SASS – UMass Boston – Fiske Center – Archaeology

Blog of the Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey

July 23, 2013
by Kathryn Catlin

Excavations at Stóra-Seyla, continued

Julie, Eric, and I spent most of today at Stóra-Seyla clearing, photographing, and beginning to excavate several grave cuts to the north of the church.

Julie and I ensure that the pole camera is operating as expected

Julie and I put our heads together and got the pole camera running. We got several good, clear shots of the cleaned grave cuts. The outlines of the graves – where the gravediggers cut through the earth to bury their dead in 11th century Stóra-Seyla – are extremely clear now that we have opened the area down to the level of the landnám tephra. The contrast between the dark-colored tephra and the lighter brown, mottled grave fill makes the interface stand out. These cuts in the tephra are also visible in the ground-penetrating radar results from our 2009 survey.

Cuts in the landnám tephra indicate probable graves

This photo, with southeast at the top, shows the area where we were working. At left are two possibly connected graves that I began to clear just after the photo was taken. Eric traced the outlines of the two connected cuts that show most clearly at center, while Julie worked in the small area at right, in shadow.

Guðný Zoëga, director of archaeology at Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga

With lots of guidance from Guðný, the director of archaeology at the museum who has been excavating cemeteries in Skagafjörður for many years, we began to (carefully) excavate.

Julie carefully brushing the bones of a neonate

Julie’s area soon began to reveal the very small bones of an infant. This newborn had been carefully placed in the small grave very close to the church with its head resting on a pillow of H3 tephra (the lighter soil under the skull in the photo). (Much like the landnám layer in the pole photos, H3 also covers the entire site, but at a depth below the landnám.)

Kat carefully removing soil from around a probable young woman’s skull

The northernmost of my two cuts revealed a skull late in the afternoon, probably that of a young woman. Women were usually interred to the north of the church, and men to the south.

We don’t yet know whether Eric’s area contains human remains. Many of the people buried here were disinterred during the late Viking Age and reburied elsewhere, meaning that many of the graves we are excavating contain only fill. We hope to learn more tomorrow.

Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) at Stóra-Seyla

Meanwhile, John was flying the kite overhead whenever the the winds were right!

July 11, 2013
by Kathryn Catlin

SCASS 2013 season

Welcome to the SCASS 2013 season! We have a new acronym for a new project: the Skagafjörður Archaeological Settlement Survey is joining with the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum (Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga) to form the Skagafjörður Church And Settlement Survey (SCASS).

This year we are here to follow up on last year’s successes at locating Viking Age churches with multi-depth conductivity meters. And starting next week, the crew from UMass Boston will be joining with the museum to continue the church excavation at Stora-Seyla. After one day of work we’ve already completed our first geophysical survey of the church at Hegranesþing – including a fantastic set of air photos with the high-wind kite! We have clearly visible churchyard walls in the geophysical results, so things are looking good.

John Schoenfelder flies our high-wind kite over the survey grid at Hegranesþing, which was the Viking Age assembly site for the northern quarter of Iceland.

John Steinberg and Brian Damiata wade through þufur with our new instrument, the CMD Explorer – a conductivity meter that takes simultaneous readings at three different depths.

This weekend we will be at the NABO conference in Akureyri, where John, Doug, and Brian will be giving a talk and presenting several posters. The last of our crew arrives on Monday and then it’s back to work!

Stay tuned – it looks like this will be another fantastic season.

August 2, 2012
by Kathryn Catlin

My last day

Today was my last day of fieldwork in Iceland for 2012!  (Don’t worry, everyone else is staying for a few more days, and they’ll keep blogging.)  I’m sorry to leave just when so many exciting things are coming in to view at Seyla – a few more grave cuts are exposed, and the church in the center of the yard is beginning to take shape.

Over the weekend we traveled to Kumlabrekka, an early Viking Age boat burial on the side of a pseudocrater, to test the CMD and GPR through volcanic scoria.  The Mývatn region is one of the most beautiful in Iceland.  But Mývatn means “midge lake,” and when the wind dies down, the midges come out!  They are everywhere and they bite.

Brian surveying with the CMD at Mývatn while Doug takes GPS points. You can’t see Doug’s face, because it is covered with mosquito netting.

The survey went great – which I’m especially happy about, because I carried the CMD for most of it!

This afternoon I spent some time showing Guðmundur, an archaeologist who works at the museum here in Sauðarkrókur, how to work our float machine so he can process macrobotanical samples after we leave.  We decorated the Minja Husið sign with beautiful pink and blue chiffon!

Floating beside the museum. The chiffon bags catch the botanicals as they float over the top of the machine, and then we air dry them before inspecting them under a microscope. Tiny preserved seeds tell us which plants may have been used by the people who lived at Stóra-Seyla in the 11th century.

The float tank in action! The freshly painted tank (just the white parts are fresh) was designed by John and constructed by a local welder in SASS’s early days. You can also see the magnificent swamp we’ve created beside the museum …

Early tomorrow morning I leave for England, where I’ll be doing some survey work with Matthew Johnson’s project at Bodiam and Scotney Castles.  Then I’m moving from Boston to Chicago to start my first quarter as a PhD student at Northwestern University.  I’m very excited about all of this, but sad to leave Iceland (and UMass) behind.  I hope to be back in Skagafjörður next summer!

Stay tuned to this blog for more about the last week of excavation at Seyla!

July 26, 2012
by Kathryn Catlin

Excavation at Seyla

Over the past few days, we’ve started to clear off the churchyard wall and some of the other buried features at Seyla.  We’re slowly mapping out the features that correspond to the anomalies we’ve seen in the geophysical results, including the central structure.

