Category Archives: ICELAND

Medieval Artifacts Uncovered in Iceland

Medieval Artifacts Uncovered in Iceland

Archaeologists in Seyðisfjörður have excavated jewellery that dates from 940 – 1100, just after the initial settlement of Iceland. Notably, one of the beads found in the excavation even bears the colours of the Icelandic national flag.

Remarkably well-preserved structures in Seyðisfjörður

Archaeological digs have been underway in Seyðisfjörður, a fishing village in the East Fjords of Iceland, since 2020. Due to the high slopes of the valley, Seyðisfjörður is subject to land slides, and local authorities plan to build defensive barriers to protect the village, which has suffered damage in recent years.

However, these same land slides have also preserved archaeological sites in the region particularly well.

Archaeologists have been called in to perform exploratory digs where the defensive barriers will be erected, and have found remarkably intact manmade structures and artefacts such as game pieces and pearls.

The most recent discoveries are centred around the farmstead where Bjólfur, a settler named in Landnámabók, is believed to have had his farmstead. Significant finds at this site have included the remains of a man, a horse, a spear, and a boat.

Archaeologists have been able to date the site with a fair amount of accuracy, given tephra layers from eruptions, and landslide layers.

A unique bead

The artefact that has generated the most interest by far has been a bead which coincidentally has the colours of the Icelandic flag: blue, white, and red.

Ragnheiður Traustadóttir, an archaeologist and director of the team, has stated to RÚV that the find has caused quite the stir on social media, even causing some to claim a more recent provenance.

However, Ragnheiður has stated that it is certainly from the period 940 – 1100, given that it was found under known tephra and land slide layers.

“It will be interesting to put this in context with the four mounds we dug up last year,” she said to RÚV. 

“There is a unique opportunity to look at the history of Seyðisfjörður from the second half of the tenth century until the eleventh century.”

Some twenty archaeologists are currently at work excavating in Seyðisfjörður. The field season is expected to last through the middle of August, and continue next year.

Viking-Era Structures Explored in Iceland

Viking-Era Structures Explored in Iceland

Ongoing excavations of Viking-era, man-made caves near Oddi in South Iceland have revealed an extensive system of interconnected structures that is not only much larger than originally thought but also much older. Mbl. is reports that excavations, substantiated by tephra layers, show that the caves at Oddi were the first dugout in the middle of the 10th century.

“There really are no words to describe it,” archaeologist Kristborg Þórsdóttir said of the experience of standing in what is one of the best-preserved man-made structures of the Viking era. Kristborg is leading the current interdisciplinary study on the caves, which has been ongoing since 2020.

“The size of these structures is just so vast, there hasn’t been a study of such large structures, and definitely not from this time period in Iceland.”

An important medieval cultural and political centre

The first intact, man-made cave at Oddi was discovered in 2018, which was a remarkable discovery in and of itself. But further investigation of the site revealed a much larger cave connected to the first. It is this cave that is currently being excavated by Kristborg and her team.

The historic site of a church, farm, and vicarage, Oddi was once one of Iceland’s most important cultural and political seats and home to a powerful clan known as the Oddverjar. The current study has been ongoing for two years, with the primary aim of shedding light on the writing culture that was there during the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Oddverjar were at the height of their powers. Sæmundur fróði (Sæmundur the Learned, 1056-1133) was the most famous member of the clan. He studied in France and wrote one of the earliest histories of the Norwegian kings, although that manuscript was lost. Sæmundur’s grandson, Jón Loftsson, was a powerful chieftain who fostered Snorri Sturluson, the renowned historian, poet, and lawspeaker who is thought to have authored or partially authored major medieval works such as the Prose Edda (known as Snorri’s Edda in Icelandic), the most significant extant source on Norse mythology, as well as the Heimskringla, a saga of the Norwegian kings that was likely based on Sæmundur fróði’s lost manuscript.

Kristborg Þórsdottir. The excavation site seen from above

A race against time

“We’ve just partially opened up the large, collapsed cave that our little cave is connected to,” explained Kristborg. “We still have deeper to dig; we’re just working on making conditions safe. It’s gotten very deep and the rock isn’t sound. So it’s taken some time.”

