Mývatn, Tjörnes (Suður-Þing) and Kelduhverfi (Norður-Þing) are landscape areas located in north-east Iceland. They have collectively formed the study area for a landscape archaeology project since 2002 that is still continuing. This short article describes several stages in the project and offers some preliminary interpretative narratives.
The first stage of this project was initiated by Arni Einarsson, the director of the Myvatn Research Station, with collaboration with Institute of Archaeology, Iceland (Fornleifastofnun Íslands) and began with the investigation of boundaries in 2002 across an area located around Lake Myvatn. This resulted in an initial aerial transcription and mapping of boundaries using vertical photographs and aerial reconnaissance of the area captured on oblique photography. This resulted in a journal paper (Árni Einarsson et al. 2002).
The second stage of the project started when it was joined by several other archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology, Iceland and from University of Oslo and with funding from the Icelandic Research Council (Rannás); between 2004 - 2007. The group developed the mapping approach and the subsequent research which included further oblique photographs, vertical photograph transcription into GIS, and also included targeted excavation, tephra analysis, and some environmental assessment (Aldred et al. 2004, 2005, 2007).
A third stage of work occurred after the Rannás funding had ended and this resulted in continuing the mapping of boundaries in the study area by the project team, linked with additional field survey work by the Institute. Furthermore, other areas were also mapped using similar techniques, including an area adjoining the main project study area in an area called Kelduhverfi. Subsequent research has included a continuation of targeted excavation in this area and the continued mapping of landscape from aerial reconnaissance and transcription.
One of the explicit aims of the second stage - Rannás funded - in the project was to establish complimentary approaches to landscape-scale projects, and creating comparative datasets to enhance the commentary about the landscape formation processes, specifically in relation to landscape change and resilience of specific features. To do this several complimentary approaches were used to gather data. These were:
- Examination of vertical aerial photographs to map earthworks and boundaries
- Kite and aerial reconnaissance to view sites in their landscape through visual means and to identify new sites in relation to ones that were already known about
- Field survey using GPS and detailed recording of sites
- Excavation across boundaries in targeted areas to ascertain construction and abandonment dates
- Topographic modelling using GIS spatial data to investigate the relation between boundaries and topographic features such as rivers, slopes etc...
This has resulted in several examples of sites and landscape areas that form the basis for a more substantive discussion, some of which are listed:
- Þegjandadalur farm sites (survey, excavation, and aerial photography)
- Fljótsheiði landscape (excavation and aerial photography)
- Kelduhverfi farms and landscape (survey, excavation, and aerial photography)
- Þingey assembly site (kite and dtm drape)
- Mývatn environs sites and landscapes (survey and aerial photography)
- Laxárdalur valley landscape (survey, excavation and aerial photography)
- What is more, the same techniques and approaches to the archaeology have been conducted in several other parts of Iceland, such as around Dalvák and Svarfadalur in north-east Iceland (east of the Mývatn, Tjörnes and Kelduhverfi study area).
The results of the aerial and field surveys and small-scale trenching across targeted boundaries produced an understanding of the "possibilities rather than established conclusions' about the time-depth of the landscape (Crawford 1928: 4). Similar to Crawford's approach, the mapping continues apace, with the constant addition of new information as more photographs are taken and analysed.
There have been at least 1,867 oblique photographs taken and mapped within the study area. Furthermore, at least 64 vertical aerial photographs dating from 1990 have been analysed, as well as an additional set from 1960s. These sources are placed alongside others imagery such as SPOT 5 satellite images and other data, including archaeological surveys conducted by staff from the FSÁ.
With respect to the aerial survey work, there have been over 443 km of boundaries mapped into the GIS (at the last count in 2012). These are loosely defined into linear, contour following, cross-contour and enclosures. And there have been at least 53 excavations of boundaries: 19 before 2005 but also 27 between 2005 to 2006, and another 7 in 2011. When integrated with the field survey that has occurred in most of the areas across the study, then there is a considerable amount of material that can be used to give an understanding of the landscape development over time.
The identifying the eventful processes involved in between activities that have left a material trace in the landscape is useful not only in being able to reconstructing the landscape as it was in the past, but also in helping us to understand the relationship between the processes of change and resilience over the long-term e.g. the relationship between natural agencies like topographic formation and the flows of water bodies, and the boundaries. This has a particular reference to relationship between structural change and structural resilience, both which have quite specific material outcomes in a landscape.
