Essays, Historical Places, The Lost Settlements
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Lost Viking Settlements: 3. Iceland Before the Age of Settlement (Part 1)

This is the first part of an article on Lost Viking Settlements: Iceland. Part 2 continues with the Settlement Age. Part 3 is on the Commonwealth Era.

“At that time Iceland was covered with woods between the mountains and the seashore. There were then Christians here, whom the Northmen call papar, but they later went away, because they did not wish to stayhere with heathens; and they left behind them Irish books and bells and staffs.”

Íslendingabók1
(Source: Pixabay / Photochur).

The gales sweep across the island. On the outskirts of the birch wood forest, the winds rip and tear at the tall sentinels defending their own. They crack and yell amid the roar. At the heart of the forest, where you walk, is the eye of the storm. The trees here softly groan, you can even hear the quiet crunch of the leathered sole on the fallen leaves. You crouch and wait. You might be an outlaw on the run. Or, a settler or papar, waiting for the storm to pass before crossing the plains to your farmstead or hut. Or, you are a hunter, looking for the outlaw, or for that evenings’ meal. Whoever you are, you are one of the first in Iceland.

Arni Thorgilsson, the author of the Íslendingabók mentions Ingólfr Arnarson’s arrival in Iceland in the year 870. It is the same year that Saint Edmund the Martyr, king of the East Angles, dies at the hands of the Great Heathen Army. And Arni somehow knows of Edmund’s saga. Another source, the Landnámabók names 874 as the year Ingólfr arrived. This book has been ascribed to Arni, but it is not clear if he really wrote it.2 Whatever the year, both manuscripts state that Ingólfr is the first settler on Iceland.

When Did the Settlement of Iceland Start?

Ingólfr Arnarson is a Norwegian chieftain involved in a blood feud in his homeland. When he sails for Iceland, he is fleeing to save his skin from any action from king Harald Fairhair. When the ship is close to land, Ingólfr throws the pillars of his high seat off the side of the ship, swearing he will settle wherever the pillars wash ashore. The location is Reykjavik, the Smokey Bay where Ingólfr takes his family and slaves and settles down.3

We do not know where Ingólfr lay his head to sleep at night. Many lost settlements in Iceland that date back to the Viking Age are not all visible, nor are they all excavated. Some might have been lost in volcanic eruptions, or coastline erosion, landslides, and so on. Yet, in some cases, even those we cannot see, we know about because they are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas.4

From 874 until 2020, the population of Iceland has grown to 300,000 inhabitants, and despite this limited amount, there are many, many abandoned places called eyðibýli (transl. deserted farm). Thankfully, most do not date back to the Viking Age or this would be a post about 3,000 ruins.

And there is more to say. Of the Viking Age ruins, many pre-date the years 870–874 that are mentioned in the medieval sources. Especially, in the 1970s numerous sites were found that led Icelandic archaeologists to believe Iceland was indeed settled much earlier than the sources.

To this day, archaeologists confirm this viewpoint.5 Therefore, the first part on lost settlements in Iceland will concentrate on the sites that pre-date the Age of Settlement.

(Source: The Viking Age Archive).

The Irish Hermits

In the medieval sources, or what Arni tells us, is that the first settlers are not the first on the island. They find people called papars, Irish monks or hermits. Scholars are careful about taking Arni at his word, though. Because Arni is a clergyman, writing in the bishop’s service. He has motive to legitimise or rationalise the settlement from a religious point of view.

Did the hermits live in stone, or turf huts with little wood to go around? Or perhaps even in caves? Here, again, is not much direct evidence to confirm assumptions. A local study published in 2015 refers to crosses found in caves across Iceland that are difficult to date because their style cannot immediately be pinpointed to a clear art style, for example Gaelic art.6

But alas, to this day there is no archaeological evidence of Irish monks living here. The closest thing are aerial photos from 2017 near Reykjavík that reveal rings some claim are similar to Irish ’hermit rings’. These clusters of huts are often found on isolated Irish islands.7 Unfortunately, (or is it telling?) I have not found more news or information about these photos, the hermit rings or any research on the site since 2017. So, for now, it remains speculation.

