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History professor leads project to study how ancient Norsemen used marine mammals

With her research interests centering on Vikings, the medieval North Atlantic, marine mammal exploitation and environmental history, Western Carolina University Department of History associate professor Vicki Szabo is familiar with the early travels of Norwegians who ventured out to Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and eventually North America from around 800 to 1500.

And while it’s clear how the Norwegians changed the lands they settled in, one area is not so easily understood. Norwegians used whales, seals and walruses, but there is very little information on how they used those mammals, and how often. It’s a story Szabo and about 15 other researchers from seven countries have set out to uncover.

Szabo is the principle investigator for a project titled “Assessing the Distribution and Variability of Marine Mammals through Archaeology, Ancient DNA, and History in the North Atlantic.” The three-year project is being funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation for $473,183. It runs through November 30, 2018.

WCU faculty members Vicki Szabo (left) and Kelly Grisedale (right) watch as senior Hannah Van Hooser (center) examines a whale bone.

The interdisciplinary project “Assessing the Distribution and Variability of Marine Mammals through Archaeology, Ancient DNA and History in the North Atlantic” uses the resources of history, ancient DNA analysis, archaeology, literary studies, biology and folklore to reconstruct medieval Norse uses of marine mammals over a 1,000-year span. WCU faculty members Vicki Szabo (left) and Kelly Grisedale (right) watch as senior Hannah Van Hooser (center) examines a whale bone.

During the period researchers are examining, there were massive climate fluctuations, from the medieval warm period that allowed the Vikings and Norwegians to travel across the North Atlantic, to the Little Ice Age around 1300, which was a cold period.

“What we want to do in our project is see how they are using all of these marine mammals, which were trade commodities, but also, rather often, starvation foods,” Szabo said. “How are they using these marine mammals throughout this really interesting climate change period? We’re looking at Iceland, Scotland, Greenland and maybe North America to try and track patterns of marine mammal use. It’s an exciting story to tell. We really want it to be accessible to the school kids, the public, our students and our colleagues.”

The grant allowed Szabo to hire a student assistant, senior Hannah Van Hooser, a history major from Demorest, Georgia. Van Hooser has completed an archaeological survey and is currently working on a historical project.

“I’m kind of a history nerd,” Van Hooser joked. “I’ve always liked medieval history. I like learning about other cultures and their history. I’m currently working on an Icelandic law book and the history of Greenland.”

The project is a collaboration of historians, archaeologists, biologists, literary scholars and DNA specialists. Among the DNA experts assisting will be Kelly Grisedale, assistant professor and interim director of WCU’s Forensic Science Program. Originally, the project was going to use a laboratory in Sweden for its forensic research. When that fell through, Grisedale offered the use of her lab.

Grisedale said the most challenging part is working with potentially 1000-year-old samples of whale and seal bones and walrus ivory buried or left exposed to various environmental conditions. “The DNA is very degraded and broken down,” she said. “It’s only in tiny fragments.”

“We have great lab facilities in the Forensic Science Program,” Grisedale said. “My role, in conjunction with other labs, is to take some of these old burned samples that can’t really be identified just by looking at them, and doing DNA analysis to determine what species these are, particularly what species of seal or whale or walrus.”

Szabo said most of the bones they will be studying already have been found, although some are still being excavated. In the final year of the project, researchers may go to Greenland and collect bones that have just come out of the permafrost and sample those on the spot, extracting DNA as quickly as possible. Glaciers are melting so quickly, archaeological material is being lost, she added.

“We want to tie this into biology,” Szabo said. “We want to tie this into reconstruction of past animal populations. We want to understand these Norse people better because right now, we only understand how they used the land. We don’t understand how they used the sea. These are longstanding questions in Norse history and archeology.

“I’m excited that Western is the home for a project like this, but we are also partnering with Duke University’s marine lab, the University of Iceland, the National Museums of Scotland and many other partners where students may be able to conduct research. I think the really cool thing about this project is giving students the opportunity to participate in this pretty cutting-edge project.”

Szabo said students from the participating institutions will have the opportunity to go to different locations where research is being done, such as doing lab work in Nova Scotia or going to Iceland to work on archeology.

“Part of the project is to show students how projects like this require interdisciplinary collaboration,” Szabo said.

In June, Szabo will go to Iceland, which is the heart of the project, and then perhaps Nova Scotia next year. One of the goals of the project is to create a short course to prepare students to go abroad and be able to work independently. Szabo said Van Hooser has been her test case.

“She had never really studied the Norse, so I started her off with some books and some readings to get the big picture,” Szabo said. “She has familiarized herself with archaeology. Now, she’s doing some of the history. Hopefully, by the end of this student assistantship, Hannah’s going to be sort of the model of what we do with other students. When she goes off to graduate school, she’s going to have this really unique interdisciplinary skill set.”

For more information on the project, contact Szabo at 828-227-3911.

By Marlon W. Morgan

Categories | The Reporter


Photos | WCU News Services

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