from the Roman Period to the Middle Ages

The Leiruvogur Harbor Research Project

The Leiruvogur harbor hinterland showing the sites investigated by the Mosfell Archaeological Project.
Aerial photograph of the inner reaches of Leiruvogur Bay
Jesse in Leiruvogur
Looking accross the silted-up innner reaches of the Leiruvogur Bay from the Outer Skiphóll Pennisula.
Port Authorities
Hrísbrú site plan
Hrísbrú Longhouse
Imported “Eye Beads”

Interdisciplinary Archaeological Examination of a Viking Harbor and Its Hinterland in Iceland

The Leiruvogur bay is located in southwest Iceland at the mouth of the Mosfell Valley between the modern capital of Reykjavík and the site of the old Althing parliamentary meetings at Thingvellir. The coastal landscape forms a natural harbor with full protection from the North Atlantic. In the extensive corpus of Icelandic Sagas, Leiruvogur is named in more sagas than any other Viking Age port, indicating the significance of the harbor for the Viking trans-Atlantic trade network. The chieftains who controlled this port and the area between modern Reykjavík and the Althing lived at the Mosfell farmstead on the northern side of the Mosfell Valley on the low slope of the Mosfell Mountain.

The Leiruvogur Harbor Research Project seeks to understand the historical development of the topography and ecology of the Leiruvogur Bay and identify and examine the material remains of the Viking Age port. We will explore this port in relationship to the archaeological material from the hinterland farmsteads and analyze the rich textual record contained in the Icelandic sagas. The sources describe the importance of the Viking Age port situated on the southern shores of Leiruvogur Bay. Multiple sources of information and data sets complement each other in suggesting the location of this harbor in the vicinity of a small peninsula called Skiphóll, or ship hill. The local place name traditions suggest several specific locations for the position of the port, while the natural geography indicates that the Skiphóll peninsula provided ideal shelter for a Viking Age port.

The Leiruvogur Harbor Research Project proposes to locate and understand the Leiruvogur harbor in its natural setting and cultural context through three parallel and interrelated investigations focused on the paleo-landscape, the archaeological remains, and the harbor hinterland. Our proposed studies of the paleo-landscape, focusing on geologic, oceanographic, and ecological studies of the bay, will reconstruct the natural environment of the harbor, show the benefits of the location, and guide the archaeological investigations. The second project part aims to locate and recover the archaeological remains of the Leiruvogur harbor with the tools aerial photography, geophysics, sub-surface survey, and test excavation. The third arm of our project employs regional archaeological information and saga texts to understand the hinterland of the harbor and places Leiruvogur and its hinterland within the inter-regional systemic perspective of the Viking Age trade networks.

This Leiruvogur Harbor project builds on a firm research past. The Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP) has conducted archaeological and historical research on the settlements in the Mosfell region and the role of the Mosfell chieftains. We will analyze this previously collected archaeological to provide a regional hinterland background to the Leiruvogur harbor. The project will, for instance, consider the role of the fishing, trade, and far-distant ocean traffic centered on the Leiruvogur harbor. The availability of these complementary data sets of the archaeological evidence and the textual sources is a major strength of this research project. The integration of this information is a primary focus.

The identification and examination of the remains of the Viking Age harbor require an approach that is landscape oriented. For this reason, we are integrating information from historical texts and maps, and combining this information with high resolution aerial photographs, oceanographic research, ecological reconstruction, and investigations of the historic coastline. Our landscape approach is focusing on the changes in the topography and environment that occurred in response to the impact of Viking Age settlement. The geography of the Leiruvogur Bay provided Norse seafarers an attractive location for a ship-landing. Leiruvogur is one of two fjords located at the back of the larger bay that opens between the Kjalarnes and Seltjarnarnes peninsulas and the islands west of the bay, provide shelter from the open ocean. The geographic position of the Leiruvogur port in the inner reaches of its tidal bay were beneficial to the local population controlling sea traffic since the narrow peninsula was visible and could be monitored from the upper field at the Hrísbrú farmstead.

The inner portion of Leiruvogur Bay is split into two intertidal bays by a peninsula named Skiphóll. To the east of Outer Skiphóll is a broad expanse of shallow brackish and freshwater marsh that is partly submerged during high tides. The geography of inner Leiruvogur has changed since the Viking Age. The change is a result of continued isostatic uplift and accelerated deposition of sediments from human settlement. We need to understand the character and timing these landscape changes. Sub-surface oceanographic testing will allow us to precisely identify when changes in sea level occurred and reconstruct the coastline of the bay through time from before the Viking settlement until the modern period.

The sagas state that Leiruvogur was a starting point for high sea voyages in the North Atlantic and a place to acquire ocean-going ships, while the archaeological finds recovered from the Mosfell Valley show connections to places as far away as the Caspian Sea. The function of Leiruvogur as a supra-regional harbor provides an opportunity to place this site within the framework of the trans-Atlantic traffic systems. We will seek fruitful comparisons with the full range of Viking Age harbors, ports, and ship-landings. These comparisons will include the smaller seasonal harbor sites in Scandinavia that have common characteristics with and may in fact have served as proto-types for the North Atlantic harbors. The comparative research results has great potential to illuminate the character of the maximum extent of the European trade network as it reached into the northern North Atlantic. Specifically, our study of the Leiruvogur harbor will show the role of the Scandinavian emporia and early towns in a new light as the centers to the peripheral North Atlantic colonies. Thereby this project will contribute to the reassessment of the preconceptions of the center-periphery models that are currently employed to understand early medieval trade and communication networks.

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