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Houses and households in early Icelandic society: geoarchaeology and the interpretation of social space



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Milek, Karen Beatrice 


This thesis contributes new archaeological evidence to the debate about how early Icelandic society was constituted and organised, and how it developed over the course of its first 200 year,s. It examines Viking Age residential architecture in Iceland at new levels of detail and with new methods, including geoarchaeological techniques to enhance the interpretation of activity areas in individual buildings, and space syntax analysis to facilitate the comparison of houses and the detection of patterns in architectural form. The integration of these different techniques and scales of analysis permits a detailed understanding of how households organised social and economic activities on farmsteads, and sheds new light on the cultural identity of the earliest settlers, the size and complexity of their households, the degree of stratification in early Icelandic society, and how social structures in Iceland changed over time. This thesis examines the excavation data of all Viking Age houses and pit houses that were excavated in Iceland up to 2005, highlighting the complex interplay between cultural norms and the agency of individuals in the design and construction of residential buildings. It presents detailed geoarchaeological studies of the floor deposits in a tenth-century house at Aðalstræti 14-18, in Reykjavik, and a tenth-century pit house at Hofstaðir, in Mývatnssveit, and interprets the results in light of floor formation processes observed in early twentieth-century turf buildings at the farm of Þveni, in Laxárdalur, northeast Iceland, These geoarchaeological case studies reveal new types of activity areas that were previously not identified in Viking Age houses or pit houses, and enhance the understanding of the range and organisation of social and economic activities on early Icelandic farmsteads. This study of residential architecture reveals that there was either a high degree of cultural unity or a high degree of cultural integration in Viking Age Iceland, with settlers adopting the building style of the dominant group - particularly in the public parts of houses - as a way of integrating into Icelandic society. Based on the form and internal organisation of the main residential buildings, the dominant cultural group appears to have originated in southwest Norway and/or the Norwegian settlement in the Faroe Islands, and it is likely that this group attributed symbolic importance to the curved shape of its dwellings. Based on the relative size, complexity, and number of residential buildings on Viking Age farmsteads, the households that initially settled in Iceland appear to have been roughly similar in size and status. Each farm had a main residential building, which incorporated a large living room and smaller, more specialised storage and cooklng rooms. Most farms also had a pit house, a small, multi functional building that was used for textile production and as a dwelling/living room for a small number of people - probably of the servile class. The eventual addition of annexes to the main residential buildings hints at some growth in the size and complexity of households, but it is only in the later tenth and eleventh centuries that there is clear evidence for growing social differentiation. Therefore, contrary to suggestions that there may have been an entrenched social hierarchy in Iceland from the time of the initial land-taking, the residential architecture suggests that social stratification only began to develop later - probably in the later tenth and eleventh centuries - when the best farmland was already occupied and there was increasing tension over the unequal distribution of land and natural resources.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This dissertation was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship, a United Kingdom Overseas Research Studentship, a bursary from the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, a Pelham Roberts Research Studentship, two Muriel Onslow Research Studentships and additional funding from Newnham College, Cambridge, and by two Canadian Centennial Scholarships from the Canadian High Commission in London. Julie Miller, at the McBurney Geoarchaeology Laboratory, University of Cambridge, manufactured the thin sections for the site of Aðalstræti 14-18 with the financial support of the City of Reykjavik. Muriel Mcleod, then at the Department of Environmental Science, University of Stirling, manufactured thin section HST96-1 with the financial support of the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.