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Þingvellir: A Place of Assembly and a Market?
Natascha Mehler

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 8 (2015): 69–81

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Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 69 Introduction Þingvellir (Fig. 1) was the site of the Icelandic main assembly during the Viking period and the Middle Ages. The place name consists of the components þing, which refers to the function of the site, and vellir, the Old Norse (ON) term for a level field (Fellows-Jensen 1996), which describes the flat grounds at the northern end of Lake Þingvallavatn. At some point at the end of the Age of Settlement (ca. 874–930), the site was chosen as a location for the annual main assembly, which was held there until 1798. The people attending these meetings assembled in the open each summer for about two weeks.1 Many visitors slept in temporary dwellings, such as booths made of turf and stone or tents, both of which are recorded in the sagas and evident in the archaeological record (e.g., Vésteinsson 2013). The meetings were of great political and social importance. Þingvellir was the place where the court of justice and the court of legislature came together. After the reforms of 960 AD, there were 39 chieftains (goðar), along with their retinues of free-born farmers (bændr), who played central roles at Þingvellir. According to written sources, women, although largely excluded from the decision-making bodies, were clearly present at the Alþing, as the two-week Þingvellir: A Place of Assembly and a Market? Natascha Mehler* Abstract - The site of the Icelandic general assembly at Þingvellir has long been at the center of assembly research. Over the past few decades in particular, archaeologists have criticised the antiquarian investigations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The criticism was directed at the methods used at the time to pinpoint assembly sites and to identify their architectural components, such as booths and court-circles. However, it is also important to take a critical approach to the question of what actually took place at Þingvellir. After Iceland became independent, a period of nationalistic historiography set in, during which it was stated that Þingvellir was not only the place for the general assembly but also the greatest market place in Iceland. This paper presents the results of a systematic study of written and archaeological sources to put to the test the premise of a large-scale market at Þingvellir. Written and archaeological evidence for economic activities are faint and ambiguous. On the basis of this it is argued that there was probably not a market zone within the assembly area and that trade only took place there at a limited scale, barely exceeding necessary levels for provisioning.. Debating the Thing in the North: The Assembly Project II Journal of the North Atlantic *Department of Prehistory and Historical Archaeology, University of Vienna, Franz Klein Gasse 1, A-1190 Vienna, Austria; natascha.mehler@univie.ac.at. 2015 Special Volume 8:69–81 Figure 1. Þingvellir today. Photograph © Fredrik Sundman. Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 70 meeting was both a political and a social gathering (Jóhannesson 1974:35–47, Karlsson 2000:20–27). Whether it was also a central economic gathering is the question to be addressed in this paper. Historical and archaeological interest in Þingvellir started early, but excavations took place only sporadically and in limited areas of the site. The first archaeological research was carried out by Sigurður Guðmundsson, director of the National Museum, in 1860 (Þórðarson 1921–1922:1–2); but the first substantial work was conducted in 1880 by Sigurður Vigfússon (1828–1892), who had a particular interest in the site at that time (Vigfússon 1880–1881). He opened a few trenches through earthworks that he believed were the structures of the actual court or features related to the court, as they were described in sagas. Forty years later, in 1920, Matthías Þórðarson (1877–1961), then director of the National Museum of Iceland, recorded a number of booths at Þingvellir and opened a man-made structure called Þórleifshaugur (Þórleif´s mound) (Þórðarson 1921–1922, 1945). In Icelandic archaeology, these booths (sing. búð, pl. búðir) are defined as rectangular buildings consisting of low turf walls and stones with tent-like roof constructions, erected at both assemblies and harbours (Vésteinsson 2013). In recent decades, critical research has amended some of the constructs that were considered central to the initial work done at the site. In the 1980s, the National Museum of Iceland conducted a largescale topographic survey during which more than 50 structures were recorded at Þingvellir. Over the last 15 years, additional survey and excavation work was undertaken at the church (Vésteinsson 1999, Hallmundsdóttir and Juel Hansen 2012) and at some of the booths (Friðriksson 2002, Roberts 2004). Some of the old trenches dug by Sigurður Vigfússon were re-opened to re-examine his evidence critically (Friðriksson et al. 2005).2 The Historiographic Construct of a Market at Þingvellir The research history of Þingvellir is symptomatic of the exploration of assembly sites in Iceland. In the first phase of research, done at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, investigations were heavily influenced by events described in the saga literature. Scholars were eager to find the actual locations of the courts or the dwellings of assembly visitors named in those sources. The methods used by these early researchers have since been called into question by those who feel that Vigfússon and his contemporaries had been too strongly influenced by the events and descriptions mentioned in the sagas (e.g. Friðriksson and Vésteinsson 1992, Friðriksson 1994:105–146, 2011). The genesis of the idea that Þingvellir was also a marketplace is hard to locate. Early scholars, such as the German legal historian Konrad Maurer (1874) and the Danish explorer Daniel Bruun (1897), reported details from