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date: 19 March 2018

The Norse in Iceland

Abstract and Keywords

The Norse discovery and settlement of Iceland in the late ninth century AD offers a test case for the study of human impacts on previously unoccupied landscapes and the formation of new societies under challenging conditions. The Norse Viking Age settlement of the island serves as a cautionary tale about the anthropogenic destruction of fragile environments, while simultaneously providing lessons about the strategic management of marginal ecosystems and nuanced examples of societal evolution and secondary state formation. Archaeological investigation of these processes is complemented by oral traditions preserved in the Icelandic sagas. Although researchers debate the proper use of the sagas, the strength of recent research is its interdisciplinary nature, combining a suite of available tools of inquiry.

Keywords: Viking Age, North Atlantic, Iceland, Norse, Scandinavian history, medieval, archaeology, migration, Landnám

Perceptions of the Norse settlement of Iceland have largely depended on written sources, including sagas and historical works like Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) and Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders). These texts provide details of immense anthropological value, but they have distinct limitations because they are based on oral tradition and were written down a century or more after the Viking Age (AD 790–1100). Reliance on texts is changing due to mounting quantities of data from archaeology and the related hard sciences. As archaeology has matured in Iceland, the discipline is increasingly providing new information not available in the written sources. Archaeological research is going beyond merely confirming or refuting information from written sources by helping to answer questions that the texts cannot. The challenge now is to integrate the two approaches, making use of traditional historical scholarship while simultaneously employing the full potential of archaeology and its subfields of geoarchaeology, zooarchaeology, and ethnobotany, as well as insights from geology, geophysics, palynology, and entomology. Researchers are on the cusp of a flood of new data concerning the Norse in Iceland, promising breakthroughs on a number of key questions, including the settlement of Iceland, the nature of political power, pagan ritual practice, and the processes of Christian conversion.

The extensive corpus of Icelandic sagas—now inscribed in the World Heritage List—plays a key role in Icelandic identity. Since the Middle Ages and until the mid-twentieth century, the sagas were largely read as truthful descriptions of a Viking Golden Age in Iceland, where land was plentiful and men were free (Sveinsson 1953). Interest in the sagas was a key driver in the earliest archaeological work in Iceland. Antiquarians from the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries focused on connecting ruins to saga farms and saga characters (Friðriksson 1994). For these antiquarians, the sagas preserved historical realities that could be further documented through excavation.

Subsequently, the sagas were marshalled in the construction of a national identity during the Icelandic struggle for independence from Danish colonial rule (Byock 1992). During the independence movement, nationalist scholars, such as Sigurður Nordal, stressed the literary achievement of the Icelandic saga writers while questioning the historical reliability of the sagas. These scholars downplayed the role of deeper shared Scandinavian oral traditions preserved in the sagas in order to direct the focus toward the artistic accomplishments of the Icelandic saga authors.

Modern Icelandic archaeologists have distanced themselves from a reliance on information drawn from sagas. Archaeologists have instead sought to establish the independence of archaeology from textual dominance and to demonstrate the capacity of archaeological methods and interpretation to shed their own light on the Icelandic past. Some have stressed that the chronological periods of the Icelandic past known as the Settlement Period (AD 870–930) and Saga Age (AD 870–1056) should be viewed as prehistoric (Vésteinsson 1998). Projects were planned with a methodological approach that purposefully put aside the available texts (Einarsson 1995). These articulations of the past and resultant methodological experiments were instrumental in declaring the independence of Icelandic archaeology from its state as the “handmaiden of history.”

The Norse in IcelandClick to view larger

Figure 1. Iceland. This map indicates the location of sites, fjords, lakes, islands, and regions discussed in the text. Norse settlement clustered along the coast, warmed by the Gulf Stream’s North Atlantic arm. The interior of the island is an inhospitable volcanic desert dominated by glaciers that feed many of the large rivers. Dashed lines show the boundaries of the political quarters established in AD 960.

At this juncture, Icelandic archaeology is poised to move beyond this preoccupation with its independence from the complementary fields of history and saga studies. The oral traditions recorded in the sagas retain important information about early Icelandic society that should not be ignored (see, e.g., Sigurðsson 2004). Recent projects, including the Reykholt Project (Sveinbjarnardóttir 2012) and the Mosfell Archaeological Project (Byock and Zori 2013; Zori and Byock 2014), engage the texts directly. They offer interpretations that use all available data from the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Combing this evidence is challenging, and it is often the case that one approach is prioritized and another marginalized. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the most robust, satisfying, and nuanced understanding of the past will emerge from using these sources together.

Settlement of Iceland

The Timing of the Settlement

Iceland was one of the last large habitable areas of the globe to be settled (Figure 1). Arriving in Iceland in the ninth century AD, Norse settlers from Scandinavia encountered an unoccupied and virgin landscape. Multiple data sets and dating methods, including textual sources, radiocarbon dating, material culture typologies, tephrochronology, and palynology, help establish the timing of the Icelandic settlement. These fields of study agree that the settlement began after AD 850, with the clearest evidence for a large-scale migration coming after AD 870.

A range of historical sources—both Old Norse and other European sources—help to date the settlement. The native Icelandic texts, Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders, ca. 1125) and Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements, ca. mid-1200s based on an earlier, no longer extant version from the early twelfth century), directly describe the timing of the settlement (Rafnsson 1999). Norwegian sources supporting this timing include texts in Latin from the 1170–1180s, that is, Historia Norwegiæ by an anonymous monk and Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium by the Benedictine monk Theodoricus. The texts consistently place the Norse settlement of Iceland around AD 870. Ari Þorgilsson the Learned (1068–1133) writes in his Íslendingabók that Iceland was settled “at the time when Ívarr, son of Ragnarr Loðbrók, caused St. Edmund, the English King, to be killed; and that was 870 years after the birth of Christ according to what is written in his saga” (Benediktsson 1968: 4). Íslendingabók states that the first permanent settler, the Norwegian Ingólfr Árnason “first went to Iceland when Haraldr Finehair was sixteen years old, and for the second time a few years later. He settled south in Reykjavík” (Benediktsson 1968: 5). Scholars debate exact dates, but they generally situate Ingólfr’s first voyage in the late 860s and his second voyage and permanent settlement around 870 (Jóhannesson 1974: 14–15).

Landnámabók, which describes the settlement of the island, holds traditions about the phases of discovery that preceded the permanent settlement. According to this tradition, Naddoðr the Viking was the earliest Norseman to discover Iceland after his ship was blown off course. Subsequently Garðar the Swede explored Iceland and named it Garðarshólm (Garðar’s Island). Raven Flóki Vilgerðarson was the first to attempt to permanently settle the island, but his effort failed because he neglected to collect enough hay for the winter. Flóki’s experiences convinced him to return to Norway and to give the island the less than favorable name Iceland.

