The Eldgjá eruption and the Christianisation of Iceland

A series of Earth-shattering volcanic eruptions in Iceland during the Middle Ages may have spurred the people living there to turn away from their pagan gods and convert to Christianity, a new study finds.

The discovery came about thanks to precise dating of the volcanic eruptions, which spewed lava about two generations before the Icelandic people changed religions.

codex_regius_of_eddaic_poems
Codex Regius

But why would volcanic eruptions turn people toward monotheism? The answer has to do with the “Vǫluspá,” a prominent medieval poem that predicted a fiery eruption would help lead to the downfall of the pagan gods, the researchers said.

Historians have long known that the Vikings and Celts settled Iceland in about A.D. 874, but they were less certain about the date of the Eldgjá lava flood, the largest eruption to hit Iceland in the past few millennia. Knowing this date is crucial, because it can tell scientists whether the eruption — a colossal event that unleashed about 4.8 cubic miles (20 cubic kilometers) of lava onto Greenland — impacted the settlement there, the researchers said.

To investigate, the researchers examined ice core records. Their results showed that the eruption took place less than 100 years after people settled the island. The volcano began gushing lava in the spring of A.D. 939 and lasted, at least episodically, until the autumn of 940, the researchers said.

10584_2018_2171_Fig1_HTML
a) Locations of Eldgjá, the NEEM drill site and medieval documentary evidence referenced in the text covering 939–942 CE. b) Section of the 75-km-long Eldgjá eruption fissure at Ófærufoss. c) The Codex Regius; finger points to beginning of stanza 57 of Vǫluspá

“This places the eruption squarely within the experience of the first two or three generations of Iceland’s settlers,” study lead researcher Clive Oppenheimer, a professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge, in England, said in a statement. “Some of the first wave of migrants to Iceland, brought over as children, may well have witnessed the eruption.”

The finding matches medieval chronicles from Ireland, Germany and Italy that noted the spread of a haze in 939. Moreover, the tree-ring data revealed that in A.D. 940, the Northern Hemisphere had one of its coldest summers in the previous 1,500 years — a cold shift consistent with the release of large amounts of volcanic sulfur into the atmosphere, the researchers said.

“In 940, summer cooling was most pronounced in Central Europe, Scandinavia, the Canadian Rockies, Alaska and Central Asia, with summer average temperatures 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] lower,” co-researcher Markus Stoffel, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, said in the statement.

Suffering followed, with hard winters and drought in the spring and summer. Locusts invaded, and livestock died. “Famine did not set in everywhere, but in the early 940s, we read of starvation and vast mortality in parts of Germany, Iraq and China,” said study co-researcher Tim Newfield, an environmental historian at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.

However, no texts from that period survive from Iceland, the volcano’s homeland.

A mere two generations after the Eldgjá eruption, in about A.D. 1000, the people of Iceland formally converted to Christianity. And it likely had to do with the “Vǫluspá,” the researchers said.

The “Vǫluspá” was written after the eruptions, in about A.D. 961. It describes how an eruption and meteorological events would mark the end of the pagan gods, who would be replaced by one, singular god, the researchers said.

Part of the poem explains how “the sun starts to turn black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky … flame flies high against heaven itself,” according to a translation.

Considering Eldgjá’s eruptions date to before the poem was written, Icelanders who experienced the fiery spectacle likely looked back at the events and wrote the poem, “with the purpose of stimulating Iceland’s Christianization over the latter half of the 10th century,” the researchers wrote in the study, published online in the journal Climate Change.

SOURCE.

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Mapping genes: Orkney Islanders are 25% Norwegian

They are proud of their Viking ancestors but are not as Norwegian as they might think. The lion’s share of the genes of Orkney Islanders can be traced to the native peoples who lived their several millennia before Norwegians invaded and annexed the islands in the 9th century.

Mapping genes

British and Australian researchers have mapped the genetic structure of today’s Brits. They found that the only place where the Viking inheritance is genetically strong is the Orkney Islands. Orkney were under Norwegian rule for centuries and as a result, 25 percent of Orkney Islanders’ genes can be traced to Norway.