the sagas and legal documents that mentioned the presence of sword polishers and ale brewers at the Alþing but they did not draw any further conclusions concerning a market or fair (Maurer 1874:166, 424). A sword polisher and an ale brewer are indeed mentioned in sagas to have been present at the Alþing, and I will discuss the references below. Maurer provided references from the sagas for these activities, while later scholars who repeated earlier researchers' discussions of them unfortunately provided no additional or supporting references (e.g., Byock 2001:174, Þorsteinsson and Jónsson 1991:36). While these later works may not have used the words “market” or “fair”, their narratives concerning merchants and craftsmen nonetheless began to suggest general acceptance for the idea of a market, or market-like economic functions, at the Alþing (Nordal 1990:100; Stefánsson 1984:463; Þorláksson 2000:179; Þorsteinsson 1966:97, 1980:53, 1987; Þorsteinsson and Jónsson 1991:36). The idea that Þingvellir was a commercial hub seems to have originated in the early 1950s, when a new wave of nationalistic and romantic writing took hold in Icelandic historiography, following the country's establishment as an independent republic.3 In line with these events, the influential historian Björn Þorsteinsson asserted that Þingvellir was the greatest trading place in Iceland, where merchants and craftsmen brought their goods and foreigners came to do their business (Þorsteinsson 1953:105). Although Þorsteinsson provided no references for his statement, a subsequent historical survey written for popular and academic readership expanded on it, saying that at Þingvellir, “politics were discussed and markets were held” (Roesdahl 1998:268) and this idea endures (e.g., Gullbekk 2011:184–185, Graham-Campbell 2011:123). The idea that Þingvellir was a trading place ultimately stems from saga passages and law texts that refer to trade conducted at Iceland's regional spring assemblies. This information appears to have been extended to an assumption that trade was a focal activity also of the main assembly at Þingvellir (Ebel 1977:7, 1985:115; Miller 1986:20). Such a generalisation from the written evidence may well be misleading and a number of historians, such as Jón Jóhannesson (1974:35–49), Gunnar Karlsson (2000) and Bruce Gelsinger (1981), have been more cautious and neither repeated this idea nor contributed to its expansion. It appears an obvious assumption that food, tools, clothes, and other goods would have been traded Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 71 during the large meetings at Þingvellir, where people gathered together for an extended period of time, with many of the attendees having travelled long distances to participate in the assembly. However, the written and archaeological evidence that trade was conducted during the general assembly is actually very weak, as will be discussed below. Two market scenarios for Þingvellir Let us assume that Þingvellir was not only the location for the main assembly but also a market place, as has been suggested by some historians. There are two possibilities of how we could imagine trade to have taken place at Þingvellir. The first option is that a demarcated area existed within the so-called Þingmark, the boundary that defined and surrounded the greater assembly area (Karlsson 2007:118), serving as a market area where local or foreign merchants dwelled in booths or tents, where people could come to buy and sell, and where craftsmen offered their goods and services. In such a scenario, while the assembly attendees gathered at the court area to conduct political affairs, members of their retinues would have had opportunities to buy and exchange goods. Such a market area would not likely have been near the court area but rather on its margins. The alternate possibility is that there was no defined market area but that trade could have been conducted anywhere, in a dispersed fashion, within the area where the assembly attendees dwelled. Assembly attendees could also have been traders themselves, selling and exchanging goods at their booths and tents in a door-to-door business. In this scenario, such traders would have been scattered all over the assembly area. The first option might well look similar to Icelandic trading sites such as Gásir, a seasonally occupied trading site and beach market in Northern Iceland which, according to archaeological and written evidence, operated from the early 11th century to around 1400. The site is characterized by a set of booths, the remains of many of which are still visible today. Excavations conducted between 2001 and 2006 exposed an area of approximately 600 m2 within the market area, revealing the remains of booths, workshops, and garbage heaps or storage pits. Large numbers of animal bones were found, as well as many pieces of pottery, leather, iron artifacts, baking stones, textiles, and other items (Harrison et al. 2008: 100-115, Hermannsdóttir 1987, Roberts 2006).4 If such a market area had ever existed at Þingvellir, we would surely find archaeological evidence for it. Finding archaeological evidence for the latter option would be much more difficult. Certain crafts would be more visible in the archaeological record than the exchange of goods but loosely distributed trading activities would not have left many traces in the ground. In the following sections, I will examine written and archaeological evidence for these scenarios. Written Evidence from Sagas and Law Texts To assess the written evidence for economic activities at the Alþing and the two scenarios outlined above, I systematically examined the Íslendingasögur, or Sagas of the Icelanders, for entries about trade, markets, exchange or barter at Þingvellir. These sagas and short stories (þættir) were written down largely during the 13th and 14th centuries but describe events that took place in Iceland during the Commonwealth period (930–1262) (Simek and Pálsson 2007:206–207, 374).5 Another source investigated for this project was Grágás, the law code of the Commonwealth period (Heusler 1937). Indeed, trade, markets, and