Kevin P. Smith, Deputy Director/Chief Curator

The Vikings and Medieval Iceland


2011 'Gilsbakki in Hvítársí›a, Western Iceland Preliminary Report of Investigations, 2008' from Research Reports of the Circumpolar Laboratory, No.1, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology (click to view report)

2006 'Outlaws of Surtshellir Cave: The Underground Economy of Viking Age Iceland' (click to view article)

Co-authored with Guðmundur Ólafsson and Thomas H. McGovern. Published in "Dynamics of Northern Societies", edited by Jette Arneborg and Bjarni Grønnow, National Museum of Denmark.

2005 'Ore, Fire, Hammer, Sickle: Iron Production in Viking Age and Early Medieval Iceland' (click to view article)

Iron was produced in Iceland from the ninth century AD until the early sixteenth century. As a fundamental industry supporting this medieval Scandinavian outpost, iron production offers uniquely valuable opportunities for examining the changing organization and structure of this society and its economy. Starting with archaeological data gained from recent excavations of a Viking Age smelting site at Hals (Borgarfjardarsysla), western Iceland, this paper integrates archaeological and historical sources to shed light on the organization of iron production (quarrying, smelting, forging/smithing, distribution, and repair of tools) in the economic structure of Viking Age (AD 875-1000) and Early Medieval (AD 1000-1300) Iceland.

In De Re Metallica: The Uses of Metal in the Middle Ages, AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, Volume 4, edited by Robert Bork, pp. 183-206. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

2004 'Patterns in Time and the Tempo of Change: A North Atlantic Perspective on the Evolution of Complex Societies' (click to view article)

Between AD 1175 and 1250 medieval Iceland society transformed itself from a network of decentralized simple chiefdoms into a unified proto-state. Uniquely, a vast corpus of vernacular writing - much written by the chieftains themselves - describes actors' ideologies, histories, motivations, and understandings of the processes involved. Archaeological data provide alternative perspectives, highlighting processes that extended over temporal scales beyond actors' abilities to observe or manage. How robust can our explanatory frameworks be if the changes we seek to explain occurred too rapidly to be monitored by most archaeological methods? Do archaeological perspectives provide valuable or illusory insights into the processes we seek to study?

In Exploring the Role of Analytical Scale in Archaeological Interpretation, BAR International Series 1261 (2004), edited by James R. Mathiew and Rachel E. Scott, pp. 83-99. Oxford, UK: Archaeopress.

1995 'Landnám: The Settlement of Iceland in Archaeological and Historical Perspective' (click to view article)

The Norse settlement of Iceland established a viable colony on one of the world's last major uninhabited land masses. The vast corpus of indigenous Icelandic traditions about the country's settlement makes it tempting to view this as one of the best case studies of island colonization by a pre-state society. Archaeological research in some ways supports, but in other ways refutes the historical model. Comparison of archaeological data and historical sources provides insights into the process of island colonization and the role of the settlement process in the formation of a culture's identity and ideology.

Published in "World Archaeology", 1995


2009 'Fuel and Economy in Modern Iceland: Stress and Uncertainty During a Period of Climactic Uncertainty at Skógarnes, Iceland' (click to view conference poster presentation)

Kevin P. Smith (1), Thomas Urban (1), Michèle Hayeur Smith (2), Magnús Sigurgeirsson (3) and Kevin Martin (4)
1 Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University
2 Rhode Island School of Design
3 ÍSOR, Reykjavík
4 National Road Authority, Republic of Ireland

Less than 1% of the forests found by Iceland’s 9th century Norse colonists remain today. Recently, a number of academic and popular works have used Norse land-use strategies and Icelandic deforestation as exemplars of unsustainable practices leading to social and environmental collapse. Yet, other research characterizes early Norse land-use strategies as resilient and sustainable.

Many questions remain unanswered about the timing, causes and processes leading to Icelandic deforestation. These include not only the strategies used by Icelandic households to acquire reliable sources of energy from their own woodlands, peat beds and farmyard wastes, but also the role of regional trade in the Icelandic fuel economy.

2009 'Electromagnetic Surveying at at Icelandic Farmstead' (click to view conference poster presentation)

Thomas Urban (1), Kevin P. Smith (1), Michèle Hayeur Smith (2), and Kevin Martin (3)
1 Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University
2 Rhode Island School of Design
3 National Road Authority, Republic of Ireland

In 2008 a small team of researchers from Brown University conducted one week of exploratory archaeological and geophysical investigations at Gilsbakki, a previously unexcavated elite farm site known from the Icelandic Sagas and thought to have been occupied from the 10th century to the present. The primary goals of these initial investigations were to identify whether intact archaeological deposits remained at the site, to determine their depth, extent, and complexity, and to evaluate the site’s potential for future research. The investigation included electromagnetic induction (EM) surveying, topographic mapping, coring, and small-scale excavation. This coordinated program successfully located structural remains and midden deposits at Gilsbakki, with EM providing rapid coverage and remarkable detail over areas larger than standard sub-surface documentation could have produced in the available time.

2009 'Into the Nest of Eagles and on to the Foxes’ Den: Preliminary Investigations at Gilsbakki in Hvítársíða, Western Iceland' (click to view conference poster presentation)

Michèle Hayeur Smith (1), Kevin P. Smith (2), Thomas Urban (2), and Kevin Martin (3)
1 Rhode Island School of Design
2 Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University
3 National Road Authority, Republic of Ireland

Preliminary archaeological investigations in 2008 documented the extent, complexity, contents, and preservation conditions of well-stratified deposits at Gilsbakki, an important Icelandic elite site. Gilsbakki was a chiefly residence during the Viking Age and early medieval periods and retained local prominence as an ecclesiastic center into the first decades of the 20th century. Coring indicates that undisturbed cultural deposits reach depths of 2.0-2.4 meters across an area of at least 1000 m2 in the site’s core. Two small exploratory trenches, each 1x 5 m, revealed complex sequences of alternating midden and structural layers dating from the 13th-20th centuries within the top 1.5 meters of this deposit, with at least a meter of unexplored deposits beneath.
More than 2,000 finds from these trenches documented household economies focused on sheep farming and engaged in international trade networks from at least the 14th century to the present. Changing frequencies of ceramics, glass, metals and even early plastics in Gilsbakki’s Early Modern deposits (ca. 1500-1920) document this farm’s engagement with the outside world before, during and after the Danish colonial trade monopoly of 1602-1787, while underlying deposits preserve sequences of construction, demolition and occupation throughout the medieval period.

Preservation conditions are remarkably good and textile fragments from 13th to 19th century deposits provide particularly valuable insights into domestic production, dress, and exchange from the medieval to modern periods.

2004 'Independent people, householders and outlaws: reconciling economic self-sufficiency, political centralization, and trade in medieval Iceland'

From its colonization in the 9th century AD to its absorption by the Norwegian state in the 13th, medieval Iceland was transformed from a confederation of simple chieftaincies into a network of competing complex chiefdoms and, briefly, a unified state. While comparable chiefdoms' economies have been characterized through reference to redistributive, tributary, or patron/client relationships among elite and non-elite households, medieval Iceland's non-elite households have generally been considered largely autonomous, self-sufficient, and politically independent - held in check by the ultimate sanction of outlawry. This paper examines the archaeological records of outlaws (theoretically the most independent and autonomous members of society) and farming households in western Iceland to consider the benefits and risks of autonomy and to examine material evidence for the degrees to which these groups were integrated into social, political, and economic networks linking Icelanders with one another and with other communities in the medieval North Atlantic region.

Presented at the 69th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Montreal; April 3, 2004.