Skagafjordur heritage museum

Medieval People in Icelandic Keldudalur

Studies of 11th century burials in Northern Iceland document stressfull lives characterises by harsh labour conditions and occasional famines.

Life on the Edge of the Arctic: The Bioarchaeology of the Keldudalur Cemetery in Skagafjörður, Iceland
By G. Zoëga and K. A. Murphy
In: International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 2015
DOI: 10.1002/oa.2446


Skagafjörður is a 40 km long and 15 km wide inlet in the North of Iceland. Today, this is one of the most prosperous agricultural regions in Iceland with widespread possibilities for dairy and sheep-farming as well as horse breeding. Nevertheless, studies of burials from the 11th century document lives were marked by physical stress and occasional famines.

Skagafjordur Church and Settlement Survey

Fifteen years ago a group of archaeologists from the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research initiated a survey of settlements in the  Skagafjordur (Skagafjörður) in Northern Iceland. The goal was to study a small subset of farms from the early Viking Age and through the Danish Rule (AD 874 – 1800). At the beginning, Iceland was dominated by a system of chiefdoms. This changed during Norwegian and later Danish rule into a manorial system dominated by the wider church. Until now The Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey have tracked a number of selected farms over 900 years and assessed the variation in building constructions, economic potential, family structure etc. and how these reflect changes in climate, ecology and government. These studies have resulted in a number of reports plus a blog.

However, in 2013 this project fused with another one, which had been going on for nearly as long: the Skagafjörður Church Project. The correct name is now the Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey. One result has been a new English blog dedicated to this new perspective. For those reading Icelandic, information is abundant.

The Skagafjörður Church Project was initiated in 2002 – 2003 with a rescue excavation at Keldudalur done on behalf of the Icelandic Heritage Agency. The subsequent analysis of the data became part of a PhD written by G. Zoëga. The result of this is published on behalf of the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum

However, The Skagafjörður Church Project have been doing so much more than just excavating at Keldudalur; the project has been surveying the oldest Christian cemeteries in the Skagafjörður area as well as excavating  a number of them. Slowly, we are getting a fascinating picture of how life was organised in the 11th century following the Christianisation of Iceland. Recently one more part of the jigsaw was published.

Life at the Edge of the Arctic

Keldadalur - Church and cemetery from the 11th century
View from the air of the excavations at Keldudalur – Church and cemetery from the 11th century © Skagafjördur Heritage Museum

Initially abundant wild resources secured the success of the first incoming settlers of Norse or British descent. Later deforestation and climatic changes caused serious environmental stress. Exactly how this impacted on life in medieval Iceland has been documented by a study of the burials, which were carried out at the cemetery in Keldudalur, which likely served a single household for about 100 – 120 years, from the beginning of the 11th century AD to the turn of the 12th century, thus covering the very early period after the Christianisation of Iceland. Such cemeteries littered the landscape at Skagafjörður in this period; so-far ten early cemeteries have come to light, which with one exception were in use until ca. AD 1100. It appears that Christian burial customs were adopted very early on after the conversion in AD 1000. After 1100 a parish organisation was introduced and cemeteries connected to parish-churches became the norm.

The burials at Keldudalur included 53 well-preserved skeletons of 27 adults and 26 subadults buried in a circular enclosure surrounded by a wall and with a small proprietary farm church at the centre. Next to the church was a farmstead. The cemetery was located inside the boundary of the home field.

To assess the health status of the burials, data were collected for a number of indicators such as stature estimation, developmental enamel defects, porotic hyperostosis, infectious disease, trauma, degenerative joint diseases, dental caries, calculus and tooth loss.

Results suggest that the inhabitants of Keldudalur experienced periodic stress and rigorous living conditions. Infant mortality was great, although if individuals survived childhood, the age expectancy was fairly high. There was no obvious evidence for interpersonal violence or endemic infectious disease. However, the common occurrence of growth disturbances, generalised periostitis, trauma and degenerative joint disease all point to a number of stressors in the lives of the people at Keldudalur, which is suggestive of a resilient people living and adapting to a harsh and periodically resource scarce subarctic environment. “The risks of seasonal unpredictability, food shortages, exposure to pathogens and strenuous activities facing the early settlers and subsequent generations of Icelanders provide us with an opportunity to see how people did or did not adapt or adjust to their changing environments, writes the authors.

Further research is focusing on the family household structure and will be presented at the SMA 2015 – Being Medieval


Guðný Zoëga is working at the Archaeology Department, SkagafjörðurHeritage Museum, Aðalgata 16b 550, Sauðárkrókur, Iceland.
K. A. Murphy is working at the Department of Anthropology, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio


Skagafjörður Heritage Museum

Keldurdalur í Hegranesi. Fornleifarannsóknir 2002 – 2003.
By Guðný Zoëga
Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga 2013


The photo shows the Glaumbaer farm, the turf farmhouse, which houses the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum.

The Vinland sagas published by Penguin coverThe website tells us that: “A farmhouse is said to have stood on the hill at Glaumbaer since the Age of the Settlements (900 AD). The present buildings vary in age; the most recent addition having been built in 1876-79, while the oldest – the kitchen, “long pantry,” and middle badstofa – are believed to have been preserved much as they were in the mid-18th century. The passages connecting the individual units have also remained unchanged for many centuries. According to the Sagas, the first known inhabitants of Glaumbær lived here in the 11th century. They are mentioned in the Saga of the Greenlanders, which tells of the explorers Leifur Eiriksson and his brother Thorsteinn, sons of Eirik the Red, of Thorsteinn’s wife Gudridur Thorbjarnardóttir, her second husband Thorfinnur Karlsefni and their son, Snorri. Gudridur Thorbjarnardóttir is mentioned both in the Saga of the Greenlanders and in the Saga of Eirik the Red. Gudridur, a granddaughter of an Irish freedman, was born in the 10th century in Snæfellsnes in western Iceland. She emigrated to the Icelandic settlement in Greenland founded by Eirik the Red, and married his son Thorsteinn, who soon died. The young widow then married Thorfinnur karlsefni, a merchant and a farmer from Stadur in Reynines (now Reynistadur), Skagafjördur. Gudridur and Thorfinnur explored Vínland (somewhere in North America), which had been discovered by Leifur Eiriksson, Gudridur’s former brother-in-law. They stayed there at least one winter, and planned to settle permanently. Their son, Snorri, was born in the New World. Due to conflict with the aboriginal inhabitants, they did not remain there long, but returned to Iceland. Initially they lived at Thorfinnur’s old home at Reynines. They may have then purchased the estate of Glaumbær, 1010 or so, and settled there. This is not certain. But after Thorfinnur’s day, Snorri farmed at Glaumbaer. Gudridur decided to make a pilgrimage to the Pope in Rome. Snorri had a church built in his mother’s absence, the first known to have stood at Glaumbær (Iceland adopted the Christian religion in AD 1000). According to the Saga of the Greenlanders on her return Gudridur became an anchoress, living in solitary worship.”

The Heritage House shows exhibitions which illuminate e.g. the interaction of individuals with their social environment. Exhibits include four twentieth century tradesmen’s workshops; the personal histories of writers and artists are told, and examples of private collections are on display. A storage area is set aside for frequently-changing exhibitions including recent acquisitions and items of special importance or interest.


Skagafjordur Heritage Museum
Tel. (354) 453 6173