Taphonomy or signal sensitivity in palaeoecological investigations of Norse landnám in Vatnahverfi, southern Greenland?

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Anthrosols (cf. plaggen soils) are commonly found across the homefields of Norse farms, yet the extent to which these taphonomically complex and heterogeneous deposits provide reliable archives of environmental change and vegetation history has rarely been investigated. This paper compares the palynological signature contained within an anthrosol located beside Norse farm ruins in the Eastern Settlement of Greenland, with that from a mire situated ∼400 m from the nearest archaeological remains. The investigation covers a period of ∼1000 years leading into, through, and beyond the Greenlandic landnám of AD 985. The results demonstrate that, as anticipated, the anthrosol contains a strong signal for human impact associated with settlement and occupation, although changes in both pollen percentages and accumulation rates (influx) through the profile appear smooth, not erratic, and radiocarbon dates are conformable. Thus the palynological signature contained in the anthrosol is broadly comparable to the patterns characteristic of stratified natural contexts (e.g. mires) with small pollen source areas that are located in close proximity to former Norse structures. Nevertheless, it is also demonstrated that secondary microfossils are a major component of the pollen assemblages within the anthrosol, and pollen influx is notably an order of magnitude higher when compared against the peat core taken from the mire. It is suggested that this may result from the addition of pollen contained in animal dung, augmenting that accumulating through the natural accretion of pollen derived from the surrounding vegetation and landing on the surface of the anthrosol. Although this complicates any palynological interpretation, by adopting a cautious approach we argue that anthrosols can be used to extract useful information about vegetation history at a local scale, as well as providing indirect evidence of landscape impacts and resource use around farmsteads.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197-215
Number of pages19
Issue number1
Early online date25 Jun 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015

Bibliographical note

We thank The Leverhulme Trust for financial support, Gordon Cook for the provision of radiocarbon dates and Andy McMullen for botanical identifications and assistance in the field. Jane Bunting, Jan A. Piotrowski and an anonymous reviewer provided helpful comments that improved the manuscript


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