A periodization of Iceland’s Landnám in light of new archaeological data
Fimmtudaginn 8. desember 2016 kl. 16.30
The Landnám (‘settlement’) of Iceland has been vigorously discussed for centuries. It is known that the Norsemen successfully colonized Iceland in large numbers, but crucial details about the timing and patterns of settlement are still unclear. Was the colonization rapid and complete, or gradual? Did the colonization follow the same pattern across Iceland or were there regional differences?
From an archaeological perspective, we can only know the detailed structure of the pattern and timing of settlement by applying robust chronological models. The key dating methods in the North Atlantic area are tephrochronology, radiocarbon dating and typology. Nevertheless, radiocarbon dates from the earliest archaeological contexts in Iceland have been a matter of fierce contention since the 1980s. This study, therefore, aims to reassess the temporal sequence of the Norse colonization of Iceland through a rigorous synthesis of empirical data and a new application of Bayesian statistics. More precisely, 500 radiocarbon dates as well as volcanic ash layers (tephra) from well-defined archaeological contexts of 300 settlement sites are systematically quantified.
The reassessed data permit a countrywide comparison and the first classification of archaeological sites into four periods:
1. Pre-Landnám (A.D. pre-877),
2. Landnám (A.D. 877–939),
3. Post-Landnám (A.D. 939–1104) and
4. Viking Age (A.D. ~800–1100).
The periods show a rapid incline of settlement establishments, as well as regional differences in settlement patterns in four key areas in Iceland, the southwest, northwest, north and east. The data summarized here for the first time indicate that it will be possible to reconstruct the tempo and development of the colonization process in decadal resolution by more systematically utilizing the dating potential of tephrochronology and radiocarbon dates at archaeological sites. It is hoped that future data may provide information about population movements and demography in Iceland, as well as answer questions why people settled in particular areas.
Magdalena Schmid is Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iceland. Her research focuses on the chronology of the Viking-Age settlement of Iceland. She is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh where she is writing up her dissertation.
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