The Vikings were not the first colonisers of the Faroe Islands

Published: 20 August 2013

The Faroe Islands were colonised much earlier than previously believed, and it wasn’t by the Vikings, according to new research.

The Faroe Islands were colonised much earlier than previously believed, and it wasn’t by the Vikings, according to new research.

New archaeological evidence places human colonisation in the 4th to 6th centuries AD, at least 300-500 years earlier than previously demonstrated.   

The research, directed by Dr Mike J Church from Durham University and Símun V Arge from the National Museum of the Faroe Islands as part of the multidisciplinary project “Heart of the Atlantic”, is published in the Quaternary Science Reviews. The crucial radiocarbon evidence to fix such an early settlement date was provided by researchers at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC)

The research challenges the nature, scale and timing of human settlement of the wider North Atlantic region and has implications for the colonisation of similar island groups across the world. 

The Faroes were the first stepping stone beyond Shetland for the dispersal of European people across the North Atlantic that culminated on the shores of continental North America in the 11th century AD, about 500 years before Columbus made his famous voyage. 

The research was carried out on an archaeological site at Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy.  

Analysis showed an extensive windblown sand deposit containing patches of burnt peat ash from human activity, dating human settlement to pre-Viking phases.  These ash spreads contained barley grains which were accidentally burnt in domestic hearths and were then spread by humans onto the windblown sand surface during the 4th-6th centuries and 6th-8th centuries, a common practice identified in the North Atlantic during this period to control wind erosion. 

Lead author Dr Mike Church, from Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, said:  “There is now firm archaeological evidence for the human colonisation of the Faroes by people some 300-500 years before the large scale Viking colonisation of the 9th century AD, although we don’t yet know who these people were or where they came from. 

“The majority of archaeological evidence for this early colonisation is likely to have been destroyed by the major Viking invasion, explaining the lack of proof found in the Faroes for the earlier settlement.  This also raises questions about the timing of human activity on other islands systems where similar evidence may have been destroyed.”

Co-author, Símun V Arge from the National Museum of the Faroe Islands, said: “Although we don’t know who the people were that settled here and where they came from, it is clear that they did prepare peat for use, by cutting, drying and burning it which indicates they must have stayed here for some time. 

“We now have to digest these dates of this early evidence in relation to other sources and consider whether there may be other similar sites, elsewhere on the islands, which may be able to provide us with further structural archaeological evidence.” 

Dr Philippa Ascough, of SUERC and the University of Glasgow, added: “These findings are the combined result of detailed archaeological work and the ability of radiocarbon to give us an absolute calendar age for individual barley grains found in the peat ash. 

“All organic material contains trace amounts of the isotope, carbon-14. The radioactive decay of carbon-14 gives us a kind of stopwatch, showing how long it’s been since samples like these barley grains were part of a living plant. We measured the amount of carbon-14 in the samples on our accelerator mass spectrometer after careful chemical treatment. This method gives a highly reliable and accurate way of reading the carbon-14 stopwatch, even in tiny samples like a single cereal grain. 

“We are very pleased to be a part of this exciting research and are looking forward to the next steps in developing our understanding of North Atlantic human settlement.” 

The study was led by Durham University and the National Museum of the Faroe Islands, with the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Bradford and Stirling, the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, and the City University of New York.  

It was funded by the Faroese Research Council, Leverhulme Trust, US National Science Foundation, Anadarko Faroes Company and BP Amoco Explorations.

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For more information contact Ross Barker in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 3535 or email

First published: 20 August 2013

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