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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Professor Mike Church

Dugmore, A J, Church, M J, Mairs, K-A, McGovern, T H, Newton, A J & Sveinbjarnardóttir, G (2006). An over-optimistic pioneer fringe? Environmental perspectives on medieval settlement abandonment in Þórsmörk, south Iceland. In Dynamics of northern societies proceedings of the SILA/NABO Conference on Arctic and North Atlantic Archaeology, Copenhagen, May 10th-14th, 2004. Arneborg, J & Grønnow, B Copenhagen: Aarhus University Press. 335-345.

Author(s) from Durham


We assess environmental factors that may have contributed to farm abandonment in Þórsmörk, south Iceland. Here farms were established during the initial Norse colonisation of Iceland and abandoned by the 13th century AD. Soil erosion has been identified as a possible factor in this settlement change. This hypothesis is assessed using sediment profiles constrained by tephrochronology in Þórsmörk and the nearby area of Stakkholt. In Þórsmörk, there is evidence for episodes of landscape instability between the 10th and 13th centuries and localised episodes of soil erosion to bedrock that ended before 1300 AD and the onset of the Little Ice Age (LIA) climate changes. This early instability is absent from Stakkholt. Later LIA stability in Þórsmörk contrasts with episodes of instability in Stakkholt. The implication is that Þórsmörk was sensitive to early settlement impacts that lead to extensive erosion. After farm abandonment in Þórsmörk, the surviving woodland was successfully conserved as a valuable source of wood and charcoal for lowland farms where woodland resources had been depleted. Mounting pressure on woodland resources in the 11th -12th centuries could have been an important factor in determining the precise timing of abandonment.