Mystery Surrounds Centuries-Old Sheepfolds Skip to content

Mystery Surrounds Centuries-Old Sheepfolds

Centuries-old circular stone sheepfolds can be found across Iceland. Some think they are reminiscent of Celtic architecture and there has been speculation about whether they were used for purposes other than sheltering sheep. An enthusiast about these structures, Snjólfur Gíslason, has called for them to be better investigated, reports RÚV.

Snjólfur lives in Breiðdalsvík in East Iceland, but when he worked for a time for RARIK – Iceland State Electricity putting up electricity lines, his attention was caught by the old stone shelters for livestock dotted here and there across the country. One of them was a sheepcote like that which stands at Naustasand in Breiðdalur valley.

“The wall thickness is quite gigantic—at least three meters [118 inches]—and the structure was probably as high as a man or higher. This sheepfold is certainly so well-preserved because it’s almost completely on rock. I think there is a very thin layer of earth below. The walls would, of course, have been higher than they are now because vegetation and the like has accumulated in them. It has been very carefully built and a lot of effort went into it. This is one of the more beautiful examples that I’ve seen here in East Iceland,” remarked Snjólfur.

The circle is more than 15 meters [49 feet] in diameter. Sheepcotes were used to shelter sheep in winter, but only one has been fully investigated, in Hagaey in Þjórsá in South Iceland. It was not possible to date it more accurately than from the 15th or 16th century. It has therefore been argued that fortified structures in Iceland have Celtic roots, and they are more commonly found in places with names that bear traces of the Celtic influence. Circular shelters of this kind were sometimes incorrectly considered to be ancient circles of judgement. Snjólfur believes that the sheepfold at Naustasand could have been a meeting place.

He believes it is important to protect these old remains, but the one in Naustasand came within a hair’s breadth of being lost beneath a road. “It just avoided being bulldozed under at one time. But it is my belief that this is a very old structure. I would have liked it if some knowledgeable archaeologists made holes in it to see the ash layers and other things at the bottom that could prove its age. It would be great if that were a possibility,” concluded Snjólfur.

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