The Axed Man of Mosfell: Skeletal Evidence of a Viking Age Homicide and the Icelandic Sagas
By Phillip L. Walker et al.
The Bioarchaeology of Individuals. edited by Ann Stodder and Ann Palkovich (University of Florida Press, 2011)
Introduction: When Christianity was adopted by law in Iceland (1000 A.D.) Grim of Mosfell was baptized and built a church there. When a church was built at Mosfell, the one Grim built at Hrísbrú was demolished and a new graveyard was laid out. Under the altar some human bones were found, much bigger than ordinary human bones, and people are confident that these were Egil’s because of stories told by old men – Egil’s Saga, Chapter 86.
The discovery of the skeletal remains of the person described in this chapter is one of many scientific results of the Mosfell Archaeological Project, an ongoing international research effort we began in 1995. The project’s goal is to produce a comprehensive reconstruction of human adaptation and environmental change in Iceland’s Mosfell Valley from Viking times until the present. To do this, we have used a multidisciplinary approach that integrates information from archaeology, physical anthropology, saga studies, and the environmental sciences.
One facet of our work has been the use of archaeological evidence to test the historicity of the Icelandic sagas. These prose histories, which were first written down in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, purport to describe life several hundred years earlier during the Viking Age. Some historians view the period of saga oral transmission as a yawning gap across which very little historically accurate information is likely to have been transmitted. Others take the position that the proportion of fact to fiction varies from saga to saga, and the quantities of each can best be decided through the minute examination and comparison of individual texts. A third view, which does not negate the second, is that the sagas provide information analogous to that collected by ethnographers; these stories are a vehicle of social memory combining social, historical, and literary functions. When carefully evaluated in conjunction with independent evidence sources, they can reveal much about cultural patterns, normative codes, and historical events.
Mosfell Project from Todd Gillespie on Vimeo.