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Revisiting La Tene Art: Ideas of Ethnicity and Diaspora


La Tene Art (Wandsworth Shield): Wiki Commons Image

In the framework document for consultation 2013: ‘The National Curriculum in England,’ produced by the Department for Education, worryingly, prehistory has been afforded a cursory mention amongst a rather impressive coverage of history from the Romano-British period to the 20th Century. In fact at in all Key Stages for history, tens of thousands of years of human prehistory and development has been condensed into one line – the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. At Key Stage 3 prehistory has been completely forgotten. The consultation, available as a Pdf (www.media.education.Britain.gov.uk) also recommends that at Key Stage 2 – History, pupils are taught ‘Celtic culture and patterns of settlement’. Since the Iron Age has already been covered (as above), I am not sure what is meant by ‘Celtic culture’ and concerned that the content relates to early medieval ‘Celtic Christianity’ including the early medieval Irish historical texts, and the 19th century resurgence of ‘Insular Art’ and romanticised ‘Celtic’ mythology, and not to the actual archaeological evidence relating to a cultural group. The debate as to whether we should assign La Tene art as an ethnic indicator, since it is the art style which has been used in the past to create a ‘Celtic’ identity or origin, is, it seems, still contentious. I would like to think that the ongoing research and hypotheses regarding Iron Age Europe and Britain as varied and diverse will be included in this topic and that lessons refrain from claiming that parts of Britain have a ‘Celtic’ heritage based on mythology.

La Tène art has been described as the “great unifying element of the Celtic world” (Green 1994, 30). Megaw (1995) defines ‘Celtic’ art as: “… the tangible evidence for a continuity of cultural tradition during the last five centuries BC and into the early historic era” and discuss La Tène and ‘Celtic’ art as one (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 346). Was the study of La Tene art the origin of the belief that the ‘Celts’ were an ethnic group, and what is meant by ethnicity and identity in archaeology? Emphasis has been placed on migration theories relating to the ethnicity of the ‘Celts’, thus the origin, changing styles and regional diversity of La Tène art was used to highlight the movement (migration from homeland) and settlement of a group, their ideas and influence. How can an art style have been associated with the idea of a ‘homeland’ or an ethnicity?

The Meaning of Ethnicity and Identity

Ethnicity is socially constructed and is defined by a set of shared cultural indicators, common language or descent of a group of people. An ethnic group may express themselves differently from others they perceive as culturally different, or an idea of ethnicity may be assigned to that group due to their culturally different attributes (Jones 1997, xiii). In archaeology the term culture replaced the former terms of ‘civilization’ and ‘nation’ as it was thought to have been less politically loaded. ‘Culture’ became widely used to describe the character of human groups. In the quest to understand past peoples, Diaz-Andreu suggests that there is still a political or ethnocentric undertone to the use of the phrase ‘culture group’ in archaeology (Diaz-Andreu 1996, 51-7).

The Evidence for the origin of the ‘Celts’ as an ‘Ethnic Group’

It was the classical Greek and Roman writers who first identified the existence of the ‘Celts’ as an ethnic group living in Northern Europe from the sixth century BC – any group not Greek or North Mediterranean. The classical sources refer to a period predating La Tène  ‘culture’, suggesting that the ‘Celts’ were seen as having a recognised ethnic identity before the appearance of their distinctive art (Harding 2007, 3). However, the classical authors were vague on the geographical existence of a people they named ‘Keltoi’, and there is considerable regional variation in the archaeological evidence (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 346). The classical writer, Livy, documented the expansion of the ‘Celts’ into northern Italy and eastwards into Hungary and beyond (Cunliffe 1997, 68-9).  Excavations of cemeteries in Slovakia, eastern Austria and northern Italy revealed artefacts of La Tène style and may have been associated with early ‘Celtic’ migrations of the later fifth and early fourth centuries BC (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 349).

