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What is in a Booth? Material Symbolism at Icelandic Assembly Sites
Orri Vésteinsson

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 5 (2013): 111–124

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O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 111 Introduction To most English speakers, the term “booth” probably brings to mind telephone-booths, ticketing- booths, or other such narrow and confined compartments. The word, however, is derived from the Old Norse búð, which has a considerably wider meaning and can refer to a camp or camp-site (esp. in the plural, as in herbúðir = “military camp”), but in the singular it normally implies a structure of solid foundations (if not superstructure) and either What is in a Booth? Material Symbolism at Icelandic Assembly Sites Orri Vésteinsson* Abstract - Booths are a distinctive feature of the assembly sites established in Iceland in the Viking Age. The study of Icelandic assemblies has a long pedigree. Although there have been significant advances in this field in recent years, the booths remain enigmatic, both in terms of their dating and their function. In this paper, it is argued that instead of viewing the booths primarily as functional solutions to the problem of camping in the open, it is more revealing to consider their symbolic meaning, which can be deciphered on at least two levels. On the political level, the size of the booths, their number, and their arrangement were determined by the political landscape of each assembly, providing fuel for hypotheses about political developments in late Viking Age Iceland. On an ideological and mental level, the booths can be seen as symbols of collective and individual participation in the new social and political structures being created, but also—critically in landscapes only beginning to acquire cultural signifiers—they served the purpose of marking, and thereby legitimizing, the assemblies and their functions. Debating the Thing in the North I: The Assembly Project Journal of the North Atlantic *Department of Archaeology, University of Iceland, Sæmundargötu 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland; orri@hi.is. 2013 Special Volume 5:111–124 Figure 1. A booth excavated in Þingey by Howell M. Roberts in 2005. © Fornleifastofnun Íslands. O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 112 impermanent or intermittent use (see Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, s.v. búð) (Fig. 1). In the context of both assemblies and trading sites, a búð seems as a rule to refer to solid walls of turf (or turf and stone) which were covered with a tarpaulin or possibly hides mounted on a light wooden frame raised for the occasion and taken down again after use. There are plenty of references in medieval Norse texts to the booth walls as well as their tent-like covering (Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, s.v. búð, búðartópt, búðarveggr; s.v. tjald, tjalda, tjaldbúð), and from these it can be deduced that such booths could be both large and small and the booths of kings and chieftains could be richly furnished, although as a rule they seem to have been rather basic shelters (Stigum 1957, Weinmann 1994:341–46). The concept is thus well known and richly documented since the advent of writing in the Nordic countries, and the practice also had an unbroken history, at least in Iceland; the officials who still met at Þingvellir in the 18th century for the annual session of the general assembly, the althing, each had their own booth for which they brought their tents mounted for the few days that the court was in session. It is the remains of these early modern booths that can still be seen at Þingvellir, but they are also known to cover the remains of earlier structures of the same character (Friðriksson et al. 2005, Þórðarson 1945:215–260). When scholarly interest in the assemblies of the Viking Age and the medieval period was kindled, booths therefore became considered to be the features whereby assembly sites could be identified (Friðriksson 1994:105–145). Antiquarians working in Iceland in the late 19th and early 20th century were keen to find the material traces of the assemblies because this would support reconstructions of the administrative systems of the Viking and Saga Ages. In this effort they had considerable success, documenting a number of sites which are convincingly associated with the spring assemblies (Icel. vorþing) mentioned in texts. It was this particular type of assembly, the 13 regional assemblies that represent the tier below the national assembly at Þingvellir, which the antiquarians were preoccupied with. These assemblies were convened in spring (Icel. vor) before the general assembly met at Þingvellir in late June and are considered as an integral part of the Icelandic judicial system during the Commonwealth period (930–1262) (Karlsson 2000:20–27). The terms spring assembly and regional assembly can be used interchangeably, but strictly speaking, spring assembly refers to the legal definition, the term vorþing found in the medieval texts, while regional assembly is an archaeological definition referring to a site, which, from its booths and location, can be argued to have served a region, an area of several hundred farms. In many cases, the physical remains of regional assembly sites can be convincingly associated with particular spring assemblies mentioned in the texts, most often from place-name evidence, but there are also spring assemblies which have not been identified