The locals tend to be enthusiastic about their Viking heritage, which has now also been strongly identified in their genes:

“The people here are very fond of Norway and I feel most welcome,” says Ragnhild Ljosland. The Norwegian researcher is an associate professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies at Orkney College in Kirkwall, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Dialect

Ljosland’s research is in language, not genetics. She explains that words in Orkney dialect often have a close historic relationship to Norway:

“I feel that the Orkney dialect is just as Norwegian as it is Scottish,” she says. Ljosland mentions vowels, which have remained the same. For instance the Norwegian båt and the English boat, or the names for farming tools and animals. As for birds the Norwegian skarv (cormorant) is a scarfe in Orkney, a teist is a tistie and a lomvi is a loomie.

Ragnhild Ljosland explains that in the 15th and 16th centuries Norway and the the rest of Scotland shared stronger linguistic traits. Contemporary Norwegian and Scottish speech was then closely related.

Using the landscape

The Centre for Nordic Studies has initiated a project which also covers the way the Vikings made use of the landscape when they settled in the Orkneys.

“The Vikings came here and found a landscape which was already in use, with farms, paths and burial mounds. These mounds look like the ones in Norway from the Viking Era, but they actually pre-date them,” explains Ljosland.

Picts

The same goes for the genetic make-up of today’s Orkney Islanders. It traces back much further than many have believed.  A surprisingly large amount of their genes stems from the Picts and other peoples who lived on the islands long before Harald Fairhair took control of them in 875.

The other Vikings who dominated parts of the UK – the Danes in Danelaw (or Danelagh) in Eastern England – have not left anything comparable to the DNA signature as the Norwegian Vikings in the Orkneys. In fact the population of the Orkneys is the most genetically distinct in the UK, thanks to a quarter of their DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. Most of the population in Eastern, Southern and Central England is fairly homogenous. Prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century, the last immigrants to significantly alter the British genetic make-up were the Anglo Saxons who came in the 5th century after the Romans left Great Britain.

No equivalent in Celtic DNA

The Celtic languages and culture are seeing something of a revival in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. But the latest research shows that the Celtic impact is more a matter of culture than genes. The Celts in Southwest England’s Cornwall, for instance, were far closer related to other English groups than to the Celts in Wales and Scotland.

The international team of researchers behind the charting of the British genes is from the University of Oxford, University College London and Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia. The collected DNA samples from a carefully chosen geographically diverse sample of over 2,000 Brits. All of those selected had grandparents who were born less than 80 kilometres from one another. This has given the scientists information about the genes of the local populations in three generations.

The data was then compared with samples from 6,200 persons in ten different European countries.

Professor Peter Donnelly of the University of Oxford, who co-led the research, said in a press release: “It has long been known that human populations differ genetically, but never before have we been able to observe such exquisite and fascinating detail. By coupling this with our assessment of the genetic contributions from different parts of Europe we were able to add to our understanding of UK population history.”

Source.

Ancient Gallic horns discovered in France

From TheGuardian:

In the Asterix books, Cacofonix the bard is forbidden to sing because his voice causes wild boar, villagers, Normans and Romans alike to flee. But Cacofonix does play the carnyx, a long, slender trumpet-like instrument decorated with an animal’s head at the top end, and used by the Celts in the last three centuries BC.

The Greek historian Polybius (206-126BC) was so impressed by the clamour of the Gallic army and the sound of the carnyx, he observed that, “there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and since the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time there was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and the soldiers but also from the countryside which was joining in the echo“.

When the remains of seven carnyx were unearthed recently, Christophe Maniquet, an archaeologist at Inrap, the national institute for preventive archaeological research (Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives), was curious to find out exactly what sound it produced when it drove the Romans mad, or was used to call upon the god Toutatis.

In 2004, more than 500 iron and bronze items placed as offerings to the gods were discovered a small 30cm-deep pit in Tintignac, in the Corrèze department. “These items were deliberately damaged so that they could not be used again by mere mortals,” said Maniquet.

Some 40 fragments were identified as being parts of a carnyx, making it possible to restore a tall, 1.8-metre-long instrument with a stylised boar head at the top – a first in archaeology. “Some carnyx pieces were discovered in England, Scotland, Germany and Italy, mainly in the 19th century, but the context was unclear and we have never found so many instruments in one go,” said Maniquet. The carnyx is a wind instrument, part of a sub-family of brass instruments defined by the presence of a mouthpiece. The sub-sub family would be natural brass instruments without valves. With its conical shape the carnyx resembles a soft brass instrument like the horn, with a more muffled sound than a cylindrical trumpet-like brass instrument.

