Formation, cultural use and management of Icelandic wet meadows – a palaeoenvironmental interpretation

The Abstract and the PDF file have been kindly provided by Rebecca Barclay who retains copyright.

Rebecca Barclay (2016) Formation, cultural use and management of Icelandic wet meadows – a palaeoenvironmental interpretation. University of Stirling, Unpublished PhD thesis. 251 pp.


This thesis offers the first detailed palaeoenvironmental analysis of wetland areas within sub-Arctic enclosed homefield’s. Significance of meadows were previously mentioned only briefly in the literature, suggesting influences in settlement site selection as well as importance in quality fodder production, producing up to two thirds of total hay resources in a somewhat marginal agricultural landscape. Given the importance of hay resources in Iceland it seems unusual these areas have received so little attention to date, despite extensive research on all other aspects of the Norse farm system.

The organic sediments within the meadows, given their development in-situ over extended time periods, have the ability to record aspects of the intimate relationship between societal and environmental change, and so in a robust and holistic way our methods set integrates radiocarbon measurement, tephrochronology, palynology and thin section micromorphology from the same core; reflecting these findings against existing paleoclimate and archaeological site data. This combined application of the core techniques – palynology and soil micromorphology, has proven successful in creating effective human ecodynamic records from each of the study farms.

Records obtained from the three farm sites in northwest and northern Iceland exposed the varying importance and differing utilisation of these wetland areas. Meadows would appear to have played an import role in choice of settlement site across northern Iceland, through the provision of open areas, and additional and immediately available fodder resources at settlement, in a landscape dominated by dense scrub. Meadows were found to have been in continuous use, albeit at varying levels of intensity, from settlement to the present day. In this respect the semi-natural resources are found to be remarkably resilient, demonstrating little alterations to their composition following severe climatic downturns, including that of the Little Ice Age, and volcanic eruption. Acting as a robust resource and safety buffer for settlements, contributing to fodder resources where reliability of other resources is jeopardised by environmental conditions.

Research in the more marginal northwest peninsula provides the first evidence of artificially created wet meadows in Iceland, developed to give sustained fodder production for over-wintering livestock in an environment that inherently had a short growing season and lacked soil fertility. A further example of the nuanced land management practices adopted in the agriculturally fragile farmscapes of the Norse North Atlantic. The findings of the thesis have wider implications for understanding the emergence of resilient and sustainable communities in agriculturally marginal environments; to this end there remains many opportunities to use palaeoenvironmental research to study ecosystem responses to natural and anthropogenic stresses, giving us a better understanding of capacities to withstand future stresses.

Thesis (PDF file)