Yet Again I have written a paper for school and I am giving to you, the internet, for no charge. This one comes it at 13 pages of text so it is a long read and as normal I will also be providing a pdf for your reading pleasure. If you want to read the whole thing you will have to download the pdf because 13 pages of text is just to much to put in one blog entry. (also I am lazy and didn’t want to format all of it for the blog)
Before you read this you should know the assignment. This was an assignment for my Arh. 320 (medieval archaeology) class. The assignment was to choose a site that is either being currently excavated or has been recently excavated and write a persuasive paper arguing for further funding of the site (as as I got a 104% on this paper I think I did a pretty good job of it).
Thingvellir: One of the Most Important Medieval Sites
Vikings were not completely lawless, anarchical barbarians with a thirst for blood. They could be very civilized and even had a democratic like system of government which consisted of public assemblies of all free land–owning men called things. In Iceland There was an assembly of the entire country which was created in the ninth century called the Althing. The Althing was held at thingvellir, parliament plains (Chartrand et al. 27). Thingvellir is an extremely important site
which could change the study of medieval Europe if excavation were to continue. The site of Thingvellir is very important and excavation must continue there because it is one of the very few sites of its kind that have been excavated and it is likely to provide a great deal more information on an area of research which has hardly been studied at all. This site has a long history which can provide us with a great deal of information, however there is a extreme lack of archaeological
information, and this lack of information leaves open many questions that could potentially be answered with excavation.
When considering to excavate the site it is very important to gather as much pre-existing information available. The more one knows about a site the better he can prepare an excavation plan. There is no reason to answer questions with excavation that have been answered before. A better excavation plan means the whole archaeological process will be more efficient, and perhaps more importantly cheaper. History also is among one of the things which one should know when
planning an excavation.
Thingvellir was used as an assembly For the Althing, a national political gathering (e.g. a national thing), starting in 930 CE (Chartrand et al. 27). The site only stopped being regularly used in 1798 CE when the Althing was moved. Although the site was regularly used during this entire time the Althing did not stay the same. In the year 1271 CE Iceland came under the power of the king of Norway and would later by the king of Denmark. This change in power from local
to foreign lead to changes in the purpose of the Althing. The major change in the purpose of the gathering was that it no longer served as an independent political entity that ran Iceland, but as a provincial government which carried out the wishes of the crown (Thrsteinsson 19).
There are two contemporary historical sources which recount the founding of the Althing, the Islandingabok and the Landingabok. The first gives only a brief description of the events. It says only that a man named Ulfiot came from Norway and brought the Norwegian custom with him of a national assembly called the Gualthing with him. The Landingabok tells the same basic story but gives much more detail. It says that Ulfiot went to Norway with his uncle for three years
and there, working with King Hakon, established the Gualthing. Upon his return to Iceland he persuaded the chieftains to establish a national assembly for Iceland (Page 173-174). The Gualthing was almost certainly not the first assembly; it is likely that things had been held for hundreds of years prior to the creation of the Gualthing (Page 34-5) The Gualthing may have been the first National Assembly, however.
The Althing, which lasted for two weeks every summer, consisted of a committee of thirty-six chieftains from across Iceland who elected thirty-six judges every year and one lawspeaker every 3 years. The chieftains, called gothi, were also priests who had to perform religious activities during things (page 173-4). The lawspeaker could be called the chairman of
the committee as it was his job to lead the assembly. Another duty of the the lawspeaker was to recite from memory one–third of the law every year (so that during his 3 year term he will have recited all of the law), fulfilling these duties from the lawrock, a rock which was stood upon and used as a speaking pulpit (Chartrand et al. 27-8). However the lawspeaker was not the only person who could use the law rock. Anyone who had any business which they wished to the committee
did so from the law rock (Thingvellir). However, only a free land–owning man could present his business at the Althing for judgment by the committee (page 175). Much of this business had to do with legal disputes between parties (i.e. murder or theft) (Chartrand et al. 27) Though it was sometimes also used for other things, such as making changes to the calender or to establish things in each region of Iceland so that people would not have to wait for or travel to the Althing to settle a dispute (page 175-6). Nothing, the Althing included, actually had any power to enforce any of its decisions so it was up to the men who brought their cases before the thing to enforce the ruling given (Thingvellir).
Because of the lack of authority of the Althing one can come to the conclusion that the Assembly played more of a social role than a governmental one. Historians seem to have come to this conclusion using other historical documents (Durrenberger 53). Iceland was a political mess during the early Middle Ages; there was no central authority and every free landowning men (bondi) owed allegiance to a local gothar (Durrenberger 56-57). The thing was used as more of a
social gathering where ties were made and broken among the different factions, though the Althing did give a certain amount of unity to the otherwise chaotic system (Durrenberg 53,55). The people of Iceland came together in one place and all did business with each other; a regular meeting of people from all over the country would help to enforce or create a sense of community and national culture among all the people.
Despite the rich history of Thingvellir there is very little archaeological evidence for anything which the historical accounts claim. The official website for the site says only
“The Institute of Archaeology in Iceland, on behalf of the Snorrab` th thingvellir Commission, undertakes archaeological excavation at thingvellir. Excavations will also be carried out at selected district assembly sites around the country in 2002-2006 (Thingvellir)”
This is clearly out of date and of almost no use. The excavations must have occurred by now, yet due to the out of date webpage there is absolutely no indication of what was found. Though the site does say the excavation was lead by a man named Adolf Frithriksson (Thingvellir). If any information has been published about this dig it has probably been published only in Icelandic and in some obscure journal. The website says that the 2002-2006 research plan focused only on
the Assembly site itself and not on any of the surrounding countryside and that the site would be mapped using ground penetrating radar (thingvellir). The fact that no specific information is given on what areas of the site will be excavated is probably due to the lack of updates to the site since the research was begun; the areas excavated, if any, were probably decided after the GPR was done so that the best locations could be found and are thus not given on the web page because it was written before the GPR had occurred.