Unfortunately since it was impossible to play the instruments the pious Gauls had so carefully dismantled, Maniquet asked an instrument maker to reproduce a brass carnyx of the same size. The archaeologist worked with experts from the acoustics laboratory at the Maine-CNRS University in Le Mans, headed by Joël Gilbert, a brass instruments specialist, who carried out an in-depth analysis of the specimen.

A study presented by a group of researchers and instrument makers in Le Mans last month, revealed that the resonance frequency determined the series of playable notes. In a well-designed instrument this resembles a harmonic series. If the musician had the base note he could easily produce others (mainly octaves, fifths and thirds), by modulating air flow and lip tension.

Leichestown Deskford carnyx & reconstruction. Museum of Scotland.

The carnyx has a fairly low base note because of its length but researchers found that the resonance frequencies obtained with the copy of the carnyx were far from harmonic. According to Gilbert, when he and his colleagues looked into this they suddenly had an idea. “The carnyx is not a primitive instrument and it was known for being very powerful. We therefore worked on the hypothesis that our copy was incomplete,” he said.

Maniquet believes that is quite plausible, especially since no one is really sure how the mouthpiece connects to the tube. The acoustics experts have pursued their research by doing simulations with a mathematical model, this time adding an additional part to a virtual carnyx. They tested two lengths, 10cm and 20cm, which produced a lower sound and altered the resonance harmony.

The simulations showed that the optimum length was achieved by adding a 10cm part, which could match an item in the catalogue of finds from the Tintignac site. Maniquet is now planning to build a second prototype instrument to include the additional 10cm. “That should make this carnyx more powerful and easier to play,” said Gilbert, confident that his calculations are correct.

Cacofonix can remain gagged; it seems that relief is on its way.

Celtic Princess discovered in Germany

From BBC News:

German experts are carefully taking apart a complete Celtic grave in the hope of finding out more about the Celts’ way of life, 2,600 years ago, in their Danube heartland.

It wasn’t the most glorious final journey for an aristocratic Celtic lady who, in life, clearly had a bit of style.

She died just over 2,600 years ago and rested in peace until a few months ago when her grave was dug up in its entirety – all 80 tonnes of it – and transported on the back of a truck through countless German towns.

In the grave, too, was a child, presumed to be hers. Their last inglorious journey ended in the back yard of the offices of the archaeological service of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

When the truck arrived, the grave encased almost entirely in concrete, was unloaded and a tent constructed around it. The archaeologists decided that removal of the whole grave would allow them to use the most modern resources of analysis, from computers to X-rays. From the gantry above a pit, archaeologists leant down and scraped the earth from the bones and jewels speck-by-speck. What emerged was the lady, the child and their ornaments.

Because of the amount of gold and amber jewellery, they are assumed to be important, a princess and the young prince or princess. It indicates that the early Celts had an aristocratic hierarchy, which has been a matter of dispute among archaeologists.

“It is the oldest princely female grave yet from the Celtic world,” said Dr Dirk Krausse, who is in charge of the dig.

“It is the only example of an early Celtic princely grave with a wooden chamber.”

The archaeologists are excited because this grave was preserved by the water-sodden soil of the region so that the oak of the floor was intact, for example, and that puts an exact date on it. The oak trees were felled 2,620 years ago, so, assuming they were felled for the grave, our lady died in 609BC.

The grave had also not been robbed down those 26 centuries, unlike many others. This means that the jewellery is still there, particularly beautiful brooches of ornate Celtic design in gold and in amber. We usually think of the Celtic heartland as the western edges of Europe – Wales, Scotland and Ireland and Brittany in France.

But Dr Krausse says the real Celtic heartland was actually in the region in the upper reaches of the Danube, from where the Celts could trade.

“Celtic art and Celtic culture have their origins in south-western Germany, eastern France and Switzerland and spread from there to other parts of Europe,” said Dr Krausse.

They were then squeezed by the tribes from the north and the Romans from the south, so that today they remain only on the western edges of the continent.

The lady in the grave reveals the Celts to have been a rather stylish people with a love of ornament, examples of which are coming out of the mud of the grave in the tent in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart.

From the gantry above the grave, Nicole Ebenger-Rest has been doing much of the painstaking excavation. As well as the rings and brooches, she uncovered the teeth of the Celtic princess. But what also excited her were specks of cloth or food or other organic matter which might reveal a way of life.