Linguistic studies established that the Indo-European language spoken in the Upper Po Valley, Italy, was closely related to ‘Celtic’ and can be traced back to the 6th century BC (Iron Age) This similarity may have made communication between both sides of the Alps easier (Cunliffe 1997, 70). Attempts have been made to correlate the information in the classical sources with archaeological material and the existence of ‘Celtic’ languages (Harding 2007, 3). Although the map of ‘Celtic’ languages covering Central and Western Europe, northern Italy, Britain and Ireland, cannot be directly correlated to a homogenous ‘Celtic’ material culture. There are some common attributes, but regional variation in material culture suggests “cultural assimilation rather than radical displacement” (Harding 2007, 91).

The archaeological record alone would not have supported the idea of ‘Celtic’ migrations, to regions such as Italy, due to the relatively low volume of type material recovered (Harding 2008, 139). Evidence of ‘Celtic’ migration is more convincing in Eastern Europe as there is more evidence from settlement sites and cemeteries to support the material culture (Harding 2008, 139). In some regions designated ‘Celtic’ based on linguistic evidence there are relatively few La Tène types, such as southwestern France, asking the question whether a correlation between La Tène Culture and the idea of ‘Celtic’ exists (Harding 2007, 6). An alternative viewpoint is that the ‘Celtic’ languages originated in the Atlantic Zone during the Bronze Age, which represents a major departure from the long-established hypothesis in which the ancient ‘Celtic’ languages and that of the ‘Keltoí’ or ‘Celts’ are bound up with the archaeology of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures of Iron Age Europe (Koch 2012).

La Tene Art – Meme and Diaspora

Diaspora – the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland (Oxford English Dictionary)

Meme – an element of a culture or system of behavior passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means (Oxford English Dictionary)

Nineteenth Century studies of the chronology of Iron Age Europe located trade routes between northern Europe and the Mediterranean and identified material from Halstatt and La Tène (LakeNeuchatel in Switzerland) as being distinctive from classical examples. Both Halstatt and La Tène became type-sites and formed the basis of the chronology of pre-Roman Iron Age Europe (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 12-14). It was in 1944 when Jacobsthal published ‘Early Celtic Art’ that the art of this period became an important indicator of culture/ethnicity.  At the time of the La Tène discoveries, it was not even thought possible that ‘European Barbarians’ could have produced such fine metal work and that the artefacts must have been imported from the Mediterranean (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 13).

The origin of ‘Celtic’ art has been traced back to the early Halstatt A and B periods (Green 1994, 19). Some of the earliest La Tene A examples come from elite burials of the fifth century in the Moselle-Marne regions and include the Basse-Yutz flagons. These flagons are the work of a local crafts person, emulating an Etruscan style, whilst at the same time transforming the original to a new ‘native’ style by sharpening the shoulders and introducing a more concave shape. This craft person has also used a coral inlay, a typical decoration of the Halstatt period. A possible oriental influence has been assigned to the inclusion of animals on the flagons, via the classical world rather than through direct contact (Cunliffe 1997, 116).

The earlier phases of artistic development coincide with the collapse of western Halstatt centres, where it can be seen in the archaeological record that political and social power shifted to warrior elites in the Champagne area, Bohemia and Rhineland (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 349). It has been argued that the Halstatt and early La Tène areas of northern Europe were the periphery to and dependent on the Mediterranean core, however the art forms of the La Tène period evolved and spread long after the elite stopped importing objects from the south (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 354).  Societal collapse in mid 5th century meant there was a new political geography. This is when the new art form appeared, possibly linked with a period of social upheaval and a shift in power from Rhineland to Marne in Eastern France, which became a centre of excellence in the production of La Tène art objects (Green 1994, p23). The local ‘Celtic’ artists deliberately chose elements of Mediterranean art, which appealed to them visually or held symbolic meaning to them (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 354). The La Tène style is non-narrative and does not use the human form, making the style so different from classical art, which often portrays procession and ceremony, as well as human imagery. Although there is much regional diversity in the all encompassing La Tène art tradition, there are visible repeated patterns and symbolic motifs; such as an absence of the whole human form but a concentration on the human head, the use of naturalistic animal imagery such as boars, birds and bulls and tripilism, ubiquitous in early La Tene art (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 169-70).

