I’d like to learn more about the settlement of Iceland and the Viking Age. What are some good resources?

iceland settlement history

Around 870, farmers, warriors, and merchants from Norway and the North Atlantic began coming in earnest to the island to settle permanently. The first to lead the charge was a man named Ingólfr Arnason, a man who is heralded as the first settler. He sailed in 874 from Norway to Iceland and set up his homestead in Reykjavík – the eventual capital of the country.

However, according to The Book of Settlements, there actually were some people living there before Ingólfr showed up. The Norse found papar – Irish Christian hermits – living in caves around Iceland but swiftly kicked them out. According to some archaeologists, there is some merit to this story, but the number of papar would have been relatively few.

Over the next 60 years, families poured into Iceland to gobble up the available land. Early settlers claimed huge stretches, then gave or sold big chunks to the latecomers. The majority of settlers came from Norway, but many came from the British Isles. In fact, recent scholarship has argued that the Celtic aspect of the Icelandic settlement is greater than previously believed.

Several factors brought the immigrants to Iceland. First, and most obviously, people love free land! Even with Hrafna-Flóki‘s bad reviews and the obvious limitations of the land – not much could grow – people still needed a place to stretch out and settle down. The Viking Age expansion of the Norse people across the Atlantic was driven by adventure but also need. Some scholars have argued that because the eldest son would inherit the family farm, younger sons around Scandinavia were left without a home. So they ventured out to make a home for themselves, settling in Iceland, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands. And of course trying to take for themselves England, parts of France, and other parts of Europe.

According to the Icelandic sagas, one of the most important driving factors of the settlement of Iceland was the tyranny of King Harald Finehair. Determined to become the sole king of Norway, Harald was eliminating petty kings and jarls that he saw as threats and taking over ancestral holdings and lands that free farmers had had for generations. Although later scholars say that the medieval sagas greatly exaggerate Harald‘s oppression, it certainly drove some families away.

Some of these settlers had, in fact, been Vikings. And for generations, the sons of Icelandic farmers would leave during the summers to join Vikings on raids around the North Atlantic and Europe. But it is misleading to say that the Vikings settled Iceland. Viking was an occupation – something you did. And most of the settlers were farmers and merchants – though certainly skilled warriors!

By 930, the majority of free land had been claimed and the mass settlement had ceased. For the next 300 years, Icelanders set up a government without a head. Some say it was egalitarian and classless, but that‘s a romantic view. It is true, though, that there was no king, no president, and no official ruler. Some farmers became chieftains, some served on juries or on the law council to help write laws. There were no police or official militaries. Disagreements and criminal criminal cases were resolved by neighbours, farmers, chieftains, and the victims. The highest public office was the lawspeaker, which was a fixed 3-year term. This era of Iceland‘s history came to an end around 1252 when Iceland officially became a part of the Norwegian kingdom. The nation wouldn‘t be an independent country again until 1944.

For those who would like to know more about the settlement of Iceland and the Viking Age, here is a brief, non-exhaustive list of resources for further reading.

Primary Sources

For historians, a primary source is a document that originates from the historical period in question. The study of primary sources is one of the best ways to really see what life might have been like, but at the same time, it can also be difficult to interpret these documents, as the period in question may be very far removed historically and geographically. Luckily, the Settlement of Iceland and the Viking Age produced some rather useful and interesting sources that even modern readers can enjoy.

The Icelandic Sagas: To put it very briefly, the Icelandic sagas are semi-historical works of prose literature written about the settlement of Iceland. These stories were first put down several centuries after the events they depict, but there is reason to believe that they also reflect a tradition of oral storytelling that may have even older roots. Many editions of these stories abound, and although there is perhaps no wrong place to start, it’s best to get a modern translation from a major publishing house. Some of the most important Icelandic sagas include Njall’s saga, Egill’s saga, Laxdæla saga, and Eyrbyggja saga.

The Travels of Ibn Fadlan: The Viking and Arab worlds often came into contact through Rus merchants and slave traders travelling via Constantinople. One of the most interesting products of this cultural exchange is this work, the travel writings of an Arab ambassador. The work preserves an account of a Viking burial that is one of the only written accounts of such an event.

The Poetic Edda: These poems concern Norse mythology and are still one of the best sources that modern academics have in the study of Viking Age belief. Some well-known poems from this text include “The Sayings of the High One,” a poem from the perspective of Odin on ethics and wisdom, and “The Seeress’ Prophecy,” a cosmological poem about the beginning and end of the world. Buy an edition that comes with a good introduction.

Secondary Sources

As you might expect, secondary sources include everything written after the fact. Mostly, this will mean academic studies on the period. But luckily, many academic works on this period are quite accessible to the average reader, and there are also many worthwhile popular offerings as well.

