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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Attic Skull Sparks Ashtray Theory

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Residence of Minister

The human skull fragments discovered last week in the Minister’s residence are believed to belong to a female individual, based on size, according to experts, Vísir reports. The possibility that the fragments were historically used as an ashtray is also under consideration.

May have belonged to a “small woman”

Fragments of a human skull were found last week during renovations beneath the attic floor tiles at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Tjarnargata. The fragments were discovered by workers who were in the process of removing the attic’s floor tiles and insulation. They exhibited notable surprise upon the discovery.

The skull fragments have been transferred to the National Museum for scientific analysis, including age determination. While it is not yet known when the individual lived or whether they were an Icelander, certain details have been ascertained.

“Initial assessment suggests that the skull fragments likely belong to a female, a rather small one, based on the size,” Ágústa Kristófersdóttir, Head of Artefact Collections at the National Museum, stated in an interview with Vísir.

Possibly used as an ashtray

There is currently no evidence to indicate that the individual sustained injuries during her lifetime. However, it appears that the bones may not have been properly cared for post-mortem. “In the past, skulls were sometimes used as ashtrays. We have such specimens in our collection,” Kristófersdóttir noted. When asked if this theory was viable, Ágústa replied: “Yes, and further examination in the future could provide more insights.”

Experts have yet to determine how the skull fragments ended up in the Prime Minister’s residence. “It is clear that the fragments were intentionally placed beneath the attic floor. They didn’t merely fall between the floorboards. It appears that someone made a deliberate decision to put them there,” Kristófersdóttir stated.

The discovery has intrigued many, including researchers. “The situation is reminiscent of the opening scene in a crime novel, a sentiment that is shared by everyone – even among the most coldly rational scientific professionals,” she added.

Human Skull Unearthed in Minister’s Residence

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Residence of Minister

Human skull fragments were found in the attic of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Tjarnargata during ongoing renovations, reports. Authorities have transferred the bones to the National Museum for analysis, and preliminary investigations suggest no criminal activity is involved.

Analysis conducted by the National Museum

Human skull fragments were discovered last week beneath the attic floor tiles of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Tjarnargata, where renovation work is in progress. Analysis and age determination of the bones are being conducted at the National Museum.

“During the process of removing the attic’s floor tiles and insulation, workers uncovered two fragments of a human skull, reacting with discernible surprise,” Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated in an interview with yesterday.

“The origin of the skull remains unknown, including its age and how it came to be hidden beneath the floor tiles,” Katrín stated. “Preliminary assessments suggest the bones may have already been old at the time of placement, but conclusive evidence is lacking.”

According to the Prime Minister, law enforcement was notified and the bones were subsequently transferred to the National Museum, where experts are conducting further examinations to determine their age.

Attic seldom accessed

Foot traffic in the residence’s attic is infrequent, Katrín noted, adding that it was not unprecedented for bones to be found in buildings, citing an earlier discovery at a house on Vitastígur. “Nonetheless, such a discovery is quite uncommon,” she added.

As both the Prime Minister and a crime writer, Katrín acknowledged the intriguing nature of the find. “While it presents intriguing story material, my primary role is to ensure its proper investigation, including its historical context,” she noted. She also mentioned that the building has a lengthy history, both in its current location and previously in the Westfjords.

“At present, there’s no indication of anything criminal having occurred,” Katrín stated. “The working hypothesis, pending expert analysis, is that the bones were already aged when placed beneath the floor.”

Recent renovations

Renovation work, including enhanced fire protection measures, recently commenced at the Minister’s Residence. Significant modifications were previously carried out in 1980, and additional upgrades were made toward the end of the 20th century. The recent investment in maintenance work comes as the residence has seen increased use in recent years, particularly for governmental meetings and similar functions.

The minister’s residence in Reykjavík has a storied history, originating as a one-story log house built in 1892 by Norwegian Hans Ellefssen for his whaling station in Önundarfjörður. Sold to Iceland’s first minister, Hannes Hafstein, for a nominal fee, the house was disassembled and moved to Reykjavík in the early 20th century. It served as the official residence for Icelandic prime ministers until the 1940s, with its last occupant being Hermann Jónasson. Over the years, the residence has hosted various dignitaries including David Ben Gurion and Duke Philip of Edinburgh, and has been used for receptions and meetings.

Mittens Long in the National Museum of Iceland’s Archive Dated to Settlement Era

mittens in national museum of iceland

When Halldór Kristjánsson, a farmer from Akranes, dug new foundations for his farm in 1960, he unearthed a pair of mittens that have since sat in the collection of the National Museum. Kristján Eldjárn, then the head conservationist and future president of Iceland, suspected that the mittens dated from the earliest period in Iceland’s history.

His suspicion had gone unconfirmed until now, when a study conducted by researchers at the National Museum verified their antiquity.

national museum of iceland
provided by Þjóðminjasafn Íslands

Last spring, a sample from the Heynes mittens, named after the farm on which they were discovered, was sent abroad to a lab for analysis. Two samples were taken, one from the mittens themselves, and one from a braided cord that connects the mittens. The results of the dating show that both the mittens and cord are from the second half of the 10th century, placing them before the Christianization of Iceland. Notably, they are also an example of early sewing techniques for clothing, as knitting was not used in Iceland until the 1500s.

Earlier this year, Scandinavian textile experts conducted research at the National Museum of Iceland. They concluded that if the mittens did indeed date from the settlement period, their pristine condition could make them nearly unique as artefacts in the North Atlantic. The mittens are made from homespun wool, a staple fabric during the settlement of Iceland. Their remarkable preservation is attributed to their burial in the earth under the farmstead at Heynes.

The mittens, known as Þjms. 1960-77, can be viewed online at the National Museum of Iceland’s digital archive. The mittens are also on display at the National Museum, which is open from 10.00 to 17.00 every day of the week.