Through Dirt to the Past : Archaeology in Rural Iceland

By Durrenberger, E. Paul | The World and I, November 2003 | Go to article overview
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Through Dirt to the Past : Archaeology in Rural Iceland


Durrenberger, E. Paul, The World and I


The first settlers came to Iceland little more than a thousand years ago. Eventually, more than thirty chieftains from Norway, with their followers and slaves, occupied the island. During the twelfth century, their descendants started to write down everything known about the settlement and the events of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries. During the thirteenth century, the competition among the chieftains became fierce, and soon only five remained. By 1262 there was only one. He then became a subject of the king of Norway. This effectively ended Icelandic self- government until 1944, when the modern country gained independence.

During the struggle for independence, Iceland followed the rest of Europe in its attempt to build a national culture. As in Scandinavia and Europe, there was great interest in collecting and preserving folklore from the countryside. In this period, the manuscripts of the famous Icelandic sagas were found being used as shirt patterns and recycled in other ways. Scholars rescued and collected them. These scholars began to study the manuscripts, standardize the spellings and versions, and prepare and publish standard editions.

Along with these efforts there was a drive to purify the Icelandic language of the influences of Danish and other languages. The independence movement developed the idea of a pure Icelandic language preserved in the countryside, a folk wisdom preserved in the folklore, and a continuous oral tradition going back to the first settlement. Many Icelanders even have names that are the same as those of the famous characters of the saga times.

Icelandic archaeologists also respect the power of oral tradition. They believe they can locate sites by talking to people who live in places that still bear the names used in the sagas. Farms are a potentially rich source of information. Some are known to have been in use for most of the thousand years of Iceland's settlement. Farmhouses and barns are generally built on a rise overlooking a hayfield below. Ask the farmer and he'll likely tell you that the original settlement farm is close to where his house stands today, up on the rise.

There haven't been many excavations of settlement-period farms in such places, but the basic business of farms may have changed little over the centuries. It's too cold in Iceland to grow anything outdoors except grass, so farmers specialize in livestock husbandry. Sheep and cattle predominate. The animals have to be kept indoors over the winter. Each spring, people shovel out the stable areas and piles of refuse build up beside barns. Imagine what that means. Farms may literally sit on top of thousand-year-old dung heaps, potential records of history, continuously deposited since the era of the sagas.

See through the soil

It has been notoriously difficult for foreign archaeologists to work in Iceland. One American archaeologist wanted to study the diet of the early settlers and farmers. What better way to find out, he thought, than to recover the remains of their food in those deep barn-door deposits. He located deposits that were washing into the sea, but his research encountered significant opposition. Some Icelanders thought it was the height of heresy to let this foreigner take historic treasures such as fish and animal bones from the eroding dung heap.

Those attitudes are gradually changing. Today, Icelandic archaeologists are more welcoming of the technical expertise of their foreign colleagues. For example, in 1998, Icelandic archaeologist Gudmundur Olafsson was excavating the homestead of Erik the Red (the discoverer of Greenland and father of Leif Eriksson) in the Westfjords. He invited John Steinberg, an archaeologist from the University of California in Los Angeles, to use electronic sensing gear to search an area approximately 150 by 150 feet, adjoining the site. Olafsson believed that an outbuilding must have stood somewhere in the space.

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Through Dirt to the Past : Archaeology in Rural Iceland
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