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.

“Iceland’s Settlers Were Not Vikings”

“Vikings were never anything more than gangs, just like the criminal gangs of today,” stated Ethnologist Árni Björnsson in a recent TV interview for Stöð 2. Árni criticised the National Museum of Iceland, his former workplace, for hosting “Viking battles” as part of Reykjavík Culture Night earlier this month, saying Iceland’s historical ties to Vikings are limited at best – and that Vikings are nothing worth glorifying.

“For over 100 years, it has been trendy in the European and North American entertainment industries to refer to everyone who lived in the Nordic countries in the High Middle Ages as Vikings. That is of course far from the truth. Residents of the Nordic countries were of course first and foremost farmers and fishermen,” Árni explained. Vikings are, however, mentioned more often in sources, “just like international news today is more likely to mention terrorist acts.”

“Vikings didn’t come to Iceland”

Both the National Museum and the Settlement Exhibition hosted Viking-themed events for Reykjavík Culture Night. Árni explains that the idea that Icelanders are the descendants of Vikings is largely the product of 19th-century foreign authors, who romanticised this idea in their work: the idea has no historical basis.

“Violence has always held a certain charm. People enjoy reading crime novels, and they enjoy making up Viking stories. But I think that a public institution that wants to be taken seriously shouldn’t take part in that. I find that unacceptable, because what is Iceland’s connection to Vikings? Iceland’s settlers were not Vikings. Vikings didn’t come to Iceland, except a few elderly, exhausted ones.”

One of Iceland’s most respected ethnologists, Árni was the Director of the National Museum’s Ethnology Department between 1969 and 2002. He has written and published some 20 books, as well as countless articles and radio segments on Icelandic traditions and cultural history and holds a PhD in Ethnology from the University of Iceland.

Excavation in Seyðisfjörður Unearths Jewelry from Earliest Period of Settlement

seyðisfjörður archaeology

Archaeologists in Seyðisfjörður have excavated jewelry that dates from 940 – 1100, just after the initial settlement of Iceland. Notably, one of the beads found in the excavation even bears the colours of the Icelandic national flag.

Remarkably well-preserved structures in Seyðisfjörður

Archaeological digs have been underway in Seyðisfjörður, a fishing village in the East Fjords of Iceland, since 2020. Due to the high slopes of the valley, Seyðisfjörður is subject to land slides, and local authorities plan to build defensive barriers to protect the village, which has suffered damage in recent years. However, these same land slides have also preserved archaeological sites in the region particularly well. Archaeologists have been called in to perform exploratory digs where the defensive barriers will be erected, and have found remarkably intact manmade structures and artifacts such as game pieces and pearls.

The most recent discoveries are centered around the farmstead where Bjólfur, a settler named in Landnámabók, is believed to have had his farmstead. Significant finds at this site have included the remains of a man, a horse, a spear, and a boat. Archaeologists have been able to date the site with a fair amount of accuracy, given tephra layers from eruptions, and land slide layers.

A unique bead

The artifact that has generated the most interest by far has been a bead which coincidentally has the colours of the Icelandic flag: blue, white, and red.

Ragnheiður Traustadóttir, an archaeologist and director of the team, has stated to RÚV that the find has caused quite the stir on social media, even causing some to claim a more recent provenance.

However, Ragnheiður has stated that it is certainly from the period 940 – 1100, given that it was found under known tephra and land slide layers.

“It will be interesting to put this in context with the four mounds we dug up last year,” she said to RÚV.  “There is a unique opportunity to look at the history of Seyðisfjörður from the second half of the tenth century until the eleventh century.”

Some twenty archaeologists are currently at work excavating in Seyðisfjörður. The field season is expected to last through the middle of August, and continue next year.

 

Höfði

On a cold winter’s night in 1952, John Greenway, Great Britain’s Minister to Iceland, heard a loud bang and woke in his bed with a start. He was alone in the embassy, commonly known as Höfði house, which also served as his official residence. Intent on discovering the source of the disruption, he descended the […]

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Skyr Exhibition Opens in Selfoss

The history of skyr production and consumption is the subject of a new exhibition that was just opened in Selfoss, South Iceland. Called Skyrland, the exhibition tells visitors the story behind Iceland’s characteristic dairy product, from the first settlers to the 21st century. The exhibition is located in Selfoss’ newly built city centre in the same building as a food hall.

At Skyrland “You’ll discover how 40 generations of women passed their skyr-making knowledge down, from mother to daughter, and how the story moved from isolated turf-roofed farms, to the world,” the exhibition’s website states. The exhibition features stops for all senses, including a “story wall,” an immersive scent exhibit, and even a tasting session for those who want to try the delicacy.

