From Pagan Temple to Christian Church – a Practical Acculturation

5 March, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article that I read some years ago when I was about to visit the Mosfell excavations. Now I read it again because I am looking for something that I glanced through then, but came to think of as important only later.

Byock, J. et al. 2005. Jesse Byock, Philip Walker, Jon Erlandson, Per Holck, Davide Zori, Magnús Guðmundsson and Mark Tveskov: A Viking-Age Valley in Iceland: The Mosfell Archaeological Project. Medieval Archaeology Vol XLIX. Pp. 195-218.

I like the article because it describes a project which links written and archaeological sources, historical arhaeology at its best, and because it’s open to any prolific method available. It concerns a long-term research project focusing on an Icelandic valley settled in the Landmám period, i.e. the 60 year era around AD 900 when a wave of Scandinavian settlers colonized Iceland. Like many archaeological research projects it is in essence an exploratory endeavour applying all kinds of methods, eventually finding its own style of research – proving this discovering that. The project is a smorgasbord of interesting things we can do when we decide to investigate an Icelandic valley. Most, but not all the methods are applied systematically, their application nevertheless, provides good examples of their usefulness.

Landnám Mosfell was moved slightly further into the valley and took the name Mosfell with it.

I suspect that The Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP) must be a wonderful project to work in as a student, because rather than being a somewhat pointless field school, it probably tends to become a miniature archaeological university allowing long-term student engagement to create small informal scientific careers. This university-like framework happens to create itself now and again in long-term archaeological projects working faraway from any university in a place where there is little to talk about but aims, methods and interpretations. The Vallhagar project on Gotland just after the World War II was a case in point inasmuch as it educated a large part of the first post-war generation of Scandinavian archaeologists. But it wasn’t ‘Unique!’, a great number of senior archaeologists will refer to their formative dig after a beer or two.

The homepage is worth visiting

The archaeology of Landmán and Free State Iceland (up and until AD 1262) is breath-taking in itself, but it also informs us on a number of points when it comes to the archaeology of the Scandinavian Iron Age. This has do to do with a point which the article makes in the following way:

From modern socio-historical and anthropological viewpoints, early Iceland is a social laboratorynote, … …. The society that evolved during the Viking Age on this large island … … avoided the establishment of most official hierarchies without going so far as to create egalitarianism. The politically active population consisted mostly of free land-owning farmersnote. These latter kept some slaves, but free workers and cotters were more common. Leadership was in the hands of small-scale Scandinavian chieftains known as goðar. (p. 203)

One can put it in this way without being wrong, the notes support the description and prove it to be widespread, but instead of seeing the Landnám era as the birth of a nation, emphasizing frontier-spirited settlers, we may speak of the conception of a Nation when the old fools of the Late Pre Carolingian Iron Age (AD 550-750), who couldn’t thrive in Carilingian Iron Age (CIA) Scandinavia, meet Virgin Land unable to defend herself against old-fashioned Iron Age courtship enticing with the right to form a household of your own in a house or on a farm of your own, with a say in the assembly – almost a model New Iron Age society based on traditional values. It can in other words be argued that the Landmám society on Iceland was a retake of the Scandinavian Iron Age, however with a strong Pre Carolingian Iron Age emphasis on leadership, the góði being the epitome of the Chieftain [1].

Góði is a tricky word. It derives its meaning from goð which means ‘god’, i.e. one of those who we should worship because we can trust them and seek their help. The word was later used to designate God or Christ, who would also be called an allvaldr – ‘all power’. Obviously the ruler qualities of a góði come closer to those of a fró (originally *frawjaz), the Iron Age ruler who helps people to better their conditions freeing them from their sufferings, than a valdr, who is simply the cause of ‘power’ as a social phenomenon.

This hint at the divine and caretaking leader matches the fact that the word góði may also mean that which is good, derived from the adjective góðr. The noun góði means benevolence too and in practice therefore it can be said that ‘a góði does the góði’ because he is benevolent or góðan. There is in other word a distinct echo of the Iron Age leader and his divine connections in the term, not least while the two words are heteronyms, i.e. spelled and pronounced the same way, but with different meanings. The pun qualities of the words góði/góði must be taken into consideration because we cannot help hearing them.

The characteristics of the Landnám suggest that we can use some of the cultural phenomena found in Iceland as model Iron Age echoes in periods when cultural expressions, e.g. in South Scandinavia, have already diverted from Iron Age ideals.

And this is where Mosfell enters the scene as an example.

During the CIA, halls settings are sometimes characterized by a small side building in a fenced area connected to the main building. It has been suggested that these side buildings are temples and that they represent a return to Early Irons Age ideas of the hall as a ceremonial freestanding building next to the main house of the magnate farm [2].

When this renaissance phenomenon, one of several typical of the CIA, starts to occur we may suspect that part of the cultic functions that could be housed in the large Pre Carolingian Iron Age halls is moved out of these halls in the Carolingian Iron Age.

It seems that Mosfell is indeed a hall farm in the Norwegian style and thus comparable e.g. to Borg in Lofoten albeit smaller. But it has a side house and thus a layout that reminds one of its South Scandinavian counterparts. The remains of the first side building, next to the pagan founders grave at Mosfell, have almost been destroyed. On the plan they are mapped as the remains of an earthen floor only, but the second building is a well-preserved church and churchyard. The situation and the development at Mosfell therefore indicates that it was possible (at least among the higher echelons of society) to redefine the small temple next to CIA halls as indeed a church.

In South Scandinavia, with its dense population and rapid march towards a Christian parish organization, this development is difficult to see either because early the churches take over the magnate farm in order to become the church of a local community (e.g. Jelling, Tamdrup or Lisbjerg) or because they were built to meet a demographic need (e.g. Sebbersund or Veøy). In Iceland and at Mosfell, parish organization is unimportant and acculturation therefore smooth and in harmony with a number of pagan ideological concepts. Consequently comparing Iceland to South Scandinavia suggests that, primarily, South Scandinavian churches are expressions of the Medieval rather than the Christian. In comparison with the pilitical and social transition, the ideological change was smooth and probably not more radical than earlier prehistoric transitions.


[1] Góði and other words mentioned in the following can be looked up in J. Fritzners Ordbok:  

[2] This development is outlined in The Early Iron Age of South Scandinavia pp 230 ff.
On side buildings see also
Jørgensen, Lars. 2003. Market and mannor at Lake Tissø, 6th to 11th century: A survey of Danish productive sites. In: Tim Pestell and Katharina Ulmscheider (eds). Markets in Early Medieval Europe: trading and productive sites, 650?850. Oxford.


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