The First Settlers of Iceland: An Isotopic Approach to Colonisation

By Price, T. Douglas; Gestsdottir, Hildur | Antiquity, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The First Settlers of Iceland: An Isotopic Approach to Colonisation


Price, T. Douglas, Gestsdottir, Hildur, Antiquity


Introduction

An extraordinary series of events began in the North Sea and North Atlantic region around the eighth century AD. Norse raiders and settlers from Scandinavia, better known as the Vikings, began expanding to the west, settling in the British Isles and Ireland, including the smaller groups of islands, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Stepping across the North Atlantic, Norse colonists reached the Faeroe Islands by around AD 825, Iceland by around AD 875 and Greenland by around AD 895 (Figure 1). Both Iceland and the Faeroe Islands were uninhabited at the time of the Norse colonisation. The Norse also settled briefly in North America at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, around AD 1000 (Jones 1986; Wallace 1991). The Greenland colonies were abandoned by around AD 1450 in the face of deteriorating climate and agricultural conditions.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Thirteenth century Icelandic chroniclers reported that the majority of the original settlers came from Norway but they also thought that a significant number came from the British Isles, of both Norse and Celtic origin. There is some written evidence that people from the Hebrides, Ireland and the west coast of Scotland settled in Iceland, although they were likely to have been of Norwegian descent (Loyn 1977). Contact between Iceland and the Hebrides is mentioned in the Icelandic sagas and is known through artefactual evidence. Although written several hundred years later than the events it describes, the Book of Settlements refers to Hebridean Norsemen who settled especially in western Iceland (Benediktsson 1968).

There is considerable debate regarding the actual timing of the arrival of the first people, with some evidence indicating human activity in Iceland prior to the date of AD 874 suggested by written sources (e.g. Roberts et al. 2003), in some instances as much as a century or two (e.g. Hermanns-Audardottir 1991); however, no evidence of such early settlement has yet been found. Similar types of graves have been found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and in Iceland (Dunwell et al. 1996). However, the homelands of the settlers have long been debated. The Book of Settlements also reports that almost all of the colonists came in the first 60 years of settlement and very few thereafter (Benediktsson 1968), again a subject of uncertainty.

Explanations for this expansion have included ship design, population growth, political unrest and favourable climatic conditions. Whatever the reasons, the colonisation remains a fascinating and rather mysterious subject, with population movement likely from several different areas. Isotopic provenancing of human bone and tooth enamel, a relatively new method for the study of human migration, should work well in the investigation of the settlers of the North Atlantic and their homelands. Iceland was selected as the place to begin our investigations for several reasons. A relatively large number of human burials have been excavated there from the period of initial settlement, providing material for analysis. As Iceland has only recently, in geological time, emerged from the sea, created by submarine volcanic mountain building, the strontium isotope ratio of the soil is quite low. This means that migrants to Iceland from elsewhere will be readily distinguishable from those born there.

Isotopic provenancing of human remains

The method of isotopic provenancing of human remains has been in use in archaeology for approximately 15 years. Isotopes of strontium, oxygen and lead have been used in such studies. The basic principle is essentially the same for the different isotopes and involves comparison of isotope ratios in human tooth enamel and bone. The enamel in teeth forms in early childhood and undergoes little subsequent change (Hillson 1996). Postmortem changes in enamel are minimal. Enamel has been shown to be generally resistant to contamination and a reliable indicator of biogenic levels of strontium isotopes (e. …

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