Brian, John, and Guðný contemplate some complex stratigraphy.

Viking Age floors in Iceland are thick, compacted, somewhat greasy layers composed of pink peat ash, black charcoal, white wood ash, and other colorful detritus of everyday life.  This morning as I was tracing out the edges of the floor that seems to go with a later phase of the central structure, a small silver pin appeared under my trowel:

Me photographing a small (about 1″ diameter) silver pin or brooch from the center of the Viking Age churchyard at Stóra-Seyla. The pink stuff behind me is the floor!

This afternoon, John and Brian visited Keflavík and Mið-grund, two other farms in Skagafjörður where we will be testing our geophysical instruments early next week.  Tomorrow we’re back at Seyla, then it’s a weekend trip to Mývatn to survey a boat burial and see the sights!

July 23, 2012
by Kathryn Catlin

Kites, Rocks, and a Backhoe

Yesterday was beautiful weather, and while we finished up the DUALEM survey John was able to get the kite flying and took some outstanding photos of the grid.  More on that later – meanwhile, here’s an action shot!

John brings the kite back to earth after a successful flight


Rocks, especially large rocks, can influence the electromagnetic field produced by our geophysical instruments.  To make sure we only sensed buried archaeological features, we had to move part of a large rock pile away from our survey grid.  Some readers may remember moving this rock out of the excavation in 2009 – Doug, John, Myra and Hannah moved it again!

Experimental archaeology! We had to move this very heavy rock out of range of the survey instruments. It was quite an operation.


Today it was cold, windy, and rainy, and we had a visit from our friendly local backhoe operator!  Before Guðný starts to excavate, we needed to remove the soil down to the level of the 2009 excavation (which we had covered with a geotextile before backfilling).  John directed operations while the rest of us started shovel scraping.

John directing the backhoe driver to clear off the soil down to our 2009 excavation.


Tomorrow: backhoe and shovels, part II!

July 21, 2012
by Kathryn Catlin

Trying out the DUALEM

John and Brian using the DUALEM-21 at Stóra-Seyla

Today we finished our first survey with the DUALEM-21.  This is just half of the 4-meter-long DUALEM-421 – the instrument that John brought on the bus from Reykjavik.  Tomorrow we’ll be surveying the grid at Seyla again in the opposite direction, and then we’ll take a look at the data.  We will probably be using the full 4-meter DUALEM-421 later in the season.

We’ve already finished surveying in both directions with the CMD, a smaller multi-sensor EM instrument (see the photo in the last post).  These multi-sensor EMs allow us to penetrate multiple different depths at the same time.  A single survey with the CMD gives us six complete data sets to analyze.  Preliminarily, what we’ve seen from the CMD data looks very good!

Today we are also welcoming the rest of our crew, who are joining us from Kenyon College – Dr. Kimmarie Murphy and two students, Hannah and Myra, who will be helping with the cemetery excavation and skeletal analysis as well as geophysical survey.  It’s great to have them here with us!

As for me, I’m thrilled to be back in Iceland again.  This is one of my favorite places in the world, and I have a really good feeling about this summer!

July 30, 2009
by Kathryn Catlin
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Pollen sampling

With the arrival of Heather and Sue, the coring team has morphed into the pollen team!  For the last week we’ve been coring at Meðalheimur, finding locations with good tephra sequences.  So far we’ve finished taking samples from four 1×1 units at different locations around the farm – we have one more to finish up tomorrow before we move on to Reynistaður.   Despite the cold, strong wind, and rain, we’re making excellent progress!  When we get back to Boston, we’ll take the samples to the lab and count the pollen grains preserved at each level.

For the last few days we’ve been working close to the midden team, who are opening a large section in the side of the farm mound.  It’s been fun to hang out with them!  They’ve found lots of bones, plus some wool and a copper pot dating to sometime after 1300.

I’ll have some pictures to post later this week of the pollen team’s exploits!

This morning the whole SASS team visited some other exavations around the valley – the harbor at Kolkuós and an early cemetery on the other side of the fjord.  It was great to see what other groups are excavating, and helpful to get some perspective on our own sites.  We’re looking forward to seeing the Kolkuós folks at Seyla soon!

July 15, 2009
by Kathryn Catlin

One-by-Ones everywhere

Emily and Rita have been digging 1×1-meter test pits in farm mounds all over Skagafjorður, looking for midden dating from about 1000 AD or earlier.  They finished the pit at Kjartansstaðir today!  Here’s Emily waving from inside the farm mound, as Rita and Joanna look on:

Emily waves

July 9, 2009
by Kathryn Catlin

The Coring Team Takes a Field Trip

The coring team has been hard at work for the past few days!  We finished taking soil cores all over Pafastaðir, and today we began work on a farm mound at Kjartansstaðir.  We’ve been tiptoeing through the þufurs and wrestling with extreme dandelions.  On Monday we took a hike through field, bog, and stream to take a look at the tephra sequence on the abandoned farm at Melkot.

After a week I’m really starting to get hang of intepreting soil cores!

Fording a stream at Melkot

Beautiful tephra sequence at Melkot

John really gets into tephra.

July 5, 2009
by Kathryn Catlin

Aerial photography at Stora Seyla

Here are some of the aerial photos from Seyla.  The first two were taken with a camera on a pole on July 2: 

Kate and Laura working, while Pete holds the pole.

Kate looks up as Kelly wanders through.


This is a test image from the kite on July 1.  At the top are the group flying the kite and and the GPR team, people clearing the site in the middle, and at the bottom you can see the stone lines of the building we’re excavating.

Last night after our Fourth of July dinner (hot dogs, hamburgers, and french fries – it was delicious) we took a group photo:

The 2009 SASS team in Iceland.

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