Kristborg notes that the excavation is unique in terms of how demanding on-site conditions are. The caves are not only at a significant depth, which is dangerous for the archaeologists involved in digging them out, but also built into sandstone. “The rock is so porous that it just crumbles before our eyes.” It’s thought that the caves were not used for very long because they are so prone to disintegration.

Resources for the archeologists also remain limited. “We only have limited funds and time and you never know what’s going to happen next year. Maybe we can continue, maybe not. And information is always lost from year to year, preservation gets worse.”

A long and complex history, waiting to be uncovered

Kristborg says that the cave currently being excavated may possibly be Nautahellir, Bull Cave, which is mentioned in Jarteinabók Þorláks Biskups (Bishop Þorlákur’s Legends of Saints), which dates back to 1210 – 1250. The manuscript relates how Nautahellir collapsed with 12 bulls in it. One was then rescued from the rubble.

“Although it’s older than that, it’s likely that [the cave] was used for livestock,” explained Kristborg. “Whether it was for that specific bull, we don’t know. But the history of its use obviously goes back further than we’ve managed to trace yet.”

The caves at Oddi have a complex and fascinating story to tell, says Kristborg, but the scope of the current investigation is such that she and her team need to keep their focus narrow. “These are huge structures and an unbelievably large system of caves that we’re only just starting to come to grips with. […] We’d need to undertake a much, much larger study with a much bigger crew in order to get to the bottom of this and trace this history in full, the history of these caves’ use.”

The Unique Architectural Heritage Of Icelandic Turf Houses that Hidden In The Landscape

The Unique Architectural Heritage Of Icelandic Turf Houses that Hidden In The Landscape

Memorable, popular, and rumored to be the inspiration for Tolkien’s hobbit holes, turf houses are a rare form of home for the people who live in difficult climates.

For millennia, they have existed, and although layouts and materials may have changed, the basic format remains the same wood and stone frames surrounded by the Icelandic landscape’s most plentiful material: turf. In Iceland, where turf houses were the most common housing as late as the 1960s, the structures were practical and well-suited for the difficult weather and lack of timber.

The people responsible for bringing the knowledge of turf houses were the very first settlers and themselves from another cold, difficult climate – the Vikings.

When the Vikings arrived in Iceland in 874 AD, it wasn’t as barren as it appears today – in fact, 25-40% of the island was covered in forest, mainly birch trees, though they were on the short side due to lack of light and low temperatures. 

But the new inhabitants cleared the forests for sheep grazing, agriculture, shelter, and firewood. Tree regeneration was inhibited by all the grazing and thus, the Vikings deforested Iceland.  So where did they get the wood for their houses after they used up the forest? Driftwood and shipwrecks made up the deficit.

The Vikings built communal longhouses, often sharing one large room with dozens of people and occasionally, animals.  Body heat was a very important tool for not freezing to death during the long dark winter, so inhabitants slept all in the same room with two or more per bed. 

Turf longhouses varied in size depending on the wealth of the farmer or clan, and occasionally outbuildings like sheds and privies were also built.

The building method is genius.

First, a hole was dug a few feet down to where the ground doesn’t freeze.  Then a stone footprint was laid using the flattest stones possible – this kept the wood from touching the damp ground and helped prevent rot. 

A wooden frame was then erected on top of the stone footprint; the posts and beams were held together using notches and pegs, and a mat of small branches was laid over the roof beams to create airflow between the beams and the turf. 

The turf was cut directly out of the ground using special tools and laid out to dry; then the turf “bricks” – held together by the root mass of the plants therein – were laid in two courses around the wood frame, with dirt and gravel compacted between the layers. 

Turf bricks also covered the roof at a steep angle to facilitate water runoff.  The resulting walls were extremely thick and provided excellent insulation and surprising water-tightness.

Viking houses included some very interesting features, like elaborate carved front doors with complex locks and holes for shooting arrows at attackers, and a sleeping closet for the master of the house and his wife that locked from the inside for extra protection against invaders. 

Archaeological evidence suggests that more than the longhouse was communal – the turf outhouses featured group seating!

While the Viking turf houses undoubtedly fared well against Iceland’s notorious cold, damp, and dark weather, they did have some downsides. 

Mice and lice often lived in the turf, and very bad storms could sometimes peel up the roofs.  Turf houses also required a lot of maintenance, and depending on the severity of the winter needed to be re-turfed every 20 or so years.

