Following Iceland’s adoption of Christianity in around 1000 AD, it is believed a church was built on the present-day corner of Aðalstræti and Kirkjustræti in Reykjavík. 800 years’ worth of Reykjavík residents are buried in the graveyard, which is now being excavated.
After the church had gone, the graveyard remained and was first called Víkurgarður and then Fógetagarður and people were buried there for 30 generations, until 1838.
“This graveyard has a very long history. It is thought to have been established at the end of the 11th century and was formally closed in 1838, when the graveyard at Suðurgata took over,” Vala Garðarsdóttir, archaeologist, told Vísir. New bodies were buried in the yard until at least 1882 or 1883 – long after the new graveyard opened for business.
“We are clearing this area over the next two weeks, at which point we will move east and open up around Thorvaldsenstræti. As well as that, there is another area to the north of us that we are going to dig.”
The archaeological dig was ordered due to construction projects in central Reykjavík. Vala says it is a positive development that archaeological concerns are increasingly taken into account before construction starts.
“There is a much better quality of archaeology today. When a hotel or other building is being erected, the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland has clearer rules and written requirements. Constructors are also much better aware of their responsibility and that is of course out of professionalism,” Vala says.
Has anything come as a surprise during the dig so far?
“Maybe not a surprise, but it is interesting to see the differing burial rituals within Christianity. Here there is not one rule on how people are buried, apart from that they lie with their head to the west and look to the east, which is a fixed tradition.”
After the dig is complete, the human remains will be sent for research before moving into the care of the National Museum. Vala believes the bones will give researchers a window into a long period of Reykjavík’s history—not least into people’s health and diet.