This post is about pre-Viking settlement in the North Atlantic, and here specifically the Faroe Islands. I originally stubbed this in September 2013, when I came across a relevant web report on Melissa Snell’s medieval history blog at About.com, but since that time it seems that they’ve stopped keeping archives over there, so that post is now gone. Actually this is good news, because it forced me to web-search out other reports, and the obvious one, on Nature World News, also includes a link to the actual article behind it all, so now I can write you something informed.1
The story is that new research proves that the Vikings were not the first colonisers of the Faroes. This, and the fact that this was being published in an geoscience rather than a specifically archæological or historical journal, gave me some faint worries about sensationalisation of research meant to prove other things, as we have seen here many times before, but in this case, as far as I can see, it’s the real deal. The team in question were doing a low-urgency rescue dig on a coastal site in danger of erosion at Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy in 2002 and 2006. The site had been dug once before in 1994 and had then shown a Viking longhouse at the bottom of its occupation sequence (which subsequently went all the way up to the 19th century, always on the same spot, not least, as the article says, because there just aren’t that many sensible places to put settlements on the Faroes).2 This time they located the long-house’s hearth, and then they kept going and found more beneath. It wasn’t much more, just peat ash with carbonised barley grains in it, but this is significant for two reasons: firstly, barley isn’t native to the Faroes, and secondly, peat-burning requires usually months of cutting, stacking and drying, and thus implies prolonged settlement, not just drop-in visits. And they duly had radio-carbon analysis done on the barley grains and got the figures you see below.
There are some things I don’t fully understand about this, mainly because to get these dates they used not individual samples but a combined sample, whose results were mathematically combined using a ‘weighted mean’. Well, weighted how? I feel we should be told more about this.3 Still, unless it was actually weighted outside the sample dates, which would be some strange new definition of ‘mean’ of which I was not previously aware, the results still seem fairly inarguable: two straigraphically separate episodes older than the Viking site by between half a century and three centuries. I feel that a mean critic might be able to handwave away the more recent result, given it was right under the hearth and the dates could just about overlap, but the older one is much harder to get around, which gives one that bit more confidence in the younger one.
So, OK, what does this all mean? Well, most obviously it means that someone was on Sandoy burning peat and scattering its ash on the shoreline well before the Vikings got there (and the study is extremely careful to emphasise that we have no idea who). What our authors are most excited about is that there were, previously, very small signs of pre-Viking occupation in the palaeobotanical record (which is to say, barley pollen had been found before in a hard-to-date but potentially early context4), and that having been able to pin it down with actual digging like this has big implications for other island chains where such out-of-place floral data has turned up but been dismissed. But it also made them think of what it makes me think of, which is an old question about whether anyone got to Iceland before the Vikings. There are stories about this in the texts, firstly bewildering seafaring fantasies like the Irish Navigatio Sanctio Brendani, in which Brendan and his monks find a series of fantastic islands in the Western Ocean while in search of Paradise, which they duly locate and are allowed to stop in for a bit before turning for home to spread the good word.5 Much effort has been spent on pinning actual Atlantic islands into his tale, but, to be cynical again, one might as well try the same exercise with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the islands are equally allegorical in both texts.6 But there is also the Íslendingabók of Ari Thorgillson, ‘The Book of the Icelanders’, in which Ari reports that the first Viking settlers on Iceland found
white-clad men they called ‘papar’ there who fled before the Norsemen, leaving behind croziers and bells.7 That looks so like the kind of people St Brendan actually led that it’s usually been assumed these were Irish religious taking the spiritual exile thing unusually seriously. But there is no archæological evidence to show that Ari was doing anything more than making this up by extrapolation from stories about the Western Isles of Scotland or similar. The archæologists here are suitably cautious about fitting these older debates around their findings:
“Who were these earlier settlers, how many of them were there and where did they come from? Were they single ecclesiastical anchorites as described by Dicuil from Ireland, Late Iron Age groups of colonists from Atlantic Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia? Did they continue on to Iceland, or did the Faroes represent a temporary diasporal bottle-neck, requiring later Viking seafaring technology to be able to sail to Iceland and Greenland, and importantly to sail back? To answer these questions, more and better-preserved pre-Viking Faroese archaeological sites need to be identified, excavated and analysed.”8