Surtshellir

The Surtshellir is mentioned in the Landnámabók as a place where folks believe the giant Surt hid. In reality, it is a cave system in western Iceland. In 2000, archaeologists do a first thorough excavation of the caves. They find many animal bones that date back to the Viking Age. There are many man-made signs, too, from an oval-shaped enclosure to a large wall. By 2012, the archaeologists return to see if there also was (or could have been) long-term habitation. This time around, they find objects that point toward ritual offerings (to keep the giant away?).8 In any case, the caves might have been used by outlaws and refugees during the Viking Age. And perhaps there were ritual offerings or even scenes of torture or punishment.9

The pre-Settlement Age Sites

Hafnir: a Fishing or Hunting Cabin

A pre-settlement settlement on Iceland is the cabin at Hafnir. The timber of the hut dates back to the turn of the ninth century. The existence of the hunt and nearby debris of animal bones seem to indicate this was a temporary or seasonal occupation of the island by hunters.10

Herjólfsdalur: a Farmstead

(Source: World Tree Project / Herjólfsbærfélagið).

According to the Landnámabók at the turn of the tenth century, a man named Herjólfur Bárðarson settled on the Westman Islands to the south of Iceland. He would in time follow Erik the Red on his adventurous sailing trip to Greenland.11 Was it his farmstead that was found in 1924 during excavations? Three ruins were found: a longhouse and two smaller houses. During new excavations in the 1970s more ruins were found, that of 8 turf houses from different periods. Not just this, but many other excavations in the 1970s led Icelandic archaeologists to believe that Iceland was settled much earlier than what is stated in the medieval sources.12

Seyðisfjörður: Stave Churches

Did you watch the Netflix series Trapped during the Covid-19 regulations? If not, I can highly recommend both seasons! If you have, you will probably recognise Seyðisfjörður that the series’ backdrop. It is a tiny village in a fjord in eastern Iceland. The current town emerged from the successful herring industry that started by 1848. But there are signs of a much older past – for the graves at Thórarinsstadhir date back to the seventh century.

The graves are found as early as 1938, but the first excavation takes place in 1998. Archaeologists find 58 graves and the remains of two stave churches built on the same spot on the slope. Fire destroys the oldest church. The other is built on top of it. We only see stave churches in Norway, and the ones we know date back to the twelfth century. Elsewhere in Europe, churches are mostly built in stone. The only other known church in Iceland from the same period, is a turf church. That is why scholars believe the stave church at Thórarinsstadhir may have been an early “missionary church” built during the Christianisation of Iceland around 1000 CE.13

The graves in the cemetery, however, have suffered from landslides and are in terrible shape. A few conclusions that are made are that the women are buried to the south, and the men to the north. Among the important objects are “three carved stone crosses, an altar stone, a silver ring with Viking Age ornaments, pearls and Danish coins.” The crosses date back to the eleventh century and one resembles the types known from northern Germany. Considering the See of Hamburg held religious authority over Scandinavia during this time, could explain this. The altar stone, more impressively, is of a stone that is only known in Egypt.14

Stöðvarfjörður: a Longhouse

Stöðvarfjörður (Source: Flickr/Alexandre Breveglieri).

Since 2015, archaeologists have been excavating the site at Stöð. They found a longhouse dating back to the start of the Settlement Age, but later discovered it was built on top of an older structure, an even large longhouse dating back to the turn of the nineteenth century.15

Vatnsfjörður: a Farmstead

Before Ingolf Arnarson arrived in Iceland, the land was thought to have been settled briefly by Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson in 865. In Vatnsfjörður in the Westfjords, the six ruins are still visible, a longhouse, boathouse and fire pit that is thought to have been the farmstead of Hrafna-Floki.16

