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A Viking-age Valley in Iceland: The Mosfell Archaeological Project

A Viking-age Valley in Iceland: The Mosfell Archaeological Project
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  A Viking-age Valley in Iceland : The Mosfell Archaeological Project By JESSE BYOCK, PHILLIP WALKER, JON ERLANDSON, PER HOLCK, DAVIDE ZORI, MAGNÚS GUDMUNDSSON and MARK TVESKOV THIS is an account of both the history and the recent findings of the Mosfell Archaeological Project . Excavation is part of an interdisciplinary research approach that uses archaeology, history, anthropology, forensics, environmental sciences and saga studies to construct a picture of human habitation, power relationships, religious and mortuary practices, and environmental change in the region of Mosfellssveit in south-western Iceland . The valley system with surrounding highlands and lowland coastal areas has interlocking natural and cultural components which developed from the gth-century settlement of Iceland into a Viking Age chiefiaincy dominated by the family at Mosfell/Hrísbrú . Excavations of both pagan and Christian sites are providing signficant information on the changing periods of occupation, with implications for the larger study of Viking North Atlantic . During the Viking Age, Mosfell was a self-contained social and economic unit connected to the rest of Iceland through a network of roads, including a major E .—W . route to thenearby assembly place for the yearly Althing . With its ship's landing or port at Leirvogur, in the bay at the valley 's mouth, the region was in commercial and cultural contact with the larger Scandinavian and European worlds. In the autumn [c   A .D . zozo] Illugi [the Black] rode from his home at Gilsbakki with thirty men and arrived at Mosfell early in the morning. Onund [the chieftain at Mosfell] and his sons escaped into the church, but Illugi caught two of Onund's kinsmen, one named Bj6rn and theother Thorgrim . Illugi had Bjórn killed and Thorgrim s foot chopped off . Then he rode home. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue The passage aboye is one of many in Iceland's sagas and medieval writings that refers to Viking-age inhabitants of the Mosfell Valley (Mosfellsdalur) in westernIceland . While written sources have their own problems, these medieval references offer a powerful set of comparative tools for informing the archaeological work of our international team of researchers re-constructing the Viking-age landscape of the Mosfell region . The Mosfell Valley, the surrounding highlands, and the lowland coastal area, are a valley system composed of interlocking natural and man-made pieces, encapsulating the major ecologies of Iceland: coastal, riverine and highland. `Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu', in Sigurdur Nordal and Guônÿ Jónsson (eds .), Borgfirdinga sogur  Íslenzk fornrit, 3,Reykjavík, 1938), ch . 13   1 95 DOI : 1 o .1179/007660905X54080  196 JESSE BYOCK ET AL. Following the issuing of excavation permits by the Icelandic Archaeological Agency (Fornleifavernd ríkissins), we excavated in 2001, 2002 and 2003 at Hrísbrú in the valley, and this article focuses on the work of the Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP) during these years. Directed by Jesse Byock and Phillip Walker, MAP has been excavating in the Mosfell Valley and the surrounding Mosfell region (Mosfellssveit) since 1995 . We employ the tools of archaeology, history, anthropology and environmental science, and work in collaboration with the National Museum of Iceland (Pjóóminjasafn Íslands) and the town of Mosfellsbær   2 The goal is to construct a picture of life in the Mosfell Valley and the Mosfellssveit region beginning with Iceland's settlement (landnám) in the Viking Age and continuing into the following centuries . The archaeological work began with surveys in the early I ggos and continued with test excavations starting in 1995 . Major excavations began in 20o I , and the archaeology has documented a rich Viking-age occupational history. The 2001 excavation at Hrísbrú located a number of significant remains, including an early church and surrounding cemetery and an adjacent burial mound, containing remains of human cremation. The goal of our 2002 and 2003 field seasons was to expand the scope of the promising 2001 work . Our excavationsfocused on three archaeological deposits on the Hrísbrú farm: Kirkjuhóll (ChurchKnoll), the hillock just behind the modern farm's stable that was first tested in the 1995 field season and again in 2001; Hulduhóll (Elfin Hill), a hillock located about 6o m west of Kirkjuhóll ; and Loddahóll, a small knoll at the far north-eastern corner of the home field (tún), the hay meadow immediately north of Kirkjuhóll (see Fig . 