First evidence of cryptotephra in palaeoenvironmental records associated with Norse occupation sites in Greenland

Simon P.E. Blockley, Kevin J. Edwards, J. Edward Schofield, Sean D.F. Pyne-O'Donnell, Britta J.L. Jensen, Ian P. Matthews, Gordon T. Cook, Kristi L. Wallace, Duane Froese

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15 Citations (Scopus)


The Norse/Viking occupation of Greenland is part of a dispersal of communities across the North Atlantic coincident with the supposed Medieval Warm Period of the late 1st millennium AD. The abandonment of the Greenland settlements has been linked to climatic deterioration in the Little Ice Age as well as other possible explanations. There are significant dating uncertainties over the time of European abandonment of Greenland and the potential influence of climatic deterioration. Dating issues largely revolve around radiocarbon chronologies for Norse settlements and associated mire sequences close to settlement sites. Here we show the potential for moving this situation forward by a combination of palynological, radiocarbon and cryptotephra analyses of environmental records close to three ‘iconic’ Norse sites in the former Eastern Settlement of Greenland – Herjolfsnes, Hvalsey and Garðar (the modern Igaliku). While much work remains to be undertaken, our results show that palynological evidence can provide a useful marker for both the onset and end of Norse occupation in the region, while the radiocarbon chronologies for these sequences remain difficult. Significantly, we here demonstrate the potential for cryptotephra to become a useful tool in resolving the chronology of Norse occupation, when coupled with palynology. For the first time, we show that cryptotephra are present within palaeoenvironmental sequences located within or close to Norse settlement ruin-groups, with tephra horizons detected at all three sites. While shard concentrations were small at Herjolfsnes, concentrations sufficient for geochemical analyses were detected at Igaliku and Hvalsey. WDS-EPMA analyses of these tephra indicate that, unlike the predominantly Icelandic tephra sources reported in the Greenland ice core records, the tephra associated with the Norse sites correlate more closely with volcanic centres in the Aleutians and Cascades. Recent investigations of cryptotephra dispersal from North American centres, along with our new findings, point to the potential for cryptotephra to facilitate hypothesis testing, providing a key chronological tool for refining the timing of Norse activities in Greenland (e.g. abandonment) and of environmental contexts and drivers (e.g. climate forcing).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)145-157
Number of pages13
JournalQuaternary Geochronology
Early online date26 Feb 2015
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2015

Bibliographical note

The Leverhulme Trust (F/00 152/Q) are thanked for the funding of fieldwork. Paul Buckland, Eva Panagiotakopulu and Andy McMullen assisted with the collection of samples, Fiona Thompson with palynology at Igaliku, and Alison Sandison with artwork. Support to DF and BJ is provided by grants from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We are also very grateful for the useful comments and advice of an anonymous referee.


  • Greenland
  • Norse
  • Tephra
  • Palyngology
  • Radiocarbon


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