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.