Skyr is a high-protein, low-fat, cultured dairy product. It is technically a cheese but it is consumed like a yogurt. Skyr has a sour flavour and is produced and sold commercially with added flavouring like blueberry or vanilla. It has been a staple of the Icelandic diet for centuries and is even mentioned in a number of Medieval sagas. Cultural historian Hallgerður Gísladóttir has suggested that skyr was produced across Scandinavia at the time Iceland was settled, but the tradition was lost elsewhere after that period.

Glíma: Icelandic Wrestling Applies for UNESCO Status

glíma Icelandic wrestling

Icelandic wrestling, known as glíma, could soon be on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage, RÚV reports. The sport involves wrestlers gripping their opponent by the waist and attempting to throw them to the ground.

Glíma was brought to Iceland by Norwegian settlers. Though originally opponents held onto each other’s trousers, in 1905 a special belt or harness was introduced to the sport, allowing wrestlers to have a better grip on each other. The sport is known for emphasising technique over force and was featured in a demonstration at the 1912 Summer Olympics.

Guðmundur Stefán Gunnarsson teaches glíma in Njarðvík, Southwest Iceland. He is working to get the sport onto UNESCO’s official list of intangible cultural heritage. It recently reached the first milestone in that process, which is to be registered as Icelandic cultural heritage.

According to Guðmundur Stefán, the atmosphere of glíma is very positive and competitions are characterised by respect among athletes. Heiðrún Fjóla Pálsdóttir, an award-winning glíma competitor who teaches alongside Guðmundur, agrees. “There’s such incredibly good morale in Icelandic glíma. Everyone is friends and it’s always so much fun.”

More information about glíma is available in English on the website Lifandi hefðir (Living Traditions).

46 Years Since First Women’s Day Off in Iceland

2018 Women's Day off Protest kvennafrídagurinn

Yesterday marked 46 years since Iceland’s first “Women’s Day Off,” when women left their workplaces and took to the streets to protest the gender pay gap. Around 25,000 women attended that first protest in Lækjartorg square, which sparked similar movements around the world. Women’s average salary in Iceland is still just 77.2% of men’s average salary, according to the newest figures from Statistics Iceland.

The first Women’s Day Off was held in 1975, and five more protests have been organised in Iceland since then: in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016, and 2018. No public protest was held this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though the Women’s History Archives held a feminist history walk yesterday in downtown Reykjavík.

Despite legislation intended to ensure equal pay, Iceland’s gender pay gap persists. As of last year, women still filled less than 25% of CEO and chair positions in Icelandic businesses and the proportion of women on boards for companies with more than 50 employees was just under 35% in 2019.

Living Memory

Fifty kilometres [30mi] southwest of Rauðavatn lake, far beyond the din of the city, is a town that is not only a town, but also a memory of one – a memory that its townspeople endeavour to conserve, each in their own way, each according to their own design. Some come looking for context, others for narrative, and a few come looking only for peace.
They find it here, some of them. By the sea. Among the birds. In the quiet.

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The Foreman

The crimeIn the small hours of a cold and dark night in 1827, Hjörtur Jónsson’s slumber was interrupted by the distant sound of wood cracking. Wielding a long iron bar, someone was violently prying open the wealthy farmer’s front door; hinges creaked, groaned, and then gave way with a faint bang. Now fully awake, his heart […]

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Walrus Makes Stop in Southeast Iceland

A small crowd gathered in Höfn, Southeast Iceland, when a walrus was spotted in the town harbour yesterday evening, RÚV reports. There are no walruses living on Iceland’s shores, but one is spotted on average every ten years or so, likely arriving from Greenland. The walrus spotted in Höfn swam out to sea last night and caused no damage to residents or the harbour.

Though Iceland does not have a local walrus population today, there is evidence it used to. In 2019, DNA analyses and radiocarbon dating of walrus tusks found in Iceland revealed that they belonged to a previously unknown subspecies of the Atlantic walrus. This confirmed Iceland was “home to a distinct, localised subspecies” of walrus, according to Dr. Hilmar Malmquist, Director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History.

Read More: Walruses Fuelled the Viking Expansion

The subspecies lived on Iceland’s shores from at least 7000 BC but disappeared shortly after the arrival of settlers. The total population seems to have been relatively small (around 5,000 animals) and thus vulnerable to habitat changes. Iceland’s climate today is too warm to support a walrus population. The animals prefer colder temperatures as well as abundant sea ice, especially during breeding season.

While Hilmar says a warming climate and volcanic eruptions may have been factors in the animals’ disappearance, the most likely explanation is that the animals were hunted to extinction by humans. Walrus ivory was once traded as a luxury product in Europe and Vikings also used walrus hides to make rope and walrus blubber to make oil, used for waterproofing ship hulls. Some sources suggest Vikings also ate walrus meat.