Essays, Historical Places, The Lost Settlements
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Lost Viking Settlements: 3. Iceland’s Age of Settlement (part 2)

This is the second part of an article on Lost Viking Settlements: Iceland. Part 1 discusses the pre-Settlement site. The third part is on the Commonwealth Era.

The Age of Settlement

Between 870 and 930, settlers flocked to Iceland. It is the time we now refer to as the Age of Settlement. Traces of settlers’ lives are visible in archaeological discoveries and in stories about their lives. Yet, scribes write about these stories not when they happened. The oldest writings we have today date at least 300 years (!) later. These are the ├Źslendingab├│k and Landn├ímab├│k, and, of course, the Icelandic sagas. The sources can be helpful, sometimes, in finding a farmstead where a family or hero from the sagas might have lived. But caution is always necessary, for despite the occasional fact these are still subjective, literary works.

For this article, I am using the term ÔÇśfarmsteadÔÇÖ as a site of multiple buildings where a small community would have lived of family, relatives, slaves.

Dating the Farmsteads

Nowadays, archaeologists use tephrochronology to date these farmsteads. This method is based on volcanic ash that fell on the land during an eruption. Over time, new soil will gather on top of this layer and bury it deeper into the ground. There is one such tephra-layer in Iceland that is dated, with help of the study of GreenlandÔÇÖs ice cores, to 871 CE, give or take two years. As a result, archaeologists can now more accurately determine if the site is pre-settlement, Settlement or Commonwealth era.1

Just consider, this knowledge makes the dates mentioned in the ├Źslendingab├│k and Landn├ímab├│k amazingly accurate, too!2

If you are looking for a full overview of all the discovered farmsteads in Iceland, there is a fine list by Orri V├ęsteinsson.3 He also discusses how the settlers went about choosing and claiming their land. And there is also much more to say about why the settlers went to Iceland. That, however, justifies a full, future article. In this article, I will stick to the farmsteads that archaeologists mark as ÔÇśabandonedÔÇÖ at some point during the Middle Ages.

Abandonment or Relocation

There are numerous reasons why the medieval Icelanders abandoned their farms. Farms in the highlands might not last because of the fragile ecosystem, or harsh conditions. It seems the lowland farms where such conditions would have been more stable, remained occupied for much, much longer.4 Sometimes, we know that a family would have gone away. For example, when Eirik the Red and his family abandoned the farm to move to Greenland (see below). In other cases, there could have been landslides or volcanic eruptions. And in many cases, it is simply guesswork because there is too little evidence.

The Settlement Age Sites

Map of Iceland, Age of Settlement (Source: The Viking Age Archive).

Skagafj├Âr├░ur, northern Iceland

Near Langholt in Skagafj├Âr├░ur about 22 farms(steads) existed. Archaeological shreds of evidence show many domesticated animal remains. There are no signs of pre-settlement activities. This makes it likely that the farms were built in the Settlement Age. Two of the farms stand out because they seem to have moved: St├│ra-Seyla and Glaumb├Žr. St├│ra-Seyla was abandoned just before 1100, and Glaumb├ŽrÔÇÖs abandonment seems to have coincided with the eruption of Hekla in 1104.5

├×egjandadalur, northern Iceland

In the valley of ├×egjandadalur there are still ruins to see. Some well above the ground, others barely visible. They suggest a small farming community and two of the best-preserved sites have been excavated. At Ingir├ş├░arsta├░ir a pre-Christian gravesite was discovered dating to the Viking Age. A comb from the Viking Age was found here, too. The sites seem to have been abandoned in the late medieval period.6

Eir├şkssta├░ir, Iceland (Source: Wikipedia / Bromr).

Eir├şkssta├░ir, western Iceland

One site that linked to the sagas, is Eir├şkssta├░ir, the home of Eirik the Red. They excavated the ruins of a longhouse found here in the 1990s. The longhouse was struck by a landslide at one point and parts of the house rebuilt. More importantly, the farmstead appears to have been abandoned in the tenth century when, according to the sagas, Eirik and his family sailed for Greenland.7 Today, a museum is located in a replica of the original house.

