A Viking Age Farm, Church, and Cemetery at Kirkjuholl, Mosfell Valley, Iceland

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1 Antiquity (2004, in press) A Viking Age Farm, Church, and Cemetery at Kirkjuholl, Mosfell Valley, Iceland JESSE BYOCK 1, PHILLIP WALKER 2, JON ERLANDSON 3, PER HOLCK 4, JACQUELINE ENG 2, MARK TVESKOV 5, MAGNUS SIGURGEIRSSON 6, PATRICIA LAMBERT 7, MADONNA MOSS 3, KAETHIN PRIZER 2, MELISSA REID 3, DAVIDE ZORI 1, ASHLEY BYOCK 8, & HILDE FYLLINGEN 4 1 Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles 2 Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara 3 Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon 4 Anatomical Institute, Anthropological Department, University of Oslo 5 Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Southern Oregon University 6 Fjallalind 123, IS-201 Kopavogur, Iceland 7 Department of Anthropology, Utah State University 8 Department of English, Northwestern University When Christianity was adopted by law in Iceland (around 1000 A.D.) Grim of Mosfell was baptized and built a church there.... When a church was built at Mosfell, the one Grim built at Hrisbru was demolished and a new graveyard was laid out. Under the alter some human bones were found, much bigger than ordinary human bones, and people are confident that these were Egil s because of stories told by old men. Egil s Saga, Chapter 86. Vikings first settled Iceland about AD 870, building a unique farming and fishing society in the volcanic and glacial landscapes of this large North Atlantic island. Icelandic sagas written in the 1200s contain a wealth of information on social relations and cultural practices during the Viking Age, but scholars have long debated whether individuals, event, and places described in the sagas are primarily historical of fictional. Caution is warranted in their interpretation, but archaeological research is providing exciting new evidence for the historical foundations of the sagas. Here we briefly describe our recent excavations at Kirkjuholl (Church Knoll) at Hrisbru (Figure 1). Located in the Mosfell Valley ca. 30 km north of Reykjavik, Hrisbru is a place associated with the prominent saga figures of Egil and Grim (Byock 1995). Our research explores the history, archaeology, biological anthropology, and ecology of Mosfell Valley in Viking times. Test excavations suggested that remnants of old turf structures and occupational debris were present at Kirkjuholl (Earle et al. 1997; Steinberg and Byock 2000). In , we began major excavations around a turf mound at Kirkjuholl (Figure 2). This work revealed 26 Viking Age features associated with two major components: (1) residential debris and features (turf wall remnants, a straw-covered floor, charcoal and calcined bone middens) from a farm dating to the AD 900s; and (2) overlying stone foundations of a small conversionera church with an associated cemetery dating to ca. AD The deposits at Kirkjuholl are complex, but 14 C dates, stratigraphic relationships, tephrochronology, and burial associations all support this general sequence.

2 The Kirkjuholl cemetery contains a wealth of information about the health and hazards of life in Viking Age Iceland. Nine burials have been excavated around the south and east walls of the church. Their preservation, orientation, and treatment vary, but 8 are adults (6 males, 1 female, 1 undetermined), with one poorly preserved infant. At least seven were buried in coffins with their heads to the west. Other than coffin traces, nails and rivets, burial associations are rare. Feature 4 is a disarticulated skeleton reburied just outside the south wall, along with a carved whale bone probably a pagan interment moved to the churchyard after conversion. Feature 25 is an isolated humerus, possibly from a burial moved to another location after the church at Kirkjuholl was abandoned. Pathological conditions are common among the skeletons, including evidence for degeneratve conditions related to occupational (e.g., osteoarthritis) and nutritional stress (enamel hypoplasia), dental problems, and infections. Burial 2, an apparent homicide victim, shows massive cranial trauma with a gaping wound in the right parietal and a slice of bone removed from the occipital (Figure 3). Our excavations at Hrisbru document a complex occupational history spanning the pagan and early conversion eras, ca. AD The remnants of this small church, possibly abandoned owing to a mudslide, may well be the conversion-era church at Hrisbru mentioned in Egil s Saga, as well as some of the earliest well-documented evidence for church construction in Iceland (see Vesteinsson 2000). The church and cemetery at Kirkjuholl are consistent with Viking Age geography, place-names, and mortuary behavior (including reburials and the movement of bones) recorded in the Icelandic sagas and other historical records. Acknowledgments. Our work was supported by the town of Mosfellsbaer, the National Science Foundation, and a Petrone Fellowship from the University of Oregon. Olafur Ingimundarson and his family graciously supported our work on their farm. Gudmundur Olafsson, Agnes Stefansdottir, Bjark Bjarnson, Magnus Gudmunsson, and Helgi Torlaksson assisted in interpreting the archaeological and historical records of the Mosfell Valley. Figure 2 was drafted by M. Tveskov. References BYOCK, J.L Egil s bones. Scientific American 272(1): BYOCK, J., P.L. WALKER, J. ERLANDSON, P. HOLCK, J. ENG, and M.A. SIGURGEIRSSON Excavation Report: Hrisbru, Mosfellssveit, Iceland, August 20-28, EARLE, T., J. BYOCK, P. WALKER, and S. BERGSTEINSSON Excavation Report: Mosfell and Hrisbru, Mosfellveit. STEINBERG, J.M., and J. BYOCK Political Economy of Free State Iceland Regional Archaeology in the Mosfell Valley. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles. VESTEINSSON, O The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

3 Figures Figure 1. Location Map for Hrisbru and the Mosfell Valley.

4 Figure 2. Detail of Kirkjuholl Excavations,

5 Figure 3. Photo of Burial 2 Cranium Showing Severe Trauma.

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