Landnám and Shieling - Viking Farming Methods

Viking Farm Practices in Greenland and Iceland

Thjodveldisbaerinn-Traditional Farmstead, Thjorsardalur, Iceland
Thjodveldisbaerinn is a reconstructed traditional viking-era farmhouse in the Thjorsardalur valley, Iceland. Arctic-Images / Getty Images

Landnám is the Old Norse word (roughly translated as "land take") which refers to the Viking style of land management practices. These practices, based on traditional northern-European methods, were established in Iceland during the 9th century AD and Greenland in the 10th century. The direct transplant of inappropriate farming methods is widely considered responsible for the environmental degradation of Iceland and, to a lesser degree, Greenland.

 

Landnám and Viking Pastoralism

Norsemen using landnám brought along large numbers of grazing livestock, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses. As they had done in Scandinavia, they established both summer and winter pasturages and hayfields. Sheep and other livestock were taken to summer pastures from May to September, but for the remainder of the year were brought to the estate boundaries of individual farms. This grazing pattern is called the shieling system (discussed on page 2).

Unfortunately, unlike the soils in Norway and Sweden, the soils in Iceland and Greenland are the result of volcanic eruptions, and they are low in clay content and silt-sized, with a high organic content. This makes them far more susceptible to erosion than soils in the Viking homeland.

Progress of Environmental Damage

Extensive manuring in the first couple of years after settlement helped improve the thin soils, but after that, and even though the number and variety of livestock declined over the centuries, the environmental degradation began and grew worse.

Damage was also done to bogs, resulting from attempts to irrigate and removal of peat, leading to a reduction of available plant species. The introduction of foreign species into the new Norse settlements has also been documented: in the Faroe Islands, 90 of the 400 documented plant species are considered Viking era imports.

The pasturing of livestock led to widespread vegetation removal. Further, burning and cutting of woodlands, primarily small stands of birches for the creation of hay fields, and for home and hearth construction, led to historic period soil erosion. New species of plants introduced from the Viking homeland competed with the existing flora for scarce resources. The situation was exacerbated by the onset of the Medieval Little Ice Age between about 1100-1300 AD, when temperatures dropped significantly, impacting the ability of the land, animals, and people to survive.

Measured Damage

Recent assessments of the environmental damage in Iceland indicate that at least 40% of the top soil has been removed since the 9th century; 73% of Iceland has been affected by soil erosion, 16.2% classified as severe or very severe.

Some researchers have argued that the climate change alone was enough to precipitate soil degradation, with the Viking landnám playing only a minor role. However, a recent study by Simpson et al. suggests that measurable erosion in winter pastures is more severe than other locations in Iceland. In some cases, areas used as winter pastures are now classed as subarctic deserts. That study points to damage inflicted by Viking farming practices.

Identifying Landnam

Archaeologists identify where landnám has been applied to a particular stretch of land by examining soil samples taken from a suspected location. Microscopic evidence of landnam agricultural efforts include pollen, charcoal and fungal spore data. Pollen can indicate changes in the types of plants present, such as when birch trees and brush are replaced by hay fields; charcoal represents fires to clear scrub or ash from domestic hearths used to fertilize fields. Fungal spores are from cattle dung used as manure or simply within a cattle pasture. See Schofield and Edwards 2011 for details.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guides to the Viking Age and Climate Change and Archaeology, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Adderley WP, Simpson IA, and Vésteinsson O. 2008. Local-Scale Adaptations: A Modeled Assessment of Soil, Landscape, Microclimatic, and Management Factors in Norse Home-Field Productivities. Geoarchaeology 23(4):500–527.

Edwards KJ, Borthwick D, Cook G, Dugmore AJ, Mairs K-A, Church MJ, Simpson IA, and Adderley WP. 2005. A Hypothesis-Based Approach to Landscape Change in Suduroy, Faroe Islands. Human Ecology 33(5):621-650.

Edwards KJ, Schofield JE, and Mauquoy D. 2008. High resolution paleoenvironmental and chronological investigations of Norse landnám at Tasiusaq, Eastern Settlement, Greenland. Quaternary Research 69:1–15.

Erlendsson E, Edwards KJ, and Buckland PC. 2009. Vegetational response to human colonisation of the coastal and volcanic environments of Ketilsstaðir, southern Iceland. Quaternary Research 72(2):174-187.

Schofield J, and Edwards K. 2011. Grazing impacts and woodland management in Eriksfjord: Betula, coprophilous fungi and the Norse settlement of Greenland. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(3):181-197.