By the 14th century, Viking style longhouses had given way to smaller, specialized buildings that were connected by tunnels to conserve heat.  By the late 18th century, the burstabær style was the most popular, introducing wooden ends, or a wooden face with the back built into the side of a hill. 

Many houses in this style still stand and have become the iconic Icelandic turf house.  They remained the most common form of housing in Iceland until the 20th century when urbanization and modernization took the country by storm.  Within 30 years, Icelanders had made the change to modern houses and city living, and the last full-time residents of turf houses moved out in the 1960s.

Today you can visit several turf houses, most of which have been restored and incorporated into the National Museum of Iceland, though some families have privately restored their ancestral homes.

Once a common skill, knowledge of turf house construction is now relegated to a handful of specialized craftsmen doing restoration and educational work. 

But the influence of turf houses lives on: architecture firms in Iceland and abroad are rediscovering the appeal of the original “green” buildings, with their insulating properties and use of local materials.  Besides being strong and practical, turf houses are cute – especially when the roofs are in bloom.

Iceland Spar: The Rock That Discovered Optics

Iceland Spar: The Rock That Discovered Optics

The archaeologist J.A. Clason finds extensive accounts of Viking voyages in earlier Icelandic sagas. They describe a mysterious “sunstone”, which Scandinavian seafarers used to locate the Sun in the sky and navigate on cloudy days.

So, What is Iceland spar?

Iceland spar is a crystal of calcite (calcium carbonate). Calcite is a fairly common mineral and comes in a spectacular range of colors caused by the impurities it contains.

Iceland spar is rather unique among the calcites. It contains no impurities, so it’s nearly colorless and transparent to both visible and ultraviolet light.

For centuries, the only source of this pure calcite was located near Reydarfjördur fjord in eastern Iceland, hence most of the world called it Iceland spar (spar means a crystal with smooth surfaces). The Icelanders just called it silfurberg, meaning silver rock.

A crystal of Iceland spar has two very interesting properties. First, it is a natural polarizing filter. Second, because of its natural polarization, Iceland spar is birefringent, meaning light rays entering the crystal become polarized, split, and take two paths to exit the crystal – creating a double image of an object seen through the crystal.

There is good evidence that the Vikings used the polarizing effect of Iceland spar to navigate the North Atlantic. The constant fog and mist in the North Atlantic often make navigation by stars or sun impossible.

The Vikings called Iceland spar a ‘sunstone’ because the polarizing effect can be used to find the direction of the sun even in dense fog and overcast conditions. It can even find the direction of the sun when the sun is actually below the horizon, as happens when you’re sailing above the Arctic circle.

The polarizing effect of Iceland spar can accurately locate the sun even through heavy clouds or mist. If you’re a Viking. I’ve tried it and had no success at all.

The second interesting feature of Iceland spar is birefringence, meaning it refracts light into two separate images, which is more noticeable.

The double image may just seem mildly interesting to you and me. But it turned the scientific world (at least the optical part of it) upside down back in the 1600s.

A piece of Iceland spar on my worktable, doubly refracting the gridlines.

How did that help the Vikings?

Researchers studied a piece of Iceland spar discovered aboard an Elizabethan ship that sunk in 1592.

They found that moving the stone in and out of a person’s field of vision causes them to see a distinctive double dot pattern that lines up with the direction of the hidden Sun.

Screenshot from the TV show Viking

The polarization of sunlight in the Arctic can be detected, and the direction of the sun identified within a few degrees in both cloudy and twilight conditions using the sunstone and the naked eye.

The process involves moving the stone across the visual field to reveal a yellow entoptic pattern on the fovea of the eye, probably Haidinger’s brush.

When light passes through calcite crystals, it is split into two rays. The asymmetry in the crystal’s structure causes the paths of these two beams to be bent by different amounts, resulting in a double image.

Archaeologists have unearthed what may be the oldest Viking settlement in Iceland

Archaeologists have unearthed what may be the oldest Viking settlement in Iceland

It is thought that the ancient longhouse was built in the 800s, decades before seafaring refugees had settled the island and was hidden beneath a younger longhouse,  brimming with treasures, said archaeologist Bjarni Einarsson, who led the excavations.

