Viking Farms Tell Cautionary Climate Tale

Unnsteinn Ingason

hide captionBoundary walls built by Iceland's Viking farmers run through Unnsteinn Ingason's land. At some point, farmers stopped repairing the walls, and a climate change may help explain why.

Richard Harris, NPR
ruins of a stone farm house with a turf roof on a hill behind Ingason’s home. i i

hide captionIngason's land had been farmed for hundreds of years prior to his family's ownership. Here, ruins of a stone farm house with a turf roof on a hill behind Ingason's home.

Richard Harris, NPR
ruins of a stone farm house with a turf roof on a hill behind Ingason’s home.

Ingason's land had been farmed for hundreds of years prior to his family's ownership. Here, ruins of a stone farm house with a turf roof on a hill behind Ingason's home.

Richard Harris, NPR
Archaeologist Adolf Fridriksson stands near the ruins of an early Viking farm.

hide captionArchaeologist Adolf Fridriksson stands near the ruins of an early Viking farm. The farm was long ago abandoned, and its soil heavily eroded.

Richard Harris, NPR
Icelandic farmers bring their  sheep down from the hills for the winter. i i

hide captionIcelandic farmers bring their sheep down from the hills for the winter. Sheep have played a large role in the degradation of Iceland's soil, through overgrazing.

Richard Harris, NPR
Icelandic farmers bring their  sheep down from the hills for the winter.

Icelandic farmers bring their sheep down from the hills for the winter. Sheep have played a large role in the degradation of Iceland's soil, through overgrazing.

Richard Harris, NPR
One of Icelandic’s oldest Viking ruins sits behind this farm house near Lake Myvatn. i i

hide captionOne of Icelandic's oldest Viking ruins sits just behind this farm house (left) near Lake Myvatn.

Richard Harris, NPR
One of Icelandic’s oldest Viking ruins sits behind this farm house near Lake Myvatn.

One of Icelandic's oldest Viking ruins sits just behind this farm house (left) near Lake Myvatn.

Richard Harris, NPR

It's easy to see how Iceland's history could be shaped by its climate, once you experience its fickle weather.

On this September afternoon, Unnsteinn Ingason steps out of the inn he runs in northern Iceland and looks up to see whether it's sunny or snowing. In this land of frequent rainbows, it could be both.

As he crosses the family farm's rolling, grassy hills in a four-wheel-drive SUV, he's not just watching the road. He's also scanning the landscape for clues about Iceland's deep history — its Viking history.

"When you know more, you see more things," Ingason says. "In the beginning, I didn't see anything at all."

As we creep down a steep, rutted hillside, he points out the remains of a 1,000-year-old farm boundary wall built by Vikings — or, more likely, by their Irish slaves.

We hop out of the truck, and he steps up onto a hump that runs parallel to the ridge.

"The local people have known [of] this for centuries," he says, gesturing toward the wall. "But nobody knew what it was for."

Archaeologists eventually concluded that Vikings piled up turf here to corral their sheep and cows. That's an unusual image of the Vikings, who sailed their ships around Europe pillaging, murdering and terrifying the local populace.

But when Viking ships landed in Iceland around 870 A.D., the island was essentially uninhabited. Instead of doing battle, they used their sharpened axes to cut down trees.

They were "probably just peace-going farmers, not the Vikings like in the stories, robbing and killing everybody they saw," Ingason says.

Back then, Iceland's climate was warmer and milder than it is today, and that may have been one reason the Vikings settled there.

As Ingason tells this story, a brisk wind whips up and a cloud blots out the sun. I reach for my jacket zipper, but Ingason is happy in his fleece.

"You can always tell which are local people and which are tourists," he says. "Because the tourists have more clothes on."

According to one theory, he says, the boundary walls were abandoned between 1300 and 1400 A.D., probably because the climate changed. It turned cold. Animals died, farms failed and people starved, leaving no one to tend the walls.

This hump on the ground offers a glimpse of just how much climate influenced the history of these early settlers.

"It's like a giant puzzle which [we've] been putting together very slowly," Ingason said.

Archaeologists are now on that case. For the last hundred years, they've been excavating Viking ruins in the farmland surrounding Lake Myvatn. Recently, they've started asking what these remains might say about climate's effect on the rise and fall of the Viking settlers.

Adolf Fridriksson, who runs the Icelandic Institute of Archaeology, says the climate was much more attractive at first.

"When people came here first, I would think they found the place very inviting," he says. "It was covered with birch forests, and people would have soon discovered the rich fishing grounds around the island, but also the trout and salmon rivers."

One of those rivers flows through this valley, past centuries-old farmsteads. We slip behind one of these farms and pause at a long, curving hollow at the foot of a hill — a Viking ruin.

"This farm was settled very early on, probably in the late ninth century, and people lived here," Fridriksson says. "For some reason, [they] built this huge elongated house with slightly curved long walls. It's the biggest building from this period we know in Iceland."

People may have shared this space with their animals, using their cows as radiators on cold winter nights. It could also have been a temple to worship the Norse gods.

"It's all covered with grass now, but I think you can see the form," Fridriksson says.

One thing is certain: The landscape changed. First, farmers chopped down the birch trees for animal fodder and firewood, almost completely deforesting the island. And every so often, volcanic eruptions spread ash and noxious chemicals across the land, poisoning the pastures. If that weren't enough, the temperature on this blustery North Atlantic island rose and fell unpredictably. Livestock often couldn't survive that.

"When you're living at the edge of the inhabitable world, any small change may have a huge effect. Especially if you're trying to live off nature, in isolation, as over here in Iceland," Fridriksson says.

For nearly 1,000 years, Iceland's population didn't grow at all, and Fridriksson says these climatic swings may have been one reason why.

Nowadays, you can't find a Viking in Iceland. They intermarried with their Irish slaves, and today they walk the streets as native Icelanders. But hints of their climate's tumultuous history still show up in Icelandic culture today.

"Some people complain that in Iceland, they never make any plans. Maybe that's because they have learned how to adapt to new and changing situations all the time," Fridriksson says. "There is this joke, that if you're not happy with the weather, wait five minutes, it'll change. And I'm feeling bloody cold!"

We stuff our hands in our pockets and head back toward shelter. Fridriksson says you might not notice it today, but the climate is warming once again. And local farmers have told him that after centuries of absence, the birch trees are slowly returning.

"They said that they imagined that this land would become as it was when it was still untouched by humans, in the Viking period."

So the environment here is changing yet again.

Produced by Vikki Valentine.

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