Into the ocean
Early Iceland and its Atlantic context
Thursday April 16, 2015, at 16.30
Carved and rock-cut sculpture identifies a poorly understood facet of early Christianity, whether on Skellig Michael, rising as it does out of the ocean twelve kilometres off the coast of southwest Ireland, or perched on the Heimaklettur cliff face in Iceland’s Westman Islands. The special or sacred places marked by simple sculpture at hundreds of Atlantic places span a zone stretching from the Irish and Scottish coasts to Iceland. Established “certainties” and fundamental ambiguities characterize this northern region. For example, Scotland’s western islands are known as a core area for early medieval monastic communities, which are thought to have produced simple cross sculpture as the result of devotional impulse, and yet the nature and extent of early Christian settlements beyond the Gaelic-speaking world is unclear. Similarly, Old Norse speakers are seen to dominate this north Atlantic zone by the late Viking Age, but the timing and the way in which this region was transformed are difficult to perceive. By looking to Iceland, we may be able to resolve some of these ambiguities. Along with New Zealand, Iceland was among the last significant land masses to be settled by human populations. Crucially, the north Atlantic islands have proven importance as an arena for investigating cultural diffusion, the movements of people, and the interactions between humans and their environments, with the chronology of Iceland’s settlement being critical to these larger questions (on account of the island’s enviable sequence of dated volcanic airfall or tephra).
Kristján Ahronson. Kristján Ahronson is a Lecturer in Archaeology at Prifysgol Bangor University. He has fundamental interests in inter-disciplinary thinking and in the ways that people relate to their environments. Recent publications include Into the Ocean: Vikings, Irish and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North (University of Toronto Press, 2014).