on the ground and some regional assembly sites which do not fit the judicial structure described in the medieval texts. The correspondence is, however, close enough that there is little doubt that in Iceland several Viking Age and medieval spring assemblies can be associated with sites where surviving booth remains are preserved (Vésteinsson 2006a:309–311, Vésteinsson et al. 2004:177–178). Comparable sites have not been found elsewhere in the Norse world. There are textual references to booths at Þinganes in the Faroes, but no booth remains are to be seen there (Brøgger 1937:203, Halldórsson 1987:112–123). For Greenland, suggestions have been made about two sites which share some similarities with the Icelandic assembly sites (Sanmark 2010), but these can also be interpreted differently. In areas of Norse settlement and influence in the British Isles, assembly sites are known (see Sanmark 2013 [this volume]), mostly from place-names, and some have structural elements (e.g., most famously, Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man; Darvill 2004), but nothing resembling the booths of the Icelandic sites has been recognized (Crawford 1987:206–210). It is intriguing, however, that at the Brough of Deerness in Orkney, surely a supra-local site but one not associated with assembly functions in the literature, the structures have in their arrangement a superficial similarity to the Icelandic assembly sites. Recent excavations indicate that they are permanent high-status dwellings (Barrett and Slater 2009), but the large number of similarly sized and tightly spaced structures, along with the peripheral location, suggest that this is no ordinary chiefly residence and that it may share some functional elements with the Icelandic assembly sites. In Scandinavia, booths are not a feature of assembly sites, and there is only a single reference to a booth at an assembly in Norwegian legal texts (Eithun et al. 1994:118). At those assemblies associated with the 10th–13th centuries in Norway, structural remains are hard to find, and as a result, their actual location is often uncertain (e.g., Helle 2001:esp. 48–83). The only possible exceptions are the so-called courtyard sites, for which several interpretations have been proposed. A current favorite is that they were assembly sites (Storli 2010), and there are good reasons to think that is indeed what they are. However, their O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 113 heyday was before the Viking Age, with most dates ranging from the 3rd century AD to the early Viking Age, although a few seem to have been in use into the 10th and even early 11th centuries (Storli 2010:139; Iversen, in press; an 11th-century date is reported for Værem in Trøndelag by Onsøien Strøm 2007). Their distinctive courtyard layout is only faintly echoed in a couple of the Icelandic sites, and not at all at the majority. Like the Brough of Deerness, the Norwegian courtyard sites also tend to reveal much more substantial remains of human presence and activity than found at any of the Icelandic sites (e.g., Olsen 2005). There may well be threads—of ideas, sensibilities, and practices—that connect the Norwegian courtyard sites with the Icelandic assembly sites, but as the chronological overlap is tenuous (not least because it is unclear how early the Icelandic booths are, see below) and there are distinct differences in layout and use, these two kinds of sites cannot be considered as one and the same phenomenon. Even if the Icelandic booth assemblies represent some sort of a revival of a more or less obsolete Norwegian practice, it is not this connection that is most significant or interesting about them. Rather it is the fact that this practice had resonance in the new societies of the North Atlantic. Nothing similar to the booths has been reported from other parts of Europe in this period (e.g., Pantos and Semple 2004, Sanmark and Semple 2008), supporting the view that they are a feature particular to Iceland, and possibly the new colonies of the North Atlantic. Although it cannot be demonstrated, it is likely that assembly sites with booths also existed in the Faros and Greenland, but the following discussion will be confined to the Icelandic evidence. Preparing the Ground My contention is that booths at assembly sites relate to the particular conditions created when societies are established in previously uninhabited lands. On the one hand, the political order in such conditions is likely to be significantly different from that of the homelands and from those colonies established among pre-existing populations, and on the other, the lack of history and permanence of political structures would have generated a need to create material representations of power. This perspective opens up a host of interpretational possibilities, but first two major shortcomings of the evidence must be acknowledged. One is the problem of identification already alluded to. This concern has seen detailed discussion elsewhere (Vésteinsson 2006a, Vésteinsson et al. 2004; see also Friðriksson 1994:105–145), and the present discussion is limited to those sites which are unambiguous in their identification. These are sites where • whole booth clusters have survived and the booths can be distinguished from other types of structures, and • where there is either documentary or placename evidence supporting the identification of the site as an assembly. Sites that meet these criteria are Árnes (Fig. 2), Leiðvöllur (Fig. 3), and Þingskálar (Fig. 4) in the south; Hegranes (Fig. 5) in the