Development and regional variations in art styles can be detected with the movement of the ‘Celts’ (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 349). La Tène art is portable, therefore easy to move with people (Green 1994, 29-30). Simplified lotus buds and palmettes faded out during La Tène B – later 4th Century BC (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 118). The centres of change were the Po Valley, Marne, Switzerland and Hungary, suggesting continued contact between the northern ‘Celts’ and those who emigrated south. The style is called the Vegetal style and incorporates a running tendril and linked lyre palmettes. The human head and animals became less visible amongst the vegetation (Cunliffe 1997, 118). The type-site for this style was Waldalgesheim in Germany (Green 1994, 26) and the main inspiration came from Italian connections (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 115). Localised versions of the Vegetal style have been found in Western Hungary and Czechoslovakia (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 118).  In the third and second centuries ‘Celtic’ Europe could be characterised by mobile, small communities. The surviving artefacts from this period are mainly metalwork such as sword scabbards and personal ornaments. This period of La Tène art is named the Hungarian Sword Style, which incorporated ‘dragon pairs’ (a variant of the S motif) and is widely distributed across Hungary, England, Spain, Romania and Italy (Cunliffe 1997, 122).


Snettisham Torcs 75 BC: WikiCommons Image

The Problem with ‘Celtic’ Ethnicity

Material culture (in culture-historic archaeological terms) is assigned to a tribe or ethnic group based on the premise that their religious or cultural norms are prescriptive and any innovative change is slow unless contact with a more creative group introduces change. This is the ‘Diffusionist’ approach; the spread of culture change was initiated by a biologically superior race (Jones 1997, 24-25). This had a far-right political implication and was open to abuse, such as the work of Kossinna and the Nazi Party in the 1930s with their attempts to create a national identity through the material record to justify invasion and ethnic cleansing (Trigger 1996). In the history of archaeology importance has been placed on constructing identities by assigning material culture to past ethnicities and the distribution of material culture to migration and invasion theories (Jones 1997, 1). The processual and post-processual approaches have since undermined this way of assigning material culture to an ethnic group, and the current focus is placed on interpreting meaning, with a stronger emphasis on socio-political, economic and symbolic themes (Jones 1997, 5-6). Sceptics suggest that interpretations based on material evidence should remain subjective (Shennan 1994, xi) because human cultures are dynamic; it is difficult, therefore, to equate people to static objects (Shennan 1994, xii). A holistic approach has been adopted to interpret the Spanish Iron Age, rather than concentrating on the ‘Celtiberian’ myths or rejecting ethnic entities altogether, archaeologists aim to discuss Iron Age Europe as plural, diverse and multi-cultural (Zapotero 1996, 192).

La Tène techniques, patterns and motifs recur across non-classical Europe (Green 1994, 30). The repeated patterning may be as a result of the control of raw materials or the artists and craftspeople by the elite (Green 1994, 31). Alternatively, the spread may be attributable to travelling artists or ideas, or through complex trading networks, gift exchanges, foreign marriages, pilgrimages, souvenirs, circulation of pattern books, or word of mouth (Green 1994, 34-5). This is evident in the insular ‘Celtic’ art of Britain and Ireland; trade contacts caused the gradual introduction of La Tène style ornamentation into local craft production (Green 1994, 35) such as the Loughnashade bronze horn terminals of Ireland decorated in La Tène curvilinear style; and does not necessarily correlate to the presence of a ‘Celtic’ group in Britain. As discussed previously, La Tene art borrowed motifs and style from the Mediterranean without any proposed theories of invasion or migration to explain the adoption of ‘foreign’ influences.

