, The Conversation
Faroe Islands could have been
inhabited 500 years earlier than was previously thought, according to a startling archaeological discovery.
The islands had been thought to be originally colonised by the Vikings in the 9th century AD. However, dating of peat ash and barley grains has revealed that humans had actually settled there somewhere between the 4th and 6th centuries AD.
The Faroes were the first stepping stone beyond Shetland for the dispersal of European people across the
North Atlantic. The findings
therefore allow speculation as to whether , Iceland Greenland, and even North America were colonised
earlier than previously thought.
Mike Church from the
said he and his
research partner, Símun V Arge from the University of Durham of the National Museum Faroe Islands, had not expected
to find such evidence.
“Símun and myself sampled the site in 2006 to take scientific samples for environmental archaeological analysis from the medieval Viking settlement,“ he said.
“We uncovered some burnt peat ash containing barley grains under the Viking longhouse. It was not until we had it dated that we realised what we had found.”
It was a common practise across the
North Atlantic for peat to be burnt for warmth, before
being spread on fields and grasslands to improve soil stability and fertility.
Barley is not indigenous to the Faroes and so must have been either grown or
brought to the islands by humans. Their findings are therefore conclusive
evidence that the Faroes were colonised in pre-Viking times.
Archaeologists revealing the wall of a Viking longhouse.
University of Durham
Andrew Jennings, a Nordic historian at the University of the
Highlands and Islands, said the theory
of pre-Viking settlement was not new. “Christian Matras, for example, was
convinced there were pre-Viking settlers in the 1950’s. He believed there were
old field systems that didn’t seem to tie into later settlements. But he had no
It is unknown, as yet, whether these mysterious settlers hailed from the
British Isles or Scandinavia.
“There is evidence of Irish hermits sailing into the
North Atlantic islands in a
passage by an Irish Monk called Dicuil in 825AD,” Church
The passage from Dicuil’s geographical book describes islands that don’t turn up in any other writing of the time:
Many other islands lie in the northerly
. One reaches them
from the northerly islands of British Ocean , by sailing directly for two days and two nights with a full sail in a
favourable wind the whole time … Most of these islands are small, they are
separated by narrow channels, and for nearly a hundred years hermits lived
there, coming from our land, Britain , by boat. Ireland
However, Church stressed that their findings are not necessarily tied to these voyaging Irish monks. “Our findings indicate even earlier colonisation, and more research is needed before any conclusions as to the origin of these settlers can be drawn. We would need to find evidence of the type of settlement to compare to those we know about in that period before forming any opinions on this matter.”
An Irish model of a boat, c. 100 AD Ardfern
The uncovering of this further evidence, however, may be a way off. The evidence is “very ephemeral, and very hard to find,” said Church. This means that future research in the area will be time-consuming and difficult. There are only a few places that allow settlement in the
Faroe Islands and when the Vikings did settle there,
they destroyed any structural evidence that there may have been.
is confident that
the settlers derived from the Jennings British Isles. “I personally
would think that any pre-Viking settlers in the Faroes would have come from the
Hebrides or Shetland rather than ,” he said. Norway
“The civilisation in Shetland at the time was Pictish, and had boats. There is also good evidence that they had sails: there is a model boat from Ireland that dates from about 100 BC that has a mast, which could be a model for Celtic boats more generally.”
“There is not so much evidence of sails in
until as late as
700 AD. It is therefore more likely that these early Faroese settlers came from
the Norway British Isles.”