north; and Leiðarnes (Fig. 6), Þingey (Fig. 7), and Skuldaþingsey (Fig. 8) in the northeast. In theory, the spring assemblies should have been thirteen, and four of these (Árnes, Þingskálar, Hegranes and Þingey) are among the historically known spring assemblies, while Leiðvöllur, Leiðarnes, and Skuldaþingsey have only been identified on the basis of place-name and archaeological evidence. Þingvellir, the site of the althing, is in a category of its own and cannot easily be discussed along with the spring assemblies, although I propose that the hypotheses suggested here are also relevant to it. The other problem is dating. It can be assumed that the structures at the assembly sites are earlier than the 13th century as by then some of the assemblies had been abolished and others were becoming only sporadically convened (although some, like Þorskafjarðarþing, continued to be venues for ad hoc political meetings [Storm 1888:52, 152, 345, 395]). Narrowing the date range, to see for instance whether the booths were built at the inception of the assemblies (in the early or mid-10th century) or whether they belong to some later stage in their development, has met with limited success. There are no radiocarbon dates and no diagnostic artifacts associated with any of the assembly sites, and despite the potential of tephrochronology to provide narrower date ranges, archaeological investigations in Hegranes, Þingey, and Skuldaþingsey have only been able to confirm that these sites are medieval. At Hegranes, a suspected booth was built shortly after the deposition of the H-1104 tephra (Friðriksson 2004:50–51, 53), but a Christian cemetery on the site has been shown to have been in use both before and after 1104; its circular enclosure was built after 1104, predating a larger enclosure encompassing a part of the site (Friðriksson 2004:47–49, Zoëga and Sigurðarson 2010:101). At Þingey, a booth predates the H-1300 tephra (Friðriksson et al. 2005), while at the adjacent Skuldaþingsey, two booths have been shown only to predate the V-1477 tephra, while one of those also post-dates V~940 (Friðriksson et O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 114 al. 2007:8–10, Vésteinsson et al. 2004:176). The indications from Hegranes are the most revealing, as they show that booths were being built in the 12th century, but there is not enough evidence to clarify whether booth building was confined to the 12th century or whether it was ongoing through the 10th–12th centuries and even beyond. Results are more revealing as to the intensity and length of use. Two booths in Skuldaþingsey have thick cultural layers and significant evidence for repairs and rebuilding (Vésteinsson et al. 2004:176), and the only fully excavated booth, at Hegranes, had possibly two building phases in addition to evidence for human presence both before its building and after its collapse. This is also the only excavation of a booth to produce artifacts and an animal bone collection consistent with short stays provisioned from elsewhere (Ólafsson and Snæsdóttir 1976). A third booth excavated in Skuldaþingsey also showed evidence of repairs of the walls, but here the cultural layer was ephemeral, although some animal bones were retrieved (Friðriksson et al. 2007:8–10). In contrast, a booth excavated in Þingey had no cultural layers and no signs of repairs (Friðriksson et al. 2005:32–37). Figure 2. Árnes spring assembly, mapped by Garðar Guðmundsson in 2002. © Fornleifastofnun Íslands. O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 115 The ephemeral nature of the cultural deposits in the excavated booths is consistent with the interpretation that they served only as shelters for a few days annually and had no other functions. Although the archaeological investigations are too limited for firm conclusions, the evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that the booths at the Icelandic assembly sites were in use for decades rather than centuries. The post-ca. 940 booth at Skuldaþingsey suggests that it is quite possible that booth building did not commence as soon as the assemblies were established and that they represent a later development, possibly in the late 10th or early 11th century. If booth building only started in the 11th century, it would be difficult to account for those sites which cannot have been a part of the constitutional system established in the mid-10th century (e.g., Leiðvöllur, Þingeyri; see Vésteinsson 2009). For these reasons, and they are quite feeble it must be admitted, I am inclined to suggest that booths are a mid- to late 10th-century invention but that they were used into the 12th century at least. The Constituency of a Booth There are a couple of false notions that need to be dispelled before we go further. One is that booths are necessary because long distances meant that attendees could not return to their homes during the night and/or because weather in the North Atlantic is nasty and extra good shelter is needed. But booths are not necessary. There are other solutions to the problem of accommodation of assembly attendees, and the Figure 3. Leiðvöllur spring assembly, mapped by Daniel Bruun in 1902 (Bruun 1928:105). This site was surveyed again in 2011 by Adolf Friðriksson and Garðar Guðmundsson, and a new map is in preparation. Figure 4. Þingskálar spring assembly, mapped by Böðvar Þór Unnarsson in 2006. From Unnarsson (2006:13). O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 116 those finds also show that tents could be magnificent structures in their own right (Christensen 1974). A