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Into the Ocean

Into the Ocean: Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North

Kristján Ahronson
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 264
  • Book Info
    Into the Ocean
    Book Description:

    That Gaelic monasticism flourished in the early medieval period is well established. The "Irish School" penetrated large areas of Europe and contemporary authors describe North Atlantic travels and settlements. Across Scotland and beyond, Celtic-speaking communities spread into the wild and windswept north, marking hundreds of Atlantic settlements with carved and rock-cut sculpture. They were followed in the Viking Age by Scandinavians who dominated the Atlantic waters and settled the Atlantic rim.

    WithInto the Ocean, Kristján Ahronson makes two dramatic claims: that there were people in Iceland almost a century before Viking settlers first arrived c. AD 870, and that there was a tangible relationship between the early Christian "Irish" communities of the Atlantic zone and the Scandinavians who followed them.

    Ahronson uses archaeological, paleoecological, and literary evidence to support his claims, analysing evidence ranging frompapplace names in the Scottish islands to volcanic airfall in Iceland. An interdisciplinary analysis of a subject that has intrigued scholars for generations,Into the Oceanwill challenge the assumptions of anyone interested in the Atlantic branch of the Celtic world.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-6507-1
    Subjects: History, Archaeology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Illustrations, Tables, and Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-7)

    Carved and rock-cut sculpture identifies a poorly understood facet of early Christianity, whether on Skellig Michael, rising as it does out of the north Atlantic Ocean twelve kilometres off the coast of southwest Ireland, or perched on the Heimaklettur cliff face in Iceland’s Westman Islands. The special or sacred places marked by simple sculpture at Inishbofin off the Connemara coast, at St Ninian’s Cave in Galloway, at Iona in the Inner Hebrides, at Aird a’Mhòrain on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist, at the Isle of Noss in Shetland, and at hundreds of other Atlantic places span a zone...

  6. 1 Nineteenth-Century Legacies: Literature, Language, and the Imagining of the St Lawrence Irish
    (pp. 8-37)

    Looking back to earlier generations of scholars and paying particular attention to the legacy of the nineteenth century, we see that in this period the fast-paced discoveries of medieval literature held special appeal for interdisciplinary efforts. Thus medieval accounts such as those of Vínland sparked a search that eventually led to Helge and Anne-Stine Ingstad’s spectacular discovery of the L’Anse-aux-Meadows site in Newfoundland – and to the vindication of what were initially speculative ideas. For a number of nineteenth-century scholars, engaging with medieval literature and interdisciplinary problems led to the proposal of bold ideas, at times very ambitious and short...

  7. 2 A Fruitful Conversation between Disciplines
    (pp. 38-57)

    Thinkers have been trying to establish theories and methods for science for well over two thousand years. Among the many eminent philosophers of science, only a relatively small number have tried to integrate abstract scientific method (for example, logic, mathematics) with the “messy” data of the world. In exploring recent theories, Karl Popper’s ideas hold special appeal for the kind of interdisciplinary thinking advocated in the previous chapter, where the works of literature scholars, linguists, folklorists, archaeologists, and historians were interwoven to empower a more sophisticated understanding of nineteenth-century scholars and their continuing contribution to scholarship. In particular, interdisciplinary workers...

  8. 3 Pabbays and Paibles: Pap- Names and Gaelic and Old Norse Speakers in Scotland’s Hebridean Islands
    (pp. 58-74)

    A place name denotes a location and, for the namer, articulates meaning given to that place.Pap- names, such as those derived from Old Norse (ON) *Papa(r)ey, are found across a northern region incorporating the Scottish islands, Faroe Islands, and Iceland. Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century these Old Norse names and medievalpapar/papaedescriptions have been used to suggest early Christian migration(s) across the north Atlantic islands. Detailed review, however, highlights unexplored avenues for toponymic study of these names and suggests more complex and nuanced interpretations of the material.

    Pap- names are most common in Atlantic...

  9. 4 Seljaland, Vestur-Eyjafjallahreppur, Iceland
    (pp. 75-100)

    Since the early twentieth century some scholars have related artificial cave sites in southern Iceland to the earliest settlement of the island by monastic communities of Gaels. These sites present an enigma: artificial caves are the best preserved and most numerous medieval structures to survive as visible monuments in Iceland and yet have received the least attention. Given that the shelter provided by temporary and permanent constructions (such as pithouses, longhouses, or caves) is key to the survival of human populations in the north Atlantic area, cave buildings are long overdue for in-depth study.

    Brynjúlfur Jónsson (and subsequently Einar Benediktsson)...

  10. 5 Dating the Cave
    (pp. 101-130)

    As discussed in the previous chapter, the Icelandic artificial cave sites are thought to be old (Holt and Guðmundsson 1980: 16–17), but their origins and history are enigmatic. As part of the Seljaland Project, test trenches at the mouth of Kverkarhellir cave identified debris from cave construction within a dated sequence of volcanic ash layers, or tephrae. Locating an episode of construction within the excellent chronological framework provided by these tephrae is an important step for understanding the caves.

    Hjartarson and Gísladóttir describe the southern Iceland caves as including a number of “the oldesthousebuildingsin Iceland” (Hjartarson and...

  11. 6 Three Dimensions of Environmental Change
    (pp. 131-146)

    Let us explore vegetation changes in the centuries surrounding Norse settlement in order to contextualize human activity better in that landscape. As mentioned in previous chapters, the island was transformed over those centuries: human populations appeared; woodland was reduced; domesticated animals and crops were introduced; native mammal, bird, and fish populations were over-exploited; natural vegetation cover was altered; and the soils were destabilized.

    At Seljaland the oldest of these palaeoenvironmental changes has been detected in early-ninth-century sediments and has been claimed to be related to human activity in the landscape (that is, woodland clearance and the introduction of domesticates). In...

  12. 7 The Crosses of a Desert Place?
    (pp. 147-199)

    Simple crosses cut into artificial caves and alcoves in southern Iceland form a coherent and largely unrecorded sculptural tradition. In our final study let us look to the rock-cut crosses at Seljaland and, as one way to explore the diffusion of culture and movements of people, seek to contextualize these cross forms through comparison with sculpture from other Atlantic areas.

    A feature of numerous southern Iceland caves as well as some Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) exposed alcoves is rock-cut crosses that, taken together, form a coherent sculptural tradition. Although significant in number and in spite of this tradition’s clearly productive influence...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 200-204)

    Study of the early medieval past, across a zone stretching from the Scottish coasts to Iceland, may be defined by complex interplay between established “certainties” and fundamental ambiguities. For instance, the existence of early Christian settlements within the Gaelic-speaking world is assured, while their nature and extent beyond that is unclear. Similarly, the Norse are known to have come to dominate this region by the late Viking Age, but the exact chronology and character of their earliest colonization of this zone is difficult to perceive. Iceland’s artificial caves (and cross sculpture) have also provoked speculation. Thus, as we have seen...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 205-222)
  15. References
    (pp. 223-246)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 247-247)