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A Viking Age Harbor and its Hinterland in Iceland: The Leiruvogur Harbor Research Project (DFG Spp 1630)

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The Leiruvogur Harbor Research Project (LHRP) is a multi-disciplinary, collaborative effort to locate and excavate the Viking Age harbors in the Leiruvogur Bay of southwestern Iceland. These harbors are among the most-mentioned landing sites in early Icelandic sources, but their location had not been determined prior to this project. Leiruvogur is an embayment of the larger Faxaflói Bay, a 120 km wide body of water bounded by the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to the north and the Reykjanes Peninsula to the south. Leirvogur, situated toward the southern boundary of Faxaflói, lies at the coastal mouth of the Mosfell Valley (Mosfellsdalur), north of the greater Reykjavík area. The Mosfell Valley runs east-west from the inland mountains and highland heaths down to the sea. It is a soil-rich, thermally-active basin carved out in the last glacial maximum. During the Viking Age, Leirvogur Bay extended east to a lagoon, which served as the major harbor for the eastern Faxaflói region. This lagoon, fed by two rivers, the Varmá (»Warm River«) and Kaldakvísl (»Cold River«), has accumulated sediments over time and has become a salt marsh. LHRP employs oceanographic and geophysical methods to identify the boundaries and features of the former lagoon and the Viking Age harbor at Leiruvogur as well as to reconstruct their relationship to the larger Mosfell Valley system. In Viking times, large ships drew comparatively little water, with a draught up to 1.5 m. Given the shallow draught of the ships, a tidal lagoon would offer secure anchorage and protection from the North Atlantic. The lagoon was clearly defined in the Viking Age landscape and the marsh remains so today. It lies between two small peninsulas, Outer Skiphóll (»Ship Knoll«) on the lagoon’s western side and Inner Skiphóll on the. Southwest Iceland and Faxaflói Bay, with Leiruvogur at the southern reaches of Faxaflói Bay. Faxaflói Bay is open to the force of the North Atlantic. The progression of islands leading to Leiruvogur offers protection from the open water of Faxaflói Bay. Hrísbrú is the chieftain’s farm in the Mosfell Valley associated with the Leiruvogur Harbor. A Viking Age Harbor and Its Hinterland in Iceland: the Leiruvogur Harbor Research Project lagoon’s eastern shore. Just west of the lagoon, toward the open sea of Faxaflói Bay was a second Viking Age harbor in the Leiruvogur embayment. This anchorage and beaching site was a cove along the southern fork of Leiruvogur Bay, protected by a natural breakwater called Langitangi (»Long Spit«) to the west, with Outer Skiphóll and the lagoon to the east. While only the latter site is part of the shoreline today, in Viking times, Leiruvogur Bay had these two protected harbors: the lagoon 3 at the bay’s innermost reaches and the cove 2 with its ship-landing between Outer Skiphóll and Langitangi. This combination made Leiruvogur Harbor the best port in the Faxaflói region, a status attested to by the literary sources. Hrisbrú, the Mosfell chieftains, was the hinterland administrative center of the coastal harbor at the mouth of the Mosfell Valley. Hrísbrú overlooks the harbor from its defendable site on the south slope of Mosfell Mountain. The Leiruvogur Bay offered three harbor locations: 1) The outer bay includes the area of Blikastaðanes and Þerneyjarsund. It was used in the centuries after the Viking Age into early modern times, when larger ships with deeper draught required deepwater moorings. – 2) The cove between the Langitangi breakwater and Outer Skiphóll Peninsula was a protected anchorage and beaching site for Viking Age ocean-going ships. This anchorage in the middle of Leirvogur Bay offered a gently sloping sandy shore for beaching. Ships could unload freight and passengers, take on cargo, and quickly put out to sea. 3) The Inner Lagoon between Outer Skiphóll Peninsula and Inner Skiphóll Mound at the eastern innermost-reaches of Leiruvogur Bay was a fully protected harbor where ships could remain safely over the winter. Leiruvogur as a place name goes back to the settlement of Iceland in the late 9th century. Modern Icelandic Leiruvogur is descended from