Archaeologists Search for First Settlement in Seyðisfjörður

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.

Screenshot RÚV

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.

Modern lessons

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.”


After the Avalanche

Westfjords avalanche

In January 1995, an avalanche hit the small town of Súðavík in the Westfjords. The town was decimated, and out of the 227 inhabitants, 14 people died. Some were rescued, including a teenage boy who spent 23 hours buried under the snow.

In October that same year, another avalanche hit Flateyri, a town of 350 people about a half an hour’s drive away. This time, 20 people were lost. The two avalanches were not only a blow to those affected, but to the nation as a whole. In the decades since, energy and funds have been spent building up anti-avalanche earthworks to prevent such disasters from happening again.

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Three Avalanches Fall Outside Flateyri

Three avalanches fell near the village of Flateyri in the Westfjords on Friday, RÚV reports. Luckily, all three took place away from residential areas. The Icelandic Met Office issued a red alert for avalanches in the area on Saturday and orange alerts for Sunday and Monday.

The smallest of the reported avalanches occurred in the Ytra Bæjargil ravine; the other two were of medium size and took place in two ravines not far away. The Met Office also recorded four very small avalanches elsewhere in the area before noon on Saturday. These took place in Seljadalur valley (near, but outside of, the village of Bolungarvík), Rauðagil ravine (near Ólafsfjörður – two occurrences), and Oddsskarður ski area near Eskifjörður.

Avalanches are not an uncommon occurrence in the Westfjords and Flateyri, in particular, has a tragic history with them. Just this January, two large avalanches fell on the town, flowing over two protective barriers that were built to prevent just such an occurrence. The slides incurred property damage and completely destroyed the town’s small harbour, but thankfully, no one was seriously injured.

This was unfortunately not the case in the case of the avalanche that fell on the town in the early hours of October 26, 1995. Forty-five people were buried by the immense wave of the snow. Twenty-one individuals managed to dig their own way out and four were saved by rescue services, but 20 people – ten men, six women and four children – lost their lives in the event.

The January avalanches in Flateyri ignited criticisms of the government’s allocations of funds from the Landslide Fund to be used for avalanche protection throughout the country. Former Ísafjörður mayor Halldór Halldórsson estimated that the fund has roughly ISK 23 billion ($1.8 million/€1.66 million), which could be used to improve avalanche protection throughout the country.

According to Halldór, plans were initially drawn in the early 2000s that called for the completion of avalanche mitigation measures by 2010. Later regulation pushed this deadline to 2020; current plans assume that the measures won’t be finalised until 2050.


Three Hundred Avalanche Guards Installed Around Ísafjörður

Over 300 avalanche guards have been installed throughout Skutulsfjörður in the Westfjords, RÚV reports, including many that were transported atop Mt. Kubbi, which overlooks the town of Ísafjörður, by helicopter.

Mt. Kubbi has a total of 332 caves on its slopes, which makes it particularly at risk of avalanches. The avalanche guards, each of which is 100 to 350 metres tall, will be fastened to the side of the mountain via bore holes. It has taken two summers for teams of eight to eighteen labourers from Lithuania to install the guards, which is very good time for a project of this scope.