Claiming a wilderness : Atlantic Gaels and the island Norse
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This thesis reviews archaeological material, medieval literature, place-names and palaeoenvironmental data cited in explorations of the early Viking Age North Atlantic area, and proposes a reassessment of chronology for the earliest settlement of Iceland. After analysing previous scholarship and discussing the problems inherent in study of early North Atlantic settlement, it is suggested that a multi-disciplinary approach is needed and can be articulated (by drawing upon Karl Popper’s ideas) to foster a fruitful conversation between disciplines. This methodology for engaging with multi-disciplinary materials is then presented. Three sections follow, tackling in turn three areas of Viking Age scholarship that have caused difficulty and frustration in the past: the toponymy of Hebridean Pap-islands (Chapter Three); the chronology of carve construction, occupation and human-environmental interactions at Seljaland in southern Iceland (Chapters Four, Five, Six, and Seven); and the İrland et mikla tradition of medieval literature, including discussion of the views of the largely forgotten nineteenth-century scholar Eugène Beauvois (Chapter Eight). Couched in a Popperian methodology, the new archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research that forms the bulk of the thesis is integrated with small-scale studies of place-names and medieval literature. Tephronchronology plays a large part in the Seljaland section. Chapter Six, for instance, introduces the tephra contours technique for study of past environments. The thesis concludes with a new proposal for the first settlement of Iceland and its connections to Atlantic Scotland, arrived at by considering the archaeological and tephra deposits at Seljaland, in conjunction with art-historical, toponymic and literary material. The thesis proposes that southern Iceland’s Seljaland caves were built c. AD 800 – earlier than the traditional Norse foundation of settlement on the island – and that cross sculpture in these caves suggests a connection with Gaelic monasticism found across the Scottish islands in this period.