local and foreign merchants are often described in the sagas, but there are only a few references to any kind of trade having been conducted during the general assembly at Þingvellir. In fact, only one saga describes an economic negotiation between attendees of the assembly at Þingvellir; yet the text actually refers to a discussion about goods that were not present there, rather than a transaction concluded at the site. In Chapter 37 of Laxdæla saga, Þorleikr and Eldgrímr discuss the sale of horses when they meet at Þingvellir. During the conversation, Eldgrímr, who wants to buy the horses, says that he would come to look at the horses later during the summer, which implies that the horses in question were not present at Þingvellir but would be found at Þorleikr’s farm (Esser 2011b:652).6 Other examples that helped to create the idea of some sort of market or fair setting at Þingvellir can be cited. There are references to craftsmen at the Alþing. The presence of sword polishers or cutlers (pl. sverðskriðar) is reported not only in the saga literature but also in the laws. Chapter 145 of the Brennu-Njáls saga mentions the booth of a person who works with swords at the Alþing (Wetzig 2011:771).7 Booths of sword cutlers are also mentioned in Grágás (Gr III, 101), in a section that addresses fights in the booth areas at the main assembly.8 Prior to the conversion of Iceland around 1000, most people wore weapons when they travelled, mostly for reasons of self-defence, and even after the Christianization of Iceland, people continued to be armed, including on their journeys to Þingvellir. The assembly attendants carried their weapons until this was prohibited for the court of Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 72 justice (lögrétta) at the Alþing in 1154. This ban was later renewed by bishop Magnús Gizurarson in 1234, suggesting that the first issue of the ban was not very effective (Jóhannesson 1974:46–47). In the Gulathing law area in Norway, the bearing of arms at the main assembly was a deep-rooted tradition, going back to the old Germanic custom of the so-called “weapon-take” (vápnatak), a term that refers to the rattling of weapons at meetings to express agreement (Helle 2001:72–74; Strauch 2011:115, 122). In Iceland, however, the weapon-take marked the end of the assembly (Nordal 1990:99).9 We can conclude that arms were banned in the lögretta area at Þingvellir, but that the chieftains and many of their retinue members, most of whom had travelled many miles, came with their weapons, which they stored in their booths while they took part in the congregations at the court of justice. Clearly, these men could have made good use of the services of sword cutlers at Þingvellir. The laws also mention general craftsmen or helpers (Gr II, 78), as well as cobblers (Gr III, 101), who set up booths at the Alþing.10 The services of the latter were surely important for the travellers and their battered footwear. A fourth group of craftsmen present at Þingvellir were ale brewers. The satirical work Ölkofra þáttr (chapter 1) tells the story of Þórhallur, who makes a living by selling beer during the Alþing (Esser 2011:371).11 Similarly, Orms þáttr Stórólfssonar (chapter 4) refers to a brewery (heituhús) at Þingvellir.12 Heimskringla, a collection of the sagas of the Norwegian kings written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson ca. 1230, contains the saga of Harald Graycloak (Haralds saga gráfeldar), King of Norway (ca. 960–970), which reports silver transactions at the Icelandic Alþing. “However, when the silver was collected at the Alþing, it was decided to have a smith purify the silver. Later on, a cloak fibula was made of it, and after the smith had received his reward, the fibula weighed fifty marks. This fibula was sent to Eyvind, but Eyvind had it cut into pieces and bought himself cattle for it.” (Hollander 2009:143). This passage implies that on that occasion a smith was present at Þingvellir, although it does not explicitly say that he was working there.13 The written evidence can thus be summarized as follows: • Neither the sagas of the Icelanders nor the laws handed down in Grágás explicitly state that a market took place during the general assembly at Þingvellir, nor that direct exchanges of goods were conducted at the assembly site. • Only one of those sagas, that of Laxdæla saga, reports the sale of horses (albeit not at Þingvellir), thus indicating some types of economic transactions may have been negotiated at the assembly, without implying the transfer of property there. • Craftsmen are frequently mentioned. We read of ale brewers, cobblers, sword cutlers, smiths, and craftsmen that set up in, or near, the assembly booths. However, the sources remain silent as to where they conducted their business at Þingvellir or whether these crafts were actually carried out at Þingvellir. Sagas and laws have previously been used to study the assembly institution in Norway, and this approach has proven fruitful (Adolfsen 2000). However, saga scholarship has repeatedly noted that it is problematic to treat the sagas as reliable historical sources, especially as the sagas of the Icelanders, in our case, were written down approximately 200 years after the described events had taken place (e.g., Andersson and Miller 1989:3–6, Cormack 2007, Friðriksson 1994, Lönnroth 1976, Nordal 1940:70). The medieval Icelandic laws also provide pitfalls when interpreted without source criticism (Müller-Boysen 1990:32–36, Norseng 1991) and neither the sagas nor the law codes were written explicitly as detailed ethnographic descriptions of Icelandic society. With these caveats in mind, one can assume that these sources are not likely to report the entire truth about Þingvellir and surely leave gaps in the coverage of events. One can, for example, wonder about the assortment of crafts represented at Þingvellir— whether these sources over-estimate the importance of a few craftsmen or, conversely, whether they might under-represent a more complex reality by mentioning only those individuals who were important for the stories their authors