Identity can be projected to others through style, such as decoration or motifs, and is used to express similarity or difference to another group (Jones 1997, 113) or perhaps simply admiration of another group. La Tène art borrowed palmette and lotus motifs from the classical world and modified and transformed the images to create an individual style (Green 1994, 18). It is possible that the symbols could be a visual language in place of a lack of written communication (Green 1996, 17). “The art of the Celts was not ‘art for art’s sake’” (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 345) as the objects are functional, and the ornamentation may convey symbolic representations of a belief system, economic or social motivations, as well as being influenced by technological advancement and the availability of raw materials (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 345). Today’s archaeologists are aware that any interpretation of the symbolic meaning of art could be seen as emic and may not have had the same meaning to the contemporary society designing and producing the objects (Green 1994, 18), although the motifs and imagery used may be representations of a self-imposed identity or a symbolic expression of a people.

In conclusion, art styles are used to convey cultural identity, rather than ethnic identity (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 346). It is not known whether those who we call the ‘Celts’ were aware of a sense of unity or common identity at a local level; nevertheless it seems that the classical writers have ascribed an identity or ethnicity to people of northern Europe. Renfrew (1996) states: “There is no contradiction in denying the existence of Celtic ethnicity, yet in recognising the importance of ethnicity among those whom we call the Celts” (Renfrew 1996, 132). What is evident is that a group(s) of people across Europe found these ornamented objects aesthetically pleasing and that the universal motifs may have communicated important religious symbolism, perhaps unique to a ‘cultural’ group. This art form became widespread, but also retained a localised element and regional variation. “The sharing of certain artistic elements does not make all the persons who used them members of the same ethnic group, but it may have allowed the constitution of a larger Celtic ‘grouping’, to which they could belong” (Fitzpatrick 1996, 248). Perhaps further studies in linguistics and genetics will  elucidate the origin and proposed migration/invasion of the ‘Celts’, and finally rewrite the scenario in which La Tene art was created by a ‘Celtic’ people and travelled with a ‘Celtic’ people, which is not supported by the archaeological record.


Cunliffe, B. (1997) The Ancient Celts.London: Penguin Books

Diaz-Andreu, M. (1996) Constructing Identities Through Culture in Cultural Identity and Archaeology by Graves-Brown P, Jones S & Gamble C. (eds) London: Routledge

Fitzpatrick, A.P. (1996) ‘Celtic’ Iron Age Europe: the theoretical basis in Cultural Identity and Archaeology by Graves-Brown P, Jones S & Gamble C. (eds) London: Routledge

Green, M. (1996) Celtic Art.London: Orion

Harding, D.W. (2007) The Archaeology of Celtic Art.London: Routledge

Jones, S. (1997) The Archaeology of Ethnicity – Constructing Identities in the Past and Present. London: Routledge

Koch, J.T (2012) Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature (Celtic Studies Publications) Oxbow Books

Megaw, R. & Megaw, V. (1989) Celtic Art from its Beginnings to the Book of Kells.New York: Thames & Hudson

Megaw, R. & Megaw, V. (1995) The Nature and Function of Celtic Art in The Celtic World Green M (ed) London: Routledge

Renfrew, C. (1996) Prehistory and the identity of Europe, or, don’t let’s be beastly to the Hungarians in Cultural Identity and Archaeology by Graves-Brown P, Jones S & Gamble C (eds). London: Routledge

Shennan, S.J. (1994) Archaeological Approaches to Cultural Identity.London: Routledge

Trigger, B. (1996) A History of Archaeological Thought 2nd Ed. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press

Zapotero, G.R. (1996) Celts and Iberians in Cultural Identity and Archaeology by Graves-Brown P, Jones S & Gamble C. (eds) London: Routledge