1). When we began excavating in the Mosfell Valley in 1995, the knolls at Kirkjuhóll and Hulduhóll were used as pasture . Both of these adjacent knolls were covered with grass, and their surface was undisturbed except where the tramplings of cows exposed small patches of earth. The farmer, Olafur Ingimundarson, whose family has lived on the land for many generations, and who is extremely knowledgeable about life and the changes in land use in the valley, follows the archaeological work closely . When we dug our first test trench at Kirkjuhóll, Olafur informed us that no agricultural machinery had ever been used on the knoll because of the reverence attached to Kirkjuhóll in oral memory as the site of an ancient church . To date this remains the case, a situation that is relatively rare on contemporary Icelandic farms which are highly mechanized . The same has held true for Hulduhóll, with oral story attaching to it the interdiction that it was to be left alone because it was inhabited by `the hidden people' or elves. As it turned out, both knolls were connected with ancient mortuary rites, Christian and pagan. The archaeology at the Mosfell Valley sites is aided by a wealth of surviving medieval Icelandic writings, including The Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), Egil sSaga (Egils saga Skallagrímssonar), The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue (Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu), Halled s Saga (Hal   eóar saga), The Saga of the People ofKjalarness (Xjalnesinga saga), The Saga of the People of Floi Bay (Flóamanna saga), and The Short Saga of Orm Storoifsson (Orms1áttur Stórólfssonar) in Flateyjarbók   These sources describe sites in the 2 We also work in collaboration with the Hólar Project directed by Ragnheióur Traustadóttir .  1 97 VIKING-AGE VALLEY IN ICELAND Hrísbrú Mosfellsdalur, Iceland 2001 & 2002 ExcavationsMosfell Archaeological Project Nmg meteos 0 10 20 30 40 50 contour Intedvee 50 cm FIG  I The farm at Hrísbrú showing the excavations sites of Hulduhóll (Elfin Hill), Kirkjuhóll (Church Knoll) andLoddahóll. The modern paths and driveways are marked in light grey and the modern farm buildings in dark grey. Mosfell valley and at Leirvogur (Clay Bay), the inlet on the coast below the mouth of the valley into which the rivers of the Valley flow . For example, the following passage from The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue tells that Onund, one of the Mosfell chieftains or goôar, held sway over the headlands or promontories of the local southern coastal region and was married to a woman from a prominent family on Iceland's south-western coast: A man named nund lived to the south at Mosfell . He was among the most wealthy of menand held the chieftaincy [gobord] for the headlands [nesin] th r in th south . He was married,and his wife was named Geirny. She was the daughter of Gnup, the son of Molda-Gnup who settled at Grindavik in the south . Their sons were Hrafn, Thorarin, and Eindridi   3 While we do not by any means believe everything found in the written materials, the sources concerning Mosfell are often basic and detailed . We have in these writings a core of information from a variety of sources about settlers, chieftains, warriors, women and lawgivers from Mosfellssveit . Much of this 3 Op . cit . in note t, ch . 5 .  198 JESSE BYOCK ET AL. information speaks to the material and social culture, describing habitation sites, lands, social standing, kinship relations, economic arrangements, as well as determinations of causes and places of conflict . As a grouping of sources about a regional chieftaincy or goôorô, these passages from different texts have been largelyoverlooked by historians and anthropologists. Together the recent archaeological finds by MAP and the ancient written materials offer a new combination of information about a 250-year period in the past of an important region from the early 1 oth century to the mid-12th, a time which spans the transition from prehistory to history, from paganism to Christianity. Having medieval narrative sources, such as those connected with the Mosfell sites, or written sources at all, is exceptional in Viking archaeology . Extensive Viking-age sites are found throughout mainland Scandinavia, the British Isles and northern Europe, but because of the paucity of written sources, archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists often know little about the inhabitants, their personal history or specific socio-economic and political relationships. The Viking- age sites in Mosfellssveit are somewhat different. Beginning with Iceland's settlement period in the late 9th century, the Mosfell Valley was home to important leaders and their families about whom the sources tell a good deal   The Book of Settlements speaks of Thord Skeggi, a settler or landnámsmaôr with extensive family connections and allies, as the first to colonize the area around the year 900 . In the decades before and after the year 1000, GrimSvertingsson lived at Mosfell . He was a prominent chieftain and the Law-Speaker at the Althing (Iceland's annual national assembly), and during Grim's occupancy, Egil Skallagrimsson, the protagonist of Egil s Saga and Grim's father-in-law, also lived there in his old age . Egil died on Grim's farm and according to his saga was first buried in a pagan burial mound at Tjaldanes on the floor of the Mosfell Valley (c . 990) . A decade later Egil's body was disinterred and moved to the new church at Hrísbrú, built shortly after the conversion in the year 1 000 . In the generation after Grim, in the 10205, the chieftain Onund and his warrior son Hrafn lived atthe Mosfell/Hrísbrú site . From the start, the interdisciplinary archaeological work in the Mosfell Valley was conceived in terms of treating methodological issues surrounding excavations within a quasi-historical context. The following passage from Egil s Saga tells us about the building of the first church at Mosfell/Hrísbrú and the subsequent movement of the church and graveyard to a new farm site (also called Mosfell) about 400 m to the east of Hrísbrú (see Fig . 