The Icelandic Viking Settlement Challenging the History Books
Demanding a rewrite of Icelandic history, in November 2015 a report in IcelandMag said archaeologists at an excavation in Fjarðabyggð, in east Iceland, found an old Viking farmstead at Stöð in Stöðvarfjörður fjord, where they believed the very first Vikings may have first settled in the Eastfjords. According to the Fjarðabyggð‘s website, at that time archaeologists intended to dig two test pits looking for evidence of “Þórhaddur (the old) from Trondheim, in Norway, who texts claim was the first person to settle Stöðvarfjörður.
Written sources, like for example, the 12th century Landnámabók, describe the settlement of Iceland by Ingólfr Arnarson around 874 AD, who was said to have been the first Viking to sail to Iceland with the purpose of settling. And supporting this story, previous archaeological evidence has demonstrated human activity on the island began at this time, but the archaeologists excavating at Stöð discovered a seasonal human settlement dating from “before the accepted date for Iceland ’s permanent settlement.”
The painting depicts, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík. (Haukurth / Public domain)
Older Viking Settlement Points To Seasonal Resource Hunters
Lead archaeologist, Dr. Bjarni F. Einarsson, first discovered evidence of longhouses, farmsteads, and walrus hunting. According to a report in Heritage Daily, his team of researchers discovered 29 silver objects, including Roman and Middle Eastern coins among “93 beads, one of the largest bead hordes ever found.” The ancient farmstead the team investigated was built on top of an older Viking longhouse foundation measuring about 40 meters (131 feet) in length, which has been radiocarbon dated to 800 AD. The researchers believe this longhouse functioned as “a seasonal camp.”
Dr. Einarsson says the most striking feature of the older structure is the “conspicuous absence of the bones of domesticated animals” and his theory about this 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.” Archaeologists have found several sites in Iceland showing signs of human presence before the year 874 AD and it is believed that Stöð played a pivotal role in the exploration of Iceland ’s resources.
Viking age excavation site at Stöð. (Image: Bjarni F. Einarsson / Iceland Review)
Earliest Icelandic Viking Base for Walrus Ivory Hunters?
The researchers believe the camp at Stöð was operated in conjunction with contemporary sites such as the camp at Aðalstræti in Reykjavík and the one at Vogur in Hafnir. And the evidence strongly suggests that there was a Viking presence in Iceland much earlier than the commonly accepted date of the island’s first occupation.
Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Iceland, Helgi Skúli Kjartansson, told Iceland Review that a permanent settlement would have required prior exploration at “considerable risk and cost, followed by a largely hunting-gathering existence until the livestock had multiplied.” Accounting for this, he theorizes that an initial phase of seasonal camps, for workers hunting and scavenging for valuable export items, explains how the exploration was financed and “how the resources and opportunities of Iceland became known to the Norse world.”
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Furthermore, paleoecological research has shown Vikings in Iceland exploited walrus ivory and blubber, and traded animal hides across Europe. The Heritage Daily article states that a previous DNA and radiocarbon study suggested that contemporary walrus tusks found in Iceland were from a subspecies of the Atlantic walrus that went extinct after the Viking settlement.
Ivory Hunting First, Permanent Settlement Later, Says Evidence
The narrative of Landnámabók, according to Helgi Skúli, indicates that the settlement of Iceland followed quickly after its discovery by the first explorers which was “led by members of prominent Viking families of aristocratic background.” But the professor says we must always remember that Iceland is situated at the edge of the inhabitable world, separated from other Norse settlements by a vast, hostile ocean and people would not have embarked on this voyage by the thousands over the span of only a few decades without a firm knowledge of what awaited them.
In practical terms, the archaeologists think it would have made “very little sense” for Vikings to have undertaken such a high-risk voyage to bring back stable goods that were relatively cheap, but bulky. Instead, Helgi Skúli argues that they needed “high value, low bulk goods.” Overall, the scientists concluded a “powerful carrot” would have to have existed to have drawn people across the ocean. It is currently believed that this irresistible “carrot” was the ivory of a fished-to-extinction Atlantic walrus species.
Top image: Northern Lights, Aurora borealis at Kirkjufell in Iceland. Representative of Icelandic Viking Settlement. Source: tawatchai1990
By Ashley Cowie