Did the Norsemen reach the frozen shores of Svalbard during the Viking Age?

Whether or not the Norsemen discovered the barren Arctic archipelago of Svalbard in the Viking Age remains a rather debated matter nowadays. Theoretically, given their in-depth knowledge on ship building and navigation, the Norsemen were able of reaching Svalbard.

There are far greater milestones with regard to Norse exploration which can be identified as furtherest eastward as the Caspian Sea (trading even on the Silk Road) and as furtherest westward as Vinland, modern day Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Illustration from a 16th century chronicle entitled ‘Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus’ (‘The History of the Northern Peoples’) by Olaus Magnus, depicting a group of Norsemen transporting their longship on land. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

So it is that reaching the frozen shores of Svalbard during the end of the Viking Age does not seem such a far-fetched achievement after all. Nonetheless, several questions inevitably arise while we are at it, most notably when exactly was Svalbard spotted for the very first time and by whom.

According to some Old Norse annals from Iceland, Svalbard was supposedly discovered after a 4 day voyage east of Iceland in 1194. ‘Svalbarði’ (as the archipelago was known in Old Norse and still referred to as in Icelandic) could have been known to both Icelanders and Norwegians throughout the Viking Age. These islands also appear described under this collective name in the Icelandic chronicle ‘Landnámabók’ (‘The Book of the Settlements’).

However, it is not known for certain if the denomination ‘Svalbarði’ actually referred to Svalbard proper. Chances are it could have actually been either the volcanic isle of Jan Mayen (which is closer to Iceland in the east) or part of the eastern coast of Greenland (which is located westward of Iceland). Furthermore, in Old Norse ‘Svalbarði’ translates to ‘cold shores’, which further complicates the quest.

The second edition of ‘Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarum’ (‘Sea map and description on the northern realms’) by Swedish scholar Olaus Magnus does not mention Svalbard. Instead, Greenland is placed both eastward and westward of Iceland. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Even if the Norsemen did firstly spot Svalbard at some point in the late 12th century, in reality, it is quite improbable that they established a temporary (let alone permanent) settlement in Svalbard in the process, given the lack of archaeological resources.

This alleged medieval discovery is shrouded in the obscurity of a few mentions rooted in the earliest Icelandic manuscripts, yet no hard archaeological or historical evidence was discovered (to date, at least).

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