SASS – UMass Boston – Fiske Center – Archaeology

Blog of the Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey

RAPID: Testing Geophysical Prospection and Mapping Methods for Early Christian Cemeteries in Iceland


John using the CMD mini explorer at Stora Seyla

To give you some idea of what we are doing, and why we have been bringing all this equipment to  Iceland and using it, below is the abstract of the NSF grant we were awarded.  The PI on the grant is Doug Bolender and the grant was awarded to the Field Museum in Chicago.

RAPID: Testing Geophysical Prospection and Mapping Methods for Early Christian Cemeteries in Iceland

This award will support geophysical investigation of the early Christian cemetery at the farm of Stora-Seyla in Iceland by Drs. Douglas Bolender, Brian Damiata, John Steinberg, and their colleagues with the Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey (SASS) prior to excavation by Gudny Zoega and the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum. Complete archaeological excavations of Viking Age Christian cemeteries occur very infrequently and NSF support provides a unique opportunity to collect geophysical data prior to excavation. Currently there is no method to find buried churches and cemeteries that can be applied on a regional scale in Iceland. By conducting a series of shallow geophysical surveys before excavation, SASS will be able to determine if new multi-sensor electromagnetic (EM) instrumentation can reliably find buried cemeteries and characterize individual graves. Precise spatial measurement and GIS systems will be used to record and correlate excavation and geophysical datasets. The project will result in two significant advances: (1) new geophysical techniques to identify buried churches and cemeteries in Iceland; and (2) a systematic evaluation of the capability of geophysical methods and techniques to produce detailed maps of church complexes including individual graves.

The methodological advances in this small RAPID award will open early Christian cemeteries to regional study and allow for household-level information on demography, human health, and diet to be integrated into future research projects. The marginal environment of Iceland makes it an excellent place to study the impacts of environmental degradation, climate change, and dietary transitions on human health and society. The populations represented in these early Christian cemeteries coincide with key transitions in farming practices in Iceland and with the climatic deterioration associated with the onset of the Little Ice Age. Additionally, recovered skeletal material holds the potential for DNA analysis which can shed light on the nature of household composition, the role that family relationships played in the process of land division following the initial settlement of the island, and on how evolutionary processes have shaped the relatively isolated Icelandic gene pool. Assessing the distribution of early Christian cemeteries and graves will increase the value of these analyses with better information on the context of sampled populations. The multi-sensor EM techniques that will be tested in this project have applications beyond the North Atlantic as well as in other fields. Therefore this work has important applications for heritage management and forensic sciences. The broad integration of disciplines and multiregional experience brought by the team will enrich: a) training and educational experiences for participating undergraduate and graduate students; b) develop international scholarly collaboration; and c) facilitate local outreach and communication of research results through collaboration with the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum.

Author: John Steinberg

Dr. John Steinberg has been a Research Scientist at the Fiske Center since 2006. He received his PhD in Anthropology from UCLA in 1997. Before coming to UMass Boston, John taught at UCLA and California State University Northridge. He is interested in the economic problems of colonization, both in New England and across the North Atlantic. He uses GIS and shallow geophysics to study settlement patterns to understand broad trends over the landscape. In addition to John's New England work, he has been studying the settlement patterns of Viking Age Iceland. John is the director of the Digital Archaeology Laboratory at the Fiske Center.

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