The National Curriculum Consultation. Available from:

http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/n/national%20curriculum%20consultation%20-%20framework%20document.pdf Last accessed 7/2/13

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Gender Roles and the Mass-kill Event: A Cross-Cultural Analysis

Gender Roles and the Mass-kill Event: A Cross-Cultural Analysis by Lisa Bond

For the last thirty years archaeologists inspired primarily by the feminist movement, have become more aware of ‘gender assumptions’ when interpreting past human behaviour. The subject remains an important field of anthropological research today. There is a vast amount of literature available; some are mentioned here, for further reading and discussion relating to how the study of gender can give a more objective and balanced understanding of material culture.

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Posted in Archaeology, gender, hunter-gatherer, lithics, native american, paleolithic | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last of the ‘True Vikings’? An Insight into the Motivation Behind Norse Exploration West

Written by Lisa Bond

Viking longhouse reconstruction at L'Anse Aux Meadows from Wiki Commons

Viking longhouse reconstruction at L’Anse Aux Meadows from Wiki Commons

Recent excavations carried out by Canadian archaeologist Patricia Sutherland may have further complimented our knowledge of Norse exploration into the New World. The excavations were carried out to establish the extent of Norse presence in the Americas and to further inform our knowledge of interactions between indigenous people and Norse explorers. National Geographic recently reported on the excavation – clearly the Norse presence in the Americas is a popular and fascinating subject and not just in the archaeological world. What does this new site say about Norse expansion across the North Atlantic? The popular perception is that the ‘Vikings’ were intrepid explorers bent on exploiting resources in foreign lands, though the evidence from Iceland and Greenland speaks more of land hungry settlers than marauding warriors. Is it possible that the Greenlandic seafarers who headed out to the New World were the last of the ‘true Vikings’ setting out on a risky voyage to discover new resources to exploit, or were they simply searching for new land to settle and farm? Was the motivation behind the expansion west more concerned with land settlement with an element of conformity; abundance of resources ripe for exploitation; or simply a hunger for exploration and a return to the older ‘Viking’ ways?

Until recently, discussion relating to the early Norse settlement (Landnam) of Iceland, Greenland and America has been saga driven. A multi-disciplinary approach to archaeological research is revealing more about the motivation behind the Norse expansion west. By identifying the key elements of archaeological evidence relating to the initial settlement period from the 9th to the 11th centuries AD, such as settlement strategies, architecture, social stratification, subsistence economies and sustainability, the motivations behind the expansion may be revealed and may emphasize how decisive the initial choices were in their success. Clearly, a full discussion and comparison with the TanfieldValley site is not currently possible as the report has not been published; therefore scant information is available with regards to any environmental evidence, context and plans.

Archaeological and paleoecological evidence suggest a rapid, widespread development in both Greenland and Iceland (Vesteinsson 2002, 7) with a degree of experimentation in Iceland (Smith 1995, 331; Sigursson 2008, 572). Greenland was settled by Icelanders, perhaps driven by the pursuit of hunting for seal fur and walrus ivory (Arneborg 2008, 590), or the desire to attain power through land settlement (Dugmore et al 2007, 14; Hunt 2009, 390). The early settlers of Greenland had some contact with indigenous populations, such as the Thule Innuit and Dorset Paleo-Eskimos, mainly during hunting expeditions north for ivory. The Norse artefacts recovered from Arctic areas, such as a bronze vessel, smelted copper, whetstones, soapstone artefacts, can be explained by trade and exchange between the Norse and indigenous people (Gullov 2008; Sutherland 2008, 43) and may not be evident of any long-term settlement in the New World. Could the same motivations be behind the explorations and ‘settlement’ at TanfieldValley?

