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This volume presents the results of a symposium focused on a project of archaeological research concerned with the colonization of the North Atlantic using new methods of analysis. This introduction to the volume discusses the historical and archaeological background of the study and the major questions involved. The larger issues concern the settlement of a number of the islands of the North Atlantic by Vikings during the last quarter of the first millennium AD. Questions about the timing of this settlement and the place of origin of the settlers are still subject to debate and are important components in constructing the archaeology of the Vikings. More specifically, because these methods involve human remains, the study focuses primarily on Iceland and Greenland where Norse settlements contain substantial numbers of burials, in contrast to some other locations in the North Atlantic.
The paper presents a synopsis of the current evidence for the settlement chronology and Viking Age to Early Medieval paleoeconomy of the Faroe Islands. Special emphasis is placed on the recent interdisciplinary research carried out in the village of Sandur, on the island of Sandoy, as part of the Heart of the Atlantic project. A particularly important outcome of this recent work has been the wide application of scientific dating methods to the early settlement remains. Recent AMS radiocarbon dates push the earliest settlement of the islands further back in time than traditionally thought, results that are of great importance because the Faroes were the first stepping-stone for the Viking diaspora west across the North Atlantic.
The Norse who settled and lived in Greenland AD 1000–1500 provide a unique biological anthropological material for the investigation of human and environmental interaction. They were a relatively isolated population, constrained in both space and time. This study reports on demographic modelling of (1) marriage and fertility patterns and (2) total population level numbers with crude death rates and birth rates, including immigration and emigration scenarios. In addition to linear models, I also used stochastic models, which may be especially important when dealing with small populations. My results indicate that a small population such as the Norse inevitably will be close to a minimum sustainable level, and that simple emigration may explain the demise of the settlements. Furthermore, when the societal and economical implications of the population dynamics are considered, certain activities of the Norse in the latter phase of the settlement, such as the building of new churches, may acquire a new significance. To illustrate this, a so-called sunk-cost economic model was applied.
During the Viking Age, Norse peoples established settlements across the North Atlantic, colonizing the pristine and near-pristine landscapes of the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and the short-lived Vinland settlement in Newfoundland. Current North Atlantic archaeological research themes include efforts to understand human adaptation and impact in these environments. For example, early Icelandic settlements persisted despite substantial environmental impacts and climatic change, while the Greenlandic settlements were abandoned ca. AD 1450 in the face of similar environmental degradation. The Norse settlers utilized both imported domestic livestock and natural fauna, including wild birds and aquatic resources. The stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen (expressed as δ13C and δ15N) in archaeofaunal bones provide a powerful tool for the reconstruction of Norse economy and diet. Here we assess the δ13C and δ15N values of faunal and floral samples from sites in North Iceland within the context of Norse economic strategies. These strategies had a dramatic effect upon the ecology and environment of the North Atlantic islands, with impacts enduring to the present day.
The isotope composition of tooth enamel and associated dentine and lead concentration was analyzed for strontium and oxygen (enamel) and carbon and nitrogen (dentine) from ten skulls taken from a burial pit found on the Chalk at Ridgeway Hill north of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England. These individuals are a subset of the 51 men in this pit, all of whom had been decapitated. The results from the ten individuals show that they were a diverse group of individuals. ATMS radiocarbon dating of three individuals gave dates that are statistically consistent and their weighted mean, when calibrated, provides a date range of AD 970–1025 (93% probability). The oxygen isotope composition ranges between 13.7‰ SMOW and 16.5‰SMOW, which result in drinking-water values between -15.4‰ SMOW and -9.2‰ VSMOW using the adapted Levinson calculation. They were raised in a climate that is colder than that of Britain, and one man has a signature that is consistent with an Arctic origin. The 87Sr/86Sr isotope signature is also diverse, ranging between 0.71013 and 0.72051. Whereas the high value is typical in areas of ancient cratonic rocks underlying much of Scandinavia, the lower values are less diagnostic and could indicate either a coastal origin or a childhood spent in an area underlain by geologically younger rocks. The dietary signature derived from C and N stable isotope analysis is more consistent with a Scandinavian than British diet for the period. Very low concentrations of lead (Pb) in these individuals indicates that lead was not bioavailable to the extent it was in contemporaneous Britain. We speculate that this group of men might represent the crew of a Scandinavian Viking raiding party that was captured and executed by local inhabitants from the Weymouth area.
Identifying people of exotic origins with isotopes depends upon finding isotopic attributes that are inconsistent with the indigenous population. This task is seldom straightforward and may vary with physical geography, through time, and with cultural practices. Isotopes and trace elements were measured in four Viking Age (8th to 10th centuries A.D.) skeletons from Dublin, Ireland, and three from Westness, Orkney. These were compared with other data from these locations and contemporaneous skeletons from Britain. We conclude that the male skeletons from Dublin have disparate origins, two originating beyond the shores of Ireland, and that the female and two male skeletons from Westness are not indigenous to Orkney. However, the homeland of the female, in contrast to the males, is unlikely to be in Scandinavia.
This paper provides an introduction to methods in archaeology that utilize light isotopes for helping to determine diet and heavier isotopes for information on mobility and provenience of specimens. The common isotopic systems of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, strontium, and lead are described in terms of basic principles, specifically with references of human bone and tooth enamel. Isotopic analyses of carbon and nitrogen in collagen for past diet provides information on certain food types (e.g., C4 plants, marine resources, freshwater fish) and trophic level, while the analysis of oxygen, strontium, and lead can provide information on local vs. non-local origins, mobility, and place of origin. Analysis of tooth enamel provides information on childhood contexts, and the analysis of adult bone provides information on the later years of life. This paper is intended to provide the methodological background for the isotopic analysis of human and faunal materials from the Viking colonization of the North Atlantic.
