The Case of the Greenlandic Assembly Sites
By Alexandra Sanmark
Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 2 (2010)
Abstract: In the early 20th century, scholars identified two possible Greenlandic assembly sites at Brattahalíð and Garðar respectively. Later scholars, with one exception, have neither refuted nor corroborated this, and research on this topic has therefore not significantly moved forward in the last 100 years. In this article, the two proposed assembly sites are examined in the light of recent research. It is demonstrated that there are striking similarities between the Greenlandic and Scandinavian and Icelandic assembly sites, which strongly support the identification of the former as assembly sites. Further archaeological fieldwork is, however, needed in order to clarify the issues raised in this paper as well as providing new evidence, particularly for dating.
Introduction: In the early 20 century, two “booth” sites in Greenland were identified, one at Brattahlíð (Qassiarsuk) and another at Garðar (Igaliku), which, after some debate, were accepted by leading scholars as the remains of thing (assembly) sites. Later scholars, with the exception of H.C. Gulløv, have avoided discussing the function of these sites, and, as a result, the early reports have not been properly evaluated. The existence of a thing organization is inferred by a letter dated 1389 mentioning an alþing (general assembly) in Greenland, although without further specification. There are also written references to thing sites and thing-related activities at both Brattahlíð and Garðar.
The presence of thing organizations across theScandinavian homelands as well as in the Norse colonies demonstrates their significance to Norse society. Medieval sources from Iceland and Scandinavia show a well-organized administrative system, where each district had its own assembly, although the nature of this system varied slightly between areas. Thing sites have been identified in the Viking settlements of the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands,the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, Ireland, mainland Scotland, and England. Naturally, not all of these sites have been identified in the landscape, but by place-name evidence only.