The explorers who ventured to L’Anse Aux Meadows and TanfieldValley (Pringle 2012) built their dwellings in the same Norse long house style as the initial Greenlandic and Icelandic settlers (Seaver 2010, 25; Smith 1995, 328; Buckland 2008, 600; Arneborg 2008, 591-2; Wallace 2008, 607). A high degree of effort and labour were required to build such substantial structures that were built to last (Wallace 2009), perhaps evident of the strategic importance of the New World sites, or alternatively, the initial desire to settle these locations permanently. They were constructed using available materials such as rock for the foundations and turf for the roofs and walls; however large timber for the upright poles was in a shorter supply in Greenland and Iceland. Available wood would have been used for doors and as panelling for the interior walls and fittings (Seaver 2010, 25). The typical layout of a long-house included a hall with a central hearth and along either side there would be seating or beds (Seaver 2010, 26; Buckland 2008, 600; Arneborg 2008, 591-2). Farms had outbuildings such as pithouses, smithies, barns and byres (Smith 1995 328). There is no evidence of animal shelters in L’Anse Aux Meadows (Wallace 2009, 120; Wallace 2008, 607). Storage structures built from stone in Greenland are different to those in Iceland, which are turf and stone. In Greenland they are often placed in areas which would catch a strong wind to air dry meat (McGovern 1992, 211). Storage spaces at L’Anse Aux Meadows were relatively large (Wallace 2008, 608) perhaps for storing large quantities of preserved food to meet their needs as a replacement for fresh produce for the return journey to Greenland.

The social structure of early Iceland centred on the relationship between land-owning farmers and chieftains (Smith 1995, 339). Social stratification can be seen in the diet, for instance the meat in the Greenlandic diet came primarily from seal (Arneborg 2008, 6); on the other hand, caribou meat may have been the reserve of the high status farms (McGovern 1992, 205). Animal bones from the Norse middens in Greenland suggest that there were differences in livestock in individual farms (Arneborg 2008, 6; McGovern 1992, 220) in that the higher-status farms had more cattle and the medium sized farms more sheep and goats and fewer cattle (Arneborg 2008, 592). In both countries, the richest farmland is occupied by the large estates and tight clusters of farmsteads controlled by the large farmstead (Vesteinsson 2002, 17). Garoar in Greenland has large halls, byres and barns and may have been a ‘control centre’ for the distribution of resources for the whole colony (McGovern 1992, 221). Elements of social stratification can also be seen in the difference in size of the buildings in L’Anse aux Meadows, with its hall for the chieftain/leader and smaller buildings to house the workforce (Wallace 2009, 120; Wallace 2008, 607).

There is evidence of widespread charcoal production and local iron smelting in Myatvn region, Northern Iceland (McGovern 2006, 188) and specialised production in Hals, Western Iceland (Smith 1995, 334). Bog iron required smelting at high temperatures, consequently wood was needed in huge quantities. Environmental evidence of deforestation here supports this practice (Edvardsson 2003, 25; McGovern et al 2006, 189; Smith 1995, 336). Small scale iron working evidence has also been found at the L’Anse Aux Meadows site (Wallace 2009). Iron production was necessary to the early Icelandic economy, for ship repair and agricultural practices (Smith 1995, 335). Greenland does not have bog iron to exploit, thus iron must have been imported (Arneborg 2008, 590-3). The site at TanfieldValley is close to a source of bog iron (Pringle 2012) which may have been utilized by the Norse or returned to Greenland in its raw state. Of course, this theory may be disproved if Iron working debris and tools are found at TanfieldValley.

