I have to privilege to present you the article of Czech archeologist, linguist, re-enactor and my friend Ľubomír Novák. This article is an English translation of his two previous articles on Faroese archaeology: Archeologie bez nálezů: nejstarší minulost Faerských ostrovů and Archeologie (skoro) bez nálezů: doba vikinská na Faerských ostrovech.
Archaeology of Viking Age Faroe Islands
Mgr. Ľubomír Novák, Ph.D.,
«Maðr er nefndr Grímr kamban; hann byggði fyrstr manna Færeyjar. En á dǫgum Haralds hins hárfagra flýðu fyrir hans ofríki fjǫldi manna; settusk sumir í Færeyjum ok byggðu þar, en sumir leituðu til annarra eyðilanda.»
“There was a man named Grímur Kamban who was the first to settle in the Faroe Islands. In the days of Harald Fairhair, a great number of men were seeking refuge from the tyranny of the King; some men settled themselves in the Faroe Islands and farmed there, while other men sought out other deserted places.” (Færeyinga saga, 1)
According to the Saga of the Faroemen (Færeyinga saga; Fae. Føroyingasøga) from the beginning of the 13th century, the Faroe Islands were first settled by Grímur Kamban. Originally, it was supposed, that Grímur Kamban settled the Faroes during the rule of Norwegian king Harald Fairhair (c. 872-930) as in the same time many people fled from Norway and colonised Iceland, Shetland, Orkneys and many other places in North Atlantic. The Faroese Saga, however, does not bring the oldest information concerning human presence on the islands – Irish monk Dícuill in his Liber De Mensura Orbis from ca. 825 mentions an archipelago northwards from Britain that was settled by Irish hermits for some hundred years.
“Many other islands lie in the northerly British Ocean. One reaches them from the northerly islands of Britain, by sailing directly for two days and two nights with a full sail in a favourable wind the whole time…. Most of these islands are small, they are separated by narrow channels, and for nearly a hundred years hermits lived there, coming from our land, Ireland, by boat. But just as these islands have been uninhabited from the beginning of the world, so now the Norwegian pirates have driven away the monks; but countless sheep and many different species of sea-fowl are to be found there…” (Dícuill, Liber De Mensura Orbis, 7.2)
There is quite a long tradition of archaeological study of the Faroe Islands; however, there are no many suitable locations where excavations may take place. On the individual islands of the archipelago there is a relatively little space suitable to establish a settlement, thus almost all contemporary Faroese settlements (býlingar) are located on places of older villages – one can state, that approximately a half of the present villages existed already in the 15th century. Majority of Faroese villages (and towns) is located on the shore of the individual islands, there is virtually no inland settlement – such statement fits as well for contemporary settlement pattern as well as for the mediaeval settlement. For the Viking Age settlement there are typical shepherd shielings (ærgi, locally argi, ergi or eyrgi – this word comes from Old Irish áirge; Modern Irish áirí, Scottish Gaelic àirigh or àiridh, Manx eary; cf. also Old Norse ǽrgi or Danish erg) which are located in Faroese inland areas and reflect pastoral economy based on sheepherding. Indeed, the name of the Faæroe Islands (ON Færeyjar, Fae. Føroyar) is supposed to mean “Sheep Islands”.
In its beginnings the Faroese archaeology focused on understanding of the original settlement of the islands, which was connected with the Viking Age, eventually there was an attempt to find some traces of an older, pre-Viking settlement. Historical sources mention so-called papar (i.e. fathers = priests or monks), who lived in the Faroe Islands before the coming of Norsemen. Several Faroese place-names contain words of Irish origin or point to presence of the Irish: e.g. the village of Vestmanna (Old Faroese Vestmannahǫfn) on Streymoy – vestmaður (pl. vestmenn) ‘Westerner, Westerling’ is an archaic name for the Irish, thus the village (or better harbour – Fae. havn, ON hǫfn) was more likely founded/settled by people originally from Ireland and/or Scotland, or by Norsemen who came there from Norse colonies in the British Isles. Of Irish origin are names of islands of Mykines (from Old Irish *muccinis ‘pig island’; cf. ModIr. muc inis; ScG. muc innis, Mnx. muc innis/insh/innys/ynnys) and (Stóra and Lítla) Dímun (from OIr. dímuin ‘two hills/tops’; cf. ModIr. dhá mhuin; ScG. dhà mhuin, Mnx. ghaa vooin); also the Mannafelsdalur plain (under the Skælingsfjall mountain on Streymoy) more likely comes from Old Irish Mag inna bFál (cf. Middle Irish Maġ na ḃFál, ModIr. Magh na bhFál, ScG. Magh na Fàl, Mnx. Magh ny Vaal) ‘plain of the wall’ (instead of Fae. ‘dale of fallen men’) – the plain used to be an important place on Faroese history as there ran the border between the Faroese sýslur (sg. sýsla ‘district’). On the Mannafelsdalur plain there took place annual meeting of the alþing and probably here it was decided to accept the Christian faith in 999 AD.