Schofield JE, Edwards KJ, and Christensen C. 2008. Environmental impacts around the time of Norse landnám in the Qorlortoq valley, Eastern Settlement, Greenland. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(6):1643-1657.

Simpson IA, Gudmundsson G, Thomson AM, and Cluett J. 2004. Assessing the Role of Winter Grazing in Historic Land Degradation, Myvatnssveit, Northeast Iceland. Geoarchaeology 19(5):471–502.

Thomson AM, Simpson IA, and Brown JL. 2005. Sustainable Rangeland Grazing in Norse Faroe.

Human Ecology 33(5):737-761.

Vickers K, Bending J, Buckland PC, Edwards KJ, Stummann Hansen S, and Cook G. 2005. Toftanes: The Paleoecology of a Faroese Landnam Farm. Human Ecology 33(5):658-710.

 

The shieling system is a type of animal husbandry developed in the Scandinavian countries. Shielings, summer pasturages, were part of the Viking system of farming known as Landnám, and their use was spread into the rest of northern Europe by the Viking expansion beginning in the 8th century AD. Shieling as a term also refers to the collection of huts that are used in summer pasturages. 

Shielings were summer animal farms, established in forested areas at the edges of residential estates and some distance from the farmsteads themselves.

There, cattle kept for milking were tended in the summers, milk was produced and converted into milk products (cheese and whey) before being brought back to the farmsteads. Grass, cereals and other crops were raised in small nearby fields, and used to feed the animals; sometimes small dams were built on adjacent streams to provide adequate watering.

Non-milk producing livestock was kept in communal highland grazing areas (called affretir in Icelandic) until the early autumn, when they were gathered, sorted and culled. After the autumn slaughter, all the animals were brought back close to the settlements, where grazing areas had been kept fallow all summer.

Archaeological evidence of a shieling includes the presence of herbaceous plants within an originally forested area, charred particles indicating deliberate burning, stone fences and wooden postmolds, cereal pollenstorage pits and barns, and the lack of residential structures.

Place-names which contain the element of aergi, argi or ergi, an old Norse word referring to shieling activity, are considered strong evidence of shieling.

Shieling Origins

The origins of the shieling system have long been debated, and dates of its inception have ranged from the the Late Neolithic to early Modern Age.

Written records suggest shielings were used at least as long ago as the Medieval period, including the Viking settlement of Iceland and Greenland in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. The system was largely abandoned in Europe by the 13th century AD, replaced by a "commons" method of sharing communal pastures, and this change is associated with the shift to sheep rearing and wool production.

Typically, the reason given for the shieling system is the lack of adequate year-round pasturage near settlements. Moving the animals to distant pasturages during the summer would have allowed forage near the farmsteads to recover adequately to support animals over the winter.

Recent Studies

Recent studies at the village of Angersjo and adjacent shielings of Gammelvallen and Ojingsvallen in the central Swedish forest were led by the Department of Forest Ecology and Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. These studies suggest that permanent farms with shieling systems were established together in Sweden perhaps as early the Roman Iron Age (AD 1-400) or Migration Period (AD 400-540). Karlsson et al (2010) suggest that during this period, seasonal forage was not an issue, and the shieling system was developed as a way to mark territorial boundaries.

Under this theory, the farm-shieling system was a successful way to expand one's landholdings.

Environmental investigations (Brown et al 2012) were conducted at the Icelandic sites of Arnarvatnssel and Sandfell, which further suggested that the shieling system was a successful strategy through ~1300, and even afterward, when cold and variable climatic conditions increased. Said Brown and colleagues, during the coldest part of the shift, 1300-1477, shieling management continued to operate as a moderating influence, increasing resiliency of livestock farming.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Ancient Farming Systems, the Guide to the Vikings, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Arge SV, Sveinbjarnardottir G, Edwards KJ, and Buckland PC. 2005. Viking and Medieval Settlement in the Faroes: People, Place and Environment.

 Human Ecology 33(5):597-620.

Brown J, Simpson I, Morrison S, Adderley W, Tisdall E, and Vésteinsson O. 2012. Shieling Areas: Historical Grazing Pressures and Landscape Responses in Northern Iceland. Human Ecology 40(1):81-99.

Karlsson H, Emanuelsson M, and Segerström U. 2010. The history of a farm–shieling system in the central Swedish forest region. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 19(2):103-119.