Modern archaeological dating methods used in Iceland incorporate radiocarbon dating and tephrochronology, as well as house and artifact typologies. These methods date the earliest Norse structures and anthropogenic changes to the environment to the same date range suggested by the texts. Despite controversial radiocarbon dates from Westman Islands off the southern coast of Iceland that dated the earliest occupation to the eighth century (Hermanns-Auðardóttir 1991), the total suite of radiocarbon dates from Iceland consistently supports a post-870 settlement of the island. The house and artifact types of the earliest settlers are consistent with ninth- and tenth-century archaeological remains found in the Norse homelands and colonies. For example, the earliest Icelanders constructed bow-sided houses from turf, stone, and wood. This architectural style is known from the ninth and tenth centuries in northwestern Norway (e.g., Oma in Rogaland (Skre 1996)), the Scottish Isles (e.g., Underhoull in the Shetlands and Brough of Birsay and the Udal in Orkney; Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998: 155–178) and the Faroes Islands (Kvívík and Toftanes; Arge 2014). The artifacts are also comparable to ninth- and tenth-century finds in Scandinavia and the British Isles (Graham-Campbell 1980). Besides a few heirloom objects, the artifact material dates to the mid ninth century and thereafter.

Iceland, a volcanic island lying on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, sees frequent volcanic eruptions that deposit tephra layers across the island. These layers, which are now datable to within a few years based on analyses of ice cores from Greenland, provide stratigraphic horizons with absolute dates (Grönvold et al. 1995). The technique of using these discrete tephra horizons to create chronologies for sites is called tephrochronology. Especially in the lowlands, where postsettlement erosion has buried Viking Age remains, these tephra layers provide clear dating horizons. The tephra layers vary by region, but the majority of Iceland has some manifestation of a recognizable tephra layer called the Landnám tephra, which derives from an eruption from the Veiðivötn volcanic system that occurred in AD 871±2.

The settlers’ use of turf cut from wetlands for building materials resulted in volcanic tephra layers becoming incorporated into the walls of buildings. The walls of the earliest buildings typically contain the Landnám tephra, indicating a post–AD 871 construction date. In a few instances, indications of pre–AD 871 structures have been found where the in situ Landnám tephra lies atop cultural constructions. The only widely accepted case is a wall fragment found in association with an otherwise post–AD 871 Viking-style house in downtown Reykjavík (Vésteinsson 2006).

Very few other indications of settlement predate the AD 871±2 tephra layer. For instance, pollen studies, which rely on lake and wetland cores that contain sequences of tephra layers, show anthropogenic vegetation change occurring overwhelmingly after AD 870, with only few exceptions predating AD 870. The birch forest decreased markedly at the time of settlement (Hallsdóttir 1987), although a drop in birch pollen prior to AD 870 appears in part to be a natural occurrence (Erlendsson and Edwards 2009). Pollen signals of imported plants that were useful to settlers are a clearer indication of human arrival. Barley (Hordeum vulgare) pollen is another indicator of human settlement, notwithstanding the potential problems of distinguishing barley pollen from lyme grass (Leymus arenius), which is native to Iceland and known historically to have been processed and eaten (Guðmundsson 1996). Barley pollen has been registered just below the Landnám tephra at Hrísbrú in southwest Iceland (Erlendsson et al. 2014) and in Reykjavík (Hallsdóttir 1996), suggesting that these areas may have been settled slightly before AD 870. Other bioindicators of the Norse colonization include accidental “hitchhikers,” such as the dung beetle (Aphodius lapponum) (Buckland 2000).

The Rate and Extent of Settlement

The settlement of Iceland was rapid and geographically extensive. In Íslendingabók, Ari the Learned writes that the island was “fully settled” by AD 930 when Icelanders established the Althing parliament. Much debate has centered on what Ari meant by “fully settled.” This pre-occupation began early. Already in the thirteenth century, Landnámabók interprets Ari’s comments to mean that the land was densely settled by AD 930: “Wise men have also said that Iceland was fully settled in sixty winters so that there was no further settlement made afterwards” (Jóhannesson 1974: 14). Another interpretation holds that Ari meant just that settlers had claimed all land that was considered viable. Since land claims were extensive, with some initial settlers claiming whole fjords and districts, this would not necessarily indicate that the land had reached carrying capacity.

Amassing evidence suggests the rapid settlement of the most habitable portions of the island, including the coastline as well as many inland valley and low highland sites (Hallsdóttir 1987; Smith 1995; Byock 2001). Although the Icelandic settlements were generally stable, many of the initial farms were abandoned. Of the 600 farm sites mentioned in Landnámabók, about one-fourth were later deserted (Jóhannesson 1974: 33). The desertion of farms does not have a single cause. Environmental destruction of highland vegetation from overgrazing and wood clearance for iron production made some sites uninhabitable for the Norse pastoral economy (Dugmore and Buckland 1991; Sveinbjarnardóttir 1992). In other cases, Norse settlers—basing their site choices on their knowledge of environmental conditions from their homelands—initially chose unviable settlement sites that were either too high in elevation or too far inland (Jóhannesson 1974: 32). Later Norse settlements were relocated away from denuded landscapes, clustering more densely in coastal plains, valleys, and bays. Marginal upland sites were sometimes completely abandoned and other times used as summer grazing farms or shielings (Sveinbjarnardóttir 1992). Sigurður Þórarinsson (1977) saw evidence of this process in his study of soil profiles from the abandoned highland valley of Krókdalur and other marginal zones across northern Iceland. Þórarinsson concluded that human errors in initial landscape assessments caused anthropogenic soil erosion through deforestation and overgrazing. This erosion deprived the land of its economic viability and led to abandonment by the eleventh to twelfth centuries, before the onset of the cooling effects of the Little Ice Age (c. AD 1300–1850). But this picture is being nuanced with current research stressing Norse settlers managing resources and making rational decisions in their utilization of marginal Icelandic environments. For example, Vésteinsson et al.’s (2014) reevaluation of the Krókdalur farms suggests to them that the settlers expanded into the valley from Mývatn in a second wave of settlement in the mid to late tenth century, after the AD 930 date when the island was supposedly “fully settled.” They see the occupation of the marginal regions as a rational choice in a rapidly filling island landscape and call environmental interpretations of their abandonment into question. Instead, they provide a socioeconomic model for settlement abandonment in which owners of large farms in the lowlands bought and vacated the Krókdalur farms in order to use the land to graze increasing numbers of sheep, and extract wood and iron resources (Vésteinsson et al. 2014: 58, 62–65). Interpretations of the mounting evidence have shifted away from simple environmentally determinist explanations for the complex processes of settlement abandonment. Settlement choices in marginal landscapes, like Krókdalur, relied on a number variables—environmental, economic, social, and ideological—and the complexities of their entanglements are increasingly coming to light through interdisciplinary fieldwork.

Sometimes the Norse settlers moved their farms only a short distance. In Skagafjörður in northern Iceland, settlement surveys suggest farm relocation was common at the end of the tenth century (Bolender et al. 2011). The farms appear to move from lower areas to slightly higher elevations, although the farm buildings themselves only shift a few hundred meters. Explanations for this apparently systemic reorganization vary. Climate changes could have made the landscape wetter, requiring relocations to dryer land. Reorganizations of farmstead economies could have triggered social reorganization that required living in differently organized homes. Or possibly the changing of homes was ideologically motivated, as newly Christianized people felt it necessary to sever associations with a house where pagan practices took place.

Why Was Iceland Settled?

After the Norse discovery of Iceland, and a brief period of exploration and possible resource harvesting, the Viking expansion to Iceland shifted to permanent colonization. The reasons for immigration to Iceland can be approached by looking at the push and pull factors acting on the Viking settlers.