Presence of the Irish in the Faroe Islands prior to the Norse colonisation (landnám) may be observed in combination of several sources, such data, however, cannot fully prove Dícuill’s description of a set of Atlantic Islands with the Faroese Islands as the Dícuill’s islands also may be ascribed to Shetland (?) – Irish words in Faroese toponymy may have appeared also during the landnám. Another source may be a genetic analysis of the contemporary Faroese population – it shows, that the Faroese (as well as the Icelanders) have ‘Celtic’ (i.e. Hiberno-Scottish/ Gaelic) ancestors: 87% of Faroese men are genetically of Norse/Scandinavian origin, on the other hand, 84% of Faroese women are of Hiberno-Scottish origin. Genetics brings valuable information, but it cannot tell the date – the Hiberno-Scottish origin of Faroese women thus may be explained in two ways. (1) The landnám of the Faroe Islands had two directions, part of the Faroese originated in Norway, another part settled the islands from Scotland and Ireland – in both cases the settlers were probably ‘ethnic’ Norse (mainly among men). The colonisers from the British Isles brought Gaelic women with them. The Gaelic women may have been slaves as well. Such hypothesis may be indirectly supported by the beginning of the Faroese Saga – the byname of Grímur Kamban probably comes from Old Irish cambán ‘crooked’ (ModIr. camán, ScG. caman, Mnx. camane). (2) The Faroe Islands were settled by the Gaels even before the landnám, the high ration of women of ‘Celtic’ origin may be explained by genocide of original male population, women were either then enslaved or the Norse settlers married them. A third interpretation is at hand as well – a combination of the two theories given above.
Archaeology is thus the only possibility to answer the question concerning the earliest settlement of the Faroe Islands. Origins of Faroese archaeology can be set to the year 1898, when was founded the Faroese Antiquary Society (Føroya Forngripagoymsla) – a company connected mostly with the name of the Faroese nationalist leader and poet Jóannes Patursson (1866–1946), who pushed for beginnings of collecting archaeological finds in the Faroe Islands. The Faroese antiquarians initially focused on research of the landnám of the Faroe Islands, along with the development of archaeology as a discipline also the research focus changed, the focus on archaeology of the Viking period, however, continues today. As I mentioned above, a complication for Faroese archaeologists is the fact that virtually all spots suitable for human settlement have been taken already during the landnám, however, with increasing population of the archipelago old villages grew in size and new villages have been established as well. The continuity of the settlement pattern complicated archaeological study as many archaeological features have been disrupted or destroyed by younger activities. Another problem is geological processes – present coastline differs from the situation ca. 1000 years ago as the archipelago gradually sinks. Such feature is well observable e.g. in Kvívík on Streymoy, where were unearthed two Viking Age houses, lower parts of both of the houses have eroded by the sea.
For understanding of the older history of the Faroe Islands it is necessary not to focus just on traditional archaeological methods based mainly on artefactual studies since there are known only few archaeological finds. Archaeological research of last two decades focuses on collection of environmental data – such data brought unexpected results. According to a research of the Icelandic botanist Jóhannes Jóhansen presence of plantain (Plantago lanceolata; Fae. jóansøkugras) was found that on all of the islands of the Faroese archipelago. Plantain does not occur naturally in the Faroes; it had to be brought there by men. Samples obtained on various places with Viking Age sites showed occupation since the second half of the 7th century, i.e. long before presumed come of Northmen. Much more interesting are samples acquired at Sandur on Sandoy dated to 390 BC and even from the Saksunarvatn inlet by the village of Saksun on Streymoy – here the oldest date shows interval 3330-3145 BC! Saksunarvatn is not the only site that shows rather an old sign of human presence in the Faroes, other prehistoric evidence of plantain pollen comes from Hoydalur on Streymoy – 1905 BC. Evidence of plantain pollen shows human presence in the Faroe Islands in the Aeneolithic period, however, there are no other data to validate human settlement, we cannot even tell anything about its duration or from where were the islands colonised.
