Hegranes. Source: wikipedia

Early Medieval Settlements at Hegranes in Northern Iceland

Detailed history of the 9th-11th century settlements at Hegranes explores the ecological and social history of Early Iceland

The settlement of Iceland by Norse farmers in the 9thcentury set off cascading environmental changes, primarily deforestation and erosion that resulted from land clearance and grazing livestock. These activities caused significant environmental degradation through the loss of biodiversity, erosion and wetland transformation. Arguably, though, the new pastoral landscape created by the first Icelanders was more effective supporting livestock and hay than the pre-settlement woodland wilderness. Gradually this ecological shift led to new forms of social and economic organisation in Iceland.

Sustainability and the Domestication of Inequality: Archaeology of Long-Term Human-Environment Interactions in Hegranes, North Iceland.
By Kathryn A. Catlin
Dissertation submitted at the Northwestern University, Field of Anthropology, September 2019


Fishing from the shore at Bolungarvik. Soruce: wikipedia/Herbert Orthner
Fishing from the shore at Bolungarvik to the west of Hagranes. Source: wikipedia/Herbert Orthner

A new dissertation by Kathryn A. Catlin studies these processes through the investigation of seventeen small medieval settlements in the region of Hegranes in Skagafjörður. The survey is based on soil coring, test excavations and explorations of middens from the 9th–11th century. Primary activities at these sites included landscape clearance, livestock tending, charcoal production, peat mining, hunting and the seasonal processing of marine animals.

Most of these sites were established during the first rapid wave of the Icelandic diaspora, after ca. AD 870. The survey has revealed that the very early domestic sites in Iceland fell along an uninterrupted continuum from tiny, short-term – seasonal – camps to long-term, large, multi-generational farmsteads. Across this continuum can be recognised all sorts of intermediate types of settlements like shielings, fishing and hunting camps, and other outstations. These tiny settlements or outposts would be manned from the farm and should be seen as part of what Catlin calls the distributed household. It is likely, one of their functions was to act as part of an early warning system or “enhanced forward presence”.

Did the camps or outposts represent the first settlements? To later become an integrated part of the larger farms? Or were these outposts from the very beginning integrated parts of the large farms owned and exploited by landowners and their extended households? Caitlin is of the latter opinion, describing the first model as operating inside concentric spheres of land-use practices with a farm at the centre and seasonal outposts exploiting more marginal resources.

Between ca. 950 – 1100, this agrarian model shifted towards a system where the large farms became attached to relatively small (tenant) farms. The latter came to supersede the former system of farm plus seasonal and temporary outposts. Increasingly, land, wealth and power became controlled by a few families, while the extended households contracted. The new powerful families represented the emergence of aristocratic clans, while tenant farming became the dominant way of living. No longer were the multifaceted operation of the outposts necessary or deemed viable. Instead, as part of this shift, the former “outposts” became deserted, while more permanent sub-farms were established. And the social system changed.

This discovery has broad and substantial theoretical implications for our understanding of the medieval settlement of Iceland and the development of social stratification, including the relationship of social inequality to ecological sustainability or degradation.

The thesis also presents an analysis of the later development of the area until the 19th century. In a medieval context this part is perhaps not so notable. However, it is still worth a read.


The thesis has been written in contact with The Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey (SCASS)

The Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey (SCASS) is a joint archaeological project of the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum and the Fiske Center at UMass Boston. The archaeological work seeks to determine if the settlement pattern of the 9th-century colonization of Iceland affected the development of the religious and economic institutions that dominated the 14th century.