Iceland Mag

11 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

New archeological research forces historians to reconsider the story of Iceland's settlement

By Staff

  • A giant longhouse The Stöðvarfjörður dig is probably the most important archeological dig in Iceland at present. Photo/Friðrik Þór

  • Bjarni Einarsson The archeologist who leads the excavation at Stöð believes the dig sheds new light on the origins of Viking colonization of Iceland. Photo/Friðrik Þór

  • Opening the siteThe site was originally discovered by accident in 2003. Photo/Friðrik Þór

Archeological excavation in East Iceland and C-14 dating of barley found in Viking Age ruins in Reykjavík threaten to topple the accepted account of Iceland's settlement in the 9th and 10th centuries by Norse Vikings. Written sources suggest the first settler to arrive in Iceland was Ingólfur Arnarson who settled in Reykjavík in the year 874. New research suggests the first people arrived as much as 100 years earlier.

Read more: News report: The Viking Age settlement that is emerging in downtown Reykjavík

Discovered by accident
Archeologists who have been excavating a site at the farm Stöð in Stöðvarfjörður fjord in East Iceland unearthed two large Viking Age longhouses. The two longhouses are very large compared to other Viking Age structures excavated in Iceland and Scandinavia. The site in Stöðvarfjörður was discovered by accident in 2003, and is only now being excavated by archeologists.

The site in Stöðvarfjörður is not the first Viking Age site discovered by accident. In fact, most of the important archeological finds in recent years have been totally accidental or at sites where nobody expected to find anything of importance.

Read more: Archaeologists in N. Iceland discover Viking age chief buried in ship with his sword and dog

Read more: Goose hunters find a beautifully preserved 1000-year old Viking sword

Bjarni Einarsson, the archeologist in charge of the dig told the local TV station Stöð 2 that the younger of the two houses was built on the ruins of the older structure, which measures as much as 40 meters (130 ft). Both structures are located beneath the "settlement layer", a layer of volcanic tephra that fell sometime in the years 869-73, making both older than the "official" time of settlement which began in 874, according to the Icelandic Sagas and the Book of Settlement, medieval sources on the Viking Age and the settlement of Iceland.

Previous archeological evidence has seemed to support the written record, although mounting evidence suggests a human presence decades prior to permanent settlement. Historians have also been taking a second look at the origin of Iceland's settlers as more evidence is found of strong Celtic influences among the Viking Age settlers.

Read more: Mysterious rings in Reykjavík possibly ruins of Irish settlements dating to Viking age

Read more: Celtic influence on the Icelandic language and culture is likely greater than previously believed

Bjarni told Stöð 2 that C-14 dating indicates the older structure was built shortly after the year 800, suggesting permanent settlement in the Eastfjords 70 years before Ingólfur Arnarson arrived in Reykjavík. 

Seasonal camps predate permanent settlement
The nature of these first settlements remains a mystery, but Bjarni believes they were fishing and hunting camps, rather than permanent settlements. "Such camps were common in Scandinavia," he points out. Local chiefs would send out teams of workers to establish camps in remote uninhabited areas during summer, where they hunted, fished and produced various goods. The camp in Stöðvarfjörður could have been used to fish, hunt seabirds and seals, as well as to produce oil from whale blubber and iron from bog ore. Most Viking era iron was smelted from bog iron.

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

The size of the longhouse, which is twice as larger than the longhouses excavated in Reykjavík, suggest an operation on a significant scale. The Reykjavík longhouses, which have been dated to the years around 870 measured 20 meters (66 ft), are currently among the largest ever excavated in Iceland.

The very name of the farm Stöð and the fjord Stöðvarfjörður seem to support this theory: Stöð translates as camp, station or base.

Such seasonal camps could have been used for decades before permanent settlement began. Bjarni believes they played a key role in the settlement of Iceland:

"People would have come here to work part of the year, producing goods during summer to take home in the fall. They would have taken these goods home, as well as information about this new land. Based on this information people would then have been able to make an informed decision to settle here permanently."

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