References


  1. Íslendingabók Kristnisaga, The Book of the Icelanders The Story of the Conversion. Translated by Siân Grønlie. (London: University College London, 2006), pp. 4. http://www.vsnrweb–publications.org.uk/Text%20Series/IslKr.pdf.  ↩
  2. Landnámabók Translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. (Winipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006) [reprint], pp. 20.  ↩
  3. Siân Grønlie. (2006), pp. 4.  ↩
  4. There is a fine research project mapping the saga locations by Dr. Emily Lethbridge. Find her site here: Icelandic Saga Map.  ↩
  5. ‘Archaeological Remains Discovered in Vestmannaeyjar,’ Iceland Review. Published 4 November 2014. Last Accessed 14 June 2020. https://www.icelandreview.com/news/archaeological–remains–discovered–vestmannaeyjar/.
    Margrét Hermanns‐Audardóttir, ‘The Early Settlement of Iceland. Results based on excavations of a Merovingian and Viking farm site at herjólfsdalur in the westman islands, Iceland,’ in: Norwegian Archaeological Review Volume 24.1 (1991), pp. 1–9.
    Pall Theodórsson, Norse settlement of Iceland — close to ad 700?’ in: Norwegian Archaeological Review Volume 31.1 (1998), pp. 29–38.  ↩
  6. Kristján Ahronson, Into the Ocean: Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), pp. 77.  ↩
  7. Staff, ‘Mysterious rings in Reykjavík possibly ruins of Irish settlements dating to Viking age.’ Icelandic Magazine. Published 20 January 2017. Last Accessed 22 May 2020. https://icelandmag.is/article/mysterious–rings–reykjavik–possibly–ruins–irish–settlements–dating–viking–age.  ↩
  8. Samir S. Patel, ‘Viking Age outlaws, taboo, and ritual in Iceland’s lava fields.‘ Archaeology Published May/June 2017. Last Accessed 22 May 2020. https://www.archaeology.org/issues/255–1705/features/5468–iceland–surtshellir–viking–cave.
    Kevin Smith, Guðmundur Ólafsson & Thomas McGovern, ’Surtshellir: A Fortified Outlaw Cave in West Iceland,‘ in: The Viking Age: Ireland and the West (Proceedings of the Fifteenth Viking Congress, Cork, 2005). Edited by John Sheehan, Donnachadh O’Carráin (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010), pp.283–297.  ↩
  9. Brown University research project Surtshellir on Facebook: www.facebook.com/Surtshellir.  ↩
  10. ‘A New View on the Origin of First Settlers in Iceland.’ Iceland Review. Published 4 June 2011. Last Accessed 22 May 2020. https://www.icelandreview.com/news/a–new–view–the–origin–first–settlers–iceland/.
    ‘Archeologists to Study Pre–Settlement Hut in Iceland.’ Iceland Review. Published 18 May 2012. Last Accessed 22 May 2020. https://www.icelandreview.com/news/archeologists–study–pre–settlement–hut–iceland/.
    Magnús Sveinn Helgason, ‘Ivory hunters might have established bases in Iceland decades prior to permanent settlement.’ Iceland Magazine. Published 16 February 2016. Last Accessed 22 May 2020. https://icelandmag.is/tags/hafnir.
    ‘Antiquities from Vogur in Hafnir | 1. Jan 2009 – 20. Feb. 2011’ Local History Museum. Last Accessed 22 May 2020. https://sofn.reykjanesbaer.is/local–history–museum/events/antiquities–from–vogur–in–hafnir.  ↩
  11. Chapter 2 of the Saga of the Greenlanders (pick any edition).  ↩
  12. ‘Archaeological Remains Discovered in Vestmannaeyjar,’ Iceland Review. Published 4 November 2014. Last Accessed 14 June 2020. https://www.icelandreview.com/news/archaeological–remains–discovered–vestmannaeyjar/.
    Margrét Hermanns‐Audardóttir, ‘The Early Settlement of Iceland. Results based on excavations of a Merovingian and Viking farm site at herjólfsdalur in the westman islands, Iceland,’ in: Norwegian Archaeological Review Volume 24.1 (1991), pp. 1–9.
    Pall Theodórsson, Norse settlement of Iceland — close to ad 700?’ in: Norwegian Archaeological Review Volume 31.1 (1998), pp. 29–38.  ↩
  13. Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir, ‘Kristnivæðing Íslendinga á landnáms– og söguöld í ljósi niðurstaðna frá fornleifauppgrefti á Þórarinsstöðum í Seyðisfirði,’ in: Studia Theologica Islandica Volume 38 (2014), pp. 101–102 [pp. 97–110]. [Transl. ‘The Christianization of Icelanders in the Settlement and Historical Age in the light of the results of an archaeological excavation at Þórarinsstaðir in Seyðisfjörður.’].  ↩
  14. Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir (2014), pp. 103–6.  ↩
  15. See New Insights on the Settlement of Iceland.  ↩
  16. Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir, ‘A Compilation of the Viking Ruins and Pagan Burial Mounds I have visited on my Travels around Iceland.’ Guide to Iceland.is. Last Accessed 14 June 2020. https://guidetoiceland.is/connect–with–locals/regina/a–compilation–of–the–viking–ruins–i–have–visited–on–my–travels–around–iceland–1  ↩

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