Iceland Mag

13 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag


Ivory hunters might have established bases in Iceland decades prior to permanent settlement

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • Atlantic ivory hunters A hunting and fishing base excavated in Hafnir in South East Iceland was likely occupied by ivory hunters decades prior to the permanent settlement of Iceland. Photo/Bjarni F. Einarsson.

Archaeologists studying ruins by the fishing village Hafnir in Reykjanes peninsula in South West Iceland believe they have conclusive evidence that the site was occupied decades prior to the official date for the earliest settlement of Iceland. The ruins suggest Iceland might have had temporary fishing and hunting bases prior to being permanently settled.

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Archaeologist Bjarni F. Einarsson who has been in charge of the dig told the local TV station Stöð 2 that the ruins his team has uncovered date to at least 840 AD. The oldest part of the ruins could be dated to as early as 770 AD, according to which the site was occupied more than 100 years before the settlement of Iceland began, according to the generally accepted history. According to sagas Iceland was first settled by Ingólfur Arnarson, who built his farm in Reykjavík in the year 874.

This use of this date has been bolstered by the fact that virtually all human remains and structures found in Iceland have been located above a layer of volcanic ash, known to have been deposited by an eruption which took place around 871 AD. However, some structures found in Reykjavík and a few other places seem to have been built prior to the so called “settlement tephra”, and carbon dating similarly suggests human presence in Iceland prior to the 874 date.

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The ruins found in Höfn include a lodge or cabin as well as storage sheds, but what surprised Bjarni was that despite an extensive search they were unable to find a cowshed or other structures to house farm animals, indicating the site was not a regular farm. His theory is that the site was a hunting- and fishing lodge, occupied during parts of the year. “This would have been the precursor of regular settlement. And my theory is that the actual settlement was the product of decades of people exploiting the resources of Iceland.”

Bjarni points out that the occupants of the hunting cabin would have had opportunities to exploit valuable resources. In addition to fishing or hunting for seals and birds they could have been searching for the teeth of Sperm whales and walrus tusk ivory, which were highly priced as materials for fine art ivory carving.

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The design of the structures found in Hafnir suggests their occupants came from Norway or the Shetland Islands, which were colonized by Vikings in the eight century. Bjarni believes that hunting bases like the one in Hafnir could have produced knowledge of local conditions in Iceland, thus allowing for repeated travels across the ocean.

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