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 Íslendingabók and Landnámabók, 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 ‘farmstead’ 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 Greenland’s 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 Íslendingabók and Landnámabók 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 Vésteinsson.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 ‘abandoned’ 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
Skagafjörður, northern Iceland
Near Langholt in Skagafjörður 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: Stóra-Seyla and Glaumbær. Stóra-Seyla was abandoned just before 1100, and Glaumbær’s abandonment seems to have coincided with the eruption of Hekla in 1104.5
Þegjandadalur, northern Iceland
In the valley of Þegjandadalur 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 Ingiríðarstaðir 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
Eiríksstaðir, western Iceland
One site that linked to the sagas, is Eiríksstaðir, 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.
Herjólfsdalur, 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
Þjórsárdalur, southern Iceland
In 1939, an excavation took place at Skallalot in Þjórsárdalur. 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
- Orri Vésteinsson, ‘Patterns of settlement in Iceland: a study in prehistory.’ In: Saga Book (Viking Society of Northern Research), Volume 25.1 (1998), pp. 2–4 [pp. 1–29]. ↩
- See Íslendingabók Kristnisaga, The Book of the Icelanders The Story of the Conversion. Translated by Siân Grønlie. (London: University College London, 2006), pp. 4.
Landnámabók. Translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006) [reprint], pp. 20. ↩
- Orri Vésteinsson (1998). ↩
- Douglas Bolender, John Steinberg, & B.N. Damiata, B.N., ‘Farmstead relocation at the end of the Viking Age: results of the Skagafjördur archaeological settlement survey.’ In: Archaeologica Islandica Volume 9 (2011), pp. 83 [pp. 77–101]. ↩
- Douglas Bolender, John Steinberg, & B.N. Damiata, B.N. (2011), pp. 85, 88–89.
Grace M. Cesario, Skagafjörður Archaeological Settlement Survey, 2008 Excavations. The Archaeofauna of Stóra–Seyla Area C and Area D. [CUNY NORSEC Laboratory Report No. 63], pp. 5, 9. Last Updated 19 November 2019. Last Accessed 28 June 2020. ↩
- H.M. Roberts (ed.), Excavations at Aðalstræti, 2003. (Reykjavík: Fornleifastofnun Íslands, 2004), pp. 6, 37. ↩
- ‘Archaeological research,’ Eiríksstaðir. Last Accessed 28 June 2020. http://eiriksstadir.is/en/archaeological–research/. ↩
- Margrét Hermanns‐Audardóttir, ‘The Early Settlement of Iceland. Results based on excavations of a Merovingian and Viking farm site at herjólfsdalur in the Westman Islands, Iceland,’ in: Norwegian Archaeological Review. Volume 24.1 (1991), 1–9. doi.org/10.1080/00293652.1991.9965524.
‘Archaeological Remains Discovered in Vestmannaeyjar,’ Iceland Review. Published 4 November 2014. Last Accessed 28 June 2020. https://www.icelandreview.com/news/archaeological–remains–discovered–vestmannaeyjar/. ↩
- Steffen Stummann Hansen, Orri Vésteinsson (eds.), Archaeological investigations in Þjórsárdalur 2001. (Reykjavík: Fornleifastofnun Íslands, 2002), pp. 11–12. ↩