told. Nevertheless, I think that if a designated market area or substantial door-to-door trading ever existed at Þingvellir, it would have been mentioned in some form and surely more clearly within one or more of the medieval sources. Given the substantial regulations on early medieval trade in Northern Europe (e.g., Müller-Boysen 1990), including Iceland, we might also expect that a formally constituted market at Þingvellir would have been regulated and discussed in law. This is not to say that economic transactions could not have taken place. The descriptions of crafts, especially those of ale brewers, sword cutlers, and cobblers, bear witness to the provisioning of goods and necessary services for the many assembly participants. It has been calculated that at least 600 people were present at the main assembly each year (Stefánsson 1984:463), while others speak of a thousand or several thousands of people (Nordal 1990:100). These people stayed at Þingvellir for about two weeks each summer (Jóhannesson Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 73 1974:44–45), and they surely needed food and drink. However, whether these sorts of economic transactions were substantial enough to be called a market is another question that will be picked up again later in this discussion. The Archaeological Evidence Under Scrutiny What does the archaeological evidence for trade at Þingvellir look like? As described above, the site has been subject to archaeological investigations since the late 19th century (see, for example, Bell 2010, Friðriksson et al. 2005, Þórðarson 1921– 1922). However, only small areas have been excavated (Fig. 2). Two types of possible evidence are analyzed in more detail in the following discussion to provide the basis for a discussion on the extent of trade during the Alþing. Booths The historical works cited above did not venture any guesses as to where trade within the assembly site area was conducted and whether there could have been a designated trading area within the boundaries of the assembly site.14 Þingvellir is the location of many booths that served as temporary Figure 2. Map of Þingvellir, with its ruins as surveyed by Fornleifastofnun Íslands and the findspots of some of the artifacts discussed (see Table 1). Marked black are the areas of archaeological excavations since 1999, during many of which old trenches from antiquarians such as Sigurður Vigfússon were re-excavated. Excavations prior to 1999 were even smaller in extent and are not included in this map. The area with the booths lies west of the river Öxará. Image © Howell Roberts, Fornleifastofnun Íslands, and Joris Coolen, Centre of Baltic an d Scandinavian Archaeology, Schleswig (Germany). Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 74 Artifacts The artifacts that have been recovered at Þingvellir since the beginning of archaeological research are the second type of evidence (Fig. 2). As noted above, the excavated Viking and medieval layers have only yielded a small number of artifacts. This is not surprising, as assembly sites were generally used only for very short periods of time, and the meetings at Þingvellir, in particular, only lasted about two weeks (e.g., Jóhannesson 1974:45). In addition, the excavations undertaken to date have been small in scale and in most cases only consisted of relatively small trenches. It is not the aim of this paper to provide a full overview of all the finds discovered at Þingvellir. The intention is rather to concentrate on those Viking and medieval artifacts that might be considered indicative of trade. In the following, I will present an overview and discussion of all the Viking and medieval artifacts discovered that suggest such economic activities (Table 1). Trade can be traced in the archaeological record in many ways. One way is to find artifacts of materials that are not native to the places where they are found. In the case of Þingvellir, an example would be the five ceramic sherds discovered during the excavation that took place just north of the present church in 1999. Icelanders did not produce pottery until modern times, and all ceramic vessels dating to before the mid-20th century were imported (Sveinbjarnardóttir 1996). These pottery fragments, very small body sherds, can only be roughly dated to the accommodations for assembly participants and are often referred to in the saga literature (Vésteinsson 2013). However, booths and clusters of booths are not only characteristic features of Icelandic assemblies but also core components of coastal trading sites, and therefore, archaeologists regard booths as fundamental elements of both assembly and trading sites (see, for example, Mehler 2012, Vésteinsson et al. 2004). Booths were relatively easy to set up or repair after they had been abandoned after the assembly or the trading season, yet were more permanent than tents and served as markers of ownership to sites within the assembly or the harbor and of one’s rights to conduct business or law there. However, the fact that they are found at both types of sites makes it difficult to distinguish between the assembly or trading character of a site on the basis of the occurrence of booths alone (Vésteinsson 2013). A similar problem exists in Greenland, e.g., with the booth complex at Brattahlið, which can be interpreted as an assembly site, a trade area, or both (Sanmark 2010:179–183). Consequently, the presence of booths in Þingvellir, for example, those along the northwestern bank of the river Öxará (Fig. 2), does not allow us to deduce that there was a demarcated trading area within the assembly grounds. Some booths have been excavated at Þingvellir, such as the so-called Njálsbúð and Snorrabúð (Bell 2010:47, Friðriksson 2002:33–34), and with the exception of a small number of fragmented animal bones, no artifacts were found (Friðriksson 2002:37). Table 1. Viking-age and medieval artifacts discovered during excavations at Þingvellir; see Figure 2 for the findspots of the artifacts. Artifact type Date Origin Location and/or year found Reference Coin 983–1002 Germany, Southern side of church Hallmundsdóttir and Juel