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Mosfell Archaeological Project: A Viking Landscape
In 2007, Professor Jesse Byock (Scandinavian Section, and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA) was awarded a five-year grant from Arcadia, administered by CMRS, to complete and document the research of the first eleven years of the Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP), an interdisciplinary research project employing the tools of archaeology, history, anthropology, forensics, environmental sciences, and saga studies. MAP is constructing a comprehensive picture of human habitation and environmental change in the Mosfell region of western Iceland during the Middle Ages, which will be documented in a coming series of publications.
One aspect of MAP’s 2009 fieldwork focused on integration of textual sources, aerial photographs, and historical maps in order to locate medieval sites for survey and research. This work began with the examination of maps and farmstead drawings from 1916. Called túnkort or home-pasture maps, these maps were hand drawn by teenagers in the rural schools in 1916 as a project to teach students how to describe their family lands. The túnkort have turned out to be of immense help in MAP’s work, because in 1916 the family farms were still little changed from the Middle Ages. These maps were then compared to a series of aerial photographs of the valley taken between 1942 (when the first aerial photos of Iceland were taken) and 2006. Next, the 1916 maps and other maps were layered onto the aerial photos, and then geo-referenced the results in MAP’s landscape (ArcGIS) database. From this database, accurate measurements could be made on features faintly visible in photographs, and then compared to data from the 1916 and older maps. At the same time, recent MAP excavation results of habitation sites and constructions from the Viking Age were layered onto the earlier photographic landscape. To these results, information from MAP’s Icelandic place-name study project was added. In the end, MAP team members were able to distinguish, with a certainty impossible using traditional methods, the importance of a few sites— Helgadalur, Hraðastaðir, Skeggjastaðir, Æsustaðir, all previously unexplored Viking Age farmsites within the Mosfell Valley—which became the focus for the 2009 fieldwork season.
Work began by meeting with the present-day farmers and inhabitants of each farm. The local inhabitants, many of whom are from families that have been in the valley for generations, have an in-depth knowledge of the region and retain a rich oral tradition about the features in their landscape. Sharing MAP’s photographs and maps with the residents of the valley, and recording their observations concerning the relationship between these maps and their understanding of the landscape, proved to be extremely informative and helped MAP team members to select locations on each of the farms for archaeological study.
Once identified, extensive and systematic sub-surface coring at the selected sites yielded promising results. The discovery of an early farmstead at Skeggjastaðir was particularly significant. The farm of Skeggjastaðir is mentioned in the medieval Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók, literally “The Book of Landtakes”), which describes Iceland’s ninth-century settlement by Norse and Celtic seafarers, as being a major site settled by the Valley’s original Norse colonists. As evidence for the comparison of medieval written sources and modern archaeological findings, the discovery adds significantly to our understanding of the Mosfell valley.
The Icelandic government has nominated Professor Byock, as director of the MAP project, to be the Icelandic Archaeological Representative to the international steering committee for nominations for UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Viking Age. The committee , which selects and regulates some of the major historical monuments of Northern Europe, is sponsored by the governments of Britain, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.
MAP works in full collaboration with the National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands), the town of Mosfellsbær, and under the supervision of the state Archaeological Heritage Agency of Iceland (Fornleifavernd ríkisins). Professor Byock’s partners on the project are Professors Jon Erlandson (University of Oregon), Per Holck (University of Oslo), Helgi Þorláksson (University of Iceland), David Scott (UCLA), Richard Gatti (UCLA), Magnús Guðmundsson (University of Iceland), and the late Philip Walker (UC Santa Barbara). Since 2006, Davide Zori (PhD candidate, UCLA) has served as the project’s field director. For more about the project, visit the MAP website.
More information about Professor Byock's work is available at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology website, www.viking.ucla.edu, and from the town of Mosfell's website. His Viking Language Series for learning Old Norse is available at is at www.vikingnorse.com. An account of both the history and findings of the Mosfell Archaeological Project was published in Medieval Archaelogy, Journal of the Society for medieval Archaeology, Volume XLIX, 2005.
A comprehensive article about the Mosfell Archaeological Project is featured in the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology's 2013 Annual Review Backdirt.