Elusive sel sites: The geoarchaeological quest for Icelandic shielings and the case for Þorvaldsstaðasel, in northeast Iceland

Patrycja Kupiec, Karen Milek, Gudrun Alda Gisladottir, James Woollett

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


The seasonal movement of grazing livestock to upland pastures (shielings) is believed to have played an important role in the subsistence economies of small farms in Scandinavia and the North Atlantic region during the Viking Age, Medieval and Post-Medieval periods. Historical sources, saga literature and place-name evidence strongly suggest that transhumance had been practised in Iceland since the settlement period in the ninth century, and that it formed an important part of a decentralised farming economy. However, since only eight putative shieling sites have been subjected to archaeological investigation in Iceland, little is known about the size and character of these sites, the full range of activities that took place in them, or the degree to which they were materially distinct from upland farms. This paper examines how microscopic analysis of floor surfaces can aid the detection of seasonally occupied sites and improve our understanding of livestock management in the North Atlantic region. The potential of micromorphological analysis of floor deposits to distinguish between periodically and permanently occupied sites is illustrated by a case study of a putative shieling site at Þorvaldsstaðasel, in northeast Iceland. The analysis of two thin sections taken from this site showed that its floor deposits exhibited a pattern of thin, periodic occupation surfaces, separated by thicker and less compacted accumulations of aeolian silt and fine sand. This pattern reflects the periods of intermittent occupation, separated by the periods of abandonment, and therefore it is consistent with the interpretation of the site as a periodically occupied shieling. The thin sections also captured a phase when the site was permanently occupied (characterised by thick and compacted floor deposits), which suggest that the occupation history of Icelandic shieling sites may have been more variable and complex than is normally recognised by archaeologists.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSummer Farms
Subtitle of host publicationSeasonal Exploitation of the Uplands from Prehistory to the Present
EditorsJohn R. Collis, Franco Nicolis, Mark Pearce
Place of PublicationSheffield
PublisherJ.R. Collis Publications
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781781793930
ISBN (Print)9780906090558, 9780906090565
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2016

Publication series

NameSheffield Archaeological Monographs
PublisherJ. R. Collis Publications

Bibliographical note

This paper forms part of Patrycja Kupiec's PhD dissertation, which is supervised by Karen Milek.


  • Geoarchaeology
  • Shielings
  • Iceland


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