SASS – UMass Boston – Fiske Center – Archaeology

Blog of the Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey

July 17, 2013
by John Steinberg
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EAGER: Assessing the Reliability of the Geophysical identification of Early Christian Churchyards and burials in Northern Iceland

Brian Damiata using the CMD Explorer at Hegranes thing

The NSF website just put up our project abstract.  This is the basis for the field season.  The abstract is reprinted below. This work is done under permits kindly granted by The Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland.

The EM unit we are using this year is a CMD explorer.  We will put up some results when we get a chance.

Award Abstract #1345066

This is an EAGER project to test the reliability of geophysical reconnaissance methods to identify buried Christian churchyards and cemeteries in Iceland.

The research will allow the joint Icelandic/US team to evaluate the reliability of two geophysical methods on five known or suspected early Viking Age churchyards that are in a variety of geophysical environments. Currently, the most reliable geophysical method to detect Viking Age Christian cemeteries in Iceland is GPR. The problem is that for GPR to be effective, it is necessary to strip off the grass in advance of survey. This is expensive and potentially destructive to archaeological contexts. The team will employ electromagnetic (EM) surveying with new multi-sensor instrumentation as an alternative method for locating preserved walls of churchyards.

Positive results from this unique opportunity to evaluate these geophysical applications could greatly expand our knowledge of early Christian practices of the Viking Age. More broadly, many of the innovations, especially in identifying cemeteries and mapping graves, have applications in other archaeological regions and periods, as well as other fields (e.g., forensic sciences). The ability to identify cemeteries and map the distribution graves and possibly to assess skeletal preservation has obvious value to archaeological investigations, heritage management efforts, and forensic scientists around the world.

April 12, 2013
by John Steinberg

Grétar Magni Guðbergsson 1934 – 2013

We have lost a great friend.  Grétar Guðbergsson passed away last week at the age of 78. Grétar, who called himself an agricultural geologist, set the stage for our archaeological work in Skagafjörður by understanding the nature of the erosion and soil deposition.  His findings were published in three important works:

1975    Myndun móajarðvegs í Skagafirði. Íslenzkar Landnúnaðarrannsóknir 7(1-2):20-45.

1994    Myndun móajarðvegs í Skagafirði. Rit Landverndar 10:133-157.

1996    Í norðlenskri vist. Um gróður, jarðveg, búskaparlög og sögu. Búvísindi 10:31-89.


Grétar taught us to use a fishing knife rather than a Marshalltown trowel to investigate the tephra and the soil.  In the future, when I get out my knife, I will think of him.

I already miss his good nature, his quick wit, and his inquisitive mind.  Our thoughts are with his wife Guðný and his family.

July 21, 2012
by John Steinberg

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.

July 18, 2012
by John Steinberg

Now on the Bus

Icelandair did let the 421 on. They did not even charge us much. Now we need to get it to the north of Iceland. It is too big to fit in the wagon we have rented. Therefore, I am taking the bus, so I have some time.

We are testing the Dualem 421 out in a bunch of different places. ( We are also trying the CMD mini-explorer ( but that is a much smaller piece. In particular we are testing these at the lower Seyla churchyard.


October 28, 2011
by John Steinberg

Preliminary Report on Greenland

Front Page

Front Page

We recently put up our preliminary report from our 2010 experimental season in Greenland.  The title is “Evaluating the Potential of Archaeogeophysical Surveying on Viking Age and Medieval Sites in Greenland. October 2011” and it is Cultural Resource Management Study No. 51.  Many of the Fiske Center’s reports can be found on our Reports and Publications page.  The report is by Douglas J. Bolender, John M. Steinberg, Brian N. Damiata, John W. Schoenfelder, and Kathryn Caitlin.

To sum up. our preliminary investigation suggests that archaeogeophysics will be hard pressed to identify buried Viking Age turf walls that do not have stone foundations.  We have found that both magnetometry and the in-phase component of electromagnetics are well suited to identify buried Viking Age stone foundations and other important cultural features and that GPR is effective for identifying Viking Age Christian graves.

John Steinberg

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