Kujataa – a subarctic farming landscape in Greenland

Date of Submission: 29/01/2003
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(v)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Cultural Heritage AgencySlotsholsgade 1 DK- 1216 Copenhagen KE-mail: kuas@kuas.dk
Coordinates: Narsaq and Qaqortoq, West Greenland Area: 2952 km2
Ref.: 1781
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The area, which has Tunulliarfikfjord as its axis, has a length of 100 km and stretches over the municipalities of Narsaq and Qaqortoq. Relatively low mountainous terrain in the inner parts of the fjords is covered by richly flowering subarctic vegetation, whereas the coastal fringe consists of an archipelago teeming with numerous small and somewhat larger islands carrying oceanic low heath vegetation. The climate also varies between these two parts of the area and, together with the dissimilarities in the biotopes, this has determined and still determines occupations and existence in the area. The Eskimo/Greenlandic culture; Traces of the Eskimo culture are mainly found along the coast and in the archipelago, in the form of ruins of turf houses, tent foundations, stone built meat caches, hunting beds and graves. On the north side of the islands of Tuttutoq and Illutalik, opposite the town of Narsaq, large clusters of ruined winter houses can be seen that were in use from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the 20th century. Some have been investigated by archaeologists and it is possible to follow the evolution and changes of the Thule Eskimo tradition over this time span up to the time when the culture can be termed Greenlandic. In this ultimate phase, they meet the Norwegians and Danes, and begin the coexistence with these which gradually leads to them abandoning their old settlements and building traditions. Several abandoned settlements can be found inside the area defined. A special example of these is the settlement of Igaliku, where a Norwegian, Anders Olsen, along with his Eskimo wife Tuperna, settled as a farmer at the end of the 18th century. This marked the founding here of a Greenland farming dynasty. The farmers built their houses of stone taken from the farm of the Medieval bishop and reintroduced sheep and cattle breeding traditions that have continued to the present day. This settlement has preserved a special character that is particularly well seen in the older buildings which are what still characterise Igaliku. Hence, within the area that has been defined, the ruins offer the opportunity of tracing the evolution of the Eskimo Greenlandic culture from the 15th and 16th centuries into the 20th century when other kinds of employment than hunting made new forms of settlement necessary. The Medieval Norse culture – Hvalsø; The ruined church at Hvalsø is the best preserved Norse Medieval ruin. It is built of stone and apart from its roof it remains almost complete with gables standing up to about 5 m high. Not far away is a hall constructed using the same techniques as in the church and similarly well preserved. Architecturally, these ruins are an expression of the contacts which existed with both Norway and the islands of northern Scotland; they are also in keeping with contemporary styles prevailing on the continent. They thus demonstrate surprising internationality despite the remoteness of this locality in relation to the Medieval cultural power centres in Europe. The church is assumed to have been erected around 1300 and must be seen as an expression of the dynamism that conveyed both the cultural and the religious currents inside the spiritual empire of the Roman Catholic church. At the same time, it is an expression of the vitality prevailing in this westernmost part of the Norse world, which testifies to the will of the people for continued fellowship with the Norwegian/Icelandic world from which they originated, as well as with the rest of Christianity. Icelandic sources dating from 1414 and 1424 tell of a wedding that took place in Hvalsø church in 1408. This is the last that is known of the Norse communities in Greenland, which are assumed to have been abandoned around 1500. The episcopal residence at Gardar; The episcopal residence and related buildings, now in the settlement of Igaliku, belong to a see that was established in 1126. The see was dedicated to St. Nicholas and functioned with a bishop until the end of the 14th century. A cathedral was erected along with a residence for the bishop and various service facilities. The church underwent several alterations, ending as a cruciform cathedral whose foundations can be seen today. The buildings were placed on the largest plain in the Eastern Settlement (the larger of the two settlements that made up the Norse community in Greenland) and stood as a compact core of 10 buildings surrounded by more than 40 service facilities, dwellings and other buildings scattered over the plain. These 10 ruins mostly consist of the stone foundations of the walls in their original positions so that the extent of the settlement, both individual buildings and collectively, can be determined and understood. There are probably very few countries in the world where Christianity was introduced twice, but this is actually the case in Greenland. Here, at Igaliku, was "Gardar", the westernmost Roman Catholic see and also the first in the western hemisphere in pre-Columbian time. The Christian message was administered from here, the centre of the Norse Eastern Settlement, until the settlements were abandoned around 1500. We know the names of the bishops, and with the placenames and the names of persons identified the locality becomes an important reference point for both Greenlandic Norse history and our understanding of the dissemination of European civilisation in the Middle Ages. Significant agricultural production went on in connection with the see, too, and there were stalls for about 100 cows. To be able to feed all these animals it was necessary to ensure stable production from the fields. To maintain this, an extensive irrigation system was constructed, with reservoirs at several levels and canals which spread out across the entire plain. The see ran the largest farm in Greenland, and its ruins help us to understand how the Medieval Greenland farmer laid his agrarian strategy. Brattahlid; Southern Greenland was colonised from Iceland around the mid 1980's, and the leader of this movement, the legendary chieftain Erik the Red, occupied land innermost in the fjord of Tunulliarfik, calling the place Brattahlid and the fjord Eriksfjord. This place is identified as the present sheep farming settlement of Qassiarsuk, where it is now possible to see the ruins of a large Norse community. Archaeological excavations show that the place was inhabited throughout the Norse period, partly as the seat of the secular authorities. According to written Icelandic sources, it was also from here, at the beginning of the 11th century, that the ships which discovered North America sailed. The same sources also relate that Greenland's first church, and therefore also the first church in the western hemisphere, was built at Brattahlid by Erik the Red's wife, Tjodhilde. Archaeological investigations in the 1960's were able to confirm this. No surface traces of this church were to be seen, but on the basis of the archaeological observations a turf bank has now been constructed to mark the extent of this little church. The other ruins date from the final phase of the settlement and demonstrate the rich variation in the types of buildings in use in the Norse community. Close to the fjord, there are also two excavated and reconstructed 17th century Eskimo ruins. Miscellaneous features; In addition to the groups of ruins described above, the area that has been defined also contains other large and small clusters of ruins. Together, they constitute a significant portion of the Medieval Norse cultural landscape in southern Greenland. Thanks to their location in a relatively barren, marginal area with a low population density, this unique cultural landscape has largely been preserved intact. Unlike anywhere else within the Nordic cultural sphere, it is possible to observe buildings of various kinds and with various functions that play, along with landscape elements, roles in the "social space" which was the setting and scene of action for the Greenlandic Norse culture. This area offers an absolutely exceptional example of the onset of a culture, its development and its demise, all within a period of some 500 years.