“It is a skeleton but it’s still a human being so you have a natural respect,” she said, looking her fellow human being in the face, across the divide of 26 centuries.

From BBC News.

German archeologists uncover Celtic treasure

From Spiegel:

German archeologists have unearthed a 2,600-year-old Celtic tomb containing a treasure of jewellery made of gold, amber and bronze.

The subterranean chamber measuring four by five meters was uncovered near the prehistoric Heuneburg hill fort near the town of Herbertingen in south-western Germany. Its contents including the oak floor of the room are unusually well preserved. The find is a “milestone for the reconstruction of the social history of the Celts,” archeologist Dirk Krausse, the director of the dig, said on Tuesday.

The intact oak should allow archeologists to ascertain the precise age of the tomb through tree-ring dating. This is rarely possible with Celtic finds because the Celts left behind no writings and their buildings, usually made from wood and clay, have long since crumbled away.

Krausse said the artefacts found suggest that a woman from the Heuneburg aristocracy was buried there, but added that laboratory tests will need to be conducted to be certain. Only a small part of the chamber has so far been examined.

The entire room weighing some 80 tons was lifted by two cranes onto a flatbed truck and taken to a research facility in Ludwigsburg on Tuesday. The results of the analysis will be presented in June 2011, researchers said.

Heuneburg is regarded as one of the most important Celtic settlements and was a vital trading center during the period between 620 and 480 BC. Intensive excavation has taken place at the site since 1950. Other tombs found at Heuneburg over the decades had already been plundered.

The tomb and the objects are to go on show in an exhibition in Stuttgart in 2012.

From Spiegel.

Viking execution pit – 51 beheaded victim

viking-execution-pitThe mass burial took place at a time when the English were battling Viking invaders, say archaeologists who are now trying to verify the identity of the slain.

The dead are thought to have been war captives, possibly Vikings, whose heads were hacked off with swords or axes, according to excavation leader David Score of Oxford Archaeology, an archaeological-services company.

Announced in June, the pit discovery took place during an archaeological survey prior to road construction near the seaside town of Weymouth

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull and jaw as well as the neck. “The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” Score said.

The bodies show few signs of other trauma, suggesting the men were alive when beheaded.

One victim appears to have raised an arm in self-defense: “The hand appears to have had its fingers sliced through,” Score noted.

The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display, the team suggests.

Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.

Even if their weapons and valuables had been taken “we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we’ve got absolutely nothing,” Score said.

“They look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males,” he added. “It’s your classic sort of warrior.”

The burial has been radiocarbon-dated between A.D. 890 and 1034.

During this time England was split between Anglo-Saxons, in the south and west, and Danish settlers, in the north and east.

The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic peoples who colonized England beginning in the 400s; founded the country on the island of Great Britain; and gave rise to the English language. Around the time of the mass burial, the Celts were still largely in control of the non-English regions of Great Britain: Scotland and Wales.

“You’ve got Danish and Saxon armies fighting backwards and forwards across England,” Score said.

The early English also faced the threat of longship-sailing Vikings, Scandinavian seafarers who pillaged coastal regions.

“It’s not just the odd ship” attacking, Score said. For example, “there’s a documented account of 94 longships attacking London at one point, and then they work their way down the coast.”

The team hopes chemical analysis of the buried men’s teeth will show whether they grew up in Britain or Scandinavia. (Related: “Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows.”)

Wear and tear on the bones could also help reveal whether the executed were Viking oarsmen, since “strong physical exertion in a particular direction does affect the bones,” Score said.

“It might be possible to say they are overdeveloped in their upper body and arm strength … people who are doing a lot of heavy rowing.”

Anglo-Saxon Slayers, Viking Victims

The burial’s prominent location on a hilltop hints that a local group carried out the killings, Score said.

“Locations like this are classic sites for executions in late Saxon and medieval times,” he added.

Vikings, he said, had a different M.O.

“If you’re a Viking raider, you’re much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach,” he said.

Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, suspects the executed men were indeed Vikings.

“I would say this was a Viking raiding party which had been trapped,” he said.

“They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender.”

There was little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.

“You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear,” he said

Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.

But Vikings had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side.

“Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload,” he said.

“During the height of the Viking raids, it’s reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast.”

SOURCE