Arctic Field Projects

Project Title: Colonization and Christianity: the development of Viking Age and medieval hierarchies in Skagafjordur, North Iceland (Award# 1417772)

PI: Steinberg, John M (
Phone: (617) 287.6824 
Institute/Department: U of Massachusetts, Boston, Fiske Center for Archaeological Research 
IPY Project?
Funding Agency: US\Federal\NSF\GEO\OPP\ARC\ASSP
Program Manager: Dr. Colleen Strawhacker (
Discipline(s): | Social and Human Sciences\Archaeology |

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Science Summary:
The institutionalization of Christianity in the Middle Ages is one of the fundamental transformations in early European history. This research seeks to understand the connections between the adoption of Christian practices and the development of political power in Iceland between AD 870 and 1300. In about AD 870 the predominately pagan Norse started colonizing the previously uninhabited volcanic island. In AD 1000 Christianity began to replace the widespread pagan beliefs. By 1300, Iceland was dominated by centralized religious and political institutions. Iceland has one of the richest collections of medieval texts and excellent archaeological preservation of Viking Age farmsteads, churches, and cemeteries. This makes research here central to understanding early European history and has the potential to give us insights into the global effects of Christianization in its contemporary context. This project employs geophysical surveying techniques already tested under a previous NSF award, PLR-1242829, "EAGER: Assessing the Reliability of the Geophysical identification of Early Christian Churchyards and Burials in Northern Iceland." The further improvements this project makes in developing geophysical survey protocols, including ground penetrating radar and electromagnetic conductivity, provide for a more cost-effective alternative to traditional excavation and thus, the project has broader applications to archaeological science, forensics, historic preservation, and cultural resource management.Emerging evidence indicates that the Christianization of Iceland took place in two major phases: a popular adoption in the absence of central religious authority, followed by an institutionalization of church communities and hierarchies. Soon after the Christian conversion many individual farmers established household churches and accompanying cemeteries on their own farmsteads. In the 12th century, many of the household churches and cemeteries appear to have been shut down and replaced with new communal or parish churches. The researchers wish to understand if the parish churches were located on prominent farms that were established early in the colonization sequence or whether these church farms became important political and economic centers only after the Christian conversion. Researchers will investigate the relationship between the settlement history and Christian practices at 13 farms in the Hegranes region of lowland Skagafjordur, just south of the Arctic Circle. Buried farmsteads and Christian cemeteries will be systematically surveyed using archaeological and geophysical survey protocols. Data will be collected on farmstead location, order of establishment, and changes in their size or organization throughout the 400-year period of study. The project will also systematically investigate evidence of Christian practices on these farms, including the presence and location of cemeteries or churches, dates of burials, and abandonment of the cemeteries and churches, including the use of churches after burials ceased. By comparing the farmstead establishment date and size to the geography of the Christian cemeteries, the team will determine the relationship between hierarchies that developed during the early colonization and hierarchies that developed later during the institutionalization of Christianity.

Logistics Summary:
Researchers on this project will examine farms and burial patterns to evaluate the degree to which the initial conditions of Iceland's colonization influenced later social development as the island underwent significant environmental and social (i.e. the introduction of Christianity) changes. To examine this, they will focus archeological work (EM, GPR, coring, and excavation) on Viking farmstead settlements and the changing geography of early Christian cemeteries. Starting in 2015, during each of three summers, approximately 20 field team members (17 team members from the US, and three Icelandic subcontractors) will participate. In 2017, the PI received a no-cost extension to conduct a subsurface survey of the last farm during the summer of 2018.

All logistics will be organized by the researcher and paid through the grant.
SeasonField SiteDate InDate Out#People
2015Iceland - Hegranes06 / 25 / 2015 08 / 25 / 201511
2016Iceland - Hegranes06 / 25 / 2016 08 / 25 / 201611
2017Iceland - Hegranes06 / 24 / 2017 08 / 16 / 201720
2018Iceland - Hegranes06 / 24 / 2018 08 / 16 / 201820

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Parameters used to generate this report:, Grant# = "1417772", IPY = "ALL" 
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