Instead of presenting the whole study area in this way, which would require much more research than has been done to date, and would inevitably only give a general impression of these landscape formation processes. Between 2005 and 2006 there have been 27 trenches excavated. All boundaries were built of turf and covered with wind blown sand. It was also suggested that the majority of the boundaries that were investigated had a building date that occurred after 871 AD (based on identification of tephra â€“ volcanic ash - underneath the boundary) and abandonment – or disrepair - sometime in the mid-12th century (again based on tephra dates in abandonment deposits on top of the core of the turf built boundary). This met the objectives of our study as they were identified in the Rannás project, but the specific process of construction, use and abandonment is best seen more locally.
Two landscape areas: Fjlótsheiði environs and Kelduhverfi environs
What I want to do is to examine two specific landscape areas: one focus that is located around Fjlótsheiði and Þegjandadalur that roughly corresponds with the most intensive area of activity seen on the aerial photographs; and another in Kelduhverfi. In comparing these two areas I hope to illustrate the differences but also the similar agencies (cultural and natural) at work in the processes that have shaped the landscape.
Several themes are apparent therefore, and each is briefly discussed in turn. The approach taken is thematic because not enough research has been conducted within the study give more accurate dates with great confidence, other than exploring tangential relationship to other features such as settlements or the few places where excavation has taken place. Therefore, the discussion relies on some assumptions that will need to be tested with future work. These include the notion that the boundaries were built and primarily used between the late-9th century to mid-12th century, although their uses continued beyond that time (cf. Theme 4.). There are more themes that could have been discussed, and the study has not been limited to these, but these are, at the time of writing, what seemed to be the most interesting.
Theme 1. The human-environment entanglement, specifically the pattern of boundaries and tracks in relation to topography i.e. slopes and water bodies.
The two focus areas show that there was quite a deliberate kind of relationship between the environment and the placement of features. As I have already mentioned, the mapped boundaries can be separated into four main categories: linear boundaries, contour following, cross-contour and enclosures. And this expresses a particular relationship between the boundaries and the environment. Furthermore, placement of features has a bearing on the way in which these features are interpreted as functioning in the landscape (cf. Palmer 1984: 116-7, fig. 32). For example, in Fljótsheiði and Þegjandadalur area many of the boundaries are located in the 100 – 200m zone while some others are in lower zone. This may reflect a particular type of use, such as between farming practices – sheep in the upper zones and cattle in the lower – and an interpretation that is based on the human-environment relationship between linears (which tend to be in the lower zone) and contour following and cross-contour boundaries (which tend to be in the upper zone). The linears because of their locations also tend to be used to close-off certain parts of the landscape and making a hybrid type of enclosure that use both natural features like water bodies alongside turf or stone built boundaries
Theme 2. The entanglement between boundaries and different types of features such as settlements and tracks.
There is clearly a significant and non-trivial relationship between the spatial arrangement of boundaries and the pattern of other archaeological sites; whether they are sites surveyed in the field or sites that have been extracted from early maps showing tracks. And although there may be a temporal gap between the two types of evidence (on the one hand 9th to 12th century boundaries, and on the other sites from all periods but especially those from the post-medieval period) there is some level of correlation between them.
For example, several of the tracks have made use of the boundaries in the path that follow edges or head towards specific places of convergence in the landscape (evident on the Fljótsheiði). Also, several tracks move from one enclosure to another, linking them collectivity to each other. In this way it is possible to determine some community groupings, especially in the Kelduhverfi area.
Other archaeological sites may have had a direct relationship with the boundaries. By conducting a location selection of sites within 100m of the boundaries in Kelduhverfi, there was a significant pattern between the enclosures and seasonal settlement or activity centres typically called sel or sheilings, along with their out buildings and sheep houses.
Theme 3. The type of boundaries used in each of the two areas, the differences between them and what this suggests.
