Through Dirt to the Past : Archaeology in Rural Iceland

By Durrenberger, E. Paul | The World and I, November 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Through Dirt to the Past : Archaeology in Rural Iceland


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?