Excavations of a Viking Age longhouse at á Sondum at Sandur on Sandoy yielded layers that contained charred barley seeds dated to the 4th century AD. By the analysis of charred barley it was possible to identify two settlement stages that preceded the Norse landnám – a younger stage from the period of 6th-8th centuries AD and an older stage dated to the 4th-6th centuries AD. Barley, as well as plantain, does not occur naturally, thus its presence on Sandoy testifies human presence. Evidence of human presence from the period of the 6th-8th centuries in not only proved by palaeobotanical data from á Sondum, comparable data are known as well from other sites as e.g. Tjørnuvík on Streymoy, Gøta on Eysturoy or Hov on Suðuroy; older settlement horizon is attested as well at Argisbrekka by the village of Eiði on Eysturoy. As for the supposed prehistoric settlement of the Faroes, also the pre-landnám habitation on the Faroes brings rather more questions than answers. It is certain, that there was grown barley between the 4th and 8th centuries AD in the Faroe Islands. According to testimony of Dícuill we may also suppose sheep breeding, but there are no other data. As for the interpretation of prehistoric pollen samples from Saksunarvatn we have no information on ethnicity or geographic origin of these settlers. It is known from written sources, that Irish monks settled uninhabited areas of the Atlantic Ocean, however, palaeobotanical data from the Faroes can be interpreted not only as an evidence of hermits from the British Isles.
According to recent archaeological and palaeobotanical research in the Faroe Islands it is more than obvious that the Norse landnám is not linked with the first colonisation of the archipelago, which was rather a necessary stop on a journey between the British Isles or Norway further towards Iceland. Importance of the Faroes increased just after the discovery of Iceland and Greenland – economic matters allowed the local population to retain good condition for the development of their own culture. The preceding settlement was probably only a short-term occupation of the isles, present state of knowledge cannot precisely determine how long the islands were occupied in prehistory or before the landnám. An unanswered question still remains from where came the forgotten inhabitants of the Faroes before the coming of Norse (and British) colonisers in the Viking Age. Despite the fact that research confirming pre-landnám settlement of the Faroe Islands brings more questions than answers, they are a valuable source for understanding the past of this piece of land hidden in the waves of the Atlantic.
The beginnings of the Viking Age on the Faroes is conventionally set to 825 AD – according to Dícuill, in this year Norse pirates drove out Irish monks inhabiting an archipelago located two days and two night sail from the northernmost islands of Britain. Other testimony in also the Faroese Saga (the Saga as such was compiled by Carl Christian Rafn in the beginning of the 19th century from several Icelandic saga manuscripts, it is supposed, that there was an original pre-13th-century Saga of the Faroe Islanders, such saga is, however, not preserved), which mentions the first Norse settler – Grímur Kamban (ON Grímr kamban). By the testimony of the Saga, it was originally supposed, that Grímur Kamban settled the Faroes in the days of Harald Fairhair, but according to Dícuill, it is now supposed, that Grímur Kamban arrived with the Norse pirates mentioned by Dícuill around 825 AD and the main colonisation of the Faroes took place later during the rule of Harald Fairhair. The Faroese Saga is a valuable source concerning the history of the Viking Age Faroes during ca. 960–1035 AD, lot of events described in the Saga, however, take place in Norway, so other sources of knowledge of Faroese history are needed as well. Archaeology of the Faroes was in its beginnings connected with an attempt to find evidence of Viking settlement – such aim was linked with growing national self-awareness of the Faroese and also with an effort to gain independence on Denmark.
As the Faroese antiquarians initially tried to prove ancient Norse settlement of the archipelago, their main source was the study of the Faroese Saga. Such happened in case of a burial mound by Hov on Suðuroy – the mound was identified with a burial of a “great idolater” Havgrímur of Hov. The mound was dug in 1835 by a local farmer; finds of fragments of iron and a skull cannot be further investigated, but it is judged that they may have belonged to a high status person as was Havgrímur from the Saga – for this reason the mound is today called Havgrímsgrøv ‘grave of Havgrímur’.
The first archaeologically excavated site in the Faroes were ruins at Fransatoftir by Hvítanes on Streymoy, which have been excavated in the beginnings of the 1930’s – originally it has been supposed that these ruins come from the period of the Scanian War (1675–1679), the excavations, however, unearthed a Viking Age house. Regarding the Faroese Viking Age archaeology, one of the most important excavations was a research of a landnám farm at niðri á Toft at Kvívík on Streymoy. The excavations took place in 1940’s and were led by the first Faroese archaeologist Sverri Dahl. More information yielded excavations from the 1980’s at á Toftanesi at Leirvík on Eysturoy – during these excavations there were used modern archaeological methods that yielded new, unexpected results.
