In Iceland, Archaeologists Fly Kites

A fresh breeze off the Skagafjörður lifts a kite carrying a small digital camera upwards over newly cleared fields. When its altitude reaches 147 feet, the shutter begins to capture the archaeological remains of Viking farms and community structures where animals, crops, and people once took shelter.

The kite flyers are undergraduate and graduate students who are here to map and excavate buried Viking settlement features in this remote corner of northwest Iceland.

The students work alongside Professor John Steinberg of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and founder of the Skagafjörður Archaeological Settlement Survey (SASS), supported by the National Science Foundation.

Steinberg's been leading student fieldwork trips to this wind-, hail-, and rain-swept location since 2001.

His first SASS project began with the discovery of a longhouse (skali) at the farm belonging to Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir. She is believed to be the first European woman to land at Vineland, an area now recognized as L’Anse aux Meadows on the coast of Newfoundland. While in Vineland with her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, the son of Erik the Red, she gave birth to the first European born in North America, Snorri Thorfinnsson.

Back in Iceland, Gudrid settled at Glaumbaer (Farm of Merry Noise) with her husband and their sons Snorri and Thorbjorn. Snorri is one of two Icelandic men (the other being Snorri Thorrgrimsson) mainly responsible for bringing Christianity to Iceland.

Late June of 2009 finds the SASS team working in Sauðarkrókur, located in the southwest corner of the Skagafjörður and northwest of Glaumbaer. This region is known for its dairying, sheep raising, and horse breeding (there are more horses here than people).

The area’s climate keeps students huddled against stiff Icelandic breezes with their kites, cameras, and traditional archaeology tools (trowels and brushes) along with borrowed and repurposed modern technologies from other trades.

Despite several years of excavation, their focus remains the Viking-era farmstead Stóra Seyla hidden deep beneath fallen turf walls.

Fieldwork begins with hours of careful backhoe work and hand shoveling over the archaeologically sensitive areas to reach a layer of geotextile, a synthetic material purposefully left in the ground to mark the depth of the previous excavation. Below the geotextile is new soil that has not been touched by shovel or trowel.

Once smoothed by shovels, the students roll a jerry-rigged radar-on-wheels over the soil to record features invisible to the naked eye. Between each layer of excavation, the process is repeated. Once complied, the digitally recorded radar files allow the students to see, through a time-lapse movie format, the progression of their excavation as they discover, then remove, layers of cultural materials.

An example of this process shows a Seyla Churchyard feature slowly coming into view and disappearing as the excavation level and radar recording continue below the depth of the feature. Archaeology is a destructive science, where continued documentation is mandatory as features are found and then destroyed in search of something older or different deeper in the soil layer. But remote-sensing techniques allow the research team to digitally preserve the site.


Besides the rolling radar, kite and pole-mounted cameras capture aerial photographs of the excavation site. Many of those frames form one big picture with SilverLight software, which carefully stitches the numerous frames into a “photosynth,” a Web-based composite of photographs. Highlighted and zoomable, a synth of the team’s cow barn discovery is posted online.


To efficiently work the site, the 2009 SASS team splits into four groups, with some digging shovel probes, taking core samples, performing site excavation, or acting as detectives searching for evidence of hidden turf walls.

The shovel probe technique allows archaeologists to quickly sample soils through small holes dug in a grid pattern over a large area.  The screened soil and the sidewall stratigraphy of each probe alerts archaeologists to changes in geological or cultural deposits. Shovel probe results are used to determine the locations of traditional excavation units.

The smallest and largest middens (historic trash heaps) yet discovered by the team are located in two shovel probes. Animal bones comprise the greatest number of artifacts, along with wool and a copper pot dating from after 1300.

The core sample team collects 100 samples, revealing rhyodacitic tephra (volcanic ash) sequences or datable layers, in the soil below the turf.  Recorded volcanic eruptions, such as when Hekla spewed ash over the Skagafjörður landscape in 1104 and coated the landscape with tephra, provide a deposit date for artifacts caught in that ash layer.

With additional funding from the NSF, archaeologists also tease out pollen from the midden walls and coring holes, using the same technique for dating artifacts stuck in ash layers to determine the deposit dates of the pollen grains.

Students armed with trowels and brushes continue the previous year’s excavation where known structures existed. Excavation of a fire pit reveals a lot of bone and a little slag. Slag is a waste product produced by heating locally sourced bog ore the Vikings used to manufacture iron.

Within the walls of a nearby medieval-age barn are bits of hay and wood, and sheep, horse, and dog bones. The SASS team positively IDs a dog’s skull and a sheep’s jawbone. After documenting these finds and the stone barn floor, the heavy stone walls are disassembled so the team can reach an older, Viking-aged building buried beneath it.

Meanwhile, the search continues for buried fallen turf walls that could help the team determine the footprints of buildings and quite possibly expand the archaeology site boundaries. Success comes when, outside the barn area, archaeologists find fallen turf walls covered with white tephra dating from an 1104 eruption, placing the construction date to before the eruption.


After six weeks of excavation, the 2009 archaeology season ends at Skagafjörður. Kites disappear from the skies over Stóra Seyla; daylight dwindles and snowflakes begin to fall, burying the landscape under a cover of whiteness and wintertime darkness. Only the moo’s of dairy cows drift across the land where this Viking community once stood.

Readers can view the entire 2009 Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey field season, additional photographs, and other synths on their blog.--Larry Mishkar