In other words, I keep getting distracted from my actual purpose in reading these documents, which is to look for any mention of the fornbýli so I can discuss specifically what they were used for in the 19th century. The closest I've come so far - and again, I'm only in 1856 - is that he spends a lot of time in August of 1855 visiting and fixing up rústir/rústinum/rústum/rústabakka (all variations on "the ruins"), and then he brings horses there. No mention of a place-name or where on the landscape it's located, but this is a good example anyway of re-use of old places! Maybe he'll learn place-names as he spends more years farming the land at Ás - we shall see.
Oh, and Ólafur's handwriting is absolutely gorgeous:
ETA: I have been informed that "rústir" in this context probably refers to a cryoturbated boggy area, rather than ruined structures. Still more work to do!
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I try to answer in broken Icelandic, and I usually get as far as "ég er fornleifafræðingur frá Bandaríkjunum og ég vinna með Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga" (I'm an American archaeologist working with the museum) before I resort to "talarðu enska?" (Do you speak English?). Often the answer is "a little" with a smile, and then I can launch into a description of what I'm doing out there, with my steaming tub of muddy water and colorful chiffon. So here's a longer explanation of macrobotanical flotation, for the blog!
Macrobotanicals are archaeological plant remains, usually seeds: "macro" distinguishes these samples from pollen or phytoliths, which can only be seen under a microscope. Looking at plant remains from the past can tell us a lot about what the environment was like at the time. The proportion of different species present in a sample suggests whether the landscape may have been forested, wetland, or heath, for example. Agricultural crops are also a big factor in macrobotanical analysis: what kind of crops were people growing, if any, and how did agriculture differ across the landscape and between sites? Seeds can also tell us what people were eating or feeding their animals, and what kind of food were imported at different points in time. These data sets help answer questions about diet, health, economy, and social relationships in the past. It's a technique used in archaeological research projects all over the world.
In Iceland, one of the most significant results from macrobotanical analysis has been the presence or absence of barley seeds. The usual narrative of agricultural history in Iceland says that although some arable agriculture was practiced during the Settlement Period, the climate of Iceland was such that only barley was hardy enough to survive, and even barley could not be grown later into the medieval period as the climate continued to cool. It's also been suggested that barley was primarily grown by powerful landowners with large farms. So finding barley helps us answer questions about environment, economy, and society. Barley at any of the fornbýli that are the focus of my dissertation would be particularly interesting, as it calls into question several assumptions about social status and economic production in medieval Iceland. And one more thing -- charred barley is the best possible sample to send to the lab for radiocarbon dating.
So macrobotanical samples are one of the most important data sets we collect. And the way we get them is by a technique called flotation.
Collecting a flotation sample from a midden at Kriki.
It starts by collecting samples in the field, during an excavation. From every layer we excavate, we collect a bulk soil sample, anywhere between 2-15 liters depending on the size of the deposit. These are mostly from middens - trash deposits where people left the remains of meals, food preparation, and often animal dung, all of which are likely to include seeds.
Next we have to separate the seeds from the soil, which is where flotation comes in. Put seeds in water, and they float to the top. Dirt, rocks, bones, and most other stuff found in middens falls to the bottom. The simplest way to do this is to dump the sample in a bucket, swish it around, and skim off what floats to the top. I'm using a slightly more complicated machine; here's a diagram of a similar machine, which I've borrowed from this webpage.
Water flows into the tank from the bottom (hot water! this is Iceland after all) and percolates up into a removable tank with a mesh bottom. As I dump the sample into the tank, seeds, charcoal, roots, and other light particles float to the top. The water carries these light particles out of the spout at the top of the tank, where they fall into a waiting chiffon mesh: the water flows through the chiffon and out into the harbor, leaving behind the seeds for me to collect into a bundle and hang to dry. Heavier objects - mostly stones, with some bones, charcoal, slag, and occasionally other artifacts - fall to the bottom of the mesh, so when I'm satisfied that I've collected all the seeds from the sample, I pick up the removable inner tank and clean the heavy fraction out of the mesh, gathering it into a second chiffon mesh which I also hang to dry. The dirt flows through the mesh and forms a sludge in the bottom of the tank which I clean out periodically, usually two or three times a day if I'm floating all day.
