Analysis: We think of Vikings are travellers and explorers but when they settled down, they brought a number of changes in landscape and society which had far-reaching effects.

By David Stone UCD and Dr Rebecca Boyd UCC

Paul Crutzen - the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist who coined the term 'Anthropocene' - passed away recently. Some 20 years ago, both he and Eugene Stoermer proposed the word to mark a new geological epoch acknowledging humankind's unprecedented changes to the earth.

These changes include chemicals in the atmosphere, escalations in urbanism and agricultural productive activity, rapid increases in global warming, sea level rises, habitat loss, biosphere changes, and changes in populations of animals and people.

The Anthropocene Working Group proposed the mid-1950s as the formal start of the Anthropocene, but this is controversial. Some of these changes can be seen in the 18th and 19th century’s Industrial Revolutions (especially in the western world) but many key indicators of the Anthropocene can be pushed back further into the past using archaeological investigations. 

Archaeology’s long experience with nature-culture relations puts it in a unique position to contribute and challenge definitions of the Anthropocene.

Broad evidence from archaeology, paleoecology and environmental history suggests that direct human alteration of ecosystems through hunting, foraging, land clearing, agriculture, and other activities, has occurred in some regions since the late Pleistocene, over twelve thousand years ago.

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On Radio 1's Drivetime Philip spoke to Dr Lara Cassidy, Assistant Professor, School of Genetics and Microbiology and Maeve Sikora, Keeper of Irish Antiquities about how DNA shows the Vikings that came to Ireland were actually brunette.

Archaeologists have proposed several different events as potential Anthropocene indictors including the megafauna extinctions of 50 thousand years ago, the Neolithic domestication and spread of rice agriculture, or the European colonisation of the Americas between 1500–1800AD. Each of these events had far-reaching and irrevocable effects on their landscape and contemporary societies. 

The Viking world is not one we automatically associate with concepts of the Anthropocene. We think immediately of Vikings as travellers and explorers, but the second stage of that expansionist Viking policy was settling down in their newly discovered lands. It's at this point that we see a number of changes in landscape and society which did indeed have those far-reaching effects. 

The first of these changes was the colonisation of North Atlantic islands after their discovery in 870AD. During this period, large scale movements of humans with domestic animals and crops altered the natural environments of the Faeroes and Iceland.

This brought a raft of changes to these island ecosystems through the introduction of people, agriculture and new species of domesticated animals and plants, resulting in radical landscape transformations.

The most spectacular was the deforestation of Iceland - even today there are few trees in the Icelandic landscape. This ultimately culminated in the settlement and, later, abandonment of Greenland

Here in Ireland, the Vikings met a well-established agricultural society. However, they would have a profound effect on the landscape in another form, with the establishment of a new phenomenon - the ‘town’.

Towns are high-density settlements which have profound effects on their environments. They are closely intertwined with their local and regional hinterlands which supply them with food, water, building supplies, raw materials for craftwork, firewood and many other resources.

These relationships had profound effects on the surrounding hinterland leading to the transformation of local habitats, alterations of ecologies, consumption of materials and resources, and the production of waste. Towns also imply population changes and movements, another anthropocene indicator. 

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From Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Dr Rowan McLaughlin, researcher at the Queen's University School of Natural and Built Environment, discusses a new report which shows the positive influence of the Vikings settlements on Ireland's population.

As people went about their daily lives in this town which was full of wood, thatch, earth and other people, they laid down new deposits of materials within the settlement. These deposits ultimately created the layers of history and archaeology which form the heart of Viking and medieval Dublin, Cork and Waterford.

These deposits are carefully excavated and studied by archaeologists for evidence of how these townspeople lived their lives. Within the town, biological communities of plants, animals, insects and birds found themselves adapting to this new man-made urban environment. 

Archaeo-botanists (archaeologist who look at plants and trees) find plant seeds which were imported into the town in cargoes of cereal or building materials. Archaeo-zoologists (archaeologists who examine animal bones) can tell us that the townspeople ate meat from older animals, mutton instead of lamb.

Archaeo-entomologists (archaeologists who study beetles) have identified Sitophilus granaries in Viking Dublin. This flightless grain weevil is usually found in Roman settlements in Britain and the continent so how did it make its way to Viking Dublin?

So, while the Anthropocene may seem far removed from Viking Dublin, there are some interesting parallels here with those key indicators.

While we can’t comment on atmospheric changes, the increase and density in smoke from house-fires would have made a local atmospheric impact. There is clear evidence for changes in plant, animal, and human populations.

The adoption of urbanism and concurrent changes in agricultural productivity to supply the town also ring true. However, these are local changes, and their impact on a global scale is negligible.

But looking at these changes through the framework of the Anthropocene can provide new insights into the ways in which people have always adopted and adapted to changes in our world. 

David Stone is a PhD Researcher at the School of Archeology at University College Dublin.
Dr Rebecca Boyd is an Irish Research Council postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences at UCC. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