Bessastaðir Excavation Unearths Mother and Daughter

bessastaðir archaeology 2024

Archaeological excavations at Bessastaðir, the residence of the President of Iceland, have turned up two skeletons. Archaeologists believe the remains belong to a mother and daughter, said to have died of “heartbreak.” Vísir reports.

Unmarked grave

The recent discovery was made in an old grave site which abuts the Bessastaðir church.

bessastaðir archaeology 2024
Art Bicnick

The two skeletons still need to be tested in order to confirm their age and gender, but Hermann Jakob Hjartarson, an archaeologist overseeing the project, believes the remains may belong to the mother and daughter Anna Helena and Anna Vilhelmína, who may have died a tragic death in the 18th century.

Hermann stated to Vísir: “The mother was [likely] married to the viceroy of Iceland in the 18th century, Lauritz Thodal. He had this grave dug with his own money, but it’s not written anywhere as to who was buried here.”

Testing of the bones in question will hopefully resolve the mystery soon.

Died of “heartbreak”

“According to the sources, she [the daughter] died of a broken heart, whatever that may mean,” Hermann continued to Vísir. “She became involved with a merchant from Hafnarfjörður, and her step-father did not approve of this relationship and forbade her from being with him. The story goes that she languished and died shortly after.”

The daughter is believed to have been 18 years old when she died.

bessastaðir archaeology 2024
Art Bicnick

Other findings

In addition to the potentially tragic remains, several other notable findings were made during the most recent excavations at Bessastaðir, including a church floor, likely from the sixteenth century, leading to the old church underneath the new one, and four musket balls.

“It’s not clear what that tells us, except that at some point in time, a bullet was shot here,” said Hermann.

He continued: “We may actually be onto some sort of layer here underneath this. It remains to be seen, but there are indications that there is something slightly older beneath this layer.”

Archaeology at Bessastaðir

In the course of its history, Bessastaðir has numbered among the largest and most significant farmsteads in Iceland. A former residence of Snorri Sturluson, it later became a residence for representatives of the Danish king. It has also been a school and the residence of notable Icelandic poet Grímur Thomsen, before it was given to the Icelandic state in the first half of the 20th century, subsequently serving as the residence of the President of Iceland.

bessastaðir archaeology 2024
Art Bicnick

Archaeological excavations have been continuing on and off at the presidential residence for some time. Some of the most significant excavations took place between 1987 and 1996, which discovered a 3.5 m [11.4 ft]-thick layer of human habitation dating back to the 10th-11th centuries. Among the many interesting discoveries made at Bessastaðir include some of the best-preserved insect remains in Iceland, which have given archaeologists insight into the conditions at the time of settlement.

Excavation Underway at the Árbær Open Air Museum


Archaeological excavations are currently underway at the Árbær Open Air Museum in Reykjavík. As noted in a press release, the research project primarily focuses on structures dating back to the 13th-17th centuries, with museum guests afforded the opportunity of witnessing the unveiling of new knowledge “‘live.”

Over 1,800 artefacts discovered since 2016

Árbær was an established farm well into the 20th century, prior to being converted to a museum in 1957. Today, the Árbær Open Air Museum is home to more than 20 buildings – most of which have been relocated from central Reykjavík – that form a town square, a village, and a farm.

As noted in a press release from the City of Reykjavík, archaeological excavations are currently underway at the museum, where a team of archaeologists and archaeology students from the University of Iceland are delving into the ancient origins of the Árbær farm. Unearthing relics spanning from the 10th to the 20th century – when the last inhabitants departed from the farm – the research primarily focuses on structures dating back to the 13th-17th centuries. Additionally, attention is being given to Árbær’s ash heap, which holds a treasure trove of artefacts from various periods, as well as animal bones and fireplace ashes.

“Since its commencement in 2016,” the press release notes, “the investigation has yielded over 1,800 artefacts, ranging from screws, nails, and scissors to sharpeners, sledgehammers, glass bottles, beads, numbers, and ornamental book decorations. The findings provide compelling evidence of Árbær’s abundant access to imported household goods during the 17th century, particularly pertaining to tableware associated with dining and beverages. Among the discoveries are fragments of intricate glass containers, knives, and cooking vessels once employed during grand feasts.”

Titled “The Ancient Roots of Árbær” (i.e. Fornar rætur Árbæjar), the research project aims to explore the farm’s history from its inception, shedding light on its economy and the daily lives of its inhabitants. “Considering that the earliest written sources about the farm date back to the mid-15th century, this endeavour promises to significantly augment the researchers’ understanding of life within this locale. It is a rare occurrence for town mounds in Iceland to be subjected to such comprehensive scrutiny, and the fact that these excavations are transpiring within a museum setting, where visitors can witness the unveiling of new knowledge ‘live,’ makes this undertaking truly unique.”