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An island archaeological approach to the Viking colonization of the North Atlantic

Pieterjan Deckers

Paper given at Fishery, trade and piracy conference in Tammisaari, Finland in 2006

The present paper is a brief exploration of the application of methods commonly used in the archaeological study of the Pacific and Mediterranean islands to the expansion of the Vikings across the North Atlantic during the ninth to eleventh centuries AD. The pillars of this approach will be island biogeography, combined with a theoretical understanding of the processes of migration and island colonization.

W.F. Keegan and J.D. Diamond were the first to realize the full potential of a biogeographical methodology in the archaeological and historical study of islands, although some island archaeologists were already using rudimentary versions of Keegan and Diamond’s methods before that date. Since 1987, this approach has been applied to numerous episodes of island colonization, mainly in the Pacific and Mediterranean.

It has to be emphasized that this paper is intended as an intellectual experiment rather than a definitive statement about the course of the westward expansion of the Vikings. It originates from a licentiate thesis at the Catholic University of Leuven consisting primarily of a critical evaluation of the theories and assumptions current in the archaeological study of island societies. The case-study on which this paper is based was intended to test these theories in a particular and well-documented sequence of island colonizations. Due to these limitations and because of the size of the study area, it was not possible to base this paper on a complete and up-to-date status quaestionis of the archaeological, historical and palaeoecological research in the North Atlantic.

Although thus restricted in its scope, this paper aims to demonstrate the possibilities biogeographical methods offer in drawing together the evidence from as large a geographical expanse as the Norse ‘colonies’ in the North Atlantic into one coherent picture. Before moving on to this analysis, the extant literary, archaeological and other evidence for the Viking exploration and colonization of these places have to be briefly reviewed.

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