political and economic structures were supported through intensification in both domestic consumption and export to European markets. The particular resources, terrestrial and marine, domestic and wild, that were the subject of intensified economic effort differed in Iceland and Greenland. We examine the production and utilization of these resources and effects that changing demand for these products entailed for the fortunes of the Norse settlements of Iceland and Greenland, and for their would-be magnates. We are fortunate to be able to draw upon new work by many scholars in several disciplines through the research cooperative of the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO), as well as new zooarchaeological and locational evidence.