Cereal cultivation as a correlate of high social status in medieval Iceland

Scott Riddell*, Egill Erlendsson, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Kevin J. Edwards, Jesse Byock, Davide Zori

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Utilising a multi-profile palynological approach and a rapid scanning technique, this paper examines whether or not cereal cultivation is representative of a medieval Icelandic farmstead’s social status; first as a correlate by confirming that cereals were grown in association with the archaeological features characteristic of high status and second, as an indicator in its own right through comparison with other datasets from inferred lower status farms in the same valley. The results suggest that medieval cereal cultivation in Mosfellsdalur was confined to the landholding of the Mosfell Estate. This is probably a direct consequence of the locale being settled early during Iceland’s colonisation and thereby allowing settlers there to secure the prime location in the valley for agriculture. The later abandonment of cereal cultivation on the Estate also appears to be linked to social circumstances in Mosfellsdalur c. ad 1200. An evaluation of other pollen studies and historical sources intimates a transition in cereal cultivation from inland toward coastal (and perhaps geothermal) sites in the mid-13th century, probably as a consequence of the onset of the Little Ice Age. These sites may also be linked with high status institutions. Despite this effort to adapt to altered climate conditions, cereal cultivation in Iceland is believed to have been completely abandoned by ad 1500. Overall, the temporal and spatial dynamics of cereal cultivation are shown to be complex, subject to both societal and environmental changes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)679-696
Number of pages18
JournalVegetation History and Archaeobotany
Issue number5
Early online date30 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2018

Bibliographical note

We are grateful for financial support from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Grant no. SPP1630), Arcadia Fund, The Leverhulme Trust (Grant no. F/00 152/F) and Icelandic Centre for Research (Grant nos. 110607021, 163290-051). Dr. Sigrún Dögg Eddudóttir, University of Iceland, is thanked for help with the construction of the age models.


  • Hordeum cultivation
  • Medieval Iceland
  • Pollen
  • Social status


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