The most obvious pull factor was the discovery of a large unsettled island with available land. Even independent of any population pressure, this land would have been attractive to Viking Age Scandinavians who were used to seeking wealth, land, and prestige from overseas journeys and settlement. Furthermore, Iceland would have seemed more attractive in the ninth century than in later centuries because of the climatic amelioration known as the Medieval Warm Period (Dugmore, Borthwick, et al. 2007; Dugmore, Keller, et al. 2007: 14; Mann et al. 2009).

The primacy of the “farming hypothesis,” in which the settlers to Iceland were attracted by the available land suitable for Norse settled pastoralism, has been challenged. An alternative “trade hypothesis” has been proposed, which sees the settlement driven at least in its early exploration phase by the acquisition of products—specifically, walrus ivory—intended for the increasingly globalized market of the Viking Age (Pierce 2009; Frei et al. 2015). A similar explanation has also been offered for the settlement of Greenland from Iceland as a “market-driven economic strategy” underlain by desire for the acquisition of luxury goods for the European market (Keller 2010). This trade motivation gains support from place names that include walrus name elements, such as Rosmhvalanes (Walrus Peninsula) in southwest Iceland. Walrus tusks have also been found in middens and buildings from the earliest period of the Reykjavík settlement, which according to the historical texts was the first permanent settlement in Iceland (Pierce 2009; Einarsson 2011; Frei et al. 2015).

This debate is useful for drawing out aspects of the settlement that the texts gloss over or purposefully set aside. In general the historical texts stress the settlers’ farming strategies as they were idealized by later Icelanders. As a counterweight to the viewpoint from the texts, future interdisciplinary research will provide a better understanding of Iceland’s role in the interreginoal exchange networks. For instance, isotopic analyses of walrus tusks from European sites could show changes over time in hunting grounds for walrus in Iceland, Greenland, and Artic Norway. But Iceland had more to offer Norse settlers than the hunting grounds of Norðrsetr in Greenland or the hunting grounds cum tribute extraction zones in Artic Norway. Furthmore, setting the farming and trade hypotheses in opposition masks the complexity of the settlement question. Settlers were drawn to Iceland for many different reasons: some for economic extraction, others to farm the land, and still others for a varied constellation of other political, economic, and even ideological reasons.

Numerous push factors from Scandinavia and the continent encouraged immigration. Population pressure—the most standard push factor used to explain migration—has not been documented for the early Viking Age. Rather, the population increased toward the end of the Viking Age, when migrations ceased and villages in Scandinavia stabilized into their medieval pattern (Myhre 2000; Barrett 2008: 673–674). In wider European political contexts, however, increasingly effective armed resistance to Viking incursions in England and the Frankish lands in the late ninth century pushed Vikings to seek other and more peaceful opportunities in the North Atlantic.

According to many written sources, the most important push factors from Norway, the place of origin of most of the settlers, were associated with Haraldr Finehair’s (AD 885–930) efforts to centralize Norway under one king. He imposed land taxes on formerly free farmers and claimed ultimate ownership of land that farmers had previously controlled as oðal or family-owned hereditary land. No recognizable economic reorganization accompanied Haraldr’s centralization, leaving Norwegians with added household expenses without any additional production capabilities (Durrenberger 1992). Norwegian households had choices, but for a good number of them, emigration to Iceland was an attractive option. In this text-based understanding, the colonization of Iceland was not a centrally planned venture. Instead, independent farmers and petty chiefs financed their own voyages, bringing along with them attached household members and slaves (Byock 2001: 7–8). Texts like Landnámabók and the sagas stress these free farmer origins of the settlers as part of the Icelandic foundation myth.

This classic model has been called into question by Vésteinsson (2010), who suggests that entrepreneurial ship owners ferried settlers to Iceland. The ship owners worked in cooperation with leading settlers in Iceland, who needed dependent and unfree settlers that could be placed on marginal lands to mark their land claims and establish buffers to neighboring settlers. Vésteinsson finds support for this idea in the early settlement of marginal areas, like Sveigakót in Mývatnssveit where he believes, in accordance with an interpretation offered by Urbańczyk (2002, 2012), that the form of the houses could be indicative of Slavic, rather than Nordic, peoples (see section below). Presumably these people would have been either forced migrants or migrants unable to finance their journey to Iceland.

The Origin and Ethnicity of Icelanders

Ascertaining the origin of Iceland’s settlers is important not only in reconstructing culture history but also for questions of postsettlement identity negotiation and the creation of an Icelandic identity in the present. The origin and ethnicity of the settlers of Iceland can be approached through written sources, archaeological remains, isotopic analyses, and genetic studies. These sources agree that the population consisted of mostly—although not exclusively—Norse settlers from Norway and the Scandinavian colonies in the British Isles. Recent genetic studies support a multiethnic origin of the Icelandic settlers. By contrast, the excavated material culture and the sagas both document a relatively uniform identity that is culturally Norse and religiously Norse pagan.

The identity of their ancestors was fundamentally important to later medieval Icelanders, to the point that the author of the Þórðarbók version of Landnámabók states: “It is often said that writing about the settlements is irrelevant learning, but we think we can all the better meet the criticism of foreigners when they accuse us of being descended from slaves or scoundrels, if we know for certain the truth about our ancestry” (Pálsson and Edwards 1972: 6). Landnámabók and the sagas stress the Norwegian origin of the settlers, and particularly of the elite settlers. These texts are colored by the Icelandic foundation myth, which stresses the freedom-seeking ideals of independent-minded farmers and big men from the western coast of Norway. However, many saga characters come from other areas of Northern Europe. For instance, Glámr, the shepherd-turned-monster in Grettir’s saga, is a Swede. One settler in Landnámabók is said to have a Flemish mother and a father from Götaland in Sweden. Even on the famous Vinland journey to North America, one German and two Scotts are among the voyagers. Celtic peoples are particularly common in the texts, often identified by Celtic names, including Kjartan, Koðrán, and Njáll. Such names also appear in place names of farms and geographical features in Iceland.

The Irish monk Dicuil, who wrote De mensura orbis terrae in West Francia around AD 825, speaks of a few Irish monks living in a place called Thule that is probably Iceland. Place names including the element pap- —the Norse papi draws from the Irish pabba, which in turn derives from the Latin papa meaning “father”—support an Irish presence on the island (Jóhannesson 1974: 5–7). Ari the Learned’s Íslendingabók recalls that early settlers encountered these papar, but that the monks left quickly. Ari uses their Irish Christian material culture, such as bells, croziers, and books, as part of the proof for their previous presence on the island. Inspired by Ari’s tantalizing material evidence, scholars have looked meticulously for signs of the papar—most notable is Kristján Eldjárn’s (1989) comprehensive search on the island of Papey—but no convincing evidence has been found. Ultimately, it appears that the Irish monks had no distinguishable effect on the natural environment and no impact on subsequent social developments on the island.

Archaeological approaches to ethnicity in Viking Age Iceland have had limited success in recognizing overt displays of ethnicity beyond the ubiquitous Norwegian pagan identity visible in burial practices, house styles, and artifacts types. This may be because the settlers were making purposeful material statements of uniformity in their new Icelandic identity, which they viewed as based on Norwegian Viking Age culture. Some Celtic style objects, such as the characteristic Hiberno-Norse bronze ring pins (Vésteinsson 2000a: 172), are found in graves, but always in Scandinavian-style burials and in association with typically Scandinavian objects. The suggestion that circular cemetery enclosure walls or turf churches as opposed to timber churches might represent Irish Christian influence from the time of settlement (Kristjánsdóttir 2004) does not appear to be consistent with the growing dataset of early Icelandic churches (Zoëga 2014: 45).

