Two Viking-era brooches found in the grave with the Woman in Blue.

Was the Woman in Blue One of the First Settlers of Iceland?

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A recent analysis of the remains of a woman who lived in the Viking era sheds light on the earliest settlers of Iceland. Her short life hadn't been recorded by any written resource, but her bones have told researchers a fascinating story.

The patrial skeleton of a young woman was discovered in 1938 at Ketilsstaðir, in eastern Iceland. She lived in the 9th or 10th century AD and was found with typical copper-alloy Scandinavian oval brooches, one of which was in direct contact with her face, resulting in significant soft tissue and textile preservation. The skeleton was very poorly preserved and incomplete, but after many decades, a team led by Jakob and Joe Walser III of the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, decided to re-examine it.

The results of their work was presented during the The 85th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in April 2016. The researchers confirmed that when the woman died, she was between 17 and 25 years old. The cause of her death is unknown.

It is also unknown if the woman was a Viking or if she came from another European population –Southern Scandinavians or the people of the British Isles. According to an article published by Ancient Origins in June 2015, people from Scotland and Ireland may have settled Iceland a century before the Norsemen. Some evidence for this is seen in the remarkably similar carvings and simple cross sculptures that mark special sites, spanning a zone stretching from the Irish and Scottish coasts to Iceland. They were dated back to circa 800 AD.

Isle of Heimaey off the coast of Iceland.

Isle of Heimaey off the coast of Iceland. ( Thomas Quine CC BY-SA )

Chemical analysis of one of the teeth of the Woman in Blue shows that when she was aged 5 to 10 she started to eat a lot of fish and other seafood. Earlier, she had consumed mostly plants and land animals. This has led the researchers to believe she changed location somewhere around those ages.

According to Science News , she was buried with Viking-era artifacts and she could have been a child of the earliest settlers of Iceland. Moreover, she was buried in a blue apron. The apron's blue dye was plant-based, and cloth with exactly this color is characteristic of female Viking clothing as well.

As bio-archaeologist Tina Jakob of Durham University in England said: “A blue-dyed apron she wore — from which she got her nickname — and a strap from some type of garment display weaving techniques from 9th to 10th century Norway and Britain’s Celtic society. Fiber and chemical studies show that Icelandic sheep provided wool used for these garments.''

The radiocarbon dating of the apron, one of the woman's teeth, and the strap indicate that she was born around 900 AD, so she was in the period of the first arrivals to Iceland.

The Woman in Blue’s jaw.

The Woman in Blue’s jaw. ( Ivar Brynjólfsson/The National Museum of Iceland )

The remains of the woman had mostly been destroyed over time. Due to this damage, the remains were stored in jars filled with a preservation solution. The finds, which were transferred into the jars by those who found her in 1938, will be a source for DNA in upcoming tests planned by the team of University of Iceland in Reykjavik.

The Woman in Blue, who lived more than a millennium ago, is already one of the symbols of Icelandic history and culture. In 2015, the National Museum of Iceland opened an exhibition dedicated to her. Apart from the two silver brooches and an expensive pearl necklace the woman was buried with, the exhibition contained her remains in the jars and many other artifacts connected with the first settlers of Iceland.

In the same year, another exciting exhibition showing the life of woman from the past was opened. An impressive collection of artifacts discovered in the tombs of women who lived between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD was exhibited in the Archaeological Museum in Gdansk , Poland. They belonged to a pre-Christian population related to the Wielbark culture, a tribe connected with the Goths.

All of the graves were discovered in Pruszcz Gdański, near Gdańsk. The exhibition described the story of Pomerania in Poland from the perspective of the women from that time. Similar to the Icelandic Woman in Blue, the analysis of a few different women finally provided an opportunity to tell the stories of their lives. The bones’ state of preservation allowed the researchers to date their ages and also when they died.

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