The little research that has been done at Thingvellir as been mostly biological and geological with very little of that dealing with the Middle Ages(Jonasson 15). Not only is there little archaeological information available for this site but there is extremely little available for an site of this type, despite the importance of things to many Germanic cultures during the early medieval period. It is known from historical sources that things were held all over northern Europe. They could be found across Scandinavia and the British isles (page 34-35, 177-180). Things were probably held for a very long period of time as well, perhaps going back a few hundred of years before the founding of the Althing (page 34-35). Its long use means that it holds a great wealth of information that could not be gained any other way. This information will not
pertain to just Iceland alone, but will give a better picture of the entire early Middle Ages. Little is known about the social structure of early Germanic people other than what little has survived from historical sources. All of this makes it very evident that the site of Thingvellir must be excavated.
An excavation at Thingvellir would be an invaluable resource to the study of assembly sites of all kinds across Europe. Excavating at Thingvellir could give a basis for excavation at other similar sites or even allow other sites to be studied without any need for excavation. Thing sites occur across Northern Europe from Gulen in Norway, where to gualthing was held, to thingwall Cheshire, Dingwall in Cromarty England, and Tynewald on the Isle of Man (page 35, 175). The wide spread nature of sites such as this one indicates that there must have been some kind of unifying feature among the different groups in these places. What exactly that feature is can not be known for certain without archaeological research.
Archaeological research is done to fulfill the natural human desire for knowledge; thus one of the most important reason that Thingvellir should be excavated is that it is so important to Icelandic history and culture, and the desire for information about a site so important is obvious. Thingvellir was the seat of government from 930 CE. until 1783 CE. Even after the seat of power had moved from the site it still remained important to Icelandic history and society; during the 19th c. Thingvellir was used as a meeting place for the Icelandic independence movement and has been used in more recent years as festival grounds for various different national celebrations (Thingvellir). Thingevellir is the most important location in all of Iceland in regards to Icelandic national identity and to have so little archaeological information for the site prevents a basic understanding of Iceland itself.
The site of Thingvellir in Iceland is one of the most important sites in all of Northern Europe, not just for Iceland. It is the ideal site for research into things because it is the most famous and best understood of them all. Excavation has already started to a limited degree at the site, and it has already produced more archaeological information than any other site of its type. The research that has been done (especially the ground penetrating radar mapping) should allow further research to be carried out more easily. The great importance and value of this site is why excavation must continue.
If this site is to be excavated it is important to put some consideration into what might be found and what questions can be asked. There are a few historical documents which give accounts that might be useful to get an idea of some of the objects which might be found at this site. These documents provide evidence that Thingvellir will likely contain religious, military, commercial, and other cultural material.
The Landnambok gives an account of meetings of the Althing and mentions laws which could be useful for this purpose. The book says that animal headfigures heads should not be placed on ships, but if they were they must be removed when in sight of land to prevent upsetting the land spirits (page 174). This shows that the people of Iceland must have been very superstitious, so thus it is likely that Heathen (this term is used because it is the name used by the
practitioners of the modern religion of Asatrú ) religious objects may be found, as superstition of this level often correlates to strong religious views as well. This is not the only, or even the best, indication that religious objects are likely to be found at Thingvellir.
“A ring of at least two ounces [of silver] should lie on the altar of every main temple. Every ‘priest’ should have such a ring on his arm at all legal moots that he had to inaugurate himself. First it must be reddened in the blood of the cattle that he himself had sacrificed there. Every man who needed to take part in pleading before the court must swear an oath at law. So help me Freyr and Niord and the Allpowerful God that I shall pursue this case–or defend it– or bear witness–or give verdict–or pass judgment, as I know to be just and most true and most in accordance with the law. And all matters that come under my jurisdiction I shall determine lawfully as long as
I am at this meeting (page 174).”
This is the best evidence that objects associated with religion will likely be found at Thingvellir. This passage provides us with a great abundance of information on the activities at the Althing
and what an Archaeologist might find and what he probably will not find. It seems unlikely that one of the silver rings mentioned would be left laying around for an archaeologist to find one thousand years later. however, the alter which the ring was placed on might be found. This would be a very interesting find indeed. What kind of an altar might it have been? A pyre seems out of the question, unless the point was to destroy the ring. A find like this could give great insight into the religious practices of the time. Perhaps something of one of the mentioned cattle would be found. The question of what was done with an animal once it was sacrificed is a very interesting one. Was it eaten? burnt? thrown in a ditch? We can not tell from the historical sources alone, but a find such as this could greatly further our knowledge of religious practices. The vagueness of this passage is yet another reason why excavation is needed. This book was obviously meant to be read by people who were familiar with the concepts being discussed and so the author left out information which a modern reader can not fill in. The only chance a modern reader has to fill in these parts is to excavate the site and try to gain some of the knowledge which has been lost over time. The significance of dipping the silver ring in the blood of a cattle is one of these things. Perhaps if the altar (or the place where the cattle was sacrificed if these are different places) can be found it might shed some light onto this.
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