booth very probably allowed a greater degree of comfort than the same amount of covering would simplest one, a tent, would have sufficed if it was only about providing shelter from wind and rain. The use of tents in the Viking Age is well attested, most famously in the Oseberg and Gokstad burials, and Figure 5. Hegranes spring assembly, mapped by Garðar Guðmunsson in 2003. © Fornleifastofnun Íslands. O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 117 2007) because the booths themselves demonstrate this quite convincingly: there are too few booths to account for more than a fraction of all farmers in each assembly region. There were ≈4000 assembly-tax-paying farmers in Iceland around 1100 (Íslenzk fornrit 1:23), some 300 on average in each spring-assembly region, which is around 10 times more than the number of booths found at the springassembly sites. A booth therefore represents some social unit above the individual farmer but below the goðorðsmaðr or chieftain, three of whom convened each spring assembly. Counting booths is not a riskfree exercise, and different figures are available for most of the sites, but on the whole they come out at between 20 and 40 each (Table 1). It cannot be demonstrated that all the booths at each site are contemporaneous, but it can be noted that there is next to no visible superimposition of booths (unlike the althing at Þingvellir where booths were rebuilt permit if the tent was pitched on flat ground, but the main difference between a booth and a tent is the much greater visual impact of the former, its greater materiality and permanence. A booth is therefore not primarily a practical solution to the problem of accommodation but rather a material expression, a symbol, a monument to ideas and ideals. Booth building would inevitably, once started, become a symbol of the participation of the booth owners in the assembly, a symbol of the permanence of that participation. By building a booth, the owners not only asserted that they were the equals, or better, of others who had built booths already, but they also underlined their commitment to the project of having an assembly. The other false notion is that the assemblies were attended by free farmers on an individual basis. We do not need to rehearse arguments against this vision of medieval Icelandic society (Vésteinsson Figure 6. Leiðarnes spring assembly, mapped by Daniel Bruun in 1907 (Bruun 1928:101). O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 118 for centuries and complex stratigraphies have been exposed [Friðriksson et al. 2005]), and it is therefore assumed here that the surface remains at each site represent functional entities. The number of booths can be suggested to represent social units similar in size to those which gave rise to parishes in the 12th century. It is of course problematic to decide the size of the regions from which the spring assemblies were attended, but where there are clear indications provided by geography and later administrative units, the correspondence between the number of booths and the number of parishes is striking. While it might be tempting to indulge in special pleading to explain away the differences, the quality of the data does not allow this, nor is it necessary—there is a broad correlation here which is compelling.1 I would venture a step further and suggest that each booth may have represented a local community of 5–15 farms (on these see Vésteinsson 2006b). The majority of such communities later developed into separate parishes, and they can be reconstructed through analysis of the parish structure. Such analysis also suggests that the 10th–11th-century communities would have been somewhat more numerous, and more unevenly sized, than the Figure 7. Þingey spring assembly, mapped by Garðar Guðmundsson in 2004. © Fornleifastofnun Íslands. Table 1. Numbers of booths (compartments rather than detached structures) at seven Icelandic spring assembly sites, compared to the number of parishes in each region where plausible reconstructions can be made. Some booths are likely to be missing at Árnes and Leiðvöllur on account of erosion. No. of booths: No. of booths: count of latest maximum count No. of parishes fieldwork (if different) Latest fieldwork reference in assembly region2 Árnes 24+ 30 Friðriksson 2002:15 36 Þingskálar 45 50 Unnarsson 2006:8, 13, 28 34 Leiðvöllur 26+ 47 A. Friðriksson, Fornleifastofnun Íslands, Reykjavík, pers. comm. Skuldaþingsey 33 Vésteinsson et al. 2004:174–175 30 Þingey 17–18 Friðriksson et al. 2004:51 30 Leiðarnes 22 29 Bruun 1928:101 Hegranes 35 80 Friðriksson 2004:40 33 O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 119 a man of sufficient status and means to count as a þingmaðr, the client of a chieftain (Vésteinsson 2007). It was the following of such men that counted for the chieftains, and the participation of such men in the founding of a spring assembly would have been vital for its continued success. The communities dominated by such men may or may not have had some organizing structure, but in terms of realpolitik, they will have consisted of tenants of the þingmaðr and his own clients, yeomen farmers of circumscribed social and economic status. later parishes (Vésteinsson 2006b). The number of booths should therefore be slightly greater than the number of parishes in the region from which the assembly was attended as the parish numbers derive from a later period (the 14th century) than the postulated period of use of the booths (10th–12th centuries). It is theoretically possible that these communities were