Norse farms belong to the best known sources of knowledge of the Viking Age Faroes. In Kvívík there were unearthed relics of two stone buildings – a longhouse (Fae. skáli, langhús) and a byre (fjós), the byre was later enlarged by a barn (løða). Both buildings were built of two dry stack walls made of stone and turf; the walls were filled with earth. The longhouse was a hall structure with a long hearth (langeldur) in the middle of the house; along the walls there were earthen benches (bekkur, pl. bekkir) which were joined with a pole structure that supported the roof. The Kvívík byre was internally arranged by several wooden partitions for livestock housing; in the middle there was a groove, which led cattle feces out of the byre. The Kvívík farm is a typical representative of a Viking Age farmstead in the North Atlantic, similar farms have been found also on other sites in the Faroes, e.g. at heima á Oyrini and á Toftanesi at Leirvík and at vesturi í Horni at Syðrugøta on Eysturoy or at við Hanusá at Sørvágur on Vágar. All Faroese farms show many common features – apart from the same construction type they all have the same orientation in north-east direction with entrance facing east – moreover, such features are not characteristic just for the Faroese longhouses, the same orientation has been observed in Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and Greenland as well. All villages were located by the sea on a place, where it is possible to pull a ship ashore – this feature is linked to boat-houses; such structures are archaeologically unknown, their existence, however, may be supposed by references in the Faroese Saga.
Faroese archaeologists tried to find places mentioned in the Faroese Saga – such happened for villages of Gata (Fae. Gøta) on Eysturoy and Sandvík (Fae. Sandvík, earlier also Hvalvík) on Suðuroy; villages such as Hof (Fae. Hov) on Suðuroy, Dímun on Stóra Dímun, Skúfey (Fae. Skúvoy/Skúgvoy) on Skú(g)voy, Sandey (Fae. Sandoy) on Sandoy, Þórshǫfn (ON Tórshavn) on Streymoy and Svíney (Fae. Svínoy) on Svínoy often bear their Saga name even today, their existence has not been, however, proved archaeologically. An exception may be only the village Sandey named after the island on which it is located may be identified with the modern village of Sandur – there on the site of við Kirkjugarð (i.e. ‘by the Church’) was found and partially unearthed a large cemetery; moreover at the site of undir Junkarisfløtti there was mainly by use of methods of natural sciences found out, that at this place there should have been an important centre of the southern part of the archipelago. Such interpretation of Sandur is supported by the fact that there stood an early 11th century church; at Sandur there were also identified remains of a boat-shaped longhouse. Another important centre of the Faroes, the village of Kirkjubøur, which later became the seat of the Faroese bishop of the Faroes, is not mentioned in the Saga. There is a question why, as we have to suppose an existence of an important settlement at Kirkjubøur even before the Christianisation of the Faroes, otherwise it would be impossible that there would be established an important centre of Faroese ecclesial history. Such site may be linked with the nearby village of Velbastaður (ON *Vébólstaðr; cf. ON vé ‘pagan shrine’).
There are no many archaeological finds from the Faroes. The finds are usually objects of daily use. Pottery is less common, instead of ceramic vessels were used vessels made of soapstone; pottery more often appears in the late Viking Age. According to material it may be judged, that majority of the pottery production was made locally. Common finds are whorls and weaving weights, which prove a developed textile production – according to the Faroese Saga (and other sagas as well) it is known, that the Faroese exported so-called vaðmál (Fae. vaðmal), i.e. homespun woollen cloth. Other common finds include net and line sinkers, which prove importance of fishing in the Faroes. Jewellery finds are quite rare – there have been find glass (usually blue and yellow) and amber beads, at Leirvík there was also unearthed a bronze brooch decorated in Borre style, the brooch has analogies in Trelleborg, Hedeby, Birka and Novgorod; and a ringed pin of so-called Hiberno-Norse style, which is a typical artefact of the Viking Age North Atlantic. An exceptional find is a jet (lignite) arm ring, which shows links with the British Isles. At Kvívík there was found a skin shoe.
In comparison to other areas of the Viking world there are quite well attested wooden finds from the Faroe Islands – in many cases these finds represent building waste, but there are also many wooden tools or their fragments. Kitchen utensils such as bowls and spoons even show preference of specific kinds of wood used for their production; except for kitchen utensils there are also finds of barrel and bucket fragments and a large scale of other utility tools. An interesting find is a two-sided gaming board from Leirvík – on one side there is a game field for the Viking game called hnefatafl (Fae. nevatalv), on the other side there is Nine Men’s Morris. Wood was used also for toys such as boats or horses. Juniper branches were used for ropes.