Hansen Goslar in 2009 2012:14, 21 Coin 1065–1080 Norway Beneath a booth near the Vésteinsson 1999:19–21, church in 1999, dated Holt 1998:91, figs. 4 and 5 ca. 1100–1500 Coin 11th century England Þórleif’s mound in 1920 Þórðarsson 1921–1922 Coin 11th century Norway Þórleif’s mound in 2005 Friðriksson et al. 2006:35 Coin 11th century Norway Þórleif’s mound in 2005 Friðriksson et al. 2006:35 Crozier 11th century 1957 Eldjárn 1970 Part of silver arm ring (hack silver) Viking period Þórleif’s mound in 2005 Gísladóttir 2005:18 Bronze strap end Þórleif’s mound in 2005 Gísladóttir 2005:18 Whetstone fragment Þórleif’s mound in 2005 Gísladóttir 2005:19 Animal bone fragments Several different structures Þórðarsson 1945:114, Gísladóttir 2005:19 Pottery 12th/13th century England Medieval church Mehler 1999 Weight Medieval Near present church Hallmundsdóttir and Juel Hansen 2012:14 Iron nails Several different structures E.g., Þórðarsson 1945:114, Friðriksson et al. 2004, Hallmundsdóttir and Juel Hansen 2012:17 Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 75 be taken as a proof of trade either, nor are the strap end and the whetstone fragment significant evidence of trade. The animal bones, only a small number of which were found, are most likely the remains of meals for the assembly attendants. The coins and the hack silver fragment are more difficult to interpret. While coins and hack silver are, of course, primarily a method of payment, the case in Iceland is slightly more complicated because society during the Viking and medieval periods did not operate on the basis of coins (as was the case in Scandinavia). Trade was conducted almost exclusively by barter, and people either paid in kind or established credit. Everyday items such as food, clothing, and tools were mostly exchanged for other commodities such as fish, butter, or homespun. Barter is often defined as a transaction in which notions of equal value are initially absent but are established over the course of the barter process (Feinmann and Garraty 2010:171, Humphrey and Hugh-Jones 1992:4–8). Still, despite the existence of a commodity money system, silver (either in the form of coins or as hack silver) was the main standard of value in Iceland until the 12th century, against which the values of other items were calculated (Gelsinger 1981:34, Gullbekk 2011:186). Svein Gullbekk (2011) has discussed the use of money at Þingvellir and has stressed that the coins discovered were largely used to pay fines or debts or were used as compensation or dowries. These types of financial transactions took place alongside the main assembly and are often reported in the saga literature16, but Gullbekk (2011:184–186) also sees the coins as evidence of commerce. While I strongly agree with the first part of this interpretation, I am more hesitant to agree with the latter part. As outlined above, the written evidence for a market at Þingvellir is rather weak, which is something that Gullbekk did not examine. The absence of coins at the marketplace at Gásir indicates that coins played no role there, and it emphasizes the commodity system that characterizes Icelandic Viking and medieval economy and trade (Hayeur Smith 2013). 17 The final artifact to be considered in this discussion on artifacts possibly relating to trade is the medieval bronze weight that was discovered in 2009. It was found in the floor layer of a structure documented directly below and west of the present-day church and that could have been the remains of either a booth or an earlier church (Fig. 3). The weight of 250g, corresponding to a mörk (pl. merkur, engl. mark), and most likely used for a steelyard balance, is difficult to date. Stratigraphically it has been suggested to date before 1500 (Hallmundsdóttir and Juel Hansen 2012: 10, 14, and pers. comm.). If the structure was a booth, the weight could well be 12th or 13th century and were most likely part of a jug of eastern English origin (Mehler 1999). Another material that does not occur in Iceland is silver. Five silver coins have been found so far at Þingvellir: three at the man-made structure called Þorleif´s mound (Eldjárn 1948, Friðriksson et al. 2006:35, Holt 1998:91, Þórðarsson 1921–1922) and two at the present church building (Hallmundsdóttir and Juel Hansen 2012:14, 21; Vésteinsson 1999:19–21).15 All of these coins date to the late 10th or 11th century. In addition, a fragment of a silver arm ring came to light during re-excavations at Þorleif´s mound and was interpreted as hack silver (Gísladóttir 2005:18, Graham-Campbell 2011:123). Several other Viking and medieval finds from Þingvellir are made from imported materials, as well. They include the famous copper alloy bishop’s crozier dating to the 11th century, with its crooks terminating in animal heads formed in Urnes style (Eldjárn 1970). A strap end of copper alloy and a fragment of a whetstone were found at the so-called Þorleif´s mound (Gísladóttir 2005:18). The latest excavations conducted in 2009 near the present church revealed a number of artifacts, and those from the medieval layers include a copper alloy weight, slag, and some iron nails. To discuss which of these finds indicate trading activities at Þingvellir, a closer look at artifacts found at the Icelandic trading site Gásir, mentioned above, may be helpful. Gásir was only seasonally occupied, but substantial trade was conducted there, as indicated by the comparatively large number of artifacts discovered there and by discussions of exchanges undertaken there in written sources. Yet no coins have been found at Gásir (Vésteinsson 2009:159). The area excavated at Þingvellir is considerably smaller, and Gásir was most likely occupied during slightly longer periods during each summer. However, the excavations at Þingvellir did not result in nearly the same diversity and richness of artifacts as those found at Gásir. Neither workshops nor waste heaps nor storage pits have yet been found at Þingvellir. The few finds from Þingvellir tell a different story. The English ceramic jug found in connection with the medieval church could have been used as a liturgical vessel or as a