egalitarian in nature, but our knowledge about the social structure of Viking Age and Medieval Iceland suggests that it is more likely that each was dominated by a major landlord, Figure 8. Skuldaþingsey spring assembly, mapped by Garðar Guðmundsson in 2004. © Fornleifastofnun Íslands. O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 120 carried out at the other sites, but looking at the available maps, it appears that there are greater differences in size at, e.g., Hegranes and Árnes. The difference between smallest and largest is definitely greater than at Skuldaþingsey, and there may also be some groupings in terms of size. The size of a booth can be seen to relate to the size of the community it represents or the status of the local leader (and it is of course likely that the two are connected: the larger the community, the greater the status of its leader), but a grouping into size categories at an assembly site would indicate that there was some layering among the attendees, that there were groups of more influential þingmenn distinct from those of lesser status. It should be expected that the greater such differences, the more developed centralized authority had become (Friðriksson 2011). It is intriguing however, that at none of the sites are there booths which are substantially larger than all the others. In other words, there is no evidence for differentiation in booth size which could help to distinguish the booths of the chieftains from those of the local leaders, their followers. Another indication of groupings, possibly across the status spectrum, is that at some of the sites the booths seem to be arranged in rows. This pattern is least apparent at Skuldaþingsey, but all the other sites have at least some rows, although it is quite variable how much this characterizes the whole layout of each site. At Leiðarnes, practically all the booths are arranged in three rows, but the booths are not evenly spaced within each row, possibly suggesting further sub-groupings. Whether this relates to some geographical classification, e.g., that all the leaders from the same valley or sub-region arranged themselves in the same row or cluster, or some other kind of political groupings, will be difficult to determine. Variation in this respect does, however, suggest that some assemblies were more divided than others and that some were characterized by factions permanent and significant enough to affect the layout of the booths. All the sites have both simple booths, with single compartments, or double or more complex ones. At Þingskálar, Leiðarnes, and Skuldaþingsey, there are only 2–3 double booths while the majority are single compartments, and in those cases the double booths may just reflect the structure of local communities, e.g., that large communities were subdivided or that adjacent small ones had close collaboration and that this extended to their participation in the assembly. At Hegranes and Þingey, and possibly Árnes and Leiðvöllur, there is, however, greater clustering with complexes of booths built together in such a way that it must have been meaningful whether a local On this reading, the booths therefore represent the smallest political units in 10th–11th-century Iceland. They would then symbolize the participation of those units in the political and judicial processes being established, but they also represent the fragmentation and fragility of that higher level of political authority which the assembly system was all about making and maintaining (Vésteinsson 2009). Each booth symbolizes the limits of the power and authority of the chieftain or chieftains convening the assembly, and as such they represent a quite particular kind of political order: an order where the highest echelon is made up of a group of regional leaders whose authority over the next tier down, the local leaders, is weak and easily contested. I suggest, therefore, that booths only being found in Iceland, and perhaps the other new colonies of the North Atlantic, is a reflection of this political reality, a reality quite different from the homelands where higher tiers of central authority were more developed. This conclusion is paralleled by Frode Iversen’s (in press) analysis of North Norwegian court-yard sites as assemblies from the period before the development of effective royal power, where each booth represented delegations from local thing districts, the smallest political areas that can be reconstructed. Deciphering Patterns Armed with a hypothesis about what an individual booth represents—a local leader fronting a local community—we can then proceed to interpret what the different patterns in the number, size, and arrangements of the booths can tell us. It is immediately apparent that there is considerable variation even among the small number of sites considered here. There are differences in how scattered the booths are, whether they are evenly spaced or arranged in groups, how many are detached and how many subdivided, to what degree they line up in rows, and whether the whole plan of each site seems to be organic or arranged according to some vision or principle. However, our understanding of each site is still too limited to imbue the surface traces of individual booths with much meaning. Rather, we have to content ourselves with pointing out general patterns which further research will have to verify and expand on. The most straightforward aspect is that some booths are larger than others. At Skuldaþingsey, the largest booth is twice as large as the smallest one, but in terms of size, the booths