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.

Intact Walls from an 11th Century Turf House Found in Seyðisfjörður

Archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður

The undamaged walls of a manmade structure dating back to the 11th century have been found in an archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. RÚV reports that the walls are in such good condition because they were buried by a landslide that occurred around 1150.

“We’ve uncovered a number of structures or houses that seem to be under the landslide from 1150,” explained archaeologist Ragnheiður Traustadóttir. “So it’s just really exciting, what we’re starting to see here.” Uncovering the ruins is an ongoing process, Ragnheiður said, “but we’ve got some exciting weeks ahead.”

There are plans in the works to build landslide barriers in Seyðisfjörður to protect the town, which has been subjected to a number of devastating mud- and landslides in recent years. So this summer, as during the previous two, archaeologists have been working to uncover and preserve whatever artefacts they may find in advance of this construction. A number of smaller artefacts were found last summer, some of which dated back to the earliest settlement of Iceland. The landslide from 1150 was discovered last autumn, and beneath it, four pagan graves. Ragnheiður says this discovery changed the course of the dig, prompting the archaeologists to investigate the area under the landslide more closely.

Pearls found at the archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður
Knut Paasche. Pearls found in a woman’s pagan grave at the archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður.
A chess piece found at the archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður
Knut Paasche. A chess piece found in a man’s pagan grave at the archaeological dig in Seyðisfjörður.

“What is perhaps the most interesting is that the landslide doesn’t appear to have damaged these houses,” she said. “Maybe it had lost all momentum by the time it had made it down here, to the settlement, and so just piled up along the turf walls and hills and so now we’re digging out unusually intact turf walls.”

Ragnheiður told Iceland Review that researchers are just beginning to uncover the structures at this time, but expect to eventually find even older artefacts, dating back to the time of settlement (9th century). The dig will continue until mid-August.

Viking-Era Cave System Larger, Older Than Previously Thought

Oddi cave archeology

Ongoing excavations of Viking-era, man-made caves near Oddi in South Iceland have revealed an extensive system of interconnected structures that is not only much larger than originally thought, but also much older. Mbl.is reports that excavations, substantiated by tephra layers, show that the caves at Oddi were first dug out in the middle of the 10th century.

“There really are no words to describe it,” archeologist Kristborg Þórsdóttir said of the experience of standing in what is one of the best-preserved man-made structures of the Viking era. Kristborg is leading the current interdisciplinary study on the caves, which has been ongoing since 2020.

“The size of these structures is just so vast, there hasn’t been a study of such large structures, and definitely not from this time period in Iceland.”

An important medieval cultural and political centre

The first intact, man-made cave at Oddi was discovered in 2018, which was a remarkable discovery in and of itself. But further investigation of the site revealed a much larger cave connected to the first. It is this cave that is currently being excavated by Kristborg and her team.

The historic site of a church, farm, and vicarage, Oddi was once one of Iceland’s most important cultural and political seats and home to a powerful clan known as the Oddverjar. The current study has been ongoing for two years, with the primary aim of shedding light on the writing culture that was there during the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Oddverjar were at the height of their powers. Sæmundur fróði (Sæmundur the Learned, 1056-1133) was the most famous member of the clan. He studied in France and wrote one of the earliest histories of the Norwegian kings, although that manuscript was lost. Sæmundur’s grandson, Jón Loftsson, was a powerful chieftain who fostered Snorri Sturluson, the renowned historian, poet, and lawspeaker who is thought to have authored or partially authored major medieval works such as the Prose Edda (known as Snorri’s Edda in Icelandic), the most significant extant source on Norse mythology, as well as the Heimskringla, a saga of the Norwegian kings that was likely based on Sæmundur fróði’s lost manuscript.

Oddi cave archeology
Kristborg Þórsdottir. The excavation site seen from above

A race against time

“We’ve just partially opened up the large, collapsed cave that our little cave is connected to,” explained Kristborg. “We still have deeper to dig; we’re just working on making conditions safe. It’s gotten very deep and the rock isn’t sound. So it’s taken some time.”

Kristborg notes that the excavation is unique in terms of how demanding on-site conditions are. The caves are not only at a significant depth, which is dangerous for the archaeologists involved in digging them out, but also built into sandstone. “The rock is so porous that it just crumbles before our eyes.” It’s thought that the caves were not used for very long because they are so prone to disintegration.

Resources for the archeologists also remain limited. “We only have limited funds and time and you never know what’s going to happen next year. Maybe we can continue, maybe not. And information is always lost from year to year, preservation gets worse.”

A long and complex history, waiting to be uncovered

Kristborg says that the cave currently being excavated may possibly be Nautahellir, Bull Cave, which is mentioned in Jarteinabók Þorláks Biskups (Bishop Þorlákur’s Legends of Saints), which dates back to 1210 – 1250. The manuscript relates how Nautahellir collapsed with 12 bulls in it. One was then rescued from the rubble.

“Although it’s older than that, it’s likely that [the cave] was used for livestock,” explained Kristborg. “Whether it was for that specific bull, we don’t know. But the history of its use obviously goes back further than we’ve managed to trace yet.”

The caves at Oddi have a complex and fascinating story to tell, says Kristborg, but the scope of the current investigation is such that she and her team need to keep their focus narrow. “These are huge structures and an unbelievably large system of caves that we’re only just starting to come to grips with. […] We’d need to undertake a much, much larger study with a much bigger crew in order to get to the bottom of this and trace this history in full, the history of these caves’ use.”

Buried

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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