The presence of ethnically Slavic peoples in Iceland is not attested in the written sources, but it has been suggested on the basis of the presence of pit houses in the archaeological record of Viking Age Iceland (Urbańczyk 2012). Pit houses are found across the Scandinavian and northern European world, and they are commonly the earliest houses found clustered at Settlement Period (AD 870–930) sites such as Bessastaðir, Hvítárholt, Stóraborg, and Hofstaðir (Vésteinsson 1998, 2000a). Urbańczyk argues that such houses are indications of Slavic ethnicity (Urbańczyk 2002), whereas Vésteinsson (2010) argues that only Sveigakót is a likely representative of the Slavic cultural model because the pit houses there were inhabited well beyond the first settlement phase and into the tenth century. In Vésteinsson’s view, these pit houses are therefore purposeful statements of identity made by people who did not conform to the dominant Norse cultural tradition of bow-sided and three-aisled longhouses. He finds the likeliest explanation to be that unfree Slavs were settled here against their will.

Urbánczyk and Vésteinsson usefully remind us that archaeology of structures as well as artifacts can provide insight into questions of ethnicity; furthermore, they underscore archaeology’s potential to add nuance to the story provided by texts. Their specific suggestions concerning pit houses remain unconvincing most broadly because these building types are not unique to Slavic regions. Without additional artifact evidence indicative of Slavic identity and without associated human skeletal material for isotopic studies of tooth enamel—which have been shown to be effective in distinguishing people who grew up in Slavic lands from people who grew up in the Scandinavian countries (T. D. Price et al. 2011)—this remains a hypothesis in need of further material support. It seems more likely that pit houses had multiple purposes, including use as weaving rooms (Milek 2012). Pit houses also appear to have characterized the earliest habitation phase at some sites precisely because they could be built quickly and expediently (Einarsson 1995). Excavations of Viking Age houses and buildings in Iceland have shown significant variation in choices of construction methods. The relatively impoverished people who built the pit houses at Sveigakót may have had a range of different reasons—including ethnicity—for choosing to live in a pit house for longer than other settlers.

Where archaeology has fewer answers, isotopic and genetic analyses have been successful in documenting diversity. Isotope studies, mostly strontium (87Sr/86Sr), are effective in determining whether individuals grew up in locations other than Iceland. However, these studies are limited to the first generation of immigrants. An examination of ninety skeletons from thirty-six pagan grave sites (presumably predating the adoption of Christianity in AD 1000) and two early Christian graveyards indicated that 14.4% of the sample had grown up elsewhere (T. D. Price and Gestsdóttir 2006). This study permitted only a broad suggestion for the homelands of the people tested, primarily Ireland, the Hebrides, and western Scandinavia. This aligns with the areas of origin for early Icelandic populations indicated by texts. Studies of the strontium isotopes in the enamel of teeth of individuals buried at the early Christian cemetery at Hrísbrú—dating to the late tenth to early eleventh century and therefore representing a later time period than the pagan graves discussed earlier—indicate that all individuals lived in Iceland during their childhood, when the teeth were forming (Walker et al. 2012; Grimes et al. 2014).

The multiethnic origin of Icelanders is supported by genetic studies of the mitochondrial DNA of contemporary female Icelanders (A. Helgason, Sigurðardóttir, Gulcher, et al. 2000; A. Helgason et al. 2001), Y-chromosome data from contemporary Icelandic males (A. Helgason, Sigurðardóttir, Nicholson, et al. 2000), as well as ancient DNA (aDNA) from early Icelandic burials (A. Helgason et al. 2009). The modern DNA studies indicate that over 50% of the mitochondrial DNA of modern Icelanders is comparable to modern populations of the British Isles, while the contribution of mtDNA from Scandinavia to Iceland is somewhat less, at 37.5% (A. Helgason et al. 2001). The Y-chromosome data suggest that over 80% of males in Iceland today descend from immigrants from Scandinavia (A. Helgason, Sigurðardóttir, Nicholson, et al. 2000). These studies are consistent with saga accounts of Viking men taking Celtic women to Iceland. The DNA evidence, however, suggests a larger proportion of non-Scandinavian women than is depicted in the texts. Genetic studies employing contemporary individuals as proxies of the original settlers are complicated by potential post–Viking Age population migrations. However, studies of aDNA appear to confirm the general statistics for ethnic origins of Icelanders provided by the modern DNA studies (A. Helgason et al. 2009). Adding to the ethnic diversity, identification in the modern population of mtDNA haplogroup C1—a haplogroup not found in Europe, but common among North American native populations—has led geneticists to theorize that the Vinland voyages may have led to the emigration of one or more individuals from the New World to Iceland (Ebenesersdóttir et al. 2011).

The question of the ethnic and geographical origins of early Icelanders brings to the fore the recognition that ethnicity in the early Middle Ages was more fluid than indicated in traditional historical narratives (Geary 2003). The process of ethnogenesis in Iceland masks ethnic diversity in the migration process. Archaeological excavation of additional Viking Age sites, closer study of artifact assemblages, and especially isotopic and aDNA analyses of Settlement Period human remains hold promise to reveal more about the origins of the early Icelanders and the processes involved in the subsequent formation of a new Icelandic identity.

Formation of a New Society: Subsistence, Politics, and Social Structure

Interacting with the local environment and with each other, the migrants arriving in Iceland developed a new culture related to, but distinct from, the society of mainland Scandinavia. The initial Settlement or Landnám Period was formative for the trajectory of Icelandic society. The first settlers had a dramatic “founders’ effect” on the environment, as well as on the emergent social structure. Viking Age Iceland is an ideal laboratory for studying the settlement of previously unoccupied landscapes. High-quality environmental, textual, archaeological data provide complementary insights into the human impact on this northern environment and the development of the newly emerging society.

Subsistence: Survival in a Marginal Environment

The Icelandic settlers were sedentary pastoralists supplementing their subsistence economy with hunting and gathering, especially of fish, eggs, and sea mammals. The economy of Iceland centered on the household as the productive unit. The Norse settlers brought cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses as part of their settlement package. These animals, which coevolved with humans in much lower latitudes, do not thrive unaided in Iceland. Hay harvested in the summer and necessary to keep livestock alive in the winter was the limiting factor of subsistence and wealth production. Grain was probably never a major food source, but it did become a prestige crop and import used for brewing of beer for chiefly feasts (Zori et al. 2013). Hard evidence for the limited cultivation of barley across Iceland is mounting. Pollen records and plow marks now indicate grain production, while barley consumption is evident by the increasing numbers of charred seeds recovered from houses and middens (Trigg et al. 2009; Guðmundsson et al. 2012; Zori et al. 2013).