The youngest of the two longhouses contained the most valuable horde of objects ever found in Iceland and was probably the hall of a Viking chieftain.
The oldest of the two Viking longhouses at Stöð dates from around A.D. 800, several decades before the commonly accepted date of the settlement of Iceland in A.D. 874.

“So far the richest is the youngest hall in Iceland,” Einarsson told BBC. “It is impossible not to conclude that it is a chieftain’s house.”

Communal houses

The massive buildings, up to 75 meters long and 20 feet (6 meters) tall, lined with turf and thatch and were used as communal habitations throughout the Norse lands during the Viking Age.

They were divided into rooms and could be shared by several families. Fires were built in stone hearths along the center, and farm animals could be stabled there to protect them from cold.

Both longhouses were found at Stöð, near the village and fjord of Stöðvarfjörður in the east of Iceland. The younger structure dates to around A.D. 874 — the commonly accepted date for Iceland’s settlement by people, who, according to Icelandic lore, were escaping the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair. It contains one of the most valuable hoards of ornamental beads, silver and ancient coins ever found in Scandinavia, Einarsson said.

Among the finds: Roman and Middle Eastern silver coins, and “hacksilver,” which are cut and bent pieces of silver used as bullion or currency by the Vikings and other ancient peoples.

The excavations of the 130 foot-long (40 m) hall have also unearthed decorative glass beads, rings, weights, and a tiny fragment of gold, Einarsson said.

The inhabitants likely acquired these goods by trading local resources, such as the skins and meat from whales and seals, which were prized throughout Viking Scandinavia.

As well as Roman and Middle Eastern coins and pieces of silver, the excavations unearthed many decorative glass beads and a large sandstone bead that was probably used for trading.

Atlantic expansion

Hidden beneath the treasure-filled longhouse was an even older structure. Chemical and other analyses suggest this buried longhouse was built in the 800s, long before the permanent settlement of Iceland, Einarsson said.

He thinks it was a seasonal settlement or camp, occupied only during the summer and maybe into the fall, by workers in the area.

Although walruses were not found in eastern Iceland, the local resources that could be eaten, preserved, or traded could have included produce from fish, whales, seals, and birds, he said.

The archaeologists have also found artifacts from the everyday life of the settlement, including several spindle whorls made of local sandstone that was used for spinning fibers into thread or twine.

The archaeologists have also found artifacts from the everyday life of the settlement, including several spindle whorls made of local sandstone that was used for spinning fibers into thread or twine.

Parts of the older building investigated so far show it was one of the largest longhouses ever found in Iceland.

“We know that the westernmost part of the older hall was a smithy [for working with metal] — the only smithy within a hall known in Iceland,” Einarsson said.

The seasonal camp at Stöð was similar in scale and function to the Viking settlement discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows, in what is now Newfoundland in Canada, which has been dated to around A.D. 1000, he said.

“This was a pattern of the settlement of the islands in the Atlantic Ocean,” Einarsson said. “First, we had the seasonal camps, and then the settlement followed.”

Einarsson has directed a private archaeological firm for more than 20 years, and from 2009 excavated a Viking Age settlement at Vogur, on Iceland’s west coast, which depended on hunting walruses for their ivory, skins, and meat.

He discovered the longhouse ruins at Stöð in 2007 and began excavations at the site in 2015. The project is paid for by Iceland’s Archaeological Fund, the region’s municipal government, companies, and local people.

Extinction of Icelandic walrus coincides with Norse settlement

The Vikings may have caused one of the earliest animal extinctions associated with humans

In Iceland, there are no walruses, but there were hundreds at one time . The time of the disappearance of the walruses indicates the loss of population may be one of the earliest known examples of people leading a sea species to local extinction.

The ghost of walruses past

Walruses used to be a major feature of life in Iceland. Several settlements and landmarks along Iceland’s coast still bear names that refer to walruses, and a few of the medieval Sagas (the stories of the island’s early settler families) even mention them.

The Saga of Hrafin Sveinbjarnarson, written down sometime in the late 1100s, tells the story of a chieftain who killed a walrus and brought its tusks and skull to Canterbury Cathedral in England. But the walruses themselves have been reduced to only a few ancient bones and tusks.

A crosier carved from walrus ivory found in Scandinavia dating to around 1100 AD.

