Viking Archaeology, Sagas, and Interdisciplinary Research in Iceland’s Mosfell Valley
By Jesse Byock and Davide Zori
Backdirt: Annual Review of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA (2013)
Introduction: Working in the glaciated and once-wooded Mosfell Valley (Mosfellsdalur) in southwestern Iceland, the Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP) is unearthing the prehistory and early settlement history of that region during the Viking Age (ninth to eleventh century C.E.). This article offers an overview of MAP’s recent archaeological research at the farm of Hrísbrú in the valley. This site was the home of the Mosfell chieftains (the Mosfellsdælingar, “the People of Mosfell’s Dale”), a powerful Viking Age family of leaders, warriors, farmers, and legal specialists. Within the context of MAP’s findings, this article considers the relationship between modern archaeological methods and Iceland’s medieval writings, especially the family sagas.
By applying different sources and research techniques—archaeological, scientific, and humanistic—MAP is constructing a picture of habitation and environmental change in the Mosfell Valley over the course of the Old Icelandic Free State, a Viking Age parliamentary state that continued until the mid-thirteenth century. MAP’s excavations at Hrísbrú have revealed a large longhouse, a timber/stave church from the conversion-age transition from paganism (ca. 1000 C.E.), an early graveyard with mixed pagan and Christian attributes, and a pagan cremation burial site. Together these exceptionally well-preserved remains form the core features of a chieftain’s high-status farmstead. At this time, we are researching and excavating fourteen sites throughout the valley. These excavations are providing a detailed picture of Viking Age life in Iceland and in the North Atlantic. The sites include monumental stone ship settings—stones arrayed to form the outline of a ship—at the inland end of the valley , and a Viking Age port at the valley’s coastal mouth at Leiruvogur Bay, where the rivers of the valley flow into the sea. The extensive assemblage of sites in the Mosfell Valley forms a powerful political, religious, and governmental landscape.