The comprehensive settlement had dramatic impacts on the fragile Icelandic environment. Palynological studies show that the native birch forests quickly began to vanish in most coastal regions with the arrival of the Norse settlers (Hallsdóttir 1987; Lawson et al. 2007). Soil studies aided by tephrochronology show cultural overuse of the landscape, causing detrimental erosion and landscape deterioration (e.g., Dugmore and Buckland 1991; Sveinbjarnardóttir 1992; Dugmore et al. 2009). Zooarchaeologists have been at the forefront of theoretical and methodological approaches to understanding how Norse domesticated animals interacted with the local Icelandic environment in ways that were mostly destructive to the native vegetation (Amorosi 1989; McGovern 1990; Amorosi et al. 1997). The Norse settlers added to the environmental destruction wrought by their animals by deliberately burning woods to create pastureland (Amorosi et al. 1997) and felling trees to fuel iron production (Smith 1995). The Little Ice Age caused further problems by c. AD 1300 as shortening growing seasons stressed the grasslands that were already being overgrazed (Amorosi et al. 1997: 497–498).

Recent studies have tempered the uniformly destructive image of the Norse settlers by indicating ways in which they managed their resources more carefully than previously assumed. Norse resource management has been interpreted in a number of arenas, including birch forests, wild animals, and domesticated animals. Woodland management has been suggested at Hofstaðir by geoarchaeological study in Mývatnssveit (Simpson et al. 2003), and palynological research in Borgarfjörður (Erlendsson et al. 2012), and in the Mosfell Valley (Erlendsson et al. 2014). Norse management of wild animal resources, specifically of water fowl, has been detected through the zooarchaeological study of egg shells in Mývatnssveit (McGovern et al. 2006). The relative decline of goats and pigs in comparison to sheep over time, which has long been recognized in the zooarchaeological assemblages, is now interpreted to give more positive agency to Norse settlers. The early Icelanders are now credited with a conscious effort at domesticate management in response to their increasing familiarity with the Icelandic environment (McGovern et al. 2007).

Scholars use Iceland as a test case for evaluating the outcomes of bad and good environmental management. Work done in the 1980s–early 2000s offered the Western Norse colonies of Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland as examples of human resistance to adaptive change and failed strategies of aggrandizing chiefs and stubborn bishops (McGovern 1980). The case of Iceland in particular is now seen in a more optimistic light, and even as a success story (see, e.g., Diamond 2005). After a period of environmental destruction, the early Icelanders made changes necessary to adapt to their environment, leading to their ultimate survival and the persistence of human settlement on the island. In the long-term perspective, Icelanders have created a wealthy and successful society, despite the challenges posed by the subarctic ecosystem. However, the Norse were clearly not model stewards of their new island. As a result of human activities large portions of the low highlands became denuded and uninhabitable, the birch forests in the lowlands largely disappeared, and the resource that may have been partially responsible for drawing settlers to the island—the walrus colonies—vanished. The pendulum of positive and negative views of Norse interactions with the island’s marginal environment is nevertheless forming a more nuanced picture of environmental challenges, social pressures, and local variations in adaptation.

Politics and Social Structure

Norse Iceland was a decentralized, stratified society made up of chiefs, free farmers, attached farmers, and slaves. The textual sources—including Landnámabók, Íslendingabók, the sagas, and the law book Grágás—still provide the dominant model for the social and political structure of early Iceland.

The classic view of early Icelandic social structure stresses the impact of the leaders of the colonizing population—chieftains and rich farmers from Norway—as dominant in establishing the new political order (e.g., Rafnsson 1999: 118). These people, mostly men but also some women, led expeditions with one or several ships that contained their families, loyal followers, and often slaves. Upon arrival in Iceland they claimed large tracts of land and gifted land to their followers and manumitted slaves. This is borne out in Landnámabók, where the most successful settlers such as Helgi Magri (the Lean) in Eyjafjörður, Skallagrímr (Bald-Grim) in Borgarfjörður, and the female settler Auðr Djúpauðga (the Deep Minded) in Dalir claimed massive land areas for themselves. Helgi the Lean, for instance, claimed all of Eyjafjörður, an area that encompassed 450 separate farms in the eighteenth century.

The texts suggest that the first settlers established a form of extensive farmsteading. In this system, farmers founded large central farms and a series of small satellite farms to utilize resources within the larger territory (Karlsson 2000: 15; Sigurðsson et al. 2005: 128). The primary settlers divided their land among supporters and dependents in order to create a manorial-type of farmsteading with farms specializing in various resources. Dividing farms among supporters also assured the first settlers a political support network in their chiefly competitions with neighboring high-status settlers. The right of the landnámsmenn (land takers) to claim enormous pieces of land was increasingly restricted as the colonization process proceeded. According to Landnámabók, the Norwegian king helped to negotiate an agreement whereby no man could claim an area larger than he and his crew could carry fire over in a single day (Benediktsson 1968: 335, 337). By this time, however, early settlers had redistributed many of their large land claims to their followers and kin, creating politically powerful families with broad allegiance networks.

The settlement organization of the landnámsmaðr (land taker) Skallagrímr Kveldúlfsson as described in Egil’s saga illustrates this settlement model of extensive farmsteading (Nordal 1933: 72–79). Skallagrímr distributes his large land claim to followers and dependents, keeping direct control over a number of farms while exerting indirect control over others. Besides his own main farm at Borg, Skallagrímr retains direct control over five farms run by dependent settlers. Skallagrímr establishes Álftanes (Swan Promontory) to take advantage of marine and coastal resources, such as fishing, seal hunting, and sea-bird fowling. At Akrar (Grain Fields) Skallagrímr has a farm for his grain crops. He sets up Grísartunga (Pig Promontory) for highland summer pasturage and Einubrekkur for salmon fishing in the Gljúfrá River. He establishes ironworking close to the wood resources at Raufarnes (originally Rauðanes or Red-Iron Ore Promontory). Skallagrímr gives a higher degree of independence to some of his followers, whose farms he manages indirectly. In return, the men running these farms owe their allegiance to him. Proximity to Skallagrímr’s main farm at Borg does not appear to dictate whether the subordinate farms are managed directly or indirectly. In fact, two of his directly managed farms are further from Borg than are any of the independently managed farms.

In 930, Icelanders established the Althing, an island-wide governing body that met for two weeks around the summer solstice on the plains of Thingvellir. Due to the emigrating Norwegian free-farmers’ concerns with maintaining household autonomy, the Icelanders established a system with a cultural focus on law that functioned without a king or any form of executive power (Tomasson 1980: 14–17; Byock 2001: 82–83). A Lawspeaker mediated the yearly Althing, recited one-third of the laws every year, but had no executive power. The Althing had a legislative branch called the Lögretta and a judicial branch that made decisions concerning disputes and conflicts. Enforcement of these decisions was, however, a private matter. This led to a feuding society mediated by the chieftains (goðar, sg. goði), who themselves profited by taking advantage of the judicial system (Byock 2001).

