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Unearthing Iceland’s heritage

The three-chambered artificial cave of Seljalandshellar The three-chambered artificial cave of Seljalandshellar Kristján Ahronson
14 Jul
Recent discoveries suggest Iceland’s first settlers were not, in fact, Viking-age Scandinavians. Celtic Scottish and Irish explorers look likely to have arrived first

The historical and cultural history of Iceland is widely-known. As is explained by the National Museum of Iceland, the island was first colonised by Norse Scandinavian Vikings in the late ninth century, who established a settlement which would become the present capital, Reykjavík. Successive waves of Norse migrants over the following millennium would then build the modern nation of Iceland, firmly established on a Scandinavian cultural identity.

But could it all be wrong?

New findings by Bangor University’s Kristján Ahronson indicate that Celtic explorers, hailing from Scotland, Ireland, and the west coast of the British Isles, arrived in Iceland and made their mark on the island up to a century before the Scandinavians got there.

He drew this conclusion after analysing markings – primarily a variety of crosses – found in man-made caves which had previously laid untouched, with little academic interest in their contents.

‘Several years ago, I came across articles by Árni Hjartarson, Hallgerður Gísladóttir and Guðmundur J Guðmundsson as I was reading through an Icelandic archaeology journal, which discussed some of these artificial caves as well as the cross sculpture cut into the cave walls,’ Ahronson tells Geographical.

‘My interest was piqued as I had not otherwise heard of these caves. As I delved a little further into the subject, I was struck by how this pioneering work by Hjartarson, Gísladóttir and Guðmundsson – and indeed these artificial caves themselves – presented fascinating problems: when did they date from and who first built them? How might they relate to their local environments and landscapes? And, given that some of Iceland’s earliest and most influential archaeologists had been interested in these sites, why had they been overlooked for so long?’

Of approximately 200 surviving caves, Ahronson focused on two in particular, named Kverkarhellir and Seljalandshellar, located in an area in the south of the country known as Seljaland. He discovered over 100 simple crosses with 24 more elaborately carved or sculpted examples, all of which bear a striking resemblance to similar crosses found in Celtic regions of the British Isles, including the West Highlands and various Scottish islands.

And as evidence that the markings pre-dated the arrival of the Vikings, Ahronson also had various construction material from the digging out of that cave dated; comparing it to well-analysed layers of volcanic ash debris. ‘Our analysis suggests that what we interpret to be a deposit of construction waste dates to 800AD,’ says Ahronson, ‘and is potentially even older.’

crossesIllustrations of crosses from Seljalandshellar and Kverkarhellir. Drawn by Ian G Scott (Image: Kristján Ahronson)

The new theory argues that early Celtic saints, known for spreading Christianity along the western seaboard, could have travelled much further than previously believed, as far as Iceland. The markings found in the caves at Seljaland would then be consistent with the ambitions of these Christian worshippers, who would have been keen to promote their religion in this newly discovered land. These findings are explored in-depth in Ahronson’s book Into the Ocean: Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North.

So what of the grand Icelandic heritage, tying it culturally with the Nordic states of Scandinavia? Could this lead to an existential crisis over the history and meaning of the Icelandic identity?

Ahronson thinks not: ‘Over recent years, Icelandic and Faroese scholars have increasingly become aware of difficulties for “traditional” settlement chronologies and models,’ he explains. ‘In particular, archaeological and palaeoecological discoveries of older-than-expected archaeological features, as well as evidence for very early cereal cultivation have raised questions about the timing of human settlements across the European north Atlantic archipelagos.

‘Furthermore, many of Iceland’s 200 or so artificial caves and rock-cut sculpture sites are well known to the people of southern Iceland, where local traditions sometimes associate these places with stories of early Irish or Scottish communities – so there is a level of grass-roots regional interest and resonance with our archaeological and palaeoecological discoveries.

‘I would suggest that our work highlights how “traditional” settlement models do not sufficiently reflect the nuance and complexities of the first centuries of human settlement across the north Atlantic archipelagos of Iceland and the Faroe Islands.’

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