Life on the Edge of the Arctic: The Bioarchaeology of the Keldudalur Cemetery in Skagafjorour, Iceland

Kimmarie A. Murphy, Kenyon College


Burials were examined from the late Viking Age early medieval Christian cemetery at the farm of Keldudalur in the Skagafjörður region, Northern Iceland. The cemetery likely served a single household for about 100–120 years, from the beginning of the 11th century AD to the turn of the 12th century. Cemetery inhabitants represent a population that lived through the transitional period when Christianity was established in Iceland. The changes are visible in the mortuary record with the changeover from outlying pagan graves to enclosed Christian cemeteries situated on the farmsteads. Keldudalur is one of the numerous early Christian family cemeteries that littered the 11th century Skagafjörður landscape. The burials included 53 well-preserved skeletons of 27 adults and 26 subadults. Various factors such as fluctuating climate and environmental conditions, and seasonal or periodical availability of resources have the potential for impacting human diet and health over time. To assess the health status of the burials, data were collected for a number of health status indicators such as stature estimation, developmental enamel defects, porotic hyperostosis, infectious disease, trauma, degenerative joint diseases, dental caries, calculus and tooth loss. Results suggest that inhabitants of Keldudalur experienced periodic stress and rigorous living conditions. Infant mortality was great, although if individuals survived childhood, the age expectancy was fairly high. There was no obvious evidence for interpersonal violence or endemic infectious disease. However, the common occurrence of growth disturbances, generalised periostitis, trauma and degenerative joint disease all point to a number of stressors in the lives of the people at Keldudalur, which is suggestive of a resilient people living and adapting to a harsh and periodically resource scarce subarctic environment.