Religious Landscapes in the North Atlantic

Posted on March 15, 2017


It’s Wednesday so the weekly release of conference videos I have filmed. This weeks videos are from the EAA conference:

At the same time as the parish system was taking shape in Christian Europe – in the 10th and 11th centuries AD – Christianity was spreading among the colonists of newly settled lands in the North Atlantic. A well known characteristic of the ecclesiastical landscape of the North Atlantic islands is the high number of small churches associated with individual farms. The majority of these did not acquire parochial functions and most were closed down in the course of the Middle Ages. In their heyday, in the 11th and 12th centuries, they were however a very conspicuous aspect of the religious landscape of the North Atlantic. The study of these small churches has progressed in recent years – with comprehensive mapping and identification of such sites and several excavations – but many questions remain. A major issue is how different this pattern was from the Scandinavian and British homelands – or if it was different at all. Other questions relate to architectural influences, the use of space, location and settlement context, but also broader patterns and themes, like continuity from pre-Christian practices, medieval community organisation and ecclesiastical hierarchies, pastoral care in regions of dispersed settlements, medieval religiosity and its long-term development. Taking its cue from the relatively well documented small-church landscapes of the North Atlantic Islands – Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes as well as the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland – this session also aims to discuss also the religious landscapes of Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland and welcomes papers addressing comparable cases and questions in other parts of medieval Christendom.
Author – Arneborg, Jette, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Arge, Simun, F royar Fornminnissavn, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
Co-author(s) – Vesteinsson, Orri, Universty of Iceland, Reykjav k, Iceland
Keywords: Early churches, Ecclesiastical landscape, North Atlantic

The bishop’s grave in St. Alban Church in Odense, Denmark Author – PhD Hansen, Jesper, Odense City Museums, Odense C, Denmark (Presenting author)
Keywords: 11th century bishop, Odense, Old bishop – new church

When King Canute was killed in 1086 in the church of St Alban’s in Odense it “…was at that time the bishop’s church…” (”… tunc temporis sedes erat episcopalis…”). This reference by an unknown author in a commemorative text of King Canute the Holy indicates that St Alban’s church functioned as a bishop’s cathedral until 1095, when the king’s body and St Alban’s relics were transferred 75 metres to the newly built St Canute’s church. In the fall of 2015 Odense City Museums excavated a hitherto unknown bishop’s grave in St Alban’s, supporting the designation of St. Alban’s as a cathedral in 11th century. This is the period of the foundation of the Danish Church, and a number of questions emerge when analyzing the bishop as well as the grave and its context. The paper will primarily address two questions: What are the origins of the bishop in the grave and with which archbishopric and/or kingdom is he most likely associated? In the beginning of the 11th century, the Danish Church had close relations to Canterbury and thus to the Anglo-Saxon Church. In the middle of the 11th century, ties were close to the German Church, and Danish bishops were appointed by the archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen. Attempts to answer these questions are based on traditional archaeological methods as well as DNA and strontium analyses. Additionally an attempt will be made to explain why the bishop was not moved into the new cathedral together with St Alban’s relics and Canute the Holy in 1095, or in connection with, for example, Canute’s canonization and translation only five years later in the year 1100.

An abundance of chapels: the pre-parochial religious landscape of the Isle of Man Author – Johnson, Andrew, Manx National Heritage, Douglas, Isle of Man (Presenting author)
Keywords: early chapels, Isle of Man, landscape

The Isle of Man is a small island of just 580 square kilometres, yet it boasts the remains of about 200 medieval chapels (in Manx Gaelic, ‘keeills’). In the 1930s Carl Marstrander, the leading Celtic scholar of his day, visited the island to study its many Celtic cultural and linguistic facets.
Marstrander was intrigued by the widespread distribution of early medieval burial grounds and chapels, which predate the establishment of a parish system on the island during the 12th century. He proposed and published a highly-influential thesis that the distribution of these chapels was associated with a pre-existing land division system which functioned throughout the island. Several theories have since been advanced which have suggested alternative explanations for the distribution of these chapels, and have been based, for instance, on concepts of peripheral or central location. It is worth taking stock of these, and of Marstrander’s work, in the light of recent discoveries and new dating evidence for some chapel sites, not all of which were known at the time of earlier surveys.
Together, the development of GIS and the resulting ability to investigate and characterise historic landscapes, offer an enhanced opportunity to study the location and distribution of these chapels, particularly in relation to routes through the landscape. As a result, it is becoming possible to propose some new ideas about their location and about the nature of the medieval religious landscape of the Isle of Man.

A landscape of belief: Orkney’s medieval churches

Author – Dr. Gibbon, Sarah Jane, University of the Highlands and Islands, Kirkwall, United Kingdom (Presenting author)
Keywords: church, landscape, Orkney

Over two hundred churches were founded in Orkney in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This paper will explore the various functions of these churches by considering them in their landscape contexts as a means of overcoming the lack of contemporary written sources relating to them.
The churches can be grouped according to three different landscape settings: proprietary churches located in close proximity to central places within settlement units (townships); isolated churches located some distance from known settlements; and churches (possibly monastic) separated from settlement foci but not isolated. In addition to identifying different types of church, some sense of chronology and religious development within the Orkney Earldom will be presented, mapping the transition from the forced conversion of the islands by Olaf Tryggvasson in 995 to the creation of an urban diocesan centre, part of the newly created archdiocese of Nidaros, in 1152/3.