There are not many known Viking Age graves in the Faroes – except for the Havgrímsgrøv burial mound on Suðuroy, also other mound has been excavated unprofessionally – the mound Øttisheygur by Giljanes on Vágar. The biggest excavated cemetery is yviri í Trøð at Tjørnuvík on Streymoy. At Tjørnuvík there were excavated several graves, the first certain Viking Age grave was excavated in May 1956. The graves were oriented head towards the north and all except one were covered with stones. An exception was a single grave without a stone mound – this grave was surrounded by stones in the shape of a Viking ship. There are only few finds; one grave yielded a Hiberno-Norse ringed pin. Other cemeteries were unearthed at Syðrugøta on Eysturoy and at við Kirkjugarð at Sandur on Sandoy. Still unexcavated is the burial mound Tormansgrøv by Vágur on Suðuroy – this mound resembles Havgrímsgrøv in many aspects.
Majority of raw materials for production of objects of daily use were imported to the Faroe Islands – there were only a few trees on the Faroes, especially juniper and willow; valuable source of wood was also driftwood from North America or Siberia. Local sources of wood disappeared shortly after the landnám and wood was usually imported; wood was used mainly for tool production or for buildings; instead of firewood was used dried peat. Alike it was with other raw materials – of local origin was only tuff and basalt, other materials such as soapstone and slate were imported, same as iron or non-ferrous metals. Imported material was often re-utilised – e.g. shards of soapstone vessels were used again for spindle-whorls or sinkers. All luxury objects were of course imports. Main commercial ties of the Faroe Islands were connected to the Norwegian trade routes, whether directly from Bergen or Trondheim, or with intermediate stop in Shetland; the second direction of (not only) business contacts aimed for the British Isles, particularly to Shetland and the Hebrides. The Faroe Islands played an important role, especially as an intermediate stop on the way to Iceland – this is also mentioned in Icelandic sagas.
An evidence for contacts with Scandinavia is above the imports mentioned above also a unique coin hoard from the very end of the Viking Age from heima á Sandi at Sandur on Sandoy. The hoard was found by an accident in 1863 while digging a grave. The 98 coins, dated from the end of the 10th century to the second half of the 11th century AD, are really a unique find. Together with the coins was found also a silver arm ring. The coins from this hoard are not the only coins found in the Faroes – in a nearby cemetery at við Kirkjugarð there was unearthed a fragment of a Central Asian Samanid Kufic coin.
The most important part of the Faroese economy was sheep herding together with cow and swine breeding. Significant was also fishing and catching of sea birds. In agriculture prevailed barley cultivation; agriculture, however, played only a minor rôle when compared to livestock breeding. Sheep herding was important for the ancient Faroemen in two ways – the first one was meat and milk, the other was wool. Due to a toponymic study it is known, that there were shepherd’s shielings in the Faroes, such shielings were quite distant from villages. The shielings are known as ærgi in the Faroese language – the word is of Old Irish origin and it points to a similar sheep herding in Scotland – sheep herding on ærgi was typical for the Viking Age Faroe Islands, but it changed by the end of the 13th century AD as it may be understood from a legal document called the Sheep-letter (Fae. Seyðabrævið).
Archaeology is not the only source that can help to understand Norse settlement of the Faroes – helpful may be also toponymy (as it was demonstrated in case of ærgi above), e.g. names of villages Ørðavík (from ON *Hǫrðavík ‚inlet of people from Hordaland‘) on Suðuroy and Signabøur (ON *Sygnabǿr ‚village of people form Sogn‘) on Streymoy point to the origin of their settlers from Hordaland (ON Hǫrðaland) and Sogn in Norway. The rune stone from the village of Sandavágur on Vágar, dated to ca. 1200 AD, reminds a settler from Norwegian Rogaland: »Þorkæll Ǫnondarson, austmaðr af Rogalandi, bygði þenna stað fyrst« (Fae. Torkil Onundarson, eystmaður av Rogalandi, bygdi henda stað fyrst) – ‘Þorkell Ǫnundarson, Easterner/Easterling from Rogaland was the first settler in this area’.
Archaeology of the Faroe Islands in many aspects proved information written in the Faroese Saga, modern archaeological methods may, however, bring even more answers on questions concerning the Norse settlement of the archipelago. Problem of archaeological excavations is the fact that many present villages disappeared under modern buildings as present villages lie roughly on the same places as earlier settlements. Another complication is gradual sinking of the Faroes and thus many monuments are eroded by the sea. Despite the fact that there are only little archaeological finds from the Faroe Islands, we can quite well study life conditions of the local population in the Viking Age. According to the context of found artefacts can be concluded that the apparent isolation of the archipelago from the outside world did not prevent their contact with the surrounding areas – Norway, Iceland, Shetland, Orkney, Hebrides, and also Denmark.
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