Did the walruses disappear before or after the Norse arrived? In other words, did the Norse kill off Iceland’s walruses, or did the population die of natural causes? Because Iceland has no living walruses today, historians have debated whether the place names referred to places where walruses were living when people arrived or just places where settlers found the skulls and tusks of long-dead animals.

The walrus tusks that Hrafin Sveinbjarnarson delivered to England could have been part of a thriving Icelandic walrus population, but it could also have been only a lost wanderer from more distant shores.

To learn more about Iceland’s pinniped past, evolutionary genomicist Xenia Keighley of the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues’ radiocarbon dated and sequenced DNA from 34 samples of bones and tusks from walruses in the Icelandic Museum of Natural History.

The DNA studies also showed that Iceland’s long-lost walruses were a distinct branch of the walrus family. The oldest walrus remains in the museum, dating to 5502-5332 BCE, were related to the ancestors of today’s Atlantic walrus population.

More recent samples, though, belonged to a separate mitochondrial branch of the walrus family tree, genetically distinct from every group that’s known in the North Atlantic—including the older Icelandic walruses.

“I would suspect that the most recent clade represent a colonization event that replaced the lineage represented by the old sample, rather than the old sample being a direct ancestor to the more recent clade,” co-author Morten Olsen, also an evolutionary genomicist at the University of Copenhagen, told Ars.

Radiocarbon dates of the bones, combined with the walruses’ genomes, provided an estimate of the size of their breeding population, which suggested that walruses had lived on Iceland’s coasts for around 7,500 years.

Although their numbers had been small—perhaps around 1,000 walruses at any one time—their foothold on the island had been pretty stable until around 1213-1330 CE, well after Norse settlement began in 870 CE.

Blame the Vikings

So what happened to Iceland’s walruses? As always, the answer is complex, but much of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Norse.

Settlers arrived in Iceland and began hunting walrus for the European ivory trade at a time when Iceland’s walrus population was already struggling with a shifting environment and a series of volcanic eruptions.

Painting depicting the Vikings landing in Iceland.

Walrus ivory was a major trade commodity in markets across Europe for much of the early Middle Ages, and the Norse hunted walrus around most of their territory in the North Atlantic. 

According to a 2020 study of DNA from walrus skulls and tusks found in Western European archaeological sites, most of Europe’s supply of walrus ivory came from a walrus clade (a group of related animals with a common ancestor) living in Greenland, which was home to tens of thousands of walruses.

Iceland’s much smaller walrus population would have been a drop in the bucket by comparison, but the ivory trade would still have put pressure on Iceland’s small population.

When the first Norse hunters reached them, Icelandic walruses were already facing challenges from the Medieval Warm Period (700 to 1100 CE).

A few centuries of relatively warm climate in the North Atlantic were helpful to human explorers, but not so great for walruses, which rely on sea ice as a place to haul themselves out of the water. And at the same time, volcanoes erupted several times near some of the walruses’ key haul-out sites on land. It’s no wonder the walruses couldn’t survive all of that and Vikings.

Some evidence suggests that a Roman fishing industry may have wiped out grey whales in the North Atlantic a few hundred years before the Viking Age, but otherwise, the Norse may have been the first to wipe out a whole population of animals for profit.

Neandertals had older mothers and younger fathers

Neandertals had older mothers and younger fathers

Work in three different countries reveals that neanderthals in Iceland are more like neanderthals in Croatia than neanderthals in Russia, according to research conducted in cooperation with three institutions.

Aurora Borealis over Jokulsarlon Lagoon in Iceland.

In comparison, mothers with children were older and fathers were younger in neanderthal communities.

When Africa’s ancestors left 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals came across it. Neanderthals have also contributed to 2% of the genomes of today’s non-African human populations.

Researchers from the Danish Aarhus University, Iceland deCODE Genetics, and Germany’s Max Planck Institute came together to analyze data from 27,566 modern Icelandic people.

The goal of the study was to reveal what percentage of the modern human genome contains neandertal DNA and its role in modern humans. Each person outside of Africa shares 2% of his DNA with Neandertals, but different people carry different neandertal DNA.

The researchers managed to rebuild at least 38% of the neandertal genome when it combined 14 million neandertal DNA fragments.

