Economic Inequality & Environmental Change in Medieval Iceland

During the middle ages, Iceland’s recently settled landscape saw many changes—everything from the transition to an agricultural society to the adoption of Christianity. These changes altered and shaped the rolling hillsides and the people of Iceland to their cores.

Kathryn Catlin, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University’s Anthropology Department, is digging in Iceland’s soil for clues to the impacts of these changes. She is now in the second year of a National Science Foundation-funded project to uncover how manmade environmental changes impacted the lives of medieval Icelandic farmers who scratched out a living on highly eroded farmland. The project, titled The Archaeological Investigation of Erosion and its Effect on Social Processes in the Arctic, focuses on medieval farms in Hegranes, an island in Skagafjörður, north Iceland.

This month, Catlin speaks with Field Notes about her research in to the connections between soil erosion and economic inequality and what we can learn from them now, as our own landscapes undergo dramatic manmade changes.

Field Notes (FN): What did the Norse settlement of Hegranes Iceland look like circa 870?

Kathryn Catlin (KC): Iceland in the middle ages was a lot like Scandinavia. The settlers brought a Scandinavian-style social structure with them. There would have been a chieftain who had several followers living and working on his farm.

During the medieval period, what we have were isolated farms dotting the landscape. Some of these farms were large and more powerful. Then there were these more peripheral, dependent farms where the farmers owed some sort of rent, tribute or labor to the central farm. I’m interested in the peripheral, marginal places.

FN: What do you hope to learn by studying the remnants of these smaller medieval farms in Iceland?

KC: I’m interested in looking at a series of abandoned structures that are still visible on Iceland’s landscape. These places are located in the marginal areas, between the more viable lands where the soil is deeper. The marginal areas are highly eroded; there’s barely any soil left at all.

I want to understand what the people were doing in these areas, how they related to the more successful farms, and how this was related to the human-driven environmental changes that were happening during this period of time.

FN: What was happening in medieval Iceland? Why were the first 500 years after settlement so dynamic and full of social change?

KC: The environment was changing quite a bit at this time, especially during the first 100 years of settlement. People began to deforest the landscape. They cleared land for homes, they set animals out to pasture in the highlands, and they cut down trees for fuel and for construction.

There was a really big push to change the land and make it similar to the agricultural landscape they had created in Norway and elsewhere in Scandinavia. At the same time, there were related social changes that were happening where people begin to establish large farms and then smaller ones.

According to the Landnámabók, a medieval text that describes the settlement of Iceland, by about the year 930 the land was “fully settled.” We usually take that to mean that just about all the viable land that people could farm and live on had been claimed and turned into the property of one powerful family or another.

On top of everything I just mentioned, around the year 1000 Iceland officially became a Christian country. So there was a lot going on!

FN: What are the connections between soil erosion and economic inequality?

KC: There’s actually a relatively large body of research and literature to do with erosion and social difficulty. Studies, particularly some done in Africa, show that places where people are living in poverty tend to also be areas that are eroding.

It’s all tied in to the economic infrastructure of the region. The powerful groups often benefit from the exploitation of the land. At the same time, this exploitation destroys the livelihoods of the people that live on areas becoming degraded.

Along with the loss of trees in medieval Iceland, we are able to see rapid erosion and changes in the soil profile.

FN: How do you collect data to shed light on the relationships between erosion and economic inequality in a settlement that’s over a thousand years old?

KC: One of our major methodologies is soil coring. We do over a thousand soil cores every summer. We use a core that can extend up to 120 cm. This gives us a soil profile that contains information on how the landscape formed and the degree of erosion. It also helps us locate turf used for construction and midden areas where trash was disposed. We will be collecting more cores this summer, as well as many 1m by 1m test excavation units to learn more about each site and to collect materials (primarily charcoal) for carbon dating.

FN: What types of data do you collect? Do you find many artifacts?

KC: We actually find very few artifacts. In the places I’m looking, the people would have been on the lower side of the social scale. They may not have had that many objects, and the majority of the things they had would have been organic—made of bone, cloth, or wood, all of which tend to degrade over time. We often find butchered animal bones, mostly sheep and some cows. Additionally, Iceland’s soil is not very good for making ceramics, so there isn’t much of a ceramic tradition on this island. Occasionally we’ll find metal objects—things like jewelry, nails, arrowheads, and other kinds of iron workings.

Most of the construction in Iceland during this time was made from cutting turf out of the bogs and letting it dry. You can still see numerous historical sites where people built these types of structures. Once the turf gets buried in the sod, you see a very red iron signature in the soil. This tells us where the structures were on the landscape.

We also look for areas where they deposited trash—like charcoal, peat ash and animal bones. So these are the things we look for to tell us what was going on at these sites, when sites were established, and when they were abandoned.

FN: Can what you learn about medieval Hegranes tell us anything about how environment changes shape social and economic standing today?

KC: I’ve thought about this a lot! Infrastructure is something that’s created by the powerful to maintain a particular relationship with the environment and that feeds the economic resources back to those in power. Everyone living within that infrastructure tends to support the ongoing status quo that may or may not be environmentally sustainable.

My hope is that we can think about our modern-day infrastructure in these terms and consider how we can build and shape people’s practices more toward sustainability rather than away from it, which is what I think is happening now.

For more photos and information on Kathryn Catlin’s archeological work in northern Iceland, visit and –Alicia Clarke