In 960, court reforms to the Althing divided the island into four quarters and gave each quarter a separate court at the Althing (Figure 1). Each quarter contained three spring assemblies (várþing), and each várþing was led by three goðar. Each quarter had nine chieftaincies (goðorð). Because chieftains could share a single chieftaincy or own several, the number of chieftains often varied, while in theory the number of chieftaincies remained constant. Because the northern quarter contained four major fjords, it received a fourth várþing to facilitate travel to the assembly meetings. To maintain political balance, each of the other quarters was given three extra goðorðs. The total number of chieftaincies in Iceland was thereby raised to forty-eight. At the Althing one chieftain from each goðorð sat on the Lögretta legislative body supported by two advisors each. When Iceland was Christianized, the island’s two bishops—established at Skálholt (AD 1056) and Hólar (AD 1106)—received a seat on the Lögretta as well. This systemic picture is depicted in the Grágás laws, and to a high degree this system seems to have worked in practice. Jón Víðar Sigurðsson (1999) has suggested the political system depicted in Grágás is a crystallized view from the time when the laws were written down. Sigurðsson, who sees the sagas as providing a more accurate description of how the society actually functioned than the law codes, points out that the numbers of chieftains mentioned in the early period of Icelandic history exceeds the fixed numbers upheld by Grágás. The two sources are not irreconcilable, however, and the discrepancy might be explained by the practice of co-ownership of chieftaincies.

By the twelfth century, chieftaincies, which could be traded, bought, or sold, were centralizing into the hands of a few families that were solidifying political control as an emergent aristocracy. Among these families, the most powerful were the Sturlungar in the north and west, the Haukdælir and Oddaverjar in the south, and the Svínafellingar in the east (Sveinsson 1953: 10–12; Karlsson 2000: 72–78). These families competed for territorial control and support of local leaders in increasingly violent confrontations. The Sturlunga sagas vividly portray intensification of conflict and a change in warfare that occurred during the thirteenth century. For the first time, these sagas recount instances of chieftains with armed bands destroying farms in an effort to weaken the economic base of rival chieftains. The Icelandic political system was undergoing the processes of state formation. In 1258, a member of the newly emerging aristocracy was named Earl of Iceland by the Norwegian king, in exchange for his promise to extract tribute from Icelanders for the King of Norway (Jóhannesson 1974: 271–272). Any indigenous social evolution came to an end in 1262 as Icelanders at the Althing officially bent to the will of the Norwegian King and accepted incorporation into the Kingdom of Norway.

Studies attempting to amend, nuance, and expand this traditional narrative for the establishment and evolution of early Icelandic social order have employed historical documents, landscape attributes, archaeological evidence, and, to a lesser extent, place names (e.g., Vésteinsson et al. 2002; Sveinbjarnardóttir et al. 2008; S. Helgason 2009). Study of changes in regional settlement patterns can begin from the available texts, but new information depends on archaeological work and a novel combination of available sources. In archaeological settlement surveys, chronological control for the early period is challenging. Often these studies rely on assumptions about settlement order and hierarchies based on later medieval conditions, such as the locations of documented parish churches and property values from the postmedieval period. For instance, Vésteinsson et al. (2002) use all evidence available to propose a three-tiered settlement hierarchy of large complex, large simple, and planned settlements. The authors (2002: 117) readily acknowledge that this means that their “assessments of which farm-sites derive from the landnám period are usually not based on archaeological remains but on circumstantial and often less secure evidence like property value, size and shape of the farmland, and associations with a church or chapel.” One of the major efforts now in the study of Norse Iceland seeks the missing temporal control that will more securely establish farm ages and settlement order. This resolution is likely to come from regional subsurface settlement surveys paired with larger open-area excavations of individual sites. This recognition has led to the initiation of multiple projects incorporating such multiscalar regional work in areas such as Mývatnssveit (McGovern et al. 2007), Mosfell Valley (Byock et al. 2005), Reykholtsdalur (Sveinbjarnardóttir et al. 2008), and Skagafjörður (Steinberg and Bolender 2004; Zoëga 2014).

Studies of individual households can illuminate the economy of farms and differences in social status between households. The use of increasingly careful sampling methods allows for the collection of seeds, bone fragments, and microartifacts not recovered in excavations during the twentieth century. Geochemical analyses of earthen and ash floors and soil micromorphological studies of floor stratigraphy illuminate specialized activity areas within buildings. Such studies at Hofstaðir, Aðalstræti, and Hrísbrú have helped to identify zones within the houses used, for instance, to stable animals and process wool (Milek and Roberts 2013; Milek et al. 2014). Examinations of parasites recovered in Norse buildings can reveal the presence of specific animals, the health of the resident human population, and economic activities (Forbes et al. 2013). For instance, large numbers of fleece louse (Damalinia ovis) and ked (Melophagus ovinus) recovered in specific rooms has been used to suggest wool processing, which is otherwise difficult to detect archaeologically (Buckland 2000).

The artifacts from excavated Icelandic houses appear poor when compared to contemporary mainland Scandinavian find assemblages, even for houses like Hofstaðir, which all indications suggest is a high-status house (Batey 2011). Given that differentials will be less marked because of the relative poverty of the marginal Icelandic society, comparison of assemblages should be undertaken primarily between Icelandic households (Hansen et al. 2014). Perhaps more important, the increasing number of excavated houses allows comparisons of household assemblages that can move beyond status differentials and instead investigate the variable organization of household economies and approach the agency of individuals and families in pursuing subsistence, political, and ideological goals. For instance, comparisons of house size, zooarchaeological remains, macrofossils, finds assemblages, and pollen records can not only demonstrate differences in economics based on local environment and status but also how some early Icelanders mobilized their subsistence base for political reasons, such as the production of beef and beer for consumption during politically charged feasting (Zori et al. 2013).

Paganism and Christianity: Coexistence and Conversion

Paganism in Iceland

Norse paganism was dominant in Scandinavia when Iceland was settled, and the communal identity of Icelanders for the first 100 years was Norse pagan. The vast majority of settlers practiced pre-Christian Norse paganism, although textual sources, including Landnámabók, and recent scholarship agree that Christian settlers were among the earliest colonists (Aðalsteinsson 1999: 27–28; Vésteinsson 2000b; Kristjánsdóttir 2004). In Íslendingabók, Ari the Learned informs us that many of the sons and daughters of Christian settlers stopped practicing the Christian faith and conformed to the societal religious norms. Despite its dominance in early Iceland, Norse paganism lacked the orthodoxy, hierarchical structure, and crystallized religious texts present in a universalizing religion such as Christianity (Dubois 1999; Lindow 2001; N. Price 2002). Rather, Norse ideology was diverse, changeable, local, and decentralized.

Much of what we think we know about Norse paganism comes from Icelandic sources written at least a century after the formal conversion of Iceland to Christianity. On the other hand, archaeological indications of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion can be approached through analysis of iconography, cult buildings, special faunal material assemblages, and graves. Iconographical indications of pre-Christian beliefs have been found in Iceland, for example, in the form of Thor’s hammers and the famous figurine of a seated figure—probably Thor—grasping his hammer-shaped beard (Eldjárn 1981; Perkins 2001). Although the iconography is evocative and the Thor statue has pride of place in the National Museum of Iceland, debates about the meanings of particular iconography, including about whether the seated statue is in fact Thor, are indicative of some of the difficulties for the interpretation of pre-Christian iconography.

Pagan ritual practice, generally called blót, included sacrifices of animals (Lindow 2001: 35, Lucas and McGovern 2007) and occasionally of humans (Ellis Davidson 1988: 58–68), feasting, and veneration of idols made in images of gods such as Tyr, Thor, and Frey. According to the texts, sacrifices occurred in temples, in chieftains’ houses, and outdoors in groves, and sometimes involved “reddening” a hörgr or altar of stone with sacrificial blood (Ellis Davidson 1988: 58; Lindow 2001: 34–35).