The discovery of three walrus tusks at one of the initial settlement sites in Reykjavik suggests that early Icelandic settlers successfully hunted and processed walrus ivory (Pierce 2009, 59; Smith 1995, 329). Although there is no evidence of large-scale industry as there is in Greenland (Pierce 2009, 55; McGovern 2002) the evidence suggests that walrus hunting played a role in the colonization of both Greenland and Iceland (Harrison et al 2008, 100; Gullov 2008, 21; Arneborg 2008, 590-1). Evidence of tusk extraction appears in all sites across Greenland (McGovern 1992, 207; Harrison et al 2008, 100-12), which, along with furs, was the main trade of Greenland, in exchange for iron (Arneborg 2008, 590-3). Bones of the Arctic fox, which was the only indigenous land mammal in Iceland (Smith 1995, 323), are present in the Sveigakot assemblage. The animals appear to have been skinned and their pelts processed (McGovern 2006, 192; Harrison et al 2008, 111).  It is probable that L’Anse Aux Meadows was a strategic winter-camp to collect timber, iron (Seaver 2010, 45), butternuts and wild grapes from further south – an area which may be the Vinland written about in the Sagas. These items may have been returned to Greenland when the season had finished.

Artefacts recovered from sites in Greenland, Iceland, and North America are typically Norse, such as whetstones, ring headed pins, soapstone artefacts, bone combs, line sinkers and quern stones. Artefact types from early settlements and burials in Iceland are similar to Norse types and most were locally produced (Smith 1995, 329). Artefacts from L’Anse Aux Meadows are typically Norse and related to specialised activities such as iron working, boat repair and textile work (Wallace 2009, 120). As reported by National Geographic the artefacts from the Tanfield Valley excavation include pieces of drilled whalebone, and from previous investigations spun hair from fur-bearing animals, all attributed to Norse material culture (Pringle 2012).

The faunal and floral assemblages demonstrate that the Norse settlers of Iceland and Greenland exported a uniform North European based farming system supplemented by some cereal production and protein from a variety of wild resources (Amorosi et al 1992, 169; Sveinbjarnardottir et al 2008, 1; Buckland 2008, 598). There is no evidence of animal husbandry in L’Anse Aux Meadows; but they may have kept a small number of pigs (Wallace 2009, 120; Wallace 2008, 607), suggesting the site was never intended to be settled permanently or long-term. The early settlement subsistence economy of Greenland was very similar to Iceland, though Icelanders exploited a wider variety of wild resources, and Greenland depended more upon seals (McGovern 1992, 222; McGovern et al 2006 202; Vesteinsson et al 2002, 9) and caribou (Arneborg 2008, 590).

The Icelandic domestic mammal bone assemblage includes cattle, sheep and goats, pigs and horses (McGovern & Perdikaris 2002, 5; Harrison et al 2008, 199; Sigursson 2008). In Greenland there are four main taxa present – cattle, caprines, seals and caribou. The mix of domestic mammals present is the same as Iceland, although, atypically, there are more goats than sheep in Greenland faunal assemblages (McGovern 1992, 195). In most Icelandic and Greelandic collections, there are high percentages of neonate cattle remains (McGovern & Perdikaris 2002, 7; Amorosi 1992, 124-5; Harrison et al 2008, 100; Arneborg 2008, 590).  More emphasis was placed on cattle in both countries (Smith1995, 329; Vesteinsson et al 2002, 11), mainly for secondary products such as milk and cheese (Buckland 2008, 598; Arneborg 2008, 590).

Faunal collections in early Iceland are dominated by the remains of sea birds in the north and ptarmigan in the south (McGovern et al 2006, 191 & 193-4). The remains of eggs from waterfowl, Ptarmigan and Guillemots are present in northern sites (McGovern & Perdikaris 2002, 2; McGovern et al 2006). The presence of marine fish bones inland indicate they were imported from coastal areas (McGovern & Perdikaris 2002, 10) as a preserved product, suggesting early production and exchange strategies and communication across Icelandic settlements (McGovern & Perdikaris 2002, 11; McGovern et al 2006, 195 & 203; Harrison et al 2008, 99). A similar scenario exists in Greenland with seal bones appearing at sites far inland (McGovern 1992, 205). Unlike the evidence from Iceland (Sigursson 2008, 572), fish remains are rare in early Greenlandic sites (Vesteinsson et al 2002, 10; McGovern 1992, 196). There is internal regional variability in both countries due to differing climate and resources (McGovern 1992, 196). For instance, the western settlement in Greenland was a more marginal environment for cattle herding, which is reflected in a higher percentage of seal and caribou remains present in the assemblage (McGovern 1992, 196). Perhaps it was the hardier inhabitants of the more marginal Western settlement who organised themselves to carry out repeated expeditions to the New World in search of more agreeable land, or for the purpose of exploiting the abundant resources of the New World (the sagas only speak of three voyages to the New World).