Chapels, Church sites and Settlement in Medieval Faroe Islands

Author – Arge, Simun Vilhelm, Faroese National Heritage, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands (Presenting author)
Keywords: chapels, church sites, settlement

In the Faroes a group of sites has, because of their characteristics and associated placenames, been interpreted as medieval chapels – maybe even remains representing the early Christianisation process. But because of the lack of church archaeological investigations our knowledge of the Faroese Medieval church is quite limited. The paper will discuss the characterisation of the archaeological material at hand based on an ongoing project involving surveys and investigations of possible church ruins. In an attempt to understand these relics – their relation and function within the Medieval church in the Faroes – they will be placed in a settlement-historical as well as in a North Atlantic context.


The geography of a cemetery – the early Christian cemeteries of Skagafjör ur, North Iceland Author – Zoega, Gudny, Skagafjordur Heritage Museum, Saudarkrokur, Iceland (Presenting author)
Keywords: burial customs, cemeteries, churches

In the last decade early Christian churches and cemeteries in the region of Skagafjör ur, North Iceland, have been the object of extensive archaeological research. A thorough regional survey has suggested the possibility of at least 120 farms with early churches/cemeteries. Of those, 15 have been further examined and four have been extensively excavated. The research indicates that these cemeteries come into being around the date of the official conversion to Christianity in AD999/1000 and that their majority was discontinued just before or after AD1104. A small number ultimately evolved into parish or communal cemeteries and in some instances churches retained their function and boundary walls were rebuilt after the cemeteries were no longer being used for burial. In their outward appearance these cemeteries seem to have been remarkably similar in size and form suggesting that from the outset, they were being managed and structured according to a particular set of laws or customs. Burial customs that have been considered an 11th-12th century development, for instance sex segregation, also seem to have been in place right from the beginning of the 11th century. These cemeteries are adding a new dimension to our understanding of the early ecclesiastical landscape in Iceland and how and when important changes may have occurred. In this paper I will explore the differences and similarities that can be found in the layout and organisation of these cemeteries and how they compare with contemporary funerary data from outside Iceland.

Hofstaoir in Myvatnssveit. An early Icelandic religious landscape

Author – Dr. Gestsdottir, Hildur, Institute of Archaeology, Reykjavik, Iceland (Presenting author)
Keywords: church, Iceland, religion

In 2015 the excavation of the early Christian church and cemetery at Hofsta ir in M vatnssveit, northern Iceland, was completed.
The site which dates from the mid 10th to the early 12th century was typical for the early Christian cemeteries of the period in
Iceland, several phases of a central church surrounded by typically Christian graves, inhumations oriented west-east, all without
What is noteworthy however is that only 100m away from the church and cemetery are the remains of a substantial Viking
age feasting hall (excavated between 1995-2002). The hall, which has clear pagan symbols, not in the least that its exterior
was decorated with at least 23 cattle skulls, was in use for a relatively short period, constructed in the late 10th century, and
abandoned by the mid 11th century.
The Christian church and the pagan feasting hall at Hofsta ir were therefore contemporary for a while. This brings a new
perspective to the discussion of early religion in Iceland, where much of the focus has been on attempting to identify a conversion
process thorough the archaeology, in particular burial archaeology. The story suggested by Hofstaðir is quite different, where
there seems to be a period of coexistence of these contrasting religions.
In this presentation the results of the two excavations at Hofsta ir will be discussed, and placed within the context of the
archaeology of early religion in Iceland in particular, and the North Atlantic in general.

Communities of death in medieval Iceland

Author – Prof. Vésteinsson, Orri, University of Iceland, Reykjav k, Iceland (Presenting author)
Keywords: church, Iceland, Medieval

In Iceland, the introduction of Christianity around 1000 AD was associated with fundamental changes in burial customs. In pre-Christian times each farm had had its own cemetery but under the new custom only about a half of the farms had churches with cemeteries. Farms without a church and cemetery are as a rule those of lower status and their occupants presumably buried their dead either in their neighbours’ cemeteries or (if different) in the cemetery of their patron or landowner. Already within the first century of Christian practice the small farm-based churches began to lose their number and the 12th and 13th centuries are characterized by their continued decline and by increasing centralisation of functions in churches which would eventually become parish centres. The paper will explore how this development, from private to communal cemeteries, reflects fundamental changes in community organisation and social structure.

”Small churches” in Norse Greenland – what became of them?

Author – Dr. Arneborg, Jette, Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark (Presenting author)
Keywords: Churches and church-farms, Norse Greenland, reorganisation of ecclesiastical landscape

Greenland was settled in the later part of the 10th century when Christianity had been introduced in northern Europe. Christianity was a part of the settlers’ kit, and churches and churchyards were built on the farms from the very beginning of settlement. The churches were built close to the farmhouses, and they were characterised by their “secular” architecture, small size, and a surrounding circular, or sub-circular, enclosure. During the 13th century the early churchyards were taken out of use, as were apparently the church buildings, and a number of farms lost their status as church farms. In the same period new and larger churches were built either on earlier church farms or on newly established ones, now adapting “traditional” church building architecture known in Scandinavia. Based on archaeological excavations of “small churches” 2001 – 2010 I will explore the changes in Norse Greenlandic church building in the context of ecclesiastical and community organisation.

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