The remote Faroe Islands were colonized much earlier than previously believed, and it wasn’t by the Vikings, according to new research. New archaeological evidence places human colonization in the 4th to 6th centuries AD, at least 300-500 years earlier than previously demonstrated. Directed by Dr Mike J Church from Durham University and Símun V Arge from the National Museum of the Faroe Islands, the study is a part of the multidisciplinary project “Heart of the Atlantic”, is published in the Quaternary Science Reviews.
The research challenges the nature, scale and timing of human settlement of the wider North Atlantic region and has implications for the colonization of similar island groups across the world. The Faroes were the first stepping stone beyond Scotland's Shetland Islands for the dispersal of European people across the North Atlantic that culminated on the shores of continental North America in the 11th century AD, about 500 years before Columbus made his famous voyage. Vikings settled at that time in what is now known as Greenland, having dispersed from Iceland. They also left a colony in L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.
The research was carried out on an archaeological site at Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy.
Analysis showed an extensive windblown sand deposit containing patches of burnt peat ash from human activity, dating human settlement to pre-Vikingtimes. These ash spreads contained barley grains which were accidentally burnt in domestic hearths and were then spread by humans onto the windblown sand surface during the 4th-6th centuries and 6th-8th centuries, a common practice identified in the North Atlantic during this period to control wind erosion.
Church said: “There is now firm archaeological evidence for the human colonization of the Faroes by people some 300-500 years before the large scale Viking colonization of the 9th century AD, although we don’t yet know who these people were or where they came from."
“The majority of archaeological evidence for this early colonization is likely to have been destroyed by the major Viking invasion, explaining the lack of proof found in the Faroes for the earlier settlement. This also raises questions about the timing of human activity on other islands systems where similarly evidence may have been destroyed.”
Arge added, “Although we don’t know who the people were that settled here and where they came from, it is clear that they did prepare peat for use, by cutting, drying and burning it which indicates they must have stayed here for some time."
“We now have to digest these dates of this early evidence in relation to other sources and consider whether there may be other similar sites, elsewhere on the islands, which may be able to provide us with further structural archaeological evidence.”
Durham University and the National Museum of the Faroe Islands were assisted by the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Bradford, Stirling and Glasgow, the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre and the City University of New York.
In response to a query from Spero News, archaeologist Church wrote "There were hints that there was early settlement from the writing of the Irish Monk Dicuil in 825 AD and from barley-sized pollen grains in peat and lake profiles dating to the mid first millennium AD. We plan on returning to the Faroes and will try and locate some more early archaeological sites, through detailed survey and sampling at the base of similar coastal erosion sections."
The Faroes are ruled by Denmark, from whence some of the Vikings originally came, and lie north of Scotland. Previous studies have found pollen produced by domesticated plants - which may confirm historical and anecdotal evidence that Irish rovers and Christian missionaries were present in the islands between 400 to 600 AD and long before the Nordic invaders
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