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Samples hanging up to dry!
Once the samples are dry, I move them from the chiffon to a smaller ziploc bag, making sure all the context information is still on the label. Once I'm done (hopefully by the end of September), the whole collection will be sent to the laboratory at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where specialists (usually historical archaeology MA students) will sort through the heavy fractions, and will look at the light fractions through a microscope, counting the seeds of each species that are present. And any charred barley, once it's been identified, will be sent on to yet another lab for radiocarbon dating.
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Eventually, all these samples will be processed and the results entered into our database, and then I'll be able to use the data in my dissertation! **\o/**
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I'm back in Sauðárkrókur now, after a few weeks home in the US after the end of the summer season, and I'm settling in to start my Fulbright year of writing and research. I've lived in this town for at least two weeks out of each of the last seven summers, bar one (in 2010 it was Greenland instead). I think I know this town and this fjord reasonably well by now, but moving from a temporary summer visitor to a more longer term resident is already changing my perceptions, little by little.
For instance, this evening there were a lot of low clouds in the back of Skagafjörður, and clearer skies with just a few clouds to the north. In summer this often portends a lovely sunset in both directions, so I went out with my camera. Of course, I knew the sun would no longer set to the north, over the fjord- it had already stopped doing that by the middle of August at the end of the field season, when I and my American colleagues went home. I climbed up the hill behind the track, in search of a vantage, to find that the sun no longer even sets over Tindastoll, but much farther south and west, already over the next mountain. With so much solid rock between me and the evening sun, I may be all out of sunsets for the year- if I learn otherwise I will report back!
Here's the best photo from tonight, looking far to the west of town (if I'd been thinking I'd have moved a bit so as to avoid the horse trailer in the foreground):
Ceecee and Eric coring at Minni-Egg
I hoped to start a test pit at Minni-Egg, but as yet we haven't been able to located a medieval midden here amongst the later ruins of an outbuilding and field wall. I have a few more spots I'd like to check out, but it seems as though Minni-Egg may not have been inhabited during the 9th-13th centuries; or if it was, all evidence may have eroded away.
Since we didn't find a place to excavate at Minni-Egg, I had a somewhat free day on Friday, so I went to Reynir at the south end of Hegranes with Doug's team. Reynir is a much larger farmstead ruin than the sites I'm primarily investigating, with evidence of long-term habitation in the early medieval period as well as surface ruins of 19th century barns, gardens, and field walls.
The landscape of Reynir. In the middle distance, two dark spots on a light green hill are Jared and Ceecee, working on the test unit (right-click -> view image to see it larger). You can see the faint echo of a field boundary a little closer to the camera. At the bottom of the photo is an early modern structure (probably a sheephouse or shepherd's hut), constructed after 1300. I thought it was a good candidate for early settlement, similar to the fornbyli I've been surveying, but a few cores around the structure showed no evidence of earlier activity.
Earlier last week, I built a pair of new, lightweight screens to carry to distant sites. I posted a few photos of the construction process on my Iceland tumblr - check them out here. We primarily find animal bones and some iron objects in early middens, with the occasional small find (see my previous post), so we need to screen all midden contexts to make sure we catch them all. The Reynir team tested one of my new screens, and so far they are working great!
Ceecee using one of the new and improved screens at Reynir!
You should definitely go visit Ceecee's blog for more photos and descriptions of what we're all doing up here in Skagafjörður all summer!
Before the match, I met with Randver at the Fulbright office to discuss my grant - so excited to be here next year! Followed by a long-overdue trip to the Icelandic Phallological Museum (yes, it's exactly what you think it is). I particularly enjoyed the Invisible Elf specimen, that one must have been tough to acquire.
Tomorrow I take the Kjölur bus north to Skagafjörður!
This evening I attended a lovely dinner with Leifur Eiriksson fellows, board members, and supporters - what a wonderful way to kick off a new summer field season!
Looking in the Margins for Clues About Economic Inequality
and Environmental Change in Medieval Iceland
NOVA posted a video interview with my colleague Doug Bolender, all about the recent discovery of a probable Norse site in North America, give it a watch!