form an unbroken series with no signs of size classes (Vésteinsson et al. 2004:175). Comparable analyses have not been O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 121 leader resided in such a cluster or in one of the simple booths scattered around. It is tempting to view such clusters as representations of political factions, the grouping of several local leaders behind a single higher-tier leader, but it can also be seen as a variant of the row phenomenon and may not reflect more than an acknowledgment that the leaders from the same valley could collaborate in building booths; it does not have to mean that they always collaborated on other matters. The problem with applying these insights to individual sites and trying to characterize them on that basis is that all the sites are poorly understood. Maps produced of the sites in the late 19th century are in many cases quite different from what can be seen there now, and in those cases, it is difficult to know whether this is the result of over-interpretation being replaced by more careful approaches or whether there have been actual changes at the sites. Some of the more complex ones, i.e., Árnes, Hegranes, and Leiðvöllur, have been affected by erosion, and individual structures may well have disappeared or become obscured in the meantime. These problems will only be overcome through comprehensive excavation of these sites. The unique case of the two assembly sites on adjacent islands in the river of Skjálfandafljót—Skuldaþingsey and Þingey—does, however, present an opportunity to reflect on some of the implications of the patterns described here. A Story of Power Consolidation? Adolf Friðriksson (2011) has suggested that the different degree of clustering of the booths at the Icelandic assembly sites represents different stages in the development of power consolidation in early Iceland. In such a scheme, sites like Skuldaþingsey, with evenly sized booths and no structuring in their location, would represent the earliest stage, while sites such as Hegranes and Árnes, with booths in rows and clusters, would represent later stages. If this interpretation was true, excavation of the more structured sites should reveal evidence of earlier, less-structured phases, and the twin sites of Þingey and Skuldaþingsey, located on adjacent islands in the same river, allow this kind of model to be explored in order to evaluate if it is likely at all. It needs to be stressed that at present there is no dating evidence available to determine whether the two sites are from different periods, whether one succeeded the other, or whether they were in use at the same time. Indeed, the traditional view is that the two sites are contemporary and that they represent different functions. The name Skuldaþingsey has been seen to indicate that it was the site of the debt-settling aspect of the assembly (see overview of explanations in Vésteinsson et al. [2004:174]) but that would make it the only case of such spatial division of the assembly functions, and it is difficult to see why this would have been necessary or practical. Some possible interpretations have been explored before (Vésteinsson et al. 2004:178–179), but here I would like to examine what it would mean if the assembly was at some point relocated the 1.5 kms from Skuldaþingsey to Þingey. The differences between the two sites can be summed up as Skuldaþingsey having twice as many booths, which are more evenly sized and evenly distributed, without any indication of planning or structuring in the layout of the site. Þingey, in contrast, has fewer booths, but with a greater size range, and most of these are arranged in rows and clustered together in groups of 2–4. Þingey also has a double boundary wall, which is medieval, although it is not clear whether it belongs to the assembly function of the site or some subsequent farming activity (Friðriksson et al. 2005:28–29). It is in this context noteworthy that at Hegranes there is also a boundary enclosing a part of the site dating to the 12th century or later. In that case too a later farm cannot be ruled out, but it is also possible that these enclosures are a feature of the final phases of these spring assemblies, perhaps a measure to demarcate the legally defined assembly area (a concern reflected in 13th-century laws and sagas; see Friðriksson and Vésteinsson [1992:31]). The smaller number of the booths in Þingey, their more uneven size, and their greater clustering suggests that a relocation from Skuldaþingsey could be understood in terms of power consolidation: that there were fewer participants (or rather politically significant units); that their hierarchical order was more pronounced, and that they were grouped into more distinct factions. This reading would certainly fit the conventional view of political developments in Iceland in the course of the 10th–13th centuries (Sigurðsson 1999). Skuldaþingsey would then represent an early, presumably 10th-century, stage where assemblies were convened by relatively weak chieftains who were aiming to establish regional authority over a large group of more or less evenly influential local leaders, while Þingey belongs to a later stage when a good portion of the lesser fry among the local leaders had been made politically irrelevant and the remaining ones are increasingly grouped together in factions, either behind one of the three chieftains who in theory convened the spring assembly, or in regional or other blocs, perhaps formed O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 122 to counteract the