Herj├│lfsdalur, Westman Islands, southern Iceland

The Landnámabók states that Herjólfur Barðursson as the first settler of the Westman Island in southern Iceland. In 1924, the ruins of a building was found. The first archaeological dig only took place by the 1970s, but the results were rewarding. A pollen studies revealed that whereas in pre-settlement times there was only a fishing camp on the island, the first settlers took to farming and the agriculture heavily impacted the ecosystem on the island.

In all, the excavation revealed a total of eight houses including human remains. Dating the farmstead with the methods available in the 1970s was more limited. The leading archaeologist believed the remains of a landslide possibly dated the oldest building a before 871. The dating of the landslide at 871 then debunked this theory. However, until today some still believe the pre-settlement date could be true. There are no further conclusions or confirmations I could find in my research so far. In any case, the farmstead was abandoned around 1100 and today you can see a reconstructed farm on site.8

Reconstructed farm at Herj├│lfsdalur (Source: World Tree Project / Herjo╠ülfsb├Žrfe╠ülagi├░).

├×j├│rs├írdalur, southern Iceland

In 1939, an excavation took place at Skallalot in ├×j├│rs├írdalur. It revealed the structure of a longhouse. When archaeologists revisited the site in 2001, they found the turf walls of the house date back to c. 870 and that the house was probably abandoned before the eruption of 1104.9

References


  1. Orri V├ęsteinsson, ÔÇśPatterns of settlement in Iceland: a study in prehistory.ÔÇÖ In: Saga Book (Viking Society of Northern Research), Volume 25.1 (1998), pp. 2ÔÇô4 [pp. 1ÔÇô29].  ↩
  2. See ├Źslendingab├│k Kristnisaga, The Book of the Icelanders The Story of the Conversion. Translated by Si├ón Gr├Şnlie. (London: University College London, 2006), pp. 4.
    Landnámabók
    . Translated by Hermann P├ílsson and Paul Edwards. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006) [reprint], pp. 20.  ↩
  3. Orri V├ęsteinsson (1998).  ↩
  4. Douglas Bolender, John Steinberg, & B.N. Damiata, B.N., ÔÇśFarmstead relocation at the end of the Viking Age: results of the Skagafj├Ârdur archaeological settlement survey.ÔÇÖ In: Archaeologica Islandica Volume 9 (2011), pp. 83 [pp. 77ÔÇô101].  ↩
  5. Douglas Bolender, John Steinberg, & B.N. Damiata, B.N. (2011), pp. 85, 88ÔÇô89.
    Grace M. Cesario, Skagafj├Âr├░ur Archaeological Settlement Survey, 2008 Excavations. The Archaeofauna of St├│raÔÇôSeyla Area C and Area D. [CUNY NORSEC Laboratory Report No. 63], pp. 5, 9. Last Updated 19 November 2019. Last Accessed 28 June 2020.  ↩
  6. H.M. Roberts (ed.), Excavations at A├░alstr├Žti, 2003. (Reykjav├şk: Fornleifastofnun ├Źslands, 2004), pp. 6, 37.  ↩
  7. ÔÇśArchaeological research,ÔÇÖ Eir├şkssta├░ir. Last Accessed 28 June 2020. http://eiriksstadir.is/en/archaeologicalÔÇôresearch/.  ↩
  8. Margr├ęt HermannsÔÇÉAudard├│ttir, ÔÇśThe Early Settlement of Iceland. Results based on excavations of a Merovingian and Viking farm site at herj├│lfsdalur in the Westman Islands, Iceland,ÔÇÖ in: Norwegian Archaeological Review. Volume 24.1 (1991), 1ÔÇô9. doi.org/10.1080/00293652.1991.9965524.
    ÔÇśArchaeological Remains Discovered in Vestmannaeyjar,ÔÇÖ Iceland Review. Published 4 November 2014. Last Accessed 28 June 2020. https://www.icelandreview.com/news/archaeologicalÔÇôremainsÔÇôdiscoveredÔÇôvestmannaeyjar/.  ↩
  9. Steffen Stummann Hansen, Orri V├ęsteinsson (eds.), Archaeological investigations in ├×j├│rs├írdalur 2001. (Reykjav├şk: Fornleifastofnun ├Źslands, 2002), pp. 11ÔÇô12.  ↩

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