Stolen Artefacts Returned to Icelandic Museum 50 Years Later

Glaumbær museum turf house

Three artefacts have been returned to Glaumbær Museum in North Iceland by post more than 50 years after they were stolen, RÚV reports. The museum staff was at first perplexed by the package, which contained no letter or explanation. They eventually contacted the sender in Germany, who had a strange explanation for the return of the items.

Last week Glaumbær Farm and Museum received a package from Germany in the post. The museum, a preserved turf farmhouse from the 18th and 19th centuries, often receives gifts in the post, though they are usually accompanied by letters explaining the origin and significance of the items enclosed.

Unmarked package bore familiar items

“There were three things in the package: a creamer, a butter tub, and a small backgammon checker, which is like a chip for backgammon. There was no explanation with them, no letter or memo,” stated Inga Katrín D. Magnúsdóttir, project manager at Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga (e. The Skagafjörður Settlement Museum), to which Glaumbær belongs. “[…W]e didn’t understand a thing but the more we thought about it and the more information we found here at the museum, the more exciting it became.”

artefacts Glaumbær turf house museum
A screenshot from RÚV. The artefacts were stolen in 1970 and returned to Glaumbær in August 2021.

Disappeared in 1970

A search in a database revealed more information about the objects. “The creamer, it was so familiar that we started to suspect that maybe it was possibly from here and then we went into our database, sarpur.is, and searched for the items we thought it resembled and then it came to light that there was an entry for this creamer and a comment had been written under it: ‘Disappeared from the museum July 23, 1970’.”

The museum staff decided to contact the sender who offered an interesting explanation for the items’ return. “He told us this story, that he had found these artefacts at a flea market many years ago and with the explanation that they were from Glaumbær in Skagafjörður. And now he was getting old and his descendants didn’t want to have them so he had decided to send them back now.”

Asked whether it was likely the man had stolen the items himself and returned them out of guilt, Inga Katrín stated only: “That may very well be.”

Medieval and Viking Era Artefacts Discovered in North Iceland

Archaeological remains Hofstaðir Mývatnssveit

Archaeological remains of three buildings have been discovered at Hofstaðir in North Iceland. Archaeologists were not previously aware of the buildings’ existence, RÚV reports. The site, located in the Mývatn area, contains both Medieval and Viking Age artefacts.

Hofstaðir is the most-researched archaeological site in Iceland, and according to Professor of Archaeology Orri Vésteinsson of the University of Iceland, that’s for good reason. Orri says the research material in the area is endless, although experts’ knowledge of the site is still “quite incomplete.” Researchers are only now carrying out detailed mapping of the area for the first time.

Banquet hall and cemetery

A banquet hall and a cemetery had been previously found at the site. A new farmstead with a large longhouse was uncovered in 2016, leading to the decision to map the area in more detail. That mapping helped lead to the newest discovery of the three buildings. Orri says further on-site research is needed to determine the function of the buildings, which will first and foremost require funding and careful planning.

Political and social place

There are various hypotheses as to how work and life were organised at the rediscovered settlement, though evidence points to the site hosting both political and social activities. Interestingly, the area contained both a lodge that hosted pagan ceremonies and a Christian church, which stood side by side for several decades. “This gives an indication that the conversion may have taken longer and been more complex than we had imagined,” Orri observed.

Expanded Víkurgarður Protection Draws Criticism

The Cultural Heritage Agency’s decision to expand the boundaries of the protected area around Víkurgarður square is now being challenged by the Reykjavík District Attorney, who says that the proposed placement of a new hotel entrance will not disturb any historical artefacts, RÚV reports. Although hotel construction on the site had resumed with the agency’s approval, the organisation made the snap decision in January to expand the previously designated area of protection around the square, citing the location of one of the hotel’s entrances as its motivation for doing so.