increasing power of the regional chieftains. The third stage would then be represented by one chieftain emerging as paramount over the region, at which point he can be expected to abolish the assembly, having established such a firm grip over the region’s leaders that he no longer needed to go through the motions of participatory decision making. This last stage is what the paramount chieftain of the neighboring region of Eyjafjörður reached around 1190 (Sturlunga saga I:170), and judging from the absence of spring assemblies from descriptions of the political strife in the 13th century, it seems that in this he was not alone. Whether this reading is correct is another matter. Only more comprehensive excavation of the assembly sites can help settle that question. Symbolism for its Own Sake It is easy to read politics into the booths at the Icelandic assembly sites (much easier than it is to get it right!), but there is another dimension to this building activity that cannot be ignored. This facet relates not to the political syntax of the booths—how they came to represent the political landscape of their assembly regions—but to the resonance they had as buildings on sites dominated by their natural settings and as a rule peripheral to areas of dense settlement. We cannot know what was going through the minds of the people who built the first booth at an assembly site, but the political syntax reconstructed here cannot have been formed at that stage. Whatever their aims, the reason this caught on and became more or less obligatory at Icelandic assembly sites must be that it appealed to people’s sensibilities in some way. This appeal was likely many-layered, but it can be suggested that it was about creating permanent monuments in the landscape, monuments signalling people’s commitment to the political and judicial structures being created, but also in a more general way symbolizing the new society and its right to exist in a previously uninhabited country. It seems that the colonists sought to put their mark on the landscape in many different ways, including an enormous effort in building earthworks (Einarsson et al. 2002), but such symbols on sites of collective decision making and dispute resolution would have been particularly poignant. As material markers of the assemblies’ function, and symbols of their legitimacy, the booths can also be seen as substitutes for whatever it was (groves, burial mounds, stone settings, traditions) that hallowed assembly sites in the homelands (see Sanmark and Semple 2008). The monumentality of the booths would have different connotations from the features at Scandinavian assembly sites, but they would serve the same purpose of marking the place, its uniqueness, and significance, and they would, as time went by, come to represent history and tradition. The fact that in many cases the booths are still there suggests that, irrespective of their functionality and actual use, their monumentality left a lasting impression. Conclusions Assemblies with booths seem to be confined to the colonies established in uninhabited lands in the North Atlantic during the Viking Age and may even be particular to Iceland. Although much remains to be learned about these sites, not least their dating, it is possible to hypothesize about the meaning of the booths, what they represent, and how their sizes, numbers, and distributions can support narratives about political landscapes and political developments. I have argued here that booths represent neither chieftains nor individual farmers but rather local communities of 5–15 farms, most no doubt dominated by a local leader who would have been the delegate at the assembly. More tentatively, it can be suggested that the size range of the booths can serve as an index of the homogeneity of the political landscape, and that the arrangement and clustering of the booths gives indications about how factionalized the assembly was. None of this would have been possible for us to wonder about if the colonists had not felt a need to create material markers, symbols of their commitment to the new institutions being created, contributing to a sense of permanence, belonging, and legitimization. The materiality of the booths may only have provided the faintest echo of the hallowedness of long-established assembly sites in the homelands, but however faint, it would have been an important echo in that it provided a sense of rightness, a sense which would have been particularly important in the process of building new judicial and political institutions. These hypotheses are necessarily speculative. I hope, however, to have demonstrated the interpretational potential of the Icelandic assembly sites—that it is vast—and the need for large-scale and comprehensive excavations to develop this potential into real understanding of the political landscape of the North Atlantic and its political developments in the 10th to 13th centuries. Acknowledgments The subject of this paper was originally presented at the International workshop “Ancient Assemblies in Europe: From Agora to Althing”, in Þingvellir, Iceland, O. Vésteinsson 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 123 Friðriksson, A., H.M. Roberts, G. Guðmundsson, G.A. Gísladóttir, M.Á. Sigurgeirsson, and B. Damiata. 2005. Þingvellir og þinghald að fornu. Framvinduskýrsla 2005. Fornleifastofnun Íslands, Reykjavík, Iceland. 34 pp. Friðriksson, A., E.Ó. Hreiðarsdóttir, H.M. Roberts, and O. Aldred. 2007. Fornleifarannsóknir í S-Þingeyjarsýslu 2006. 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