Old Icelandic Leirvágr. The first element is derived from two related words: leira meaning »mud« and »tidal flats«, and leir meaning »clayey«. The second element, vogur, means »bay«. The name Leiruvogur is recorded in the medieval literature, indicating that the tidal mud flats located at the inner reaches of Leiruvogur Bay were a feature of the medieval landscape. The name Leiruvogur reflects the muddy, clayey characteristics of this tidal estuary and its lagoon. Leiruvogur is one of the most frequently mentioned harbors in the Icelandic family sagas (Íslendingasögur), but until now its location has remained unknown. The written sources indicate that Leiruvogur Bay was a primary point of entry and departure for ocean-going vessels (hafskip) on this North Atlantic island, whose maritime activities spread from Scandinavia and Europe to Greenland and the New World. These sources are invaluable for archaeology. Without them, we could only guess that the harbor was a trading gateway and communications hub for south-western Iceland. Locating Leiruvogur Harbor archaeologically and distinguishing its importance through literary sources is a significant contribution to the history of early Iceland. The only comparable archaeologically investigated early harbor in Iceland is Kolkuós in northern Skagafjörður, which is primarily connected with a later medieval bishopric. Leirvogur’s primary connection is to the Viking Age and early medieval texts. LHRP’s work in the Leiruvogur Harbor basin builds on the Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP)’s 4 surveys and excavations of the harbor and the Mosfell Valley hinterland, carried out since 2001. The Leiruvogur project is a part of the larger MAP goal to build a comprehensive model of the Mosfell Valley system. The MAP data sets offer LHRP a solid basis in research on Viking Age archaeological, social, economic, and maritime conditions in Iceland. Beyond the local valley system and early Iceland, the study of Leiruvogur Harbor has an international context. LHRP is reorienting core-periphery models currently employed in the study of European and North Atlantic commerce and political economy from the mid-8th to the end of the 11th century. North Atlantic harbors such as Leiruvogur played a significant role in the settlement of Iceland and the evolution of its view scross the Leiruvogur Harbors. Looking west from the Mosfell Valley, the sites of the Viking Age harbors are still visible in the modern landscape: A Inner Skiphóll Mound. The Kadakvísl River runs from the bottom center of the photo out into Leiruvogur Bay. The islands and peninsulas protecting the Leiruvogur Harbors from the open ocean of Faxaflói Bay are visible in the distance, with Reykjavík and the Nesses beyond. MAP’s LHRP are providing fresh evidence of harbor diversification in Viking Age trans-Atlantic traffic networks. Comparisons of a regional harbor such as Leiruvogur with large contemporaneous mainland Scandinavian harbors, such as Niðaróss and Kaupang in Norway and Baltic Hedeby at the base of the Jutland Peninsula offers insight into the diversity of harbors and emporia during the Viking Age and the periods immediately before and after. This article discusses: – Project Goals During the 2012-2014 Field Seasons – L ocating the Viking Age Harbors of Leiruvogur – G eophysical, Geographical, Oceanographical and Ecological Investigations: Lagoon, Cove, Rivers, and Juncus Geradii – A rchaeological Remains in Leiruvogur Harbor – L eiruvogur Harbor and Mosfell Valley Hinterland: a Maritme Landscape of the North Atlantic
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... The authors received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) in a project (RA 496/26-1, Byock et al. (2015)) situated in the frame of the Priority Program 1630 "Harbours from the Roman Period to the Middle Ages" (von Carnap-Bornheim and Kalmring, 2011). We would also like to thank the town of Mosfellsbaer and the National Museum of Iceland, the Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, The Arcadia Trust, Norvik, the Norwegian Kulturdepartment, the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. ...
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Pagan and Christian Burial Sites at Hrísbrú. The Mosfell Archaeological Project
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