Hofstaðir

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HOFSTAðIR

The Viking Age site of Hofstaðir is located in northern Iceland, on the upper Laxá River near Lake Mývatn. The ruins first attracted attention during the late-nineteenth-century Romantic antiquarian revival as a potential pagan temple site. (The name can be translated as "temple farm.") In 1908 the Danish archaeologist Daniel Bruun and the philologist Finnur Jónsson carried out one of the first professional excavations in Iceland on the site, revealing an exceptionally large long hall and a rich midden deposit filling a circular depression just to the south of the hall. Bruun and Jónsson concluded that this great hall was in fact a pagan temple, with a sacred chamber at the north end of a great gathering hall, and for years the site has been used to illustrate discussions of pre-Christian Nordic religion. The original conclusion was disputed by Olaf Olsen, who carried out small-scale re-excavations in the mid-1960s and argued that there were no specialized pagan temple sites but rather chiefly "temple farms" combining many functions.

New international, interdisciplinary investigations began at Hofstaðir in 1992 under the direction of Adolf Friðriksson and Orri Vésteinsson and continued into the twenty-first century. The Hofstaðir excavations have expanded into a regional scale investigation of early settlement and human environmental impact in the Mývatn area. They have also brought the insights of zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, human osteology, tephrochronology, geoarchaeology, and environmental modeling to bear on the complex interactions of human politics, economy, and social organization with soils, vegetation, and a changing climate. Structural work at the Viking Age portion of Hofstaðir was completed in the summer of 2002, and analysis of structures, finds, and chronology continued.

The early-twenty-first-century excavations at Hofstaðir have confirmed Bruun's general conclusion that the main building was an impressively large hall, with four times the floor space of the average Viking Age dwelling. The systematic open-area excavation of Friðriksson and Vésteinsson's teams has added greatly to this picture, documenting a series of outbuildings—some freestanding and others connected to the main hall building. These buildings include an early timber-framed structure (whose sod walls clearly were added later for insulation and probably were not load bearing) with a beam-slot construction not used in later Icelandic structures. This structure changed in use: plant phytolith analysis and soil micromorphological work by Karen Milek (of Cambridge) indicates that what had been a dwelling floor was turned into a hay store. A few meters away a small outbuilding stood beside one of the hall entrances, with a refuse pile nearby. This outbuilding was solidly constructed with a stone-lined trench down the side and a superstructure supported by large posts.

Analysis of the pit fill suggests that this probably was one of the communal privies described in the later saga texts. This substantial and well-built structure certainly was not hidden and, in fact, may have been a mark of status in the Viking Age. Although the interior of the great hall had been damaged by the earlier excavations of Bruun, enough remained untouched to allow documentation and recovery of most of the floor layers and the many postholes penetrating into subsoil beneath. The entire surviving floor deposit has been sampled systematically for soil micromorphology and flotated for botanical and insect remains by Garðar Guðmundsson and should provide new insight into the organization and use of the interior space. The many postholes and stake holes penetrating to subsoil indicate fairly extensive interior partitioning, and bones and small artifacts were deliberately placed at the bottom of several holes before the support was inserted. The great hall was certainly a complex construction that consumed a great deal of wood as well as turf and stone, representing a major investment of wealth and prestige in this early community.

Just to the south of the end of the great hall was the circular depression (area G) investigated by Bruun and Olsen. Bruun noted the large amount of well-preserved animal bone and described the deposit as a midden similar to those he had encountered in his excavations of Norse sites in Greenland. Expansion of the original trenches into an open-area excavation revealed that the feature was an exceptionally large and deep pit house, an ancient Nordic/Germanic/Slavic building type often found at Early Settlement Age (a.d. 874–930) sites in Iceland. It was filled with stratified layers of well-preserved animal bone as well as bone, stone, and metal artifacts, smithing slag, charcoal, ash, and firecracked stones. These deposits are still under analysis, but it is clear from the refuse that Hofstaðir was a full-scale working farm, with bones from all the Norse domestic animals found in all stages of butchery and consumption and extensive evidence of iron smelting from local bog ore. Recovered animal bones will provide a detailed picture of the changing economy at this important site and can be compared with similar deposits (some also filling pit houses) at other nearby Settlement Age sites.

Although Hofstaðir was certainly a chieftain's farm at its height in the late tenth to early eleventh centuries, the artifacts recovered are not particularly rich. A few small fragments of silver jewelry, a classic bronze ring pin, several glass beads, some worn knife blades, and a few single-sided composite bone combs are the exceptional finds; rusted iron nails are by far the most common artifactual finds. Evidence of volcanic tephra found under walls and radiocarbon dates suggest that Hofstaðir was not one of the first farms settled in the area (soon after a.d. 871) and that the peak period of the great hall may date to c. a.d. 950–1000. Its rise to temporary prominence may reflect the dynamic and competitive nature of chiefly politics during the Settlement Age.

The great hall at Hofstaðir certainly marked a briefly substantial chieftain's farm, but it also seems to have had ritual associations. When the hall was abandoned c. a.d. 1000, two sheep were beheaded and the bodies thrown onto the floor, the heads landing nearby. At the same time, skulls of cattle, sheep, goat, and pigs that apparently had been displayed outside along the roof were thrown down into the wall collapse or dumped together in a pit in one of the side rooms of the hall. A sheep skull was placed in each of the doorways, and then the whole farm was moved 150 meters across the home field, where a medium-sized turf farm and a small Christian chapel survived through the medieval period. The Viking Age ruins with the enigmatic great hall were never reoccupied and were left undisturbed for a thousand years.


See alsoViking Settlements in Iceland and Greenland (vol. 2, part 7).

bibliography

Friðriksson, A., Orri Vésteinsson, and T. H. McGovern. "Recent Investigations at Hofstaðir, Northern Iceland." In North Atlantic Environmental Archaeology. Edited by R. Housely. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2003.

Vésteinsson, Orri. "Patterns of Settlement in Iceland. A Study in Pre-History." Saga-Book of the Viking Society 25 (1998): 1–29.

Vésteinsson, Orri, T. H. McGovern, and Christian Keller. "Enduring Impacts: Social and Environmental Aspects of Viking Age Settlement in Iceland and Greenland." Archaeologia islandica 2 (2002): 98–136.


Thomas H. McGovern