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.

Icelanders Want Their Bones Back

þjóðminjasafn íslands

Skulls found to be missing from a graveyard in Haffarðarey in West Iceland have turned up in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Some Icelanders are working to return them to Iceland. National Geographic reports.

These skulls were once part of Harvard University’s eugenics research and represented the Nordic Icelandic race. Now, researchers in Iceland and the U.S. are interested in reuniting these skulls with the rest of the bodies, currently located at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik.

þjóðminjasafn íslands
Þjóðminjasafn Íslands

The skulls in question  were collected by anthropologist Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, who sought to study them as part of his eugenics research during a time when Iceland was considered a preserved example of the Nordic “golden age.” At the time, anthropologists such as Vilhjálmur were interested in the study of teeth. Because Icelanders led a fish-based diet with virtually no sugar, their teeth were of special interest, as they supposedly never formed cavities. Such research was, however, often fraught with racial theories that held Icelanders up as a forgotten time capsule of an original Germanic culture.

Icelandic academics, such as Gísli Pálsson, have also spoken up on the matter, stating that the remains ought to be repatriated.

Currently, US law obliges museum collections to repatriate the remains of indigenous groups within the US, but no such laws or treaties exist for repatriating the remains of foreign nationals.

Harpa Þórsdóttir, director of the National Museum, stated to National Geographic: “The National Museum of Iceland welcomes a conversation on the repatriation of the skeletal remains from Haffjarðarey. Ultimately, we want what is ethically best for the collection, while also considering the importance of their long-term preservation.”


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Deep North Episode 38: Unearthed

iceland archaeology oddi

After the death of Þorlákur Þórhallsson, Bishop of Skálholt, in 1193, stories of miracles that occurred in his diocese were collected as part of efforts to canonise him. The first of three volumes containing such accounts describes 46 occurrences, including a blind sheep gaining sight, a lost ship that was found, and a man saved from drowning, all thanks to Þorlákur’s holiness (and God’s omnipotence).

The thirty-third story tells of a bull that escaped certain death at Oddi, a prominent chieftain’s seat in South Iceland. When a cave at the Oddi farmstead collapsed on 12 bulls, crushing 11 of them instantly, it spared the twelfth, although trapped under several metres of rock. After a long day of digging, the bull was freed, walking off completely unharmed. The account is the oldest mention of a manmade cave in Iceland.

More than 800 years later, that bull drew archaeologist Kristborg Þórsdóttir to Oddi. She was curious about the story of the so-called “bull cave” and wanted to see if she could find it. What she uncovered was another miracle of sorts: the oldest manmade cave in Iceland that remains fully intact.

Read the story.

A Second House at Stöng Found in Archaeological Dig

icelandic farmhouse stöng

A second house has been unearthed at the Stöng archaeological site, Morgunblaðið reports.

Stöng, located in Þjórsárdalur valley in South Iceland, is one of the best-known farms from the time of settlement. Today, it is home to a heritage museum which features both a recreation of a settlement-era farmstead and church.

Oddgeir Isaksen, archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland, stated to Morgunblaðið: “There were plans in place to repair the shelter over the ruins at Stöng and to set up an observation platform at the eastern end of the excavation site, so an archaeological investigation was necessary.”

During these exploratory excavations, a building was found at the eastern end of the excavation site. The building is dated as being contemporary with the eruption of Hekla, one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes, in 1104. The 1104 Hekla eruption is believed to have caused significant damage to the area.

Oddgeir continued: “This confirms what has long been believed, that there was a settlement here from around 950 until 1104. There have been significant volcanic eruptions here; it has been a heavily affected area, and not very habitable afterward.”

The excavation is expected to be completed soon, at which point experts will need to decide how to best preserve the ruins. Plans are currently to incorporate the ruins into the current exhibit at Stöng.


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Stone Carved With Viking Ship May Be Oldest Picture Ever Found in Iceland

Viking ship carving stone Stöð archaeology

Archaeologists in Iceland have found a sandstone carved with a Viking ship that may be the oldest picture ever found in the country. The stone was found at the archaeological site Stöð in East Iceland in a longhouse that is believed to predate the permanent settlement of the island. RÚV reported first.