While there is an obvious differences shown on the maps of the two areas there is an underlying similarity between them that is expressed by one group of boundaries: the enclosures. Removing the linears, contour following, and cross-contour boundaries from the boundaries shows a spatial distribution that is fairly similar. The enclosures are small, infields that contain evidence of seasonal occupation, as well as more permanent inhabitation but often long abandoned. The two landscape areas therefore represent significant cultural differences between them that is more than just a result of the adaptation to the environment. There are approximately 35 small enclosures shown in each of the two areas. However, there are significantly more farms or areas of activity in the Fljótsheiði and Þegjandadalur than Kelduverfi. And this temporality in the landscape is also represented by the development of a more complex system of land management, represented by the linears, contour following and cross-contour boundaries in Fljótsheiði and Þegjandadalur. The two areas show on the one hand two types of landscapes that may have originally started with a similar colonisation pattern but which on the other resulted in different trajectories. A landscape area that stagnated, essentially becoming a fossilized version of itself, given over to sheiling and seasonal use (Kelduhverfi). And another landscape area that thrived and demanded a more complex system of land management (Fljótsheiði and Þegjandadalur). It is difficult to know when each of the landscape areas began to diverge in this way but it must have been shortly after the initial settlement of Iceland in the 9th century AD, and certainly before the mid-12th century.
Theme 4. The adoption and continued use of boundaries over time.
There is good evidence to suggest that the boundaries, especially the linears, contour following and cross-contour boundaries, had a structuring role in shaping the landscape. However, the structural influence of these boundaries is seen when the modern farm boundaries are compared with the relict (or not) boundaries. While there is a lot of mismatch, there is also some significant correlations. For example, the long linear that splits the upland Fljótsheiði into two halves is used as a boundary for at least 11 farms. And there are other boundaries that are perpendicular to this one that also that have a correlation. In Þegjandadalur, partly because of the abandonment of the valley in the 16th century there appear to few correlations, although the main defining farm boundaries runs along an earlier linear boundary. And there are other examples also. The contrast with Kelduhverfi is remarkable, and shows only one possible correlation. What these two landscape areas therefore demonstrate is that the formation of the present-day landscape took quite different trajectories probably in the mid-12th century, and that these trajectories have shaped its landscape character. Written sources suggest that there were myths associated with the builders of the boundaries, along with plenty of speculation over their function. For example, it was thought that the boundaries were roads – causeways through the landscape. There is some suggestion that they may have been used in later periods as causeways across the landscape, and this is in part suggested by some correlation with tracks. But these two landscape areas, and the whole system of boundaries in this region were part of a strategy – probably beginning in the late-9th century – of demarcating land types and ownership, but that these two areas took quite different developmental trajectories probably in the mid-12th century.
Aldred, O., Elán Ósk Hreiðarsdóttir, and Óskar Gásli Sveinbjarnarsson 2010 Aerial archaeology in Iceland: on the precipice.Â Archaeologia Islandica 8: 111-21.
Aldred, O. and Lucas, G. 2010 Chapter 12 Events, temporalities and landscapes in Iceland, in D. Bolender (ed.) Eventful Archaeologies. New Approaches to Social Transformation in the Archaeological Record. New York: Suny Press. Pp. 189-98.
Árni Einarsson and Aldred, O. 2011 Chapter 20 The archaeological landscape of northeast Iceland: a ghost of a Viking Age society, in D. Cowley (ed.)Remote Sensing for Archaeological Heritage Management in the 21st century.EAC Occasional paper No. 5/Occasional publication of the Aerial Archaeology Research Group No. 3. Brussels, Belgium. Pp. 243-258.
Árni Einarsson, Oddgeir Hansson and Orri Vésteinsson 2002 An Extensive System of Medieval Earthworks in NE-Iceland. Archaeologia Islandica 2: 61-73.
Aldred, O., Elán Ósk Hreiðarsdóttir, Birna Lárusdóttir and Árni Einarsson 2004 Forn garðlög Suður Þingeyjarsýslu / A system of earthworks in NE Iceland. Fornleifastofnun Íslands, Reykjavák FS292-04262.
Aldred, O., Elán Ósk Hreiðarsdóttir, Birna Lárusdóttir and Árni Einarsson 2005 Forn garðlög Suður Þingeyjarsýslu / A system of earthworks in NE Iceland. Fornleifastofnun Íslands, Reykjavák FS257-04261.
Aldred, O., Elán Ósk Hreiðarsdóttir, Birna Lárusdóttir and Árni Einarsson 2007 Forn garðlög Suður Þingeyjarsýslu / A system of earthworks in NE Iceland. Fornleifastofnun Íslands, Reykjavák FS349-04263.
- Field survey reports (examples)
Stefan Ólafsson and Oddgeir Hansson 2008 Fornleifaskráning Kelduneshreppi. Fornleifastofnun Íslands, Reykjavák FS392-05131.