This award supports an interdisciplinary team of researchers investigating the long term sustainability of rural farming in the far northern regions of Iceland, Myvatn. The project will use social documentary, archaeological, and natural science data to investigate the unique and detailed record of grass growth and hay yield during the period AD ca. 1700 to 1950 in the Myvatn district. One of the of the key questions for the research team is what were the varying social and environmental factors that influenced the success or failure of the hay crop and grazing? In addition, the project will analyze the sustainability of the production and use of these resources.
The research team has chosen the Myvatn area, named for the ever-present midges (Tanytarsus gracilentus) that are a key element in the local ecology. The midges provide food for numerous water birds, fish, and are in such large numbers that their corpses add nutrients to the soil. Myvatn region has been farmed continuously for many centuries and this farming is hypothesized to have been supported by a complex, interlinked system of biological (midges, fish, waterfowl) and geological (volcanism) processes coupled with the social, cultural, and economic systems. These numerous interlinked factors represent a unique record of a human ecodynamic system in the North.
Iceland has a long and diverse written record of farming and the project will draw on numerous published and unpublished historical documents, which have previously been unexamined. These documents including farmer's diaries, local governmental tax and yield records and hay inspection reports, parish records, and a unique farmers' "newspaper" dating to the 19th century. These records are the legacy documents of one Myvatn farming family and will form the backbone of the archival research. This unique written record, complemented by data from the archaeological record, will add critical social and economic data to the rich environmental data of the Myvan ecosystem.
The reason the research team is so interested in grass and hay production is that until very recently grass was Iceland's only viable crop. As such, the early Icelandic economy focused primarily on animal husbandry. The successful harvesting of hay was the most important annual task of rural Icelanders, a task that can be traced to the time of Viking settlement both in form and function. Hay was critical to the economy and the long-term sustainability of Icelandic social systems because quite literally if there was not enough hay to sustain the winter feeding of the livestock they could die and this would lead to famine, migration, and even death among the rural population. By examining the sustainable harvest and use of grass crops in Myvatn the research team will be able to better understand the complex human ecodynamic systems in the north as they undergoes both environmental and social change.