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?

 

 

 

 

Is there any evidence that Iceland had human habitation prior to the arrival of Europeans?

Stöð Stövarfjörður Viking Age longhouse excavation

The conventional date given for the settlement of Iceland is 874, plus or minus a couple of years. In terms of evidence of human activity before settlement, yes there may be. But don’t let your imagination run away from you: there are several caveats.

To speak first of historical evidence, there are references in medieval Icelandic literature to people called the “Papar,” an Icelandic name likely referring to the pope.  This name refers to a group of Irish monks who supposedly settled parts of Iceland, including the island of “Papey.” There is no archaeological evidence of their dwellings, only some historical and literary references in the medieval material. In Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), these mysterious monks were said to have left behind relics like books and croziers, departing the country upon the arrival of the Norse settlers. While there are many examples of Irish monks from the early medieval period looking for isolation in remote environments, some scholars have more recently interpreted the Papar as a literary trope, by which medieval Christian Icelanders tried to re-write Christianity into their pagan past.

There is however some limited evidence for human activity in Iceland before the traditional date of settlement.

Around 871 (again, plus or minus a couple of years), a volcanic eruption spread a layer of tephra across much of the island, which archaeologists now refer to as the settlement layer. Any archaeological evidence for activity in Iceland before settlement would necessarily need to be found under this layer.

Recent excavations in Stöðvarfjörður in East Iceland have been found underneath the settlement layer, for instance. The excavations, led by archaeologist Bjarni Einarsson, have unearthed one of the oldest and largest longhouses in all of Iceland, in addition to a rich hoard of jewellery and coins. Radio carbon dating places these structures decades prior to the traditional settlement date, though it is worth noting that radio carbon dating always has a margin of error. Still, its presence beneath the settlement layer seems to definitively place it some time prior to 874.

Bjarni has advanced the theory that prior to settlement, Iceland was dotted by seasonal hunting camps, where Norwegians might have set up summer bases for hunting whale and walrus. Such seasonal hunting camps were common in other lands known to Scandinavian seafarers, such as in Greenland and L’Anse aux Meadows, the short-lived Viking settlement in the New World. It may have been the case that prior to the migration of Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, seafarers may have known of Iceland and even spent time there prior to their migration.

To summarize: there is definitely evidence, but maybe not proof, of human activity in Iceland prior to settlement. While impossible to prove (at the moment), it is a fun possibility to think about!

 

“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.

The Northman Premieres in London

the northman film

The Northman, a film written by Icelandic author Sjón and Robert Eggers, premiered in London yesterday. A “Viking revenge movie,” the film also features a few Icelanders, including a brief appearance by Björk. The premiere was well-received, with one critic calling the film “spectacular” and “visually stunning.”

A star-studded cast graces the action-filled epic, including Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Alexander Skarsgård as Prince Amleth, the central character. Icelanders Ingvar E. Sigurðsson and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson also make an appearance in the film.

Björk in The Northman
A screenshot from the official trailer of The Northman / YouTube. Icelandic musician Björk in the role of a seer.

The film follows the life of Prince Amleth, who goes on a quest to avenge his father’s murder. The killer is none other than the prince’s uncle, who also kidnaps the boy’s mother. The script is based on the same Scandinavian folk tale that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The Northman premieres in Iceland on April 14.

Ghostly Grounding of Viking Ship Not a Halloween Prank

A ramshackle Viking ship ran aground near Bessastaðir, the presidential residence, on Friday afternoon, RÚV reports. With Halloween just around the corner, the unmanned vessel’s mysterious and unscheduled appearance briefly seemed supernatural in nature, but much more prosaic explanations were quickly uncovered.

Screenshot via RÚV

On Friday morning, reporters were notified that a ship had run aground on the islet of Eskines, just offshore from the Gálgahraun lava field, but they weren’t told what—or what kind of—ship it was. Inquiries made to the presidential secretary shed no further light on the eerie craft: no one at Bessastaðir even knew the ship was there.

After further investigation, reporters were finally able to determine that the ship was Vikingaskipið Drakar, a vessel modeled on the Gokstad ship. Gokstad was a 9th century Viking ship that was 24 meters [78 ft] long, 5 meters [16 ft] wide, and would have been manned by 32 Vikings. Drakar was commissioned by a Viking ship enthusiast in Brazil in 2007 and briefly used as a tour boat for as many as 95 passengers at a time. In 2015, however, it was sold and transported from Trinidad and Tobago to Iceland. It has been moored in Kópavogur for the last three or four years.

via Víkingaskipið Drakar, Facebook

The current owner, Kristinn Gíslason, was quick to confirm that the ghostly grounding was not a Halloween prank. He found out that his boat had drifted away when he got a call from the harbour at 11 am on Friday morning. But while it may not have been a Trick or Treat prank, some mischief was definitely at play: the harbour master confirmed that the ship had to have been purposefully released from its moorings. He’d heard talk that local teens snuck aboard Drakar the night before.

Drakar was only briefly stranded in the shallow waters around Eskines; high tide on Friday came at 12:40 and the ship was sailed back to its rightful harbour.

 

 

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.

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.”

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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Ancient Iron Smelting Techniques Revived at West Iceland Festival

iron smelting Eiríksstaðir

Iron smelting, Viking crafts, and Viking tool forging were just a few of the activities guests partook in at the Járngerðarhátíð (Iron Making Festival) held in West Iceland last weekend. Hosted at Eiríksstaðir farm, the birthplace of Leifur Eiríksson, the festival brought together archaeologists, metalworkers, and Viking enthusiasts to partake in all things Viking. RÚV reported first.

The festival was organised in collaboration with US Organisation Hurstwic, which uses “the scientific method to research, study, and test Viking-related topics,” according to their website. The festival was labelled an “homage to experimental archaeology, where guests step into the world of the Vikings.” The focus of the weekend was using experimental archaeology to unlock the secrets of iron making in Viking-age Iceland.

Over the weekend, Hurstwic set up several fire-bellowing furnaces, including one made of Icelandic turf, in order to test archaeologists’ knowledge of how Iceland’s first settlers forged iron over a thousand years ago. Though much is known about Viking Age iron smelting techniques, researchers have yet to fully understand how iron was forged in Iceland using local materials.

Hurstwic’s experiments could be helpful in that process. “Icelandic archaeologists on our team […] said they plan to re-examine and re-interpret what they have excavated at early iron-making sites in Iceland, in light of what we found in our smelts this weekend,” a Facebook post from the organisation stated.

https://www.facebook.com/hurstwic/posts/2488505954537568