Skagafjördur Archaeological Settlement Survey Projects  

The Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey (SASS) seeks to identify, catalog and assess the Viking Age and Medieval structures of a Northern Icelandic fjord valley.

The goal of the fieldwork is to survey a small subset of farms in this important Icelandic fjord valley to understand the changes in the settlement pattern from the Viking Age through Early Danish Rule (AD 874-1800). Over this period, Iceland was transformed from a system of chiefdoms to a manorial organization incorporated into the larger Norwegian State. The research seeks to outline the factors and timing involved in this transition. Specifically, the Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey (SASS) will track the selected farms over 900 years to assess the variation in building construction and the economic potential of each farm. The result of this work will be an archaeological characterization of the household economy, which can then be related to the larger, documented, political economy described in the written sources.

The Medieval sagas, written down in the 13th century, describe the events of the Settlement of Iceland (AD 874-930) and of the Commonwealth (AD 930-1264). For the Late Medieval (1264-1500) and Danish periods (1500-1800) a series of tax records tell much about the manorial organization. During the Settlement and Commonwealth periods, Icelandic social structure changed from a collection of autonomous farmers who each held large territories, to a nationwide assembly of chieftains, and finally to state. Over this period, the climate became more variable and cooler. At the same time, overgrazing and forest clearance destroyed a substantial percentage of the productive land. The Medieval and Danish periods saw the rise and fall of the manorial system. In our study area, the Bishopric of Hólar and other church organizations owned upwards of 65% of the farms. The independent farmer, wooed by the local chieftains of the first period, ended up a serf on the land. While the sources tell us who was successful and who failed, they do not tell us why.

Most buildings from these periods were constructed of turf and are now buried in deep wind-blown deposits, thereby making them almost impossible to identify systematically. In 1999, Dr. Steinberg's NSF-funded "High Risk Experimental Research" addressed these archaeological problems with electro-magnetic remote sensing techniques. The research showed that specific electrical conductivity signatures signaled deeply buried and sometimes well preserved Viking Age houses. Once these buried structures are located, dating their construction with the sequence of volcanic tephra layers is routine.

If the sagas are correct, Settlement Age Iceland is one of the relatively few examples of the formation of property rights without the presence of a strong central government. The other notable example is that of 1849-1852 California (before it became a state) when miners formed districts. Solving the buried-turf-structure problem opens up Iceland to the examination of the demographic changes that took place from the initial formation of property rights, through the development of chiefdoms, and to the incorporation into the Norwegian State. The archaeological data gathered by the SASS project will allow scholars to better understand the advantages of being the first to settle a landscape, the importance of farm economic potential for political success, and the changing ratio of land and labor to the fall of the chiefly and manorial systems.

Poster: Using Tephrochronology to Assess the Tempo of Settlement in Viking Age Iceland

Poster: The application of shallow geophysics towards complete settlement patterns of Viking Age Iceland

Blog of the Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey

Reports of the Skagafjörður Archaeological Settlement Survey

This work was funded by the US National Science Foundation (BCS # 9908836, 0107413, 0453892, 0731371, ARC # 0909393) and the Wenner-Gren Fund for Anthropological Research. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or supporting institutions or individuals. Products or instruments mentioned should not be construed as an endorsement.