Archaeology in Iceland: Recent Developments

Archaeology in Iceland: Recent Developments

By Erin-Lee Halstad McGuire

Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, Vol.16 (2005-6)

Introduction: Icelandic archaeology is a dramatically different field than it used to be. Through the years it has been subject to the same sorts of theoretical and practical trends seen throughout medieval archaeology. In the earliest years of work, Icelandic archaeologists used their excavations to illustrate the sagas, and as a means to fill in gaps in the story. It was exciting to look at the emerging settlements and try to match the colourful saga heroes with the farms they established and lived on. Later years saw a shift away from the cultural-historic mode, drawing more on the scientific methods of processual archaeology. Archaeological dating methods, including tephrochronology and radio carbon, were seen as a way to scientifically date historical events like the landnám, potentially confirming or disproving the veracity of historical sources. Issues of chronology have persisted, for example, with regard to the reliability of dating methods, and to a proposed, but contested, pre-landnám occupation of Iceland.

Up until very recently, archaeologists focused on the questions of “who settled where?” and “when did they arrive?” While the answers to the latter seem fairly certain in light of recent developments in dating techniques, it may be impossible to answer the former with any conviction. The current direction in Icelandic archaeology has been a shift to new types of questions. Instead of focusing on the chronological development of a farm, or a typology of buildings and artefacts, archaeologists are turning their attention to the settlement processes, and their impact on society and the environment (Smith 319). Recent excavations have led to a number of significant changes in the way we understand the landnám period. This paper aims to critically review developments in the following three trends: (1) new theories regarding settlement patterns; (2) deeper insights into Norse resource exploitation and land-use; and (3) better understanding of the ecological consequences of Norse land and resource management strategies.

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