Life in Stones: the material biography of a 17th century peasant from the southern highlands of Iceland
Thesis supervisor: Gavin Lucas
The thesis deals with the material significance of biography. It rests upon fieldwork at the site of Búðarárbakki in the peripheries of the southern highlands of Iceland, a peasant farm documented in the Icelandic Land Register from 1703. The Register states that an aged peasant, named Þorkell, built the farm and lived there for a decade sometimes after the mid 17th century. He is described as a quirky, old man that due to his mere restlessness lived at 27 different places during his lifetime. The last four dwelling places of his life are listed in the Register, namely, Tungufell in the district of Biskupstungur, and after that in the district Hrunamannahreppur: Búðarártunga, Búðarárbakki and finally Skógarkot where he moved to the same year as he died. The written record of the Land Register is sparse, yet it depicts some interesting characteristics and personal traits of the peasant. Moreover, it links this particular person with certain place names, records his relocations, correspondingly creating an intriguing web of relationships between the persona and the landscape. The Land Register does not state it directly but implies that Þorkell farmed at Búðarárbakki, thus indicating a distinctive social identity and a whole year farming settlement.
The results of the archaeological excavations contradict this image. The excavations at Búðarárbakki certainly revealed a tiny peasant farmhouse from the late 17th century. The stratigraphy shows that the farm had been abandoned shortly before the eruption in Hekla in 1693. It is a typical passageway farm, a quintessential architectural type known from the Middle Ages up until the very late 19th century. The fieldwork reveald that the housings lacked a hearth that would have been imperative as a heating source for a whole year dwelling.The artifact assemblage is as well extraordinary as it is dominated by a number of stone hammer artifacts. All the artifacts are production failures or unfinished examples. These objects, that were predominantly embedded into the farmhouse structures, constitute along with a high number of small iron chisels and a few core fragments from the perfomation of the hammer stones, an interesting picture of a specialized craftmannship. Thus, the results of the excavation indicate a seasonal settlement where a single person attended his specialized craftmannship, earning his revenues from the production of a certain commodity, not from a whole-year farming.
The biographical approach applied to this research project dismisses the idea of biography as a complete life-cycle narrative from birth to death. Biography is viewed as an inherent constituent of life itself, as the process of linking, relating and merging human and non-human actorial roles. Archaeological remains, both structures and objects, do not stand lives now long gone or represent their residues but are essential components of the relationality of life itself. They are the lasting material presences of a particular web of life that has manifold actants, both human and non-human, intertwined. Such an approach to the category of biography reveals ultimately its multi-temporality. Considering the human embodied subject as just one facet of the person, simply one node among many in the biographical network, epitomizes how biography does not halt upon the death of the singular human subject, the introversive “I”, but demonstrates how biography pursues in its thingly presences.