The faunal assemblage at L’Anse Aux Meadows indicates that the Norse diet came mainly from marine sources (Wallace 2009). Should the Tanfield Valley site prove to be an outpost similar to L’Anse Aux Meadows, it may be assumed that the inhabitants shared a similar marine diet supplemented by preserved food.

It is difficult to determine how much barley was grown in early Iceland or imported from overseas. The soil in Iceland was not ideal for crop growing.  Barley found in dung on a Norse midden at Reynistadur is testament to the initial settlers bringing their traditional pastoral practices with them from the homeland. Greenlanders were not able to cultivate cereal at all (McGovern 1992, 222; Vesteinsson et al 2002, 9) and there is no evidence of cereal cultivation in L’Anse Aux Meadows (Wallace 2009, 120). The majority of the Barley seeds from Iceland were found in the animal dung, therefore relate to foddering practices (Trigg et al 2009, 68). Irrigation was necessary during the early Norse period to grow hay for animal fodder (Buckland et al 2008; Adderley & Simpson 2006). This practice can be seen in Scandinavia itself (Buckland et al 2008, 114), although irrigation was may have been used in Iceland to enhance production, whereas in Greenland, because of frequent summer droughts (Buckland et al 2008, 114) it seems that it was a critical land management practice (Adderley & Simpson 2006, 1676-7). It remains to be seen whether there is evidence of cultivation at the Tanfield Valley site.

The aforementioned Norse settlement evidence reveals that a key reason for the expansion across the North Atlantic region was to set up productive agricultural settlements, therefore success depended on initial land management strategies (Adderley & Simpson 2006, 1666). The settlers of Greenland adopted similar strategies to the first Icelandic settlers of a century earlier, indicating that the chieftains were just as politically motivated and their primary concern was to fill their land with dependent farmers (Vestiensson 2002, 19), thereby retaining power. Nevertheless, the opportunity to exploit abundant wild resources found around Greenland and the Arctic, for trade, was also a powerful motivator, with L’Anse Aux Meadows and possibly Tanfield Valley acting as gateways to plentiful new resources. The evidence from Greenland suggests that although there was a reliance on imported domestic animals, the settlers adopted a flexible and diverse approach to their subsistence strategies and reciprocal trade networks in much the same way as in Iceland (Vesteinsson et al  2002, 9), and managed, initially, with a degree of success.

The two known sites in the New World – L’Anse Aux Meadows and Tanfield Valley perhaps fit the profile of the image we have of Viking seafarers. The expeditions to these sites were fraught with danger from natural sources and also the known risk of conflict with the native inhabitants of these areas. The risk was deemed worthwhile but to what end? The initial motivation to conquer and settle the New World may be evident in the substantial buildings they erected, but not evident in the lack of visible subsistence practices and cultural deposits left behind. What is evident is that there was some successful contact with the indigenous population, but for how long and was this contact always peaceful? It is becoming more plausible that the two New World sites were highly important outposts used seasonally by a large group of entrepreneurial Greenlanders for the purpose of increasing their wealth by trading luxurious and exotic items. The anticipated publication of Sutherland’s findings may divulge more evidence to elucidate the motivation and organisation behind these voyages to the New World and how the Norse lived in the New World once they had arrived.




Abrams, L. 2009 Early Religious Practice in the Greenland Settlement in Norse Greenland: Selected papers from the Hvalsey Conference 2008 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 2:52-65

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