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Who were the Faroes? Mystery settlers beat out the Vikings by centuries

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 23rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Faroe Islands, located halfway between Norway and Iceland, are proof that ancient Europeans dared to cross the Atlantic to the Americas long before the Vikings. Archaeologists say the Faroes arrived 300 to 500 years before the large-scale Viking colonization. A windblown sand deposit containing patches of burnt peat ash discovered on the islands bear witness to human activity.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic online) - The islands served as the first stepping stones beyond the Scottish archipelago of the Shetlands. The Vikings discovered continental North America in the 11th century, about 400 or 500 years before Christopher Columbus crossed the sea.

Scientists previously believed the Vikings undertook the first major settlement of the Faroes in the ninth century. There was evidence there might have been earlier arrivals there. One example which occurred about 825, when the Irish monk Dicuil in the court of Charlemagne wrote of Irish hermits settling islands beforehand that may have been the Faroes.


Scientists have discovered firm archaeological evidence "for the human colonization of the Faroes by people some 300 to 500 years before the large-scale Viking colonization of the ninth century, although we don't yet know who these people were or where they came from," researcher Mike Church, an environmental archaeologist at the Durham University in England said in an interview.


This ash in the burnt peat ash contained barley grains burnt in domestic hearths, which carbon dating showed was pre-Viking. Barley is not indigenous to the Faroes, so it must have been either grown or brought to the islands by humans.


"This is the first archaeological evidence that proves there were humans there at the Faroes prior to the big Viking colonization event," Church said.


It's estimated that the mysterious settlers may have spread these ashes onto the sands during the fourth to sixth centuries and sixth to eighth centuries. This practice was often seen in the North Atlantic region among Europeans during this period to stabilize the dunes and keep the wind from eroding them away.


"The majority of archaeological evidence for this early colonization is likely to have been destroyed by the major Viking invasion, explaining the lack of proof found in the Faroes for the earlier settlement," Church said.


It's not yet known who these newly discovered settlers were. Likely candidates may include religious hermits from Ireland, late-Iron Age colonists from Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia. 


"Maybe these were intrepid explorers arriving from each of those areas," Church said, adding that the findings raise more questions than they answer.


"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," researcher Símun Arge, of the National Museum of the Faroe Islands, said in a statement.


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