Richest longhouse ever excavated in Iceland

The first exploratory digs at Stöð were made in 2015 and archaeologists have returned every summer since to continue excavating the site, where they first focused their efforts on a settlement-era longhouse.  “The longhouse is among the largest found in Iceland, 31.4m [103ft] long. In Scandinavia, only chieftains’ farms had longhouses larger than 28m [92ft]. It is also the richest longhouse ever excavated in Iceland. We have found 92 beads and 29 silver objects, including Roman and Middle Eastern coins,” Bjarni F. Einarsson told Iceland Review for a 2020 article on the archeological site.

Oldest building predates settlement

What makes the site still more significant is that archaeologists discovered an even older longhouse underneath the settlement-era longhouse, estimated to date back to around 800 AD, some 75 years before the permanent settlement of Iceland. The most striking feature of the older structure is the conspicuous absence of the bones of domesticated animals. “My theory is that the older longhouse was a seasonal hunting camp, operated by a Norwegian chief who outfitted voyages to Iceland to gather valuables and bring them back across the sea to Norway,” Bjarni told Iceland Review. One of these valuables may have been walrus ivory: in 2019, DNA analyses and radiocarbon dating confirmed that Iceland was previously inhabited by a North Atlantic subspecies of walrus, now extinct.

First of its kind found in Iceland

The small but remarkable sandstone featuring a Viking ship with its sails unfurled was found in the walls of the older longhouse, Bjarni told reporters. Such carvings of ships, made in bone, wood, and stone, are fairly common artefacts in the Nordic countries, he stated, but this is the first ever found in Iceland and is likely the oldest picture of any kind ever found on the island.

This spring, archaeologists used survey equipment to scan a larger area around Stöð and found indications of still more structures and boat burial sites. While there is much that is unknown about the early settlement of Iceland, the amount of beads, coins, and silver found at Stöð certainly suggests significant wealth and trade.

Is there any evidence that Iceland had human habitation prior to the arrival of Europeans?

Stöð Stövarfjörður Viking Age longhouse excavation

The conventional date given for the settlement of Iceland is 874, plus or minus a couple of years. In terms of evidence of human activity before settlement, yes there may be. But don’t let your imagination run away from you: there are several caveats.

To speak first of historical evidence, there are references in medieval Icelandic literature to people called the “Papar,” an Icelandic name likely referring to the pope.  This name refers to a group of Irish monks who supposedly settled parts of Iceland, including the island of “Papey.” There is no archaeological evidence of their dwellings, only some historical and literary references in the medieval material. In Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), these mysterious monks were said to have left behind relics like books and croziers, departing the country upon the arrival of the Norse settlers. While there are many examples of Irish monks from the early medieval period looking for isolation in remote environments, some scholars have more recently interpreted the Papar as a literary trope, by which medieval Christian Icelanders tried to re-write Christianity into their pagan past.

There is however some limited evidence for human activity in Iceland before the traditional date of settlement.

Around 871 (again, plus or minus a couple of years), a volcanic eruption spread a layer of tephra across much of the island, which archaeologists now refer to as the settlement layer. Any archaeological evidence for activity in Iceland before settlement would necessarily need to be found under this layer.

Recent excavations in Stöðvarfjörður in East Iceland have been found underneath the settlement layer, for instance. The excavations, led by archaeologist Bjarni Einarsson, have unearthed one of the oldest and largest longhouses in all of Iceland, in addition to a rich hoard of jewellery and coins. Radio carbon dating places these structures decades prior to the traditional settlement date, though it is worth noting that radio carbon dating always has a margin of error. Still, its presence beneath the settlement layer seems to definitively place it some time prior to 874.

Bjarni has advanced the theory that prior to settlement, Iceland was dotted by seasonal hunting camps, where Norwegians might have set up summer bases for hunting whale and walrus. Such seasonal hunting camps were common in other lands known to Scandinavian seafarers, such as in Greenland and L’Anse aux Meadows, the short-lived Viking settlement in the New World. It may have been the case that prior to the migration of Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, seafarers may have known of Iceland and even spent time there prior to their migration.

