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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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, Mbl.is 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 mbl.is 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.

Demand for Ash Scattering on the Rise

Applications for ash scattering in Iceland have increased substantially in recent years. The District Magistrate’s Office received 50 applications in 2018. Close to half of the applicants were foreign citizens who do not permanently reside in Iceland, RÚV reports.

There’s an ever-increasing number of people who choose to burn their earthly remains once they have passed away. The same is also true of relatives who wish to scatter the ashes of the deceased. People have applied to scatter ashes in beautiful locations such as Reynisfjara, Gullfoss, and Skógafoss, to name a few. However, the scattering of ashes is prohibited in these places. Halldór Þormar Halldórsson, from the District Magistrate in North-East Iceland in Siglufjörður, explains that certain criteria have to be met.

“It’s evaluated in each case, but it’s preferable to head to mountainous areas without people. The law states that it is expected that ashes should not be scattered close to populated areas. It has been interpreted that it is therefore permitted to scatter ashes at sea and in uninhabited areas, in places where there is no traffic, far away from populated areas.”, Halldór stated in an interview with RÚV.

The increased of travellers heading to Iceland in recent years has led to an increased interest in scattering ashes in Icelandic nature. “We’ve heard many different explanations. People have visited the country, or seen pictures of the Northern Lights who are excited by the idea of Iceland. In some cases, it is folks who have visited Iceland as travellers, either the deceased or his close relatives. It’s mainly folks from the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, as well as a little from the Netherlands, who are interested in it,” Halldór said.

A sacred resting place in Eyjafjörður?
There have been ideas afoot to established a sacred resting place in the middle of Eyjafjörður fjord, where people have permission to scatter the ashes of their relatives. Halldór believes that the idea needs to be inspected to ensure the laws about scattering ashes are followed. “There’s nothing that bans people from scattering ashes wherever in the sea, as long as it is not within harbour areas. But if we are talking about one specific place where people want to scatter ashes, then people will always to apply for permission for that. I can’t envision a reason to stop people from scattering ash more in a specific place, rather than any other place. However, it is stated in the law that it is forbidden to label or distinguish the place, but it is out on the sea so it could be marked out by GPS coordinates,” Halldór stated.