Harp seals in slush ice from eyes of the wild


RESEARCH: Hard times at Hofstađir in Iceland around 1300 revealed in mitten

For decades Hofstađir in Northern Iceland has yielded astounding archaeological information about the life of Icelanders from the 10th century and up until now (a farm is still located there which also offers visitors guesthouses for rent.)

Primarily known for the extensive excavations of a large Viking hall and the adjacent farm, new excavations have uncovered a midden from around 1300 just outside the medieval Christian cemetery. This deposit rests on a volcanic tephra H 1300 and has produced two AMS C14 dates from cattle bone, suggesting that the archaeofauna was formed at the very end of the 13th century or early 14th century.

This archaeofauna shows both some continuity with the Viking deposit excavated and analysed 1996 -2002 near the great hall to the northeast. Thus the proportion of great cattle towards sheep and goat remain relatively stable, but both goats and pigs have disappeared from the domestic animal assemblage. Also it appears that harp seal caught on drift ice has entered the menu, indicating that the medieval farmers may have taken part in communal sealing, as was later documented in the 17th – 19th century. Further an analysis showed that extreme fragmentation of bones had talked place in order to extract all bone grease (collagen); a procedure, which is similar to what has been found in Greenland. Finally a surprising number of dog-bones and those of a single cat seem to indicate the farmer and his family experienced acute periods of hunger as is also evidenced in the Icelandic Annals, which stated for 1287 that “At this time many severe winters came at once, and following them people died of hunger”.

All in all the evidence suggest that the mitten may reflect a period of hardship related to climate cooling, but also that this brought drift-ice and seals to the coast contributing to the survival of the people on the farms in Northern Iceland.

The study is part of a special focus on the “environmental Memory” as inscribed in the Icelandic sagas.

Hard Times at Hofstađir. An Archaeofauna circa 1300 AD from Hofstađir in Myvatnssveit, N Iceland.
By Thomas H. McGovern, Konrad Smiarowski and Ramona Harrison.
Norsec Lab report 60, 2013

About the Hard Times in Iceland

Read more about NABO,The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization

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