2) . The passage recounts that the movement took place while Skapti the priest was present, information that dates the event to the mid-12th century . Several sources (different from those aboye) mention Skapti, who according to Prestatal, a 12th-century listing of well-born priests, was clive in 11 43 .4 Skapti appears to have been a descendant of Egil, and he may also have been a chieftain . Some scholars, including the saga specialist Sigur$ur Nordal, surmise   `Nafnaskrá íslenzkra presta', in Diplomatarium Islandicum: Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn, ed. Jón Sigurósson (Copenhagen, 1857) Vol . I, 186 . This list of priests is widely believed to have been written by Ari Thorgilsson, the author of Íslendingabók   Skapti is also mentioned in The Saga of Thorgils and Haf (I   orgils saga ok Haflida, ch . 31, in Sturlunga saga I, eds . J6nJóhannesson, Magnús Finnbogason and Kristján Eldjárn [Reykjavík, 1946]) .  A VIKING-AGE VALLEY IN ICELAND 199 that Skapti was the owner of Mosfell and the goôoró in the mid-12th century when the following events described in Egil s Saga took place   5 When Christianity was adopted by law in Iceland [around the year i 000] Grim of Mosfell was baptized and built a church there . People say that Thordis [Grim ' s wife and Egil   s stepdaughter] had Egil's bones moved to the church, and this is the evidence. When a church was built at Mosfell [c . 1 I40j, the one that Grim had built at Hrísbrú was taken down and the graveyard dug . Under the altar some human bones were found, much bigger than ordinary human bones, and people are confident that these were Egil s bones because of stories told by old men. Skapti Thorarinsson the Priest, a man of great intelligence, was there at the time . He picked up Egil's skull and placed it on the fence of the churchyard . The skull was an exceptionally large one and its weight was even more remarkable. It was ridged all over like a scallop shell, and Skapti wanted to find out just how thick it was, so he picked up a heavy axe, swung it in one hand and struck as hard as he was able with the reverse side of the axe, trying tobreak the skull . But the skull neither broke nor dented; it simply turned white where struck, and from that anybody could guess that the skull would not have been easily cracked by small frywhile it still had skin and flesh on it . Egil   s bones were re-interred on the edge of the graveyard at Mosfell   6 In recent times, the aboye passage has attracted attention . The results of that inquiry, especially those about Paget's Disease and the epidemiological history of this bone disease, contribute to our archaeological research and have helped set from the start the cross-disciplinary nature of the research .' Along with giving the history of the churches and graveyards, the medieval passage also helps to clarify the two place-names Mosfell and Hrísbrú. Both names are associated with the farmsteads of the Mosfellingar, as the chieftain or Mar family in the Mosfell Valley was called . In the 11 oos the srcinal Mosfell land- holding was Split into two adjoining farms, and the older farmstead was given the name Hrísbrú . This division of the land explains the usage of the two names in the medieval sources when referring to the oldest farm. In 1995, we excavated a corner of what may be the remains of the 12th-century church referred to in the passage aboye, the one constructed at the new farmsite of Mosfell when Grim's srcinal church at Hrísbrú was taken out of service and moved. Because of the medieval writings, the sites in the Mosfell Valley region aresteeped in the history both of Iceland and of Scandinavia in the Viking Age . Forexample, Hallfred s Saga tells a story about the warrior poet Hallfred's return to his native Iceland . The passage recounts that Onund at Mosfell/Hrísbrú controlled the ship-landing or port at Leirvogur, and that, when necessary, the Mosfellingar were ready to extract dues by force from travellers. In the summer Hallfred sailed out [from Norway] to Iceland, landing the ship in Leirvogur, south below the heath. At that time Onund was living at Mosfell. Hallfred was required to pay half a mark of silver to Onund's houseservant, but refused harshly . The servant came home and told of this trouble. Hrafn [Onund's son] said that it was to be expected that the servantwould get the lower part of the bargain in an exchange between them . And in the morning, Egils saga Skalla-Grlmssonar, ed . Siguróur Nordal (Íslenzk fornrit, 2, Reykjavík, 1933), lvii. 6 Ibid ., ch . 86. tórôur Haróarson, `Sjúkdómur Egils Skallagrímssonar', Skírnir, 158 (1984), 245—8 ; J . Byock, `The skull and bones in Egils Saga: a Viking, a grave, and Paget's Disease', Viator, 24 ( 1 993), 23—50 ; `Hauskúpan og beinin í Egils stgu', Skírnir (1994), 73—109 ; `Egil s Bones : A Viking Warrior and Paget's Disease', ScientifzcAmerican, 272/1 (1995), 82-7 .
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