Norse Iceland has played a pivotal role in the scholarly debate about the elusive pagan temple. The textual sources take the existence of pagan temples for granted. The sagas describe a temple tax that preceded the Christian tithe and detail the layout of temples and the ritual activities that take place therein. The most famous of these is the Thorsnes temple on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula from Eyrbyggja saga. But Kjalarnesinga saga contains a similar description of a temple at Hof in southwest Iceland, which may be based on the Eyrbyggja saga account but has enough differences to make an independent oral tradition seem at least as plausible.

In Hørg, Hov, og Kirke, Olaf Olsen (1966) argues, however, that no convincing archaeological evidence exists for pagan temples. Olsen rather believed that pagan cult activities took place in chieftains’ houses. Subsequent researchers have largely followed Olsen’s conclusions. Else Roesdahl (1998: 239) states, “[c]hurches—specific buildings for religious celebration—were an entirely new concept, theologically and architecturally.” Recently, however, excavations have shown convincing evidence of pre-Christian cult buildings at places like Uppåkra (Larsson 2007), Borg (Nielsen and Lindeblad 1999), and Sanda in Sweden (Åqvist 1996), as well as Tissø in Denmark (Jørgensen 2014). Archaeological identification of a cult house primarily revolves around demonstrating that the building is unusual in type and find assemblage, and does not have any other more mundane usage. For instance, the small cult building at Borg in Sweden was built on a paved area where large quantities of unusually treated animal bones bearing witness to decapitation were found in association with amulet rings, Thor’s hammers, and slag heaps (Nielsen and Lindeblad 1999; Nielsen 2006).

Now one such blóthús appears to have been found at Hólmur in eastern Iceland (Einarsson 2008). The Hólmur building is positioned some distance from the contemporary farm buildings. The artifacts associated with the Hólmur cult site include iron slag and large quantities of fire-cracked stone strewn on the ground beside large cooking pits. Although the function of the Hólmur building is debated among Icelandic archaeologists, few doubt that cult houses or temples existed in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Simultaneously, the evidence of ritual activities and sacrifices within or adjacent to domestic structures is growing (see, e.g., Lucas and McGovern 2007). The combined evidence indicates that pre-Christian Icelanders performed ritual activities in multiple locations and varied contexts, including both within homes and in separate temples.

Pre-Christian Graves

Across northern Europe and into the North Atlantic, pre-Christian Norse graves reveal considerable variability in pagan ritual practice (N. Price 2008). Nevertheless a unified and overarching vocabulary unites the mortuary practices of pagan Viking Age Scandinavians. As other islands in the Viking World, Iceland has a burial record that is distinct (Callmer 1991). New excavations of pagan burials in Iceland are contributing significant information on both the variation and the commonalities in burial rites (Roberts and Hreiðarsdóttir 2013: 104). These new excavations are particularly important as most of the burials reported in Kristján Eldjárn’s (2000; originally published 1956) seminal study were unearthed prior to the establishment of modern excavation standards.

Broadly across Scandinavia, pre-Christian Viking Age burials are situated in close proximity to settlement sites (N. Price 2008). Large cemeteries were a feature of the Viking Age settled landscape (e.g., Lindholm Høje, Demark) and were particularly associated with emporia and smaller trading sites (e.g., Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Sebbersund). Since no towns or villages with concomitant large grave fields existed in Iceland, the dead are most commonly found in isolated graves or grave clusters with a small number of interments. As of the publication of the second edition of Kuml og Haugfé in 2000, 316 pagan burials had been uncovered in 157 different locations in Iceland (Friðriksson 2000: 590–592, 609). Icelandic pagan graves were positioned in prominently visible locations, such as overlooking roads or at boundaries between farm properties (Friðriksson 2000: 591–592). Their placement in such locations reflects their function for the community of the living in marking territory and making statements of family land ownership.

Icelandic pre-Christian burial customs conform generally to the larger corpus of graves from the wider Viking World, but they show also the development of a uniquely Icelandic pattern indicative of a newly emerging identity. We can begin to define this pattern by noting what is not present: the Icelandic corpus of burials contains no large man-made burial mounds, no chamber graves, no memorial stones, and no burials inside stone settings (Friðriksson 2000: 609). However, the Icelandic saga literature contains descriptions of large pagan burial mounds in Iceland. The thirteenth-century saga writers might simply have misunderstood tenth-century Icelandic burial customs. But it is also possible that the mounds in Iceland were smaller works, consisting sometimes only of modified natural mounds, such as the Hulduhóll mound at Hrísbrú (see Byock et al. 2005). This would make these burials more difficult to locate and more exposed to erosion striking natural outcroppings. The Hulduhóll mound also contained the only known cremation burial found in Iceland (Byock et al. 2005; Byock and Zori 2012). Because the most common burial method in Viking Age society was cremation (N. Price 2008), it had previously been somewhat of a mystery why cremations were entirely absent from Iceland, even if wood was an expensive commodity.

Beyond this unusual example, most Icelandic Viking Age burials are relatively uniform. The most typical Icelandic pagan burial consists of a shallow pit, big enough for an outstretched body, surrounded by stones and covered by a low mound of large stones and soil (Friðriksson 2000: 209). The burials do not readily exhibit clear status differentiation. This corresponds well with the assumptions that status and wealth inequalities were less marked in the early period after the settlement of the island. On the other hand, smaller differences likely meant more in this marginal environment than in the Viking homelands. Although the Icelandic chieftains probably did not compare in wealth to those in the homelands (Vésteinsson 2000a), their statements of power could be made with fewer goods. This means that we should look carefully at the small differences across burial assemblages.

The Icelandic grave goods are similar in type to those uncovered in the rest of the Norse culture area. In general, the corpus of grave goods bears most affinity to the more modest Viking Age burials in Norway (Friðriksson 2000: 610). Viking Age burials are sometimes inhumed with vehicles of travel, such as ships, boats, carts, and horses (N. Price 2008). In Iceland, the vessels of sea travel are present, but they are more modest: six small coastal boats have been found in graves. The Litlu-Núpur boat burial, which appears to have been reopened on multiple occasions in the Viking Age, has been convincingly presented as evidence of a communal family mausoleum (Roberts and Hreiðarsdóttir 2013). This is consistent with newer understandings of burial monuments in Scandinavia, where reanalysis of large mound burials, such as the Oseberg ship grave, has revealed that graves were left open as an arena of interaction even after the burial event (N. Price 2010).

Deposition of sacrificed animals in graves was common among pre-Christian Viking Age Scandinavians. Human sacrifice was less common but has been identified in examples across the Viking world from the Isle of Man to Birka (e.g., Wilson 2008). Sacrificed humans in burials have not been found in Iceland. Concerning animals in graves, Icelandic graves have a lower species diversity than the comparable corpus of Norwegian graves (Leifsson 2012: 186). Specifically, Icelandic inhumation graves contain only dogs and horses. At the same time, the ritual killing and deposition of horses in graves was more common in Iceland than elsewhere in the Viking world. Thirty-four percent of the known Icelandic pagan burials contain horse remains (Leifsson 2012: 186). All horses that could be sexed were males and all that could be aged were between 5 and 15 years old. This age and gender profile indicates that full-grown male horses were considered most appropriate for use in funerary contexts. Eldjárn suggested that horses were more readily available in Iceland while other potential grave goods, such as weapons or brooches, were scarcer (Eldjárn 2000: 4). Leifsson (2012: 191–192) argues that horses were a more appropriate status symbol in a less militarized and more rural society focused on familial rather than individual status.

