Thursday, March 14, 2013

New signs of pre-Viking life on the Faroe Islands

The earliest traces of human life on the Faroe Islands date back to the Viking era. But new pollen analyses suggest that people, and perhaps even agriculture, existed on the islands long before the Vikings arrived.

It has long been speculated that Irish monks may have migrated north to the Faroe Islands long before the Vikings arrived there.

But despite the tireless efforts of many scientists, nothing has yet been found which can prove that people lived on the Faroes before the time around year 800 AD. Until now.

Cereal pollen indicates early farming on the Faroe Islands

Over the past few years, scientists from Aberdeen University in Scotland have found something in early Faroese pollen samples that gives them a reason to rethink Faroese prehistory: cereal pollen.

But does finding flower dust from domesticated plants actually prove that anyone lived on the Faroes several centuries before the Vikings arrived there? And that they were farmers?

The answer is maybe. The researchers are sweating over soil samples and archaeological finds to unravel the mystery, but it’s not an easy task.

Kevin Edwards, a professor of physical geography and archaeology at Aberdeen University, tells ScienceNordic about their work:

”One of the main problems with cereal pollen is that it is produced in tiny quantities. Cereal pollen grains are also very large, and that means they don’t spread far with the wind. That’s why it’s so important to find it.”

Scientists want better samples

They have now found cereal pollen in the early samples from the Faroe Islands. There’s just one problem, though: the soil where they found the cereal pollen is far from ideal for accurate pollen analysis:

“It’s problematic that the sites where we found cereal pollen aren’t very good,” says Edwards. “It’s likely that the soil has been cluttered up, partly as a result of soil erosion, where soil from fields on nearby hillsides has fallen down into the low-lying peat bogs.”

Since peat bogs are the sites where the researchers can find samples of preserved pollen, the British research team is very keen to find samples from moors, so they can be sure that there is no clutter in the soil layers.

Now scientists will find cereal pollen if it’s there

In the meantime, they have come up with a way to make it easier to study large amounts of data and find the important cereal pollen – if it’s there to be found at all.

“Normally when you study pollen samples, you magnify them 500 times in a microscope,” says Edwards.

“Then you’ll get a clear view of it all – not only cereal pollen but also pollen from trees and herbs. But since cereal pollen is far larger than the other types of pollen, we can identify them using only 100x magnification.”

He explains that he and his colleagues first do the normal pollen counts with 500x magnification to get an idea of which plants were growing in the area, so they can figure out what the landscape looked like.

They then set the microscope to 100x magnification and go through numerous samples, this time scanning only for the large cereal pollen.

That way they minimise the risk of leaving something out.

Takes forever to count large amounts of pollen

Since even the tiniest samples contain large amounts of pollen, the scientists don’t need to go through vast amounts of material to get a general idea of the appearance of the landscape.

This means that the rare cereal pollen can escape if the researchers are not on their guard, he explains, using an example from the Shetland Islands, located just south of the Faroes:

”On the Shetland Islands we examined an area where the conventional methods did not reveal any traces of local agriculture. But we had archaeological evidence that grains were processed there. So the theory was that the grains were grown at more suitable sites on the islands and subsequently transported to the area which we examined,” he says.

”But with our low-magnification method we could study far more samples. And once we had done that, more cereal pollen popped up. This is how we documented that agriculture was practiced locally, all the way from the Bronze Age right up to the Viking period and beyond.”

Perhaps there really were people and agriculture on the Faroe Islands before the arrival of the Vikings. The pollen finds would suggest so, but further studies and improved samples are required for a conclusive answer to that.

Jensen, Tania Lousdal. 2013. “New signs of pre-Viking life on the Faroe Islands”. Science Nordic. Posted: January 28, 2013. Available online:

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