The geography of a cemetery – the early Christian cemeteries of Skagafjördur, North Iceland
Lecture by Gudny Zoega
Given at the 22nd Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, on September 3, 2016
In the last decade early Christian churches and cemeteries in the region of Skagafjördur, North Iceland, have been the object of extensive archaeological research. A thorough regional survey has suggested the possibility of at least 120 farms with early churches/cemeteries. Of those, 15 have been further examined and four have been extensively excavated. The research indicates that these cemeteries come into being around the date of the official conversion to Christianity in AD 999/1000 and that their majority was discontinued just before or after AD 1104. A small number ultimately evolved into parish or communal cemeteries and in some instances churches retained their function and boundary walls were rebuilt after the cemeteries were no longer being used for burial. In their outward appearance these cemeteries seem to have been remarkably similar in size and form suggesting that from the outset, they were being managed and structured according to a particular set of laws or customs.
Burial customs that have been considered an 11th-12th century development, for instance sex segregation, also seem to have been in place right from the beginning of the 11th century. These cemeteries are adding a new dimension to our understanding of the early ecclesiastical landscape in Iceland and how and when important changes may have occurred. In this paper I will explore the differences and similarities that can be found in the layout and organisation of these cemeteries and how they compare with contemporary funerary data from outside Iceland.