Excavation of larger areas around burials has revealed that many graves originally thought to be isolated graves are in fact parts of larger cemeteries—albeit small compared to contemporaneous Scandinavian cemeteries. Other archaeological features now being discovered in cemeteries, such as enigmatic turf walls and post holes supporting grave superstructures, offer insights into the cemetery landscapes used during and after the deposition of the bodies (Roberts and Hreiðarsdóttir 2013). This new work has already shown increasing variation in grave types and mortuary practices, and it offers potential to shed light on the drama of the funerary activities surrounding the burial act.

Christianity in Iceland

In AD 999/1000, the council of chieftains at the Althing decided that the population of Iceland would be publically Christian (Jochens 1999).1 The public conversion moment can be distinguished from a more gradual Christianization process involving individual choices of worship, as well as a degree of syncretization of paganism and Christianity. Initially, some pre-Christian beliefs and practices were permitted, but only in the privacy of individual homes. The implications of Christianization for religious and secular life unfolded gradually as Icelanders negotiated their ideological transition (Kristjánsdóttir 2015). This process is often flattened in the textual record, but fortunately, archaeology is particularly well suited to explore the practices and material correlates of the Christianization process. All sources agree, however, that as a result of this process, the pagan ritual landscape was completely transformed. The ideological symbols of power and the loci for exhibiting and exercising ideological power shifted dramatically.

The character of ideological power changed radically as the ritual system shifted from the relatively diffuse power of pre-Christian paganism to the hierarchically organized and institutionalized Christian Church. In the pagan period, claims to status, group membership, and territory were expressed in mound burials, along routes of travel, and at the borders of old territorial divisions. After the conversion to Christianity, the locus for ritual practice became centralized at small private churches built and controlled by the Icelandic chieftains and land-owning farmers. A handful of churches from the early period of Christiantiy in Iceland have been excavated (Vésteinsson 2000c; Kristjánsdóttir 2004; Byock et al. 2005; Byock and Zori 2013; Zoëga 2014). These churches—often built in simple nave and chancel style—typically measure 4–6 meters in length and 2.5–4.0 meters in maximum width. The locus for burial became centralized around these churches that were placed in close proximity to farm houses, within the homefield walls that bounded the cultivated hay fields (Zoëga 2014: 33). This centralization of ritual practice and the material expression of ideology yielded a new and stronger potential for the creation of social power.

The Syncretization Period (ca. 950–1100) is particularly promising for future work. During this period, ritual systems were hybridized as ideology shifted from pagan to Christian practices. The ideological shift from paganism to Christianity was a gradual one in which the accommodation of old symbols and practices resulted in a period of intermixed ritual systems. The materialized symbols of ideological power that tied the local leaders to the landscape, their ancestors, and their claims to land and status were intertwined with the newly adopted religion of Christianity. Power wielders thereby continued to maintain their unequal access to ideological power; despite the new avenues for power, there was little obvious change in the people wielding it.

The syncretization of pagan and Christian ritual systems, as well as the role of this syncretization in the continuity of power, is visible in the archaeological record from early churchyards, such as the graveyard surrounding the conversion period church at Hrísbrú in southwest Iceland. Here two processes are evident: the continued use of the pre-Christian ship symbol in graves and retroactive Christianization of venerable ancestors. Five burials from Hrísbrú contained clench bolts, suggesting that pieces of boats had been reused as covers for graves (Zori 2007). In all graves where the sex and age of the buried individual could be determined, these interments were mature males. The reused boat fragments represent continuity of the ship symbol deeply rooted in the Norse ritual tradition. Two secondary burials placed close to the walls of the chancel of the Hrísbrú church were probably pagan ancestors, brought to the churchyard in efforts to create continuity between ancestors and the new religion. An emptied grave beneath the altar at this same site bears striking parallels to an account in Egil’s saga in which the newly converted inhabitants of the farm exhume the hero Egill Skallagrímsson from his pagan burial mound and inter his body under the church altar (Erlandson et al. 2014). Syncretization appears to have varied regionally. From work in Skagafjörður, Zoëga (2014) found one secondary burial of a likely pagan ancestor in the Keldudalur churchyard but in general sees little evidence of syncretization of the two ritual traditions. For this region Zoëga rather sees a quick adoption of uniform Christian mortuary rituals with homogenous burial practices in standard-sized cemeteries.

Institutionalization of the Church began around AD 1100 via two major legal vehicles: the imposition of the tithe in 1097 and the legislation of exclusive burial rights to parish churches selected by the bishop in 1117–1118 (Jóhannesson 1974: 160–166). Archaeological investigations of the early Christian landscape promise to shed light on this process of Church institutionalization. Excavations of twelfth- and thirteenth-century churchyards will show to what extent the exclusive burial rights dictated by the bishop were followed in practice. Surveys in Skagafjörður show that burial at private household churches declined in the early twelfth century as the interment of the dead was concentrated at parish churches (Zoëga 2014: 35). Examining how parish boundaries recorded in historical texts articulate with the archaeological presence of early churches also promises to further our understanding of the development of church hierarchy in the early period of institutionalization. Church institutions clearly facilitated social hierarchization, as chieftains used churches and church institutions as “nonpersonal” pathways to power (Vésteinsson 2000b: 7, 14). Projects that aim to integrate historical knowledge with regional archaeological survey and excavation, such as the newly combined efforts of the Skagafjörður Church Project (Zoëga 2014) and the Skagafjörður Archaeological Settlement Survey (Bolender et al. 2011), will make significant contributions to our understanding of the Church’s role in the institutionalization of power. This process lies at the core of the social changes that drove internecine warfare among territorial chieftains and eventually brought an end to the Icelandic Free-State in 1262.

Conclusion: Future Directions and Variability through Interdisciplinarity

Our view of life in Norse Iceland is more monolithic now than it will be after interdisciplinary archaeology has had time to add, collate, and analyze the burgeoning data that are becoming available. Adaptations to Iceland’s varied ecosystems will be understood on a scale that is increasingly localized. Ecosystem variability encouraged variable subsistence solutions and led to subsequent variance in local diets and political constellations. Our view of the political economics of Norse Iceland, especially before the establishment of the island-wide Althing, will become more nuanced and show interhousehold variation in the mobilization of the subsistence economy for politics. Chieftains will be seen to have built power upon a range of economic foundations, some tied to farming, others to hunting and gathering, and still others to control of the exchange of goods. With a growing body of evidence and tighter chronological control, the syncretic aspect of the conversion to Christianity will become more evident on both the pre-Christian and the Christian side of the traditional AD 1000 dividing line. As archaeology and hard scientific data add new insights, the Icelandic sagas will continue to retain a strong hold on public interest and remain a prime motivator for research.


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(1) A few of the early settlers were Christians, and the influence of their heritage on any lingering Christianity during the ninth to late tenth century is still unknown. Landnámabók S399 states: “According to well-informed people some of the settlers of Iceland were baptized, mostly those who came from the British Isles … Some of them kept their faith till they died, but in most families this didn’t last … and Iceland was completely pagan for about 120 years” (Benediktsson 1968: 396; Pálsson and Edwards 1972: 147).