container for holy water. Such an interpretation has been put forward after an examination of medieval ceramic fragments found in other churches in Iceland (Mehler 2000:125). The Þingvellir jug was certainly imported to Iceland, but its find location and potential ecclesiastic function do not allow for it to be used to infer the presence of trade in ceramics taking place at the site. The many iron nails found at the site were most likely parts of booth construction or furniture therein and cannot Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 76 evidence of weighing and selling of goods within or in front of this booth. If the structure recorded is the remains of an older church, however, the weight could have been used to control the payment of fees to the church. There is yet another possible interpretation. In approximately 1200, a wall of the medieval church at Þingvellir that has not been preserved to the present day exhibited a mark in the shape of stikur and álnir (ells), which were standard Icelandic measurements at that time (DI 1, 307). Such marks were supposed to be present in all churches where people were buried (graftarkirkja), most likely in contrast to churches or small chapels where no burials took place (DI I, 309). Matthías Þórðarson (1945:168) concluded that this measurement was engraved on a wooden sill or some other part of the church building, which would have been consistent with the custom of keeping measures and weights, mostly calibrated measurement units, in important public buildings such as council houses or churches, as reported for Tórshavn, Faroe, for example (Arge and Mehler 2012:185). The recovery of a weight in this location could well be evidence that the exchange of goods in the course of legal activities, such as the settling of fines, may have been undertaken near the church, using standardized weights. From the same medieval context as the weight stems a piece of iron slag (Hallmundsdóttir and Juel Hansen 2012:57), which is the only archaeological evidence so far for a craft carried out at Þingvellir. As mentioned above, the presence of a silversmith is indicated in Heimskringla. However, the find location makes this piece difficult to interpret, as this is very near the old farm of Þingvellir and could also have been from this context instead. The mapping of the find spots of these artifacts (Fig. 2) shows where the ceramic fragments, the coins, the hack silver, and the weight were found, relative to all features that have been excavated at Þingvellir. The booth area on the western bank of the river Öxará has so far only been surveyed and most ruins visible today are presumed to be of post-medieval date, very likely with older remains beneath. If we accept the scenario of a market area defined through the existence of booths, it could be tempting to interpret this area as the market spot of Þingvellir. But artifacts from this area do not exist, and excavations are necessary to clarify the function of these booths.. Most of the artifacts discussed here were discovered in the vicinity of the present church, in connection with either an earlier church or booths beneath. The other artifacts were retrieved away from the main assembly area, at Þórleif´s mound. It remains an open question why more than half of the silver finds from Þingvellir were discovered at this enigmatic feature, and further investigations there are certainly warranted. However, without further investigations, and in the absence of any evidence for the existence of booths in that area, the overall distribution of artifacts related to exchange does not support the scenario that a demarcated market area existed at the site. On the basis of this review of artifacts, I would like to argue that the archaeological evidence for a market area does not exist. Door-to-door trade at Þingvellir could be indicated by the bronze weight discovered in 2009, but interpretation of this artifact is ambiguous because it is not clear whether the structure it was found was once a booth or a church building. The Location of Þingvellir in Context Þingvellir is located in the southwest of Iceland, inland, approximately 40 km northeast of Reykjavík. The site is embedded in an area that has been settled since the initial colonization of Iceland. The settled areas of the rivers Hvítá and Þjórsá, east of Þingvellir, are nearby, as is the Mosfell Valley just to the west and the bishop’s see at Skálholt to the east (e.g., Friðriksson 2000:fig. 16). However, while Þingvellir is easily accessible by horse and by foot, it is some distance from the sea. The nearest sea access is at Hvalfjörður, the fjord approximately 20 km north of Þingvellir as the crow flies, which is the location of Figure 3. Complete bronze weight (height c. 6 cm) found in 2009 near the present-day church (photograph by © Margrét Hrönn Hallmundsdóttir). Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 77 dwelled during the assembly period, social life took place, and these meetings must have been welcome opportunities to meet friends and relatives. Social and political activities required the provisioning of drinks and foodstuffs, and excavations at the socalled Njálsbúð and Snorrabúð ruins west of Öxará produced a small number of fragmented animal bones (Bell 2010:47; Friðriksson 2002:33, 37) that are most likely remains from provisioning assembly visitors. Future archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological, and palaeoentomological investigations may well provide further evidence for and information about the ways in which these booths’ occupants were provisioned, but it is important to keep in mind that organic material generally does not preserve well at the site and may be difficult to trace in the archaeological record. While crafts seem to have been conducted at Þingvellir on a small scale, and written sources report that sword cutlers and cobblers were present at Þingvellir, there is, as yet, no archaeological evidence of such craftsmen’s presence. Nonetheless, Þingvellir was a place where silver was exchanged. Fines and compensation were paid in silver, and written and