The Víkurgarður site – which stands atop an ancient cemetery – has been the cause of heated debate between those who want to see it protected from development and those who say that the hotel that is to be constructed there will not disturb any artefacts of historical import. Current real estate estimates value the plot at close to ISK 775 million ($6.5m/€5.7m), but the site also has a long and storied history: Víkurgarður was the site of one of Iceland’s first Christian cemeteries, which was established in the 11th century, shortly after Iceland adopted Christianity. The cemetery was officially demolished in 1838, but burials continued there until 1883.

Months of debate

Construction on the site was originally halted in November, when a coffin was found during the initial excavation. Construction then resumed almost exactly a month later, when the Cultural Heritage Agency suggested that protection of the area should only cover the part that is classified as an official city square in city plans. This would then leave the area surrounding the concrete square unprotected and would allow hotel construction to continue.

In January, however, the Cultural Heritage Agency made the decision to widen the previous protection boundaries, because one of the new hotel’s entrance is slated to extend out toward the square. This decision came as a surprise to the developers. “We expect this is based on some misunderstanding,” remarked Jóhannes Stefánsson, the managing director of the Lindarvatn Real Estate Developers. “…[T]he area that’s been granted instant protection is just gravel; there are no artefacts there that necessitate [protection].”

Agency “doesn’t have the authority”

Ebba Schram, the City of Reykjavík’s District Attorney echoed Lindarvatn’s assertion during a City Council meeting on Thursday, saying that not only is the sudden protection status not in keeping with established laws on the protection of cultural heritage, but moreover, the proposed entrance will not disturb any artefacts or remains.

During her sharply worded address, Ebba maintained that the agency had not provided any evidence that artefacts would be destroyed or damaged if one of the hotel entrances does eventually face Víkurgarður. Hotel guest foot traffic does not represent any change to how Víkurgarður is currently used, she said, noting that the paved square has been a park since 1883 and open to the public since the end of World War II. The idea that hotel guests will prevent the park from maintaining its protected status is then, she said, baseless, as hotel guest foot traffic will not change anything about the appearance or future use of the square.

The DA continued that the Cultural Heritage Agency had had ample time to come forward with complaints about the design plans, even well before the coffin was discovered on the site in 2018. She also said that the Cultural Heritage Agency did not have the authority to issue instant protection out of hand.

As of this writing, it remains uncertain whether the hotel will be built according to its original specifications.

Landmark Project to Protect Archaeological Remains

Gjáin Þjórsárdalur

The Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland is now working on an unprecedented project that would collectively protect dozens of archaeological sites within Þjórsárdalur valley. Archaeological sites in Iceland are usually protected individually, but if the project is realised, it would be the first ever to protect multiple sites under a single declaration. The agency released a statement yesterday outlining the initiative. RÚV reported first.

Þjórsárdalur valley is the site of over 20 Viking Age farmsteads, the most recent of which was rediscovered just last fall. The area has yielded artefacts of interest such as a unique Thor’s hammer pendant dating back over 900 years.

The agency asserts that protecting the entire valley would simplify the protection of its artefacts and response to any threats they may face. It would also ensure that any artefacts discovered there in the future would be automatically protected.

[/media-credit] The proposed borders of the protected area in Þjórsárdalur. Blue and red dots mark archaeological sites currently protected by law.

Over 300 Viking Age artefacts

“Þjórsárdalur contains a unique collection of artefacts from the Middle Ages which are little touched by later development,” a report on the proposed declaration states. “In it lies great value, not only educational and experiential value for travellers and the general public, but also economic value for tourism in the region.” According to the agency, the National Museum’s director proposed protecting the entire area in the 1920s. While at the time some 22 archaeological sites were known, recent listings indicate there are over 300 artefacts in the valley. By linking the protected areas together under single declaration, the agency says, they would be implementing a policy formulated in 1927.

The Cultural Heritage Agency welcomes comments from the public on the proposed initiative by email at [email protected]. Comments must be sent no later than February 10.