Norway was the likely homeland of many of the early colonists of the North Atlantic and it is essential to have information on the strontium isotopic values present in the country. Much of the population today as in the past lives on the coast and it is that area where most of the prehistoric remains are found as well. In this study several hundred samples were measured for strontium isotopic ratios, including 200 samples from Norway. This total includes 144 human teeth and bone and 56 floral and faunal samples. Although much of the Norwegian landscape is composed of very old rocks with high 87Sr/86Sr values, the coastal location of the human population means that marine influences are high in terms of sea spray and seafood consumption so that strontium isotope ratios are substantially lower than expected from the geology. Bioavailable values from floral and faunal samples generally range from 0.707 to 0.725 with an average around 0.713. Measurements of human teeth revealed an average value of 0.713 ± 1s.d. 0.0033. Case studies from large sets of human burials at Bryggen, Trondheim, and Hamar are also discussed.
The isotopic proveniencing of human remains, using ratios of strontium, oxygen, and/or lead isotopes, has been employed in archaeology for more than two decades. The basic principles are essentially the same for the different elements and involve comparison of isotope ratios in human tooth enamel with local levels from the place of burial. Because isotopic ratios vary geographically, values in human teeth (place of birth) that differ from those of the local ratio (place of death) indicate movement and identify non-local individuals. However, there is often no easy answer to the question of where an individual came from because very distant and different places can have the same or similar isotopic ratios. To interpret the results, baseline values for isotopic ratios must be available from the place of discovery and also from potential places of origin. Estimates of isotopic ratios can be made for possible places of origin, either locations or regions, and bioavailable data can be collected to compare with human tooth enamel. Isotopic proveniencing cannot provide “proof” of a place of origin, only the possibility. This paper focuses on geographic variation in strontium and oxygen isotopes, specifically in terms of the bioavailable ratios present in the different parts of the North Atlantic study area. We provide a detailed overview of bioavailable isotope ratios. The discussion then moves to specific isotopic systems. The summary of strontium bioavailability is detailed from region to region, considering first the bedrock and surficial geology followed by an evaluation of bioavailable isotope ratios. We have also measured oxygen isotopes in human tooth enamel across the North Atlantic for comparison. Baseline oxygen isotope ratios are considered in a more general fashion in this paper because these vary at lower resolution across western Europe and a broader view is useful for understanding their distribution. We conclude with a synthesis of bioavailable isotope data for the North Atlantic.
A review of the mounting archaeological evidence for the colonization of Iceland suggests that the whole country was occupied within a couple of decades towards the end of the 9th century AD. Analyses of strontium in human bones show, however, that immigrants continued to arrive in Iceland throughout the 10th century. Here we discuss this apparent contradiction, suggesting that while continued immigration may have been needed to sustain the population, these patterns arise also from biases within the burial data. We argue that formal burial, of the kind that allows isotopic analyses, reflects growing affluence and the emergence of an indigenous gentry that sought to legitimate its power through association with the perceived homeland and its upper class.
Iceland was colonized by settlers from the North Atlantic rim of Europe near the end of the first millennium AD. This ws a remarkable achievement and the subject of much discussion. Historical documents, the Sagas, suggest that the settlers came from western Norway and all arrived within a brief period after which no further settlement took place. Genetic data, both modern and ancient, suggests that the settlers came from several places in Scandinavia and the northern British Isles and Ireland. We have used isotopic proveniencing, focusing on strontium, oxygen, and carbon in tooth enamel from early burials on Iceland to examine questions of place of origin. We have dated a number of these burials to discuss questions of the timing and pace of arrivals. Carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in bone collagen were measured along with the radiocarbon date. Our data indicate that the settlers came from several different places, that settlement continued until around AD 1000 and stopped around the time of the transition to Christianity. We can also suggest that there was movement in both directions across the Atlantic. Changes in diet are suggested with greater consumption of marine foods over time. Some differences in diet are also related to the location of settlement, whether coastal or inland.
This discussion of the isotopic analyses of human samples from Greenland begins with a review of the colonization of the island and a description of the sites and the samples that were collected for analysis. In addition, a brief consideration of the geology and bioavailable 87Sr/86Sr is provided. The analysis of the human data from Greenland follows an introduction to the variation present and observable differences between the Eastern and Western Settlements. Specific sites on Greenland are discussed in some detail in terms of the isotopic data that is available. A summary of dietary and mobility estimates is provided. Non-local individuals are identified and in some cases suggestions of place of origin are made. It is important to remember that Greenland was settled later than Iceland and all the Norse graves are from the Christian period, meaning burial in churchyards with few if any grave goods.
This article summarizes what has been learned from the isotopic investigations of the settlement of the North Atlantic. In addition, I consider what questions remain and where future research may take us. I begin with a brief synthesis of the interpretation of human mobility in the North Atlantic region with a specific focus on the issue of local vs. non-local individuals on Iceland and Greenland. The results of the isotopic analyses provide new insight on the settlement of the North Atlantic. It is also possible to compare the results from Iceland and Greenland to examine similarities and differences in the process of colonization. The article concludes with a review of the research questions raised in the introduction to this volume, some of the answers that have been found, and some of the questions that remain.