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Project about the dynamic of peatlands in relation to climate change and human occupation in Iceland

This master’s project aims at understanding the settlement and spatiotemporal evolution of peatlands in the northeast of Iceland by examining the relationship between climate, land and human activities. The humid climate of northeastern Iceland led to the establishment of peatlands starting at approximately 6000 years BP (Hallsodttir and Caseldine 2005). The magnitude of expansion was probably influenced by climatic variations over the last thousand years, including the Little Climatic Optimum (LCO, approximately 1050-1150 AD) and the Little Ice Age (LIA, 1500-1850). Viking, Norse and Icelandic peoples exploited the peatlands for various purposes: for example, they used the peat blocks to build their houses and they used peat as grazing material for sheep and other animals. The extraction of iron from certain types of peat in the 15th and 16th century was also an important economic activity. Large amounts of birch wood were needed in order to produce charcoal to melt the hematite that lies in thin layers in the peat. Afterwards, deforested fields would have been colonized by marshes and peatlands.

The Svalbard valley is oriented northeast-southwest. It is characterized by a mosaic of peatlands and thufurs and is the site of several ancient settlements. These settlements are distributed between the coast and 20 to 30 km in the inland (Olafsson et al. 2013) and lie at altitudes of between 5 and 197 m. The main farm in this valley (Svalbard farm) is located 2 km from the coast. It was established in the 10th century and it is still active. During the last 1000 years, several satellite farms were established in the rest of the valley and then abandoned. The occupation probably reached its greatest levels during or following the LCO. Almost all of the farms were abandoned at various times, but the reasons remain unclear. The causes could be related to climate, volcanism, epidemics, wars, or other factors.

The objectives of this project are: 1) to date the establishment of peat lands in the valley of Svalbard; 2) to understand their evolution according to climatic changes in the Holocene and 3) to trace the human impact on the evolution of these ecosystems.

The occurrence of peat lands around the archaeological sites (old farmhouses satellites) that are distributed from the coast to the valley will document the evolution of peat lands in the context of climate change and human impacts. The main methods include macrofossils and diatoms analysis. Data obtained by this project will be added to those already undertaken or underway in archeology, zoo-archeology and palaeoecology (Zutter 1992; Woollett 2008; Roy in work) allowing better documentation of the Human-Environment relationship in this part of Iceland.

C. Zutter (1992) Icelandic Plant and Land-Use Patterns: Archaeobotanical Analysis of the Svalbard Midden (6708-60). Dans: C. Morris and J. Rackham (eds.) Norse and Later Subsistence in the North Atlantic. Glasgow, University of Glasgow Department of Archaeology. pp. 103-121.

J. Wollett (2008) Preliminary Report of Archaeological Fieldwork at Svalbard (Svalbardshreppur), Université Laval, département d’histoire, pp. 1-23.

Hallsodttir, M., Caseldine, C. (2005) The Holocene vegetation history of Iceland, state-of-the-art and future research. In: Caseldine, C., Russell, A., Harjardo´ ttir, J., Knudsen, O. (Eds.), Iceland: Modern Processes and Past Environments. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp. 319–334.

Ólafsson, S. et al. (2013) Interim Report of the 2012 fieldwork programme in Svalbarðshreppur: Hjálmarvík and Sjóhúsavík. Fornleifastofnun Íslands ses and Centre d’études nordiques / Université Laval, Reykjavík, 27 pages.

Van Vliet-Lanoë, B. et al. (1998) Thufur Formation in Northern Iceland and its Relation to Holocene Climate Change. Permafrost and periglacial processes, vol. 9, pp 347-365.

McGovern et al. (1988) Northern Islands, Human Error, and Environmental Degradation: A View of Social andEcological Change in the Medieval North Atlantic. Human Ecology, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 225-270.