Exploring UNESCO world heritage in Greenland | Carlsbergfondet
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Exploring UNESCO world heritage in Greenland

The Carlsberg Foundation's 'Semper Ardens' Research Project

The Carlsberg Foundation Semper Ardens research project ‘Activating Arctic Heritage’ explores two recently appointed UNESCO World Cultural Heritage properties in West Greenland. The research focuses on creating new knowledge on the cultural history of the UNESCO areas by combining archaeological, historical and scientific studies of Inuit and Norse sites from c. 1000 – 1900 AD - a period including drastic environmental and cultural changes.

By Bjarne Grønnow, dr.phil., Research Professor at National Museum of Denmark

The research project ‘Activating Arctic Heritage’ aims at providing data regarding preservation of vulnerable Arctic sites and at developing new methods across disciplines for analyzing ancient culture layers. Co-creation is an integral part of the inquiries, involving local organizations and citizens in the two UNESCO areas. 

Fig. 1 In 2019 the ‘Activating Arctic Heritage’ Project carried out initial archaeological surveys in the ‘Aasivissuit-Nipisat’ UNESCO World Heritage area. Numerous remains of large communal houses from the 17th – 18th century – as seen in the background – were found, showing that the Inuit population was once very high. (Photo: Bjarne Grønnow).

Recently, two areas in Greenland were appointed UNESCO World Cultural Heritage acknowledging the unique cultural historical assets of the properties, Aasivissuit-Nipisat and Kujataa. Our research project benefits from the world-wide attention, the present momentum, and the unique research opportunities resulting from these appointments.

The geographical positions of the two UNESCO World Cultural Heritage areas in Greenland.
Aasivissuit-Nipisat: The Landscape of the Hunters
Aasivissuit-Nipisat at the Arctic Circle reaches from the archipelago in the Davis Strait to the Inland Ice. Traces of a 4,400 years long tradition of hunting and fishing - old settlements and paths marked by cairns – characterize this UNESCO property. Families still make annual journeys to hunt caribou, retracing the same ancient pathways as their ancestors.
Kujataa: Unique Arctic Agricultural Landscapes
The Kujataa UNESCO area in South Greenland includes rich Inuit, Norse and Colonial cultural remains. The current sheep-farming society is rooted in the early colonial times, when families of Danish/Inuit origin subsisted on husbandry in the area. The modern farmers utilize the same cultural landscapes that were formed through centuries of Norse farming, from c. 1000 – 1450 AD.

Activating Arctic Heritage

The project offers an interdisciplinary research program providing new empirical knowledge about small-scale societies in extreme environments. How did the ancient Inuit and Norse societies in Greenland cope with often drastically changing life conditions determined by radical environmental, cultural, economic and demographic shifts?

Archaeological investigations of key sites in the two UNESCO areas combined with written and oral sources and studies of environmental changes will provide new insights. The cultural and environmental dynamics from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age (c. 1000 – 1900 AD) are targeted. Through novel theoretical and methodological approaches, the project also investigates human and natural impacts on the preservation of sites in the UNESCO areas. 

Dialogues and Co-creation

In ‘Activating Arctic Heritage’ knowledge production is based on co-creation. Together with local organizations the project organizes UNESCO-festivals and educational initiatives and welcomes local citizens’ participation in field work. Insights from dialogues between researchers and citizens shape the inquiries of the project.

Finally, ‘Activating Arctic Heritage’ explores the present moment of transition, where attention to Arctic cultural heritage is shifting from a local to a global scale. The project strengthens cultural awareness in the local communities and all of Greenland, and it feeds into the growing cultural tourism, centered on the UNESCO areas. 

Running from 2019 to 2023, the project combines archaeological and natural scientific expertise from the national museums of Denmark and Greenland. Local citizens, museums and UNESCO organizations are close partners.    

Enriching the Cultural Heritage in the UNESCO areas

In the UNESCO area, Aasivissuit-Nipisat, the studies put the local cultural history into regional and global perspectives by exploring the origins, developments, and decline of Inuit settlement and trade during the 15th – 19th century. New knowledge will be gained through excavations of culture layers at sites with large Inuit ‘communal houses’ and at aasiviit, the traditional Greenlandic ‘gathering places’, where Inuit from near and far met for socializing and trading with European whalers. 

Fig. 2 The Nipisene site today is the result of both the destruction of the fort by the Dutch following the abandonment in 1731 and later Inuit activities. Large communal houses exploiting the turf walls of the three-winged fort were built. Nepisene (Nipisat) is now classified as UNESCO World Heritage and target for excavations. (Photo: Henning Matthiesen).

Likewise, the interactions between the Inuit and the early Norwegian/Danish colonists, e.g. at the fortified colony Nepisene in 1729, will be explored.

Nepisene: A Colonial Failure at the End of the World

Great expectations to profit from whaling and trade with Inuit as well as competition with the Dutch led Frederik d. 4th to establish a fortified colony in the far north, Nepisene, in 1729. Huge expenses, failing whale hunting and an incompetent governor resulted in the abandonment of the colony after only three miserable years.

In the Kujataa UNESCO area the research group examines the living conditions, health, inequalities and trade-offs that shaped access to food and resources as well as workload and housing during the Norse period (c. 1000 – 1450 AD).

Past lifeways are reconstructed through bio-archaeological and physical-anthropological studies of human remains from medieval church yards. The underexposed Norse cultivation and import of cereals and vegetables is studied through preserved seeds in soils from middens.

Fig. 3 Field school students excavating one of five human skeletons found during the investigations in 2019 of the upper layers at the church yard at the bishops see, Gardar/Igaliku in the Kujataa UNESCO World Heritage area. (Photo: Jette Arneborg).

Inuit migration took place in the wake of the Norse abandonment of the Eastern Settlement. A project team conducts high precision mapping of these Inuit sites. Data collected during field work allow modelling subsistence and settlement patterns during the last five centuries.      

Natural sciences and heritage

By analyzing cores from sediments in fresh water lakes a research team provides background data on environmental change in the two UNESCO areas. This forms background data for the archaeologists’ inquiries on changing life conditions. Soil samples from key sites will be analyzed for ‘hidden information’ on diet and environment - archaeology on a molecular scale. 

Fig. 4 Culture layers in ancient middens and dwellings at the coasts are heavily eroded by wave action. In order to salvage information on past life conditions, scientific analyses of both visible remains, like the white animal bones, and micro-scale traces of DNA, lipids, insects and plants form a core activity of the project. (Photo: Bjarne Grønnow).

Studies of ancient DNA and lipids as well as insect and plant remains are combined with analyses of faunal remains. Finally, the project develops remote sensing methods (based on satellite and drone images) to gain information on impacts of global warming and tourism on vulnerable sites in order to identify a balance between use and protection of the UNESCO areas.


  • Grønnow, B., Meldgaard, M. and Nielsen, J. B. 1983.  Aasivissuit - The Great Summer Camp. Archaeological, ethnographical and zoo-archaeological studies of a caribou-hunting site in West Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland, Man and Society, Vol. 5, 1983: 96pp.

  • Jensen, Jens F.; Andreasen, C.; Fleischer-Lyberth, P; Løgstrup, L.; Poulsen, H. H.; Olafson, O,R.; Løbentoft-Jessen, A-J.; Barr, S; Meldgaard; M. 2017. Nomination of Aasivissuit-Nipisat. Inuit Hunting Ground between Ice and Sea for Inclusion on the World Heritage List. – Rosendahls, Copenhagen: 192 pp.

  • Vésteinsson, Orri 2016. Kujataa – a subarctic farming landscape in Greenland. A nomination to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1536/documents/: 265 pp.