To summarize: there is definitely evidence, but maybe not proof, of human activity in Iceland prior to settlement. While impossible to prove (at the moment), it is a fun possibility to think about!


Archaeologists Unearth Cottage Between Reykjavík and Mosfellsbær

archaeology in iceland

Archaeologists have unearthed a cottage near Úlfarsfell, a mountain and popular walking area between Reykjavík and Mosfellsbær.

The discovery was made during exploratory excavations made preceding the construction of shopping centre. According to Icelandic law, an archaeological investigation must be conducted before construction and any finds registered with the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland.

The cottage in question, called Hamrahlíð, was found to have been inhabited from around 1850 to 1920.

Among the everyday objects found include a knife, pottery, plates, cups, glass bottles, and some agricultural tools.

Archaeologist from Antikva ehf., the contractor responsible for the excavation, stated to RÚV that: “We’ve found cooking pits, so people were cooking something here or working with food. We don’t have any mounds or any built-up fireplaces, but we do have these holes. In one, which is 35 cm deep, we have at least six layers of moss and with burnt bones and charcoal. It can be seen very clearly on the floors that they busied themselves around this area.”

Hermann Jakob Hjartarson, archaeologist at Antikva, has stated that relatively few studies of such small cottages have been carried out. He stated to RÚV that, “undoubtedly, I think that this is still just one part of a bigger story. Most people here at that time were just cottage farmers.”



oddi archaeology iceland

Lucky number 12After the death of Þorlákur Þórhallsson, Bishop of Skálholt, in 1193, stories of miracles that occurred in his diocese were collected as part of efforts to canonise him. The first of three volumes containing such accounts describes 46 occurrences, including a blind sheep gaining sight, a lost ship that was found, and a […]

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Human Bone Found on Snæfellsnes

Snæfellsjökull National Park

A foreign tourist found a human bone on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland last week, RÚV reports. The bone, a single jawbone, was found at a location to which soil had recently been moved. Archaeologists and West Iceland Police are investigating.

The investigation aims to determine whether the soil that was moved to the location where the bone was found had been taken from an area near a known cemetery. Experts are working on dating and analysing the bone. It is not yet clear whether the bone is old enough to be classified as an artefact or whether it is more recent.

The location of the find has not been made public.

Intact Walls from an 11th Century Turf House Found in Seyðisfjörður

Archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður

The undamaged walls of a manmade structure dating back to the 11th century have been found in an archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. RÚV reports that the walls are in such good condition because they were buried by a landslide that occurred around 1150.

“We’ve uncovered a number of structures or houses that seem to be under the landslide from 1150,” explained archaeologist Ragnheiður Traustadóttir. “So it’s just really exciting, what we’re starting to see here.” Uncovering the ruins is an ongoing process, Ragnheiður said, “but we’ve got some exciting weeks ahead.”

There are plans in the works to build landslide barriers in Seyðisfjörður to protect the town, which has been subjected to a number of devastating mud- and landslides in recent years. So this summer, as during the previous two, archaeologists have been working to uncover and preserve whatever artefacts they may find in advance of this construction. A number of smaller artefacts were found last summer, some of which dated back to the earliest settlement of Iceland. The landslide from 1150 was discovered last autumn, and beneath it, four pagan graves. Ragnheiður says this discovery changed the course of the dig, prompting the archaeologists to investigate the area under the landslide more closely.

Pearls found at the archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður
Knut Paasche. Pearls found in a woman’s pagan grave at the archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður.
A chess piece found at the archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður
Knut Paasche. A chess piece found in a man’s pagan grave at the archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður.

“What is perhaps the most interesting is that the landslide doesn’t appear to have damaged these houses,” she said. “Maybe it had lost all momentum by the time it had made it down here, to the settlement, and so just piled up along the turf walls and hills and so now we’re digging out unusually intact turf walls.”

Ragnheiður told Iceland Review that researchers are just beginning to uncover the structures at this time, but expect to eventually find even older artefacts, dating back to the time of settlement (9th century). The dig will continue until mid-August.