Session 111: Ystafell 3
In search of North Atlantic Gaels

Chair: Dylan Foster Evans

Historiographies of early medieval Irish settlement in Iceland

Jonathan M. Wooding
University of Sydney

That the Irish settled Iceland prior to the Norse landnám of c. 870 is asserted in two sources, the first a Hiberno-Latin text of 825 by Dicuil, and the second the earliest Icelandic history Íslendingabók (c. 1130). The brief accounts provided by Dicuil, who spoke to eyewitnesses, are of interest for the range of activities that are implied for the personnel of the voyages—variously eremitical, scientific, and evangelistic. Íslendingabók, from around 250 years later, though often read literally, is susceptible to theological critique as a ‘church history’ that positions the Norse and Irish settlers in a desired progression of events—from the baptism of the island, through an elusive encounter with Christianity, up to its conversion as a ‘nation’. This paper will re-examine the various historiographies and receptions of the medieval sources, taking account of the complexities of the reception of any evidence that deals with ‘first’ settlement of a landmass, its conversion, and which subverts myths of national origin that are of on-going importance to inhabitants. Through this process we will seek to establish a core of data and events that can further inform a multi-disciplinary investigation of the reality of the Irish settlements.

A multi-disciplinary approach to the problem of Iceland’s medieval caves

Kristján Ahronson
Wolfson College, Oxford

In and around the broad sandur plain of southern Iceland, around 200 artificial caves of uncertain provenance may be found today. Traditionally these sites are associated with papar—who are in Icelandic tradition the legendary Irish precursors of Viking-Age Scandinavian settlers. Perhaps the most remarkable of these artificial cave complexes are at Seljaland-farm (V-Eyjafjallahreppur). Rock-cut cross sculpture in these caves as well as at other cave sites and on the adjacent island of Heimaey (Westman Islands), makes a persuasive case for connections with the cross sculpture of early medieval Britain and Ireland, with a suite of shared typological features indicating particular affinities between the Seljaland cave complexes and sites in western Scotland. A project presently underway since 2017 builds on Ahronson’s Into the Ocean: Vikings, Irish and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North (University of Toronto Press, 2015), by seeking to establish criteria for dating and understanding cave use at these sites, and to extend these criteria to caves in adjacent regions. This presentation will consider the results of using photogrammetry in the investigations at Seljaland and at the Hetta cliff-site on Heimaey. It will also consider the potential of innovations in tephrochronology for revealing new data and tantalising insights into woodland management and farm life at what appears to be the very earliest settlement in Iceland.

Do you want payment in iron or salt? The economic basis of societal development in the European Iron Age

Tobias Heron
Prifysgol Bangor

The study of European economic development has ordinarily been the topic for historians investigating the immediate antecedent preconditions of the transformation of feudalism to mercantilism through to capitalism and industrialism, and works like Marx’s Kapital have outlined a theoretical framework for explaining the internal processes, but generally, such research seldom extends much farther back than the Roman period. Attempts have been made to trace the roots of economic development back into antiquity, and to place it in a wider global framework. This has led to many important theoretical developments in archaeology by way of development and utilisation of centre-periphery, peer-polity, and world-systems approaches. The societies of early Iron Age central Europe north of the Alps have typically been viewed through as a peripheral region to a dominant Mediterranean-centred economic system on which the development and success of the centres of the princely chiefdoms in the West Hallstatt zone were reliant. This paper outlines the foundation of an alternative hypothesis, utilising a complex systems approach to explain the development of society in central Europe north of the Alps from an indigenous basis, built upon the development of a regional economic system which was primarily based on the materials of iron and salt.