To that, I would only say that the Vikings’ seafaring technology was perfected well before the Viking disapora started, so that might not be the significant limitation, but the Faroes radio-carbon dates are still very early and the authors’ caution here is absolutely commendable.9 What they do do, however, is establish an excellent idea of where to look for such remains in island contexts, and that gives me hope that Iceland might, indeed, be the next stop, just because it would be fun finally to have some kind of archæology to set against Ari’s stories. I’ll let the authors of the article have the last word, though, because they have bigger things in mind than my antiquarianism, and will myself just finish by saying that I wish all science publications with historical impact could manage it as well as these writers have:
“This detailed examination at the base of coastal erosion archaeological sections was successfully used to identify the first archaeological sites of Mesolithic date in the Western Isles of
Scotland. A similar palynological argument for early human settlement was proposed for the ‘invisible Mesolithic’ of the Western Isles, where small-scale clearance episodes evident in pre-Neolithic pollen sequences, coupled with a rise in microscopic charcoal, led researchers to suggest that hunter-gatherer fire ecology accounted for these disturbances, despite the lack of any Mesolithic archaeological sites in the island chain. In the Faroes and the Western Isles of Scotland, small-scale perturbations in pollen sequences were interpreted as ephemeral human occupation events in periods prior to the orthodox landnám [‘land-taking’] events attested by the substantial settlement record of structures, dating to the Viking and Neolithic periods respectively. In both cases, the palaeoecological interpretations were eventually proved to be correct on discovery of ephemeral archaeological remains of pre-landnám date at the base of large coastal erosion archaeological sections and this raises intriguing issues about perturbations in palaeoenvironmental sequences prior to orthodox landnám chronological horizons in other island systems elsewhere in the North Atlantic and across the world, as in the Pacific."10
1. Mike J. Church, Símun V. Arge, Kevin J. Edwards, Philippa L. Ascough, Julie M. Bond, Gordon T. Cook, Steve J. Dockrill, Andrew J. Dugmore, Thomas H. McGovern, Claire Nesbitt, Ian A. Simpson, “The Vikings were not the first colonizers of the Faroe Islands” in Quartnerary Science Reviews Vol. 77 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 228-232, DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.06.011. Assigning author order on that must have taken nearly as long as the project itself…
2. Ibid. pp. 228-230; the previous dig, led by the second author here, seems not to have been published.
3. Rather than tell us about it, they refer to two other studies, P. J. Ashmore, “Radiocarbon dating: avoiding errors by avoiding mixed samples” in Antiquity Vol. 73 (Edinburgh 1999), pp. 124-130, which you’ll notice is a vote against doing this, and Ascough, Cook & Dugmore, “North Atlantic marine 14C reservoir effects: Implications for late-Holocene chronological studies” in Quarternary Geochronology Vol. 4 (Amsterdam 2009), pp. 171-180, DOI: 10.1016/j.quageo.2008.12.002, which presumably isn’t.
4. Here they cite a whole rook of stuff, the most recent of which is K. J. Edwards & D. M. Borthwick, “The pollen content of so-called ‘ancient’ field systems in Suethuroy, Faroe Islands, and the question of cereal cultivation” in S.-A. Bengtson, P. C. Buckland, P. H. Enckell & A. M. Fosaa (edd.), Dorete – Her Book – Being a Tribute to Dorete Bloch and to Faroese Nature, Annales Societatis Scientiarum Færoensis, Supplementum LII (Tørshavn 2010), pp. 96-116.
5. I’m not sure what the preferred edition of the Navigatio is these days but in trying to find out I have found Guy Vincent (ed.), “Navigation de Saint Brendan : texte latin et traduction”, http://www.utqueant.org/net/doc.3.Bren.II.html, last modified 24th October 2005 as of 26th August 2014, which will probably do. There is a good English translation in J. F. Webb (transl.), Lives of the Saints (Harmondsworth 1965), pp. 31-68, repr. in D. H. Farmer (ed./transl.) & Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (Harmondsworth 1983), pp. 231-267 even though the text is likely from a century after Bede.
6. There are various studies on the Atlantic world implied by the text in John W. De Courcy & David Sheehy (edd.), Atlantic Visions (Dun Laoghaire 2009), which I will admit straight up I have never seen but just now pulled out of a database; any other suggestions?
7. There seems to be an edition of Íslendingabók by Guðni Jónsson online here but I have no idea how good it is; again, any better references would be appreciated. The standard translation, Siân Grønlie (transl.), Íslendingabók; Kristni Saga. The Book of the Icelanders; The Story of the Conversion (London 2006), pp. 3-34, is online here in PDF.
8. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.
9. Jan Bill, “Ships and Seamanship” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 182-201.
10. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.