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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Rethinking secondary state formation in medieval Iceland : trade and social connectivity in the Norse economic territory

  • Author(s): Carter, Tara Dawn
  • et al.

Viking Age Europe was a well-connected world. Wherever we look in the archaeological record from this period we find evidence of communication and exchange across vast distances, connecting Europe with North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. Taking this evidence into consideration, I ask if the same sort of connectedness applied to medieval Iceland and, if so, what role might it have played in its development of secondary state institutions. Previous models have vacillated between those that emphasize indigenous, autonomous state development and those that emphasize the purely secondary, derivative nature of the Icelandic state and its relationship to existing complex societies. I argue that these perceptions are the result of methodological and analytical limitations to research on the process of secondary state formation in general, and in particular to the history of research on the development of political and economic complexity in the North Atlantic. My primary goal in this dissertation is to reconsider the concept of secondary state formation in light of the new evidence from my archaeological study on the economic organization of Skagafjörour, northern Iceland. For my research I have designed the Skagafjörour Landscape Project (SLP), a regional archaeological survey that covers an area a little more 5,500 km² and spans nearly a thousand years. The data from the SLP suggests that it is misleading to examine the process of state formation at the hands of either local or external factors, but should instead be viewed along several different structural, spatial, and temporal scales of analysis. This kind social dynamism is what I term here a "synergistic secondary state," where state level institutions are the result of cultural practices that are situated at the intersection of independent but highly connected endogenous and exogenous processes. Unlike existing approaches to the study of secondary state formation, the synergistic secondary state model makes use of a social network methodology, capable of examining the relationship between variables rather than generating a series of trait lists. While this model has been developed to understand social developments in medieval Iceland, this approach has applications that can be used for investigations of other known case studies of state formation

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