Ore, Fire, Hammer, Sickle: Iron Production in Viking Age and Early Medieval Iceland
By Kevin P. Smith
De re metallica: the uses of metal in the Middle Ages, edited by Robert O. Bork (Ashgate, 2005)
Introduction: Iron production may be used as a window through which to view, in part, the economic structure of Icelandic society during the Viking Age (c. AD 870-1000) and Early Medieval (AD 1000-1264) periods. Iron was a critical resource for maintaining and reproducing medieval Icelandic society, yet while several medieval sagas and related sources’ mention iron smelters and smiths, documenting their presence within the society, they provide insufficient information to reconstruct the iron industry’s technological basis, organization or role in the larger economy. Recent archaeological research, combined with information gleaned from medievai texts, provides opportunities for addressing these issues.
The expansion of the Norse across the North Atlantic and their establishment of sustainable colonies were predicated, in part, on their ability to find and exploit sources of ore suitable for smelting into useable iron. The presence of a smelting facility at the Norse exploration base of L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, testifies to the importance the Norse placed on locating and testing sources of iron ore in the process of colonization.’After smelting, raw iron ‘blooms’ were forged into billets and bars, and were then transformed into the essential equipment required to sustain the colony’s expansion. This equipment included agricultural instruments such as the scythes, sickles and pack saddles required for the summer hay harvests that were the foundation of Iceland’s subarctic pastoral economy. It also included household tools, ships’ parts, household fittings and weapons. Iron jewels from a Viking Age grave at Sílastaðir, northern Iceland, and iron amulets from other sites around the island demonstrate that ironworking played an additional role in the secular and sacred strategies medieval Icelanders used to display identity, affirm status, and confer with supernatural realms.
A metaphoric statement about the essential nature of metalworking to society is found in Norse myths attributed to the viking Age but recorded in the early thirteenth century by the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson. In ‘The Deluding of Gylfi’ – part of Snorri’s Prose Edda – the Norse gods under Oðin’s guidance vanquished the forces of elemental chaos and immediately began to establish their own society upon which human societies were later modeled. Their first three steps were to organize themselves into a governing body, build temples as their homes, and then “next they laid the hearth of a forge and made hammer and tongs and an anvil, and thenceforward all other tools, and went on to work in metals.” Thus a paradigm is established that ties metalworking and skilled crafting to the creation of new societies and identifies these technological and aesthetic endeavors as gifts from the gods, equal in importance to, and essential for supporting the establishment of governments, domestic units, and religious institutions.