The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: This authoritative, multi-volume work is an essential beginning point for studying Iceland and the Vikings. It is rather pricey, but it is possible to access it online through library credentials, and your local community or university library may also have a copy in the reference section.

Valkryie: The Women of the Viking World: This recent academic work by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir is quite accessible and provides an interesting account of the place of women in Viking society.

The Children of Ash and Elm: Neil Price is one of the most established figures in his field, but don’t worry- this is also a book that was written to be read. It provides one of the best modern summaries of the state of our knowledge of this period, while also showing the deeper historical roots that led to the “Viking Age.”

The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga: A rather self-explanatory title! This slim volume comes in at just around 200 pages and would be an excellent read before delving into some of the sagas listed above.

Viking Age Iceland: Written by Jesse Byock, this is also another very good summary of its subject matter. Byock is an archaeologist, so the emphasis is placed on the physical remains of the past, but like all other scholarship of the period, he also relies on readings of the Icelandic sagas to flesh out his image of Iceland.

See also: Where can I read more about Iceland’s hidden people?





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.



Viking Age Excavation Could Rewrite the Story of Iceland’s Settlement

Stöð Stövarfjörður Viking Age longhouse excavation

A Viking Age excavation in East Iceland is revealing a more nuanced history of the settlement of Iceland, involving seasonal settlements, wealthy longhouses, and walrus hunting long before the island was settled permanently. The site, known as Stöð and located in Stöðvarfjörður fjord, shows human presence in Iceland decades before AD 874, the accepted date for when Iceland was permanently settled.

One of the Largest Longhouses Found in Iceland

Bjarni F. Einarsson, leader of the excavation at Stöð, took the first digs at the location in the autumn of 2015. The excavation is ongoing but has already produced findings that illuminate the early history of Iceland. “We are currently excavating what is certainly a Viking-Age farmstead, dating back to 860-870 AD according to my estimate.” The longhouse is among the largest found in Iceland, 31.4m (103ft) long. “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.” The bead horde at Stöð is twice as large as the next two largest found in Iceland combined. In fact, it is one of the very largest ever found at a Viking-Age site in all of Scandinavia.

Older Longhouse Predates Settlement By Decades

Even more interestingly, the farm is built on the ruins of an even older longhouse. “It was built inside the fallen walls of the older structure that appears to have been huge, at least 40m (131ft) long.” To put this in context, the largest longhouses found in Scandinavia measure 50m (164ft). “It also appears to be at least as old as the oldest structures we have previously excavated in Iceland. Based on radiocarbon dating and other evidence, I estimate this structure dates to around 800 AD.”

Read More: Buried – Digging Deeper Into the Myth of Iceland’s Settlement

Bjarni’s theory is that the older longhouse was a seasonal hunting camp. He believes such camps were operated in other parts of Iceland as well. “We have found several sites in Iceland where we can confirm human presence before the year 874. The site on Aðalstræti in downtown Reykjavík is one. Another is Vogur in Hafnir [Southwest Iceland].”

Early Colonisers Likely Hunted Walrus

Seasonal camps would have played a vital role in the settlement of Iceland, extracting valuable resources and thus financing further exploration and settlement. Recent paleoecological research suggests the valuable resource that drew them there was walrus ivory. Walrus ivory was in high demand in Europe in the ninth century, as were the animals’ blubber and hides. It was also valuable: a single walrus tusk was worth the annual wages of one farm worker.

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. The Icelandic walrus appears to have lived along Iceland’s shores for thousands of years, from at least 7000 BC, only to disappear shortly after the arrival of settlers.

Seasonal Settlements Propelled Westward Expansion

Seasonal hunting camps like the one in Stöðvarfjörður were a major feature of the westward expansion of the Viking world across the Atlantic, according to Bjarni. “The Viking settlement in Newfoundland, at L’Anse aux Meadows, was a camp of this type, very similar to the one at Stöð, operated by Icelandic or Greenlandic chiefs. The latest research shows it was in operation for 150 years before being abandoned.”


Stöð Stövarfjörður Viking Age longhouse excavation

Once upon a time, there was a brave Viking chief called Ingólfur Arnarson. He took to the open ocean along with his family and farmhands to seek out a land far across the sea that only a handful of explorers had visited. When Ingólfur saw this new, uninhabited land rise from the sea, knowing nothing of its opportunities or the challenges it presented, he asked the gods for direction on where to settle. Ingólfur threw his high-seat pillars overboard, swearing an oath to build his farm wherever they came ashore. The gods directed the pillars to Reykjavík, where Ingólfur made his home in the year 874.

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