An archaeological dig is currently underway in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland, where researchers hope to find dwellings built by the the fjord’s first settlers. RÚV reports that the excavation is centred in an area where the first settlers were often beset by mudslides and avalanches, as current residents are indeed still today.
One of the deadliest avalanches in Icelandic history occurred at Mt. Bjólfur in Seyðisfjörður in 1885. Twenty-four people lost their lives in the event. Avalanche guards are currently being erected on the mountain, but first, researchers are examining the area for archaeological remains that could well date back to the settlement era. A previous investigation in 1998 gave archaeologists reason to believe that there might be artefacts or ruins buried there.
Mudslide before 1477
More than 20 exploratory trenches have been dug in Seyðisfjörður this summer in search of these ancient settlements. These trenches show clear traces of a great mudslide that fell atop human habitations. By analysing the tephra layers, archaeologists have been able to determine that the mudslide occurred sometime after 1362 but before 1477. Employees of the Icelandic Met Office had discovered evidence of this historical landslide in 2018, but it’s only now clear how big it actually was.
“It seems to have been at least 250 metres [820 ft] and in the thickest spots, it’s at least a metre [3 ft] and there are big boulders in it,” explained Rannveig Þórhallsdóttir, the archaeologist who is overseeing the dig. “It’s remarkable, you can really picture the natural disaster that occurred here. And it seems to be on top of a human habitation, so that’s really interesting. We’ve also found three buildings that we’ll excavate next summer. We’re curious to see whether we’ll find evidence of the first settlement in Seyðisfjörður, but all signs point to us doing so.”
Two of the buildings are near Fjörður, a settlement era farm, while the third is in the northern part of the area. Preliminary results from tephra analyses done on-site indicate that the buildings could have been built either between 940 and 1160, or at least before 1477. Human habitations that might date back to the 12th century have also been found at a depth of 110 cm [3 ft] under a mudslide in nearby hayfields.
Evidence of a large avalanche has also been found. “A lot of people died in that avalanche and houses collapsed,” continued Rannveig. “One of the houses we’ll examine next summer [collapsed], but the stone walls remain. The woodwork [collapsed], but people in that house survived. So to some extent, we’re also examining traces of the avalanche of 1885 and the effect it had on the settlement.”
Rannveig sees a lesson for the modern era in the archaeological dig. “It’s great that three large avalanche guards are being erected above Seyðisfjörður precisely because we’re can see in black and white how important it is that we protect the places we live.”