Where was Brattahlid?

Introduction

According to the Landnßmabˇk of Iceland, 985 AD was the year when Icelandic colonists settled in Greenland. The landnßm (the taking of new land) of the country was initiated by an Icelander, EirÝk Ůorvaldsson, also known as Eric the Red.

During the previous three years, Eirik had investigated the coasts and fjords of Greenland, and had chosen the best place for himself. There, in EirÝksfj÷r­ur, he erected a farm and called it Brattahlid (the steep slope). This place probably held the most prominent position in the entire settlement, being the chieftain's see of the original settler. It is very likely that BrattahlÝ­ kept its leading role during the nearly 500 years that the Norse colony existed.

During the 15th century, the Norse settlements were abandoned for reasons still unknown. The once thriving farms were left behind and forgotten. Eventually they turned into insignificant and anonymous piles of rocks and turf, still visible in the landscape today.

But exactly where was the renowned BrattahlÝ­? For more than a century now, it has been a generally accepted fact among researchers that the remains of the farm are to be found in Qassiarsuk, situated in the Tunulliarfik fjord of South Greenland (Figure 1).

A lot of new material has appeared during the last 100 years, however. Excavations and extensive surveys have been conducted, providing a much deeper and more detailed understanding of the settlement and the lifestyle of the medieval Norse Greenlanders.

With this more extensive material at hand, it seems that the old theory concerning the location of BrattahlÝ­ has to be seriously questioned. A new, and more likely candidate is a very large farm site found in Qinngua, only 10 kilometres from the old location of BrattahlÝ­.

Recent years' surveys also raise questions about the theories of the settlement structure itself. It was previously believed that the farms with churches were the centres of the settlement and the places where the chieftains lived. It now seems as if the social structure was somewhat more complex, each region having both a large chieftain farm and nearby, another farm with a church. This division of the prominent farms probably reflects a unique development of the Greenlandic society in comparison with the other Nordic countries — a society where the chieftains remained in control of both churches and their lands.[…]

Locating BrattahlÝ­.

The map showing the distribution of the Norse sites in South Greenland (fig. 2) reveals that the Tunulliarfik fjord was quite densely populated in Norse times. The distance between the individual farms was just one or two kilometres. In addition to these, a large number of saeters are found in the highlands.

It is small wonder that Eric the Red chose this fjord as his domain. It is probably one of the best-suited places for husbandry in the entire country, being far away from the outer coast. The climate is continental with relatively warm summers and steady weather. It is the only place in Greenland where the inner parts of the southern fjords are forested with birch trees and willow bushes reaching heights of six to eight metres. Today, Greenlandic families operate a large number of modern sheep farms in this region.

But where exactly in this region is BrattahlÝ­ to be found?

In Qassiarsuk?

On the western side of the fjord, near the modern settlement Qassiarsuk, lie the ruins of a rather large farm with a church (number ě 29/29a). According to the old theories, this place was the ancient BrattahlÝ­. As most of the ruins were excavated by N°rlund and Stenberger in 1932 (1934), we have a detailed and exact knowledge of the layout of the buildings (see fig. 4). The ruins, however, have been known for centuries, and the church was discovered (and partly excavated) by Reverend J°rgensen as early as 1840 (J°rgensen 1841).

The ruins on the survey plan represent, of course, the last settlement phase of the farm, perhaps dating from the first part of the 15th century. A few might be earlier, though (see Albrethsen 1982). In the northern end of the plain lies the church farm with a dwelling, byres and a parish church. Just south of the small creek lies a smaller farm containing a dwelling, a byre and some other minor houses.

This large farm with a church, consisting of two holdings, has an estimated floor area of 2295 square metres. Because of the size, the good location and the presence of a church, it could, according to N°rlund's criteria, be a candidate for BrattahlÝ­.

In Qinngua?

Further inside the fiord, still on the western side, lies Qinngua (the fjord's end). Greenlandic sheep farming families have in recent times, like Qassiarsuk, settled this place. Here are the ruins of another large farm (number ě 39), beautifully situated near two small creeks. Around the ruins are large modern fields, which belong to the local farmers.

The ruin site has been known for centuries, like the one in Qassiarsuk, but it was not fully surveyed until visited by archaeologists Albrethsen and Berglund in 1970. In July 1999,I conducted another survey at this site, resulting in the plan, shown in figure 5.

As mentioned, this farm site is probably the largest of all known Norse sites, with an estimated floor area of 4652 square metres, or about twice the size of the farm site in Qassiarsuk. The farm seems to consist of three holdings — a very large one in the centre (could be two holdings) with a dwelling, and two or three byres of extraordinary length.

South of the large holding lies a smaller one, with a dwelling, byre and a few other structures. The resemblance between this farm and the smaller holding at the Qassiarsuk farm is evident.

A third average size holding lies to the east, on a low hill facing the fjord. Even though smaller than the central one, it is certainly no less interesting, because of an apparently hitherto unknown church site.

Conclusion.

[…]

The most conspicuous result of the investigation is that it seems that the location of BrattahlÝ­, the renowned chieftain's see, originally settled by Eric the Red, should be reconsidered. The available evidence suggests the large farm site in Qinngua, in the Tunulliarfik fjord of South Greenland as the true location of BrattahlÝ­. Here, in Qinngua, we find not only the largest of all Norse farms in the entire country, but also the possible remains of a church, likely to have been the Lei­ar church at BrattahlÝ­.

Source: Ole Guldager, "BrattahlÝ­ Reconsidered. Some Thoughts on the Social Structure of Medieval Norse Greenland, and the Location of BrattahlÝ­," Archaeologia Islandica (2002): 74,83-84,92.

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