Viking Archaeology in Iceland: Mosfell Archaeological Project

Zori, Davide and Jesse Byock. Viking Archaeology in Iceland: Mosfell Archaeological Project. Cursor Mundi, 20. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. Pp. xxvi, 256. $156.00 (paperback). 9782503544007 (paperback).

Reviewed by: Neil Price (University of Uppsala)

In The Medieval Review :

This book represents the full publication of a remarkable archaeological excavation project, conducted over multiple seasons in the Mosfell Valley and its central church and farm at Hrísbrú, a spectacular landscape environment not far from Reykjavík in south-western Iceland. Mosfell is well-known from the medieval saga literature, Iceland’s great national literary tradition, and is described in the anonymous saga of Egill Skalla-Grímsson as the location of the hero’s home. Egill is one of the most spectacular figures of the Viking period, even by the standards of a dramatic age, a quintessential warrior-poet, sorcerer and worshipper of the war-god Odin. While the veracity of the saga has long been open to question, the print-the-Legend story has a power all its own. Many Icelanders today are blood relatives of the man himself, and it is fair to say that any archaeological investigation of the reality behind the myth is a subject of national concern in this North Atlantic country of just over 300,000 people.

Over the last decade or so the Mosfell project has thus generated a deal of controversy, largely due to the perception (of some) that its objective is ‘looking for Egill’ and thereby following in the long tradition of saga-oriented fieldwork, rather than the properly objective analysis–as if such a thing could exist–of a valley and its people over time. Along the way, fresh argument has been sparked by the excavators’ claims to have found the partial remains of a cremation grave–a burial rite almost universal in the Scandinavian homelands but essentially unknown in Iceland, to scholarly mystification.

Editors Byock and Zori, together with a multi-national team in the orbit of their base at UCLA, have naturally published only interim accounts in the course of the project, so this volume has been eagerly awaited. So how does it measure up to the heated debates generated during the project itself?

It is a comprehensive work, with sixteen chapters and some twenty-three authors spread between background historical data, overviews of the fieldwork, and a host of specialist treatments of individual topics. It must firstly be emphasised that this is a serious team of scholars. At the start of the project, the Mosfell investigations were run largely by people with primary training in philology or in the archaeology of periods other than the Viking Age, but this was quickly remedied and over the years the project has become fully integrated into the mainstream of Viking scholarship. It is a purely positive sign that many of the contributors also feature in the fieldwork of those who have otherwise been highly critical of Mosfell, and there is a sense that the project team have left this critique behind them. The text does occasionally give way to flourishes of what feels like deliberate provocation–beginning with the title that surely claims too much in taking a single project to represent an entire chronological period for a whole country (other people are actually working on the Vikings in Iceland too…)–but this is not a major problem.

At the heart of the report is the recording of a major longhouse from the late Viking Age, exceptionally well-preserved and built on a scale that matches well with the textual descriptions of the Mosfell chieftains. The building contained complex stratigraphic sequences, which one could have wished were better explored in the report, but the presentation of the structure and its contents is nonetheless thorough in giving a compelling picture of a wealthy farm in a flourishing rural community. There are excellent artefactual studies and a quite stunning paper on geoarchaeology and microrefuse analysis inside the Hrísbrú house, by Karen Milek and colleagues, that provides a really detailed look at life inside a Viking-Age home. At a much wider scale, analyses of bead finds and other objects give clues to Hrísbrú’s long-distance contacts, as far away as Hedeby and the homelands.

Given the depth of analysis of certain datasets, the report is curiously uneven in the minimal coverage it gives to other types of important material. For example, the famous cremation site, at the Hulduhóll (‘Mound of the Hidden People’) near to the farm, is only mentioned relatively briefly, and the potentially extraordinary finds of stone ship settings at the inland end of the valley get less than a page all told. I do not understand why. By contrast, the burials in the medieval church at Kirkjuhóll are well-represented, with excellent studies of the palaeopathology in the graves, including the burial of a man apparently killed by an axe.

Bioarchaeology occupies a prominent position in the book, as does the reconstruction of environment and palaeogeography in the valley. These are both areas in which Icelandic research has excelled in recent years, particularly in the broad constellation of projects operating within and around the North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation and the researchers at the University of Iceland and the Institute of Archaeology in Reykjavík. Pollen studies clearly demonstrate the environmental impact of the early settlers; the diet of the Mosfell chieftains is explored, and there is an interesting study of infectious disease.

It is a pleasure to note that the report is unusually well-written, and proves an engaging guide to a vanished world of high-status farmers at the European fringe. As a happy product of authors who clearly enjoy writing, there is also a link to what is undoubtedly the inspiration behind the entire project: the literary tradition surrounding Egill himself. Most particularly, a whole chapter is devoted to an empty grave excavated beneath the chancel of the later church, which Jesse Byock argues to have been an original burial place of Egill Skalla-Grímsson (the saga relates how his remains were moved several times). The editors make no apologies for their arguments that the Old Norse prose sources must be taken seriously, albeit with appropriate source critique, and in this respect their assertions find echoes all over northern Europe where archaeologists have been positively reassessing textual connections for the last two decades. What makes the Mosfell project unusual is its much tighter focus ultimately on the story of a single man and his environs, and moreover someone with a status akin to national hero (even the most widely-available Icelandic beer is named after him).

Personally, I find Byock and Zori’s case convincing, and see no real contradictions between the literary and material sources. Not least, the textual impetus for the archaeological surveys should not be underestimated or ignored: but for the sagas, the project would not have happened at all. But was this really Egill’s home? Or rather, why do we think it matters? We will never know if the empty grave under Hrísbrú church actually held the old warrior’s bones, but I would like to think so–and so, clearly, would the editors. And that, an honest expression of personal and somewhat romantic preference without any firmer basis in data, is about as far as we should probably go. Of much greater importance is the project’s achievement in adding an especially comprehensive analysis to our corpus of major Viking-Age farm sites in a region of crucial significance in the Scandinavian diaspora.

Despite these many positive qualities, and aside from possible outrage for or against Egill & Co., does the volume have a fatal flaw? Yes, I’m afraid it does, and one that could surely have been avoided. Even given the limited print runs that a book of this kind can get, and even taking into account its high quality production on good paper with colour images, I simply cannot believe that it is necessary for a 256-page paperback book to cost over one hundred and fifty dollars. This is priced beyond any student, most academics and frankly most libraries too in our straitened times. Brepols need to take a sharp look at their marketing, and–with all respect to them–the editors should have taken their manuscript somewhere with a more rational perspective on academic economy.

This is doubly unfortunate, because the volume is a truly worthy contribution to Viking studies in general and Icelandic archaeology in particular, and will be keenly read (if they can afford or find it) by any student of settlement in the North Atlantic.


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