archaeological evidence of both exist. These types of transactions are not trading transactions, in the same sense that an exchange of foodstuffs or the payment of a cobbler with commodities would be. The nationalist notion that Þingvellir was the greatest market place in Iceland (see above) is questioned in this paper, and I argue on the basis of the written and archaeological sources at hand that a designated market area did not exist at Þingvellir nor was the trade that did take place there more substantial than provisioning. Going back to the nationalistic assessment of the market at Þingvellir, it is worth drawing attention to Sweden and the famous saga of Saint Olaf (Ólafs saga Helga), written by Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) in approximately 1230, which in chapter 77 tells of a large market at Gamla Uppsala. “At that place and time was also to be the assembly of all Swedes, and there was also a market and a fair which lasted a week. Now when Christianity was introduced, the general assembly and the market was still being held there.” (Ebel 1987:281, Hollander 2009:315). This market, which was linked to the Swedish Alþing, was the so-called disting of Gamla Uppsala (Granlund 1958, Staf 1935:225). Recent excavations conducted at Gamla Uppsala have confirmed this picture. Weights, hack silver, balances, and debris from metal production were discovered around the manor area (Ljungkvist 2009:26–28, Ljungkvist et al. 2011:579). It is reasonable to assume that the nationalistic notion of Þingvellir was inspired by this story and that the Swedish model of a general assembly combined with a market was adopted Maríuhöfn (also known as Búðasandur), a site that has hitherto been interpreted as a coastal market place. It is located on a promontory on the southern shore of Hvalfjörður. The site is mentioned in written sources between 1339 and 1413, mostly in connection with the bishop’s see at Skálholt or the Alþing nearby at Þingvellir. It is reported that Maríuhöfn was frequented by Norwegian vessels. A cluster of booths has survived on the sandy beach. Small trenches were excavated in 1982 and 1985, and the site was surveyed again in 2006, but it remains unknown whether it was already a trading site during the Commonwealth period (Gardiner and Mehler 2007:413–415, Þorkelsson 2004). Other important harbors nearby and used during and after the Commonwealth period would have been Eyrarbakki (~40 km distance), Leiruvogur (~30 km distance), and even Hvítárvellir (~45 km distance) (Byock et al. 2005, Gardiner and Mehler 2007:figs. 5 and 9) . Quite a number of participants that came to the meetings at Þingvellir must have arrived by boat via one of these coastal trading sites (Nordal 1990:100) and then continued their journey on foot or on horseback. Here, Icelanders would have had the opportunity to do business with foreign merchants who stayed at the site with their ships. It is at such sites where direct trade between Icelanders and foreign merchants happened, while inland trade was largely in the hands of Icelanders (Ebel 1977, Gardiner and Mehler 2007:399 with table 1). It would have been much more convenient for the assembly visitors to do their business at these harbors, where incoming goods could have been exchanged for Icelandic goods and further transport to Þingvellir would not have been necessary. Discussion I would like to argue that the results of this systematic study of written and archaeological sources indicate that the evidence at hand does not support the premise of large-scale market activities occurring during the main assemblies at Þingvellir, whether at a designated market area or as substantial trade within the dwelling areas. Rather, as outlined above, the idea of a market at Þingvellir can be traced back to a period of nationalistic writing in Icelandic historiography. During the Viking and medieval periods, Iceland did not have urban centers or even a merchant class that could have organized markets on a large scale (Gelsinger 1981:31). Rather, Þingvellir was a place where people came together once a year to bring cases to court, render judgements, and discuss laws and politics. At the booths and tents, in which people Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 78 Bruun, D. 1897. Fortidsminder og nutidshjem paa Island. Det Nordiske Forlag, København, Denmark. 237 pp. Byock, J.L. 1992. History and the sagas: The effect of nationalism. Pp. 44–59, In G. Pálsson (Ed.). From Sagas to Society: Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland. Hisarlik Press, London, UK. Byock, J.L. 2001. Viking Age Iceland. Penguin Books, London, UK. 447 pp. Byock, J., P. Walker, J. Erlandson, P. Holck, D. Zori, M. Guðmundsson, and M. Tveskov. 2005. A Viking-Age valley in Iceland: The Mosfell Archaeological Project. Medieval Archaeology 69:195–218. Cormack, M. 2007. Fact and fiction in the Icelandic Sagas. Historic Compass 5(1):201–217. Ebel, E. 1977. Kaufmann und Handel auf Island zur Sagazeit. Hansische Geschichtsblätter 95:1–26. Ebel, E. 1985. Der regionale Handel am Beispiel Islands zur Sagazeit (dargestellt nach altnordischen Quellen). Pp. 109–127, In K. Düwel, H. Jankuhn, H. Siems, and D. Timpe (Eds.). Untersuchungen zu Handel und Verkehr der vor- und frühgeschichtlichen Zeit in Mittel- und Nordeuropa Teil 1. Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften Göttingen Philologisch- Historische Klasse Nr. 143. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, Germany. Ebel, E. 1987. Der Fernhandel von der Wikingerzeit bis in das 12. Jahrhundert in Nordeuropa nach altnordischen Quellen. Pp. 266–313, In K. Düwel, H. Jankuhn, H. Siems, and D. Timpe (Eds.). Untersuchungen zu Handel und Verkehr der vor- und frühgeschichtlichen Zeit in Mittel- und Nordeuropa Teil 4. Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften Göttingen Philologisch- Historische Klasse Nr. 156. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, Germany. Eldjárn, K. 1948. Gaulverjabær-fundet. Nordisk Numismatisk Årsskrift 1948:39–62. Eldjárn, K. 1970. Tá-Bagall frá Þingvöllum. Árbók hins íslenzka fornleifafélgas 1970:5–27. Esser, Th. 2011. Die Erzählung von Þórhall Biermütze. Pp. 371–381, In K. Böldl, A. Vollmer, and J. Zernack (Eds.). Isländersagas 3. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Feinmann, G.M., and C.P. Garraty. 2010. Pre-industrial markets and marketing: Archaeological perspectives. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:167–191. Fellows-Jensen, G. 1996. Tingwall: The significance of the name. Pp. 16–30, In D.J. Waugh (Ed.). Shetland’s Northern Links. Language and History. The Scottish Society for Northern Studies, Edinburgh, UK. Friðriksson, A. 1994. Sagas and Popular Antiquarianism in Icelandic Archaeology. Worldwide Archaeological Series Vol. 10. Avebury, Aldershot, UK. 212 pp. Friðriksson, A. (Ed.). 2000. Kristján Eldjárn, Kuml og Haugfé úr heiðnum sið á Íslandi. 2nd edition. Mál og menning, Reykjavík, Iceland. 615 pp. Friðriksson, A. (Ed.) 2002. Þinghald til forna. Framvinduskýrsla 2002. Fornleifastofnun Íslands excavation report FS183-02141. Reykjavík, Iceland. 54 pp. Friðriksson, A. 2011. Þingstaðir. Pp. 344–358, In B. Lárusdóttir (Ed.). Mannvist. Sýnisbók íslenskra fornleifa. Opna, Reykjavík, Iceland. and used in interpreting the events that occurred at Þingvellir. But this example also shows that in the case of Gamla Uppsala the written sources are clear and leave no doubt about a market there, as does the archaeological evidence. Criticism of antiquarian assembly research in Iceland, voiced by archaeologists in recent years, has to date been directed at their methods of locating sites and identifying their structural components, such as booths and court-circles (e.g., Friðriksson 1994:105–146, 2011; Friðriksson and Vésteinsson 1992; Vésteinsson et al. 2004:172–173, 177). As I hope to have demonstrated in this paper, a critical examination of the activities that took place at Þingvellir is also important. Acknowledgments I am most grateful to Adolf Friðriksson, Orri Vésteinsson, Mjöll Snæsdóttir, Birna Lárusdóttir, Alexandra Sanmark, Frode Iversen, Sarah Semple, and Michele Hayeur Smith for their assistance and critical comments. Kevin Smith acted as guest-editor, and his comments improved the quality of this article considerably. I also thank Howell M. Roberts and Joris Coolen for the map of Þingvellir. Guðrún Alda Gísladóttir, Mjöll Snæsdóttir, and Anton Holt helped me with the finds, and Margrét Hrönn Hallmundsdóttir and Sigrid Cecilie Juel Hansen provided information on the 2009 excavations and Figure 3. John Ljungkvist shared his thoughts on Gamla Uppsala with me. Last but not least, I wish to thank the anonymous reviewer(s) for references and help on improving the paper. Primary Sources DI = Diplomatarium Islandicum Literature Cited Adolfsen, E. 2000. Maktforholdene på tingene i Norge ca. 900–ca. 1200. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. Universitetet i Bergen. Bergen, Norway. 114 pp. Andersson, Th.M., and W.I. Miller. 1989. Law and Literature in Medieval Iceland. Ljósvetninga Saga and Valla-Ljóts Saga. Stanford University Press, Stanford. 329 pp. Arge, S.V., and N. Mehler. 2012. Adventures far from home: Hanseatic trade with the Faroe islands. Pp. 175–187, In H. Harnow, D. Cranstone, P. Belford and L. Høst Madsen (Eds.). Across the North Sea. 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Árbók hins islenzka fornleifafélags 1921–1922:1–107. Þórðarson, M. 1945. Þingvöllur: Alþingisstaðurinn forni. Alþingissögunefnd, Reykjavík, Iceland. 287 pp. Endnotes 1The exact date of these meetings is hard to determine, as the Icelandic calendar prior to the introduction of the Christian year in the 12th century had some chronological discrepancies (Jóhannesson 1974:35–47). 2The archaeological work conducted at Þingvellir has been summarized in Friðriksson (2002) and in Bell (2010). 3On the effect of nationalism on Icelandic historiography see, e.g., Byock (1992). 4See Vésteinsson 2009 for a different interpretation of Gásir as a market place. 5For this study, I have used the Icelandic texts made available at http://www.snerpa.is and http://www.sagadb.org (last accessed October 2013) and the most recent German translations provided by Böldl et al. (2011). 6Eldgrímr says: “Það er erindi mitt hingað að eg vil kaupa að þér stóðhrossin þau hin dýru er Kotkell gaf þér í fyrra sumar. ... En þetta sumar mun eg fara að sjá hrossin hvor okkar sem þá hlýtur þau að eiga þaðan í frá .” 7“Fengu þeir það eina ráðs tekið er hjá voru að þeir drógu Skafta inn í búð sverðskriða nokkurs flatan.” 8Heusler 1937:162. 9See also Heusler (1937, “Waffengriff” in the index on p. 455). 10For a discussion of craftsmen, see Heusler (1937:119); for a discussion of cobblers, see Heusler (1937:162). 11“Ölkofri kom til þings og átti mungát að selja, kom þá til fundar við vini sína þá sem vanir voru að kaupa öl að honum.” The text does not explicitly state that this takes place at Þingvellir, but the context leaves no doubt about that. 12“En er Ormur var tvítugur að aldri reið hann til Alþingis sem oftar. [...] En um daginn er þeir gengu út stóð hituketill hjá heituhúsinu sá er tók tvær tunnur.” 13For the purposes of this paper, only the sagas of the Icelanders were studied. Heimskringla has not been studied in detail. 14For a discussion on the boundaries of Þingvellir, see Karlsson (2007). Journal of the North Atlantic N. Mehler 2015 Special Volume 8 81 15Svein Gullbekk (2011:184) lists six coins that were found at Þingvellir, but that number is not correct. The error stems from the assumption that three coins were found during the excavations in 2005 and 2006. However, after cleaning, one turned out not to be a coin (Anton Holt , Seðlabanki Íslands, Iceland, pers. comm.). See also Friðriksson et al. (2006:35). 16See, for example, the betrothal of Hrútur and Unnur which takes place at Þingvellir (Brennu-Njáls saga, chapters 1 and 2), or the payment of a fine (Brennu-Njáls saga, chapter 8). 17It must be emphasized that the coins from Þingvellir date to the 10th/11th century, while the excavations at Gásir revealed structures dating to the 14th and early 15th century. This may be a significant difference, indicating a change in economic structures.