1200-year-old Viking houses shake up knowledge of Iceland’s history

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of two Viking dwellings, which appear to date back to the 800s and 860s in eastern Iceland, near the city of Sturrfjurur. The discovery suggests that the island may have been inhabited earlier than thought.

Located in the middle of the North Atlantic, more than a thousand kilometres from Norway and Scotland, Iceland is a very isolated territory. And it took hundreds of years before its existence was brought to light. According to Icelandic literature, and in particular the Landnamabik, “the book of colonization”, it was not until the middle of the 9th century that the Scandinavians discovered the island and they did not immediately colonize it.

The texts state that it was a Viking expelled from Norway, Ing-lfr Arnarson, who settled there permanently in 874, laying the foundations for what would later become the capital of the country, Reykjavik. This version of Icelandic history has been widely accepted for centuries, but more and more archaeological finds seem to call it into question.

The latest was carried out on the site of The village of St. Varjofjarur in the east of the country. In excavating, archaeologists have unearthed the ruins of two houses that are believed to date back to the 800s and 860s. They thus suggest that Iceland would have been inhabited earlier than thought. At least long before Arnarson settled there permanently.

One of the largest and richest houses
It was in 2007 that archaeologist Bjarni Einarsson discovered the ruins of the first dwelling. Excavations began in 2015, revealing a site as rich as it is intriguing. They found that the structure corresponds to that of a longhouse, a long and narrow dwelling, covered with thatch, straw or grass, once used by the Vikings.

At a length of 31.4 metres, the house is one of the largest exhumed in Iceland. And its ruins were not empty. In addition to the structure, archaeologists have unearthed about 100 pearls and nearly thirty silver objects, including Roman coins. This rich content, as well as the size of the dwelling, suggest that the premises did not house anyone.

Bjarni Einarsson and his colleagues believe they belonged to a wealthy farmer. In Scandinavia, only the chiefs’ farms had houses more than 28 metres long. It is also the richest house excavated in Iceland,” explained the specialist for Iceland Review. According to the analyses carried out, its construction is estimated around the 860s-870s.

Built on the ruins of another
As the excavations continued, the discovery became even more interesting. Beneath the ruins of the longhouse, the remains of a second, older longhouse have surfaced. “We do not yet have a complete picture of it as we have to complete the excavations of the newer farm before we explore the older structure,” admitted Bjarni Einarsson.

Early observations indicate, however, that this dwelling was even larger than the other, at least 40 metres long. It would also be much older. Radiocarbon dating analyses suggest a construction in the 1980s, well before the estimated colonization of Iceland.

“This is one of the oldest structures we have excavated in Iceland,” commented the archaeologist. “My theory is that this older longhouse served as a seasonal hunting camp, operated by a Norwegian chief who was making incursions into Iceland to collect valuable goods and bring them back across the ocean to Norway.”

Similar discoveries have been made in other Icelandic regions, supporting the theory that seasonal camps may have existed in other places. And they would have played a crucial role in colonizing the territory. It was a classic pattern of colonization of the Atlantic Islands. First we had seasonal camps, then the permanent settlement followed,” he told LiveScience.

Explore before you settle down
This scenario is confirmed by Helgi Skili Kjartansson, professor of history at the University of Iceland interviewed by Iceland Review. “Any permanent installation would have required prior exploration with considerable risk and cost, followed by an existence largely based on hunting and gathering before livestock multiplied,” he said.

According to the specialist, the Scandinavians may have financed their explorations by collecting and exporting the resources present on the island, including products from animals such as walrus ivory, which was highly prized in Europe at the time. A recent study has also revealed the existence of an Icelandic subspecies of walrus that disappeared shortly after colonization 1,100 years ago.

The discoveries made in St. Also suggest that, contrary to the literature and the Icelandic sagas, the first inhabitants of the territory were probably mere workers and hunters and not great chiefs who would have arrived later “after a society has emerged”, according to Helgi Skali. And these early inhabitants were probably of various origins.

In addition to the houses and silver artifacts, the excavations of St. Were able to exhume a large number of stone tools. Tools similar to those used by the Sami, a nomadic people who lived alongside the Vikings in northern Scandinavia at the time. It is therefore not out of the question that some participated in the exploration of Iceland as early as the 9th century.

These observations seem to be a good shake-up of what was previously thought to be known about Iceland’s early history, although the excavations are far from over and the exact scenario remains unclear. “The Landnamabik erects the barrier to the year 874. Historians have been hesitant and feared to see beyond. I prefer to think of the question of colonization as an open book,” said Bjarni Einarsson.

“The excavations of St. And various other sites in Iceland provide clear evidence of a human presence in Iceland decades before Ingelfur settled in Reykjavik,” he concluded.

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