Icelandic Neanderthals are more similar to Croatian Neanderthals than in Russia:

According to these neanderthal genomes compared to the genomes of Neanderthal and Denisovan people, the neanderthal population that is mixed with modern Icelandic people is more like the neanderthals in Croatia than the neanderthals in Russia.

It was unexpectedly discovered that Icelandic people also have a Denisovan trail. This has been considered to be the case only in East Asian and Papua New Guinea populations so far.

One of the possibilities is that the ancestors of the neanderthal populations mingling with modern humans had previously been mixed with Denisovan.

In each generation, parents pass their DNA on to their children, and the age of the parents greatly influences which mutations they will transfer.

Comparing the genetic mutations in the Neanderthal DNA fragments to the corresponding modern human DNA fragments, neanderthal children were found to have older mothers and younger fathers on average.

Finally, according to the researchers’ findings, neandertal DNA has a minor effect on human health and appearance.

In a few instances, Icelandic people affected by Neandertals had a slightly reduced risk of prostate cancer (allowing them to massage the unusual spot of their prostate to help with sexual pleasure), as well as slightly short lengths, and also slightly faster blood clotting time.

American Indian Sailed to Europe With Vikings?

Did Native American travel with the Vikings and arrive in Iceland centuries before Columbus set sail?

Analyzing a type of DNA passed only from mother to child, scientists found more than 80 living Icelanders with a genetic variation similar to one found mostly in Native Americans.

This signature probably entered Icelandic bloodlines around A.D. 1000, when the first Viking-American Indian child was born, the study authors theorize.

Historical accounts and archaeological evidence show that Icelandic Vikings reached Greenland just before 1000 and quickly pushed on to what is now Canada. Icelanders even established a village in Newfoundland, though it lasted only a decade or so

But what is not known for certain is how a family of Icelanders came to have a genetic makeup which includes a surprising marker dating to 1000 A.D. — one which is found mostly in Native Americans.

In 2010, it was reported that the first Native Americans arrived on the continent of Europe sometime around the 11th century. The study, led by deCODE Genetics, a world-leading genome research lab in Iceland, discovered a unique gene that was present in only four distinct family lines.

The DNA lineage, which was named C1e, is mitochondrial, meaning that the genes were introduced by and passed down through a female.

Based on the evidence of the DNA, it has been suggested that a Native American, (voluntarily or involuntarily) accompanied the Vikings when they returned back to Iceland.

The woman survived the voyage across the sea, and subsequently had children in her new home. As of today, there are 80 Icelanders who have a distinct gene passed down by this woman.

Nevertheless, there is another explanation for the presence of the C1e in these 80 Icelanders. It is possible that the Native American genes appeared in Iceland after the discovery of the New World by Columbus.

It has been suggested that a Native American woman might have been brought back to mainland Europe by European explorers, who then found her way to Iceland.

Researchers believe that this scenario is unlikely, however, given the fact that Iceland was pretty isolated at that point of time.

Nevertheless, the only way to effectively eliminate this possibility is for scientists to find the remains of a pre-Columbian Icelander whose genes can be analyzed and shown to contain the C1e lineage.

Another problem facing the researchers is that the C1e genes might not have come from Native Americans but from some other part of the world.

For instance, no living Native American group has the exact DNA lineage as the one found in the 80 Icelanders. However, it may be that the Native American people who carried that lineage eventually went extinct.

One suggestion, which was proposed early in the research, was that the genes came from Asia. This was eventually ruled out, as the researchers managed to work out that the C1e lineage had been present in Iceland as early as the 18th century. This was long before the appearance of Asian genes in Icelanders.

If the discovery does prove ultimately that the Vikings took a Native American woman back to Iceland, then history would indeed have to be rewritten.

Although encounters with the Native Americans, known as Skraelings (or foreigners), were recorded by the Viking sagas, there is no mention whatsoever about the Vikings bringing a Native American woman home to Iceland with them.

Furthermore, the available archaeological record does not show any presence of a Native American woman in Iceland.

The more digging is done into the history of the Vikings, the more our perceptions are changing as to how they lived, traveled, and traded.

Hopefully, more light will be shed on this mystery over time, and the goings-on of the historic world can be unequivocally established, giving us a clearer understanding of our ancient past