South Iceland is home to some of the country’s most jaw-dropping scenery – wondrous waterfalls, vast glaciers and sweeping black sand beaches. But the region is also full of Viking history, including recently discovered ruins dating from the 10th century.
Vikings from Scandinavia and the British Isles descended on Iceland in the ninth century, enduring volcanic eruptions, harsh winters and famine. Iceland’s early settlers built extensive cave systems to survive, some of which are just now seeing the light of day after centuries buried in the earth.
Excavations of man-made, Viking-era caves near Oddi in the country’s south have revealed an extensive system of interconnected structures much larger and older than initially thought. Archaeologists say the excavations show that the caves at Oddi were first dug out in the middle of the 10th century.
The site of the most recent excavation is a large farm in South Iceland, home to some of the country’s most powerful chieftains from 1100-1300AD. The scenic area is set against a backdrop of rugged mountains and deep valleys.
The wealth of these ancient chieftains was based on a firm economic founding and experts say the cave system being painstakingly revealed provides a glimpse of large-scale farming in the 10th century. The family that used the caves for storage and its animals had enormous wealth and influence and was associated with the Norwegian royals.
One of the best known clan members was Sæmundur fróði (Sæmundur the Learned) who lived from 1056 to 1133. A key figure in Icelandic folklore, the scholar and priest founded the school at Oddi and was known as the most educated man in Iceland.
He was sent to central Europe to study, and when he returned, he became a prominent figure in society and is believed to have written some of the earliest literary works in Iceland.
- Kristborg Þórsdóttir of the Archaeological Institute of Iceland who is leading the excavation
He also came to be mythologised as a man who managed to trick the devil. In one story, he was at a school for the black arts, where the devil had the right to take the last student of each group. But when Sæmundur trailed behind his companions and the devil went to seize him, he said, “I am not the last. Do you not see who follows me?” He pointed at his shadow which the devil tried to snatch, allowing Sæmundur to flee.
In addition to becoming the centre of Viking power and influence, Oddi was also a hotspot for culture and learning. The writer Snorri Sturluson was fostered there by Jón Loftsson (Sæmundur’s grandson). Sturluson (1179-1241AD) was one of the most significant figures in Iceland’s history: a chieftain, storyteller, politician and literary figure, credited with many of Iceland’s most important literary works of the Middle Ages, including Egil’s Saga.
Ms Þórsdóttir said the Oddi excavations have revealed the oldest dated example of a man-made cave in Iceland. They have been dated by aligning the layers of ash and volcanic debris with the known dates of eruptions.
The fact that the cave in Oddi seems to have been dug out in the 10th century makes it a Viking age structure, adding to our previous knowledge of the building techniques of the first settlers in Iceland and of the people of the North Atlantic.
Our research shows that the making and use of man-made caves in Iceland was widespread and started earlier than was previously known. From our experience in Oddi, [we believe] there are many structures of this type that have been sealed off and forgotten.
We hope to be able to continue the excavation to get a better idea of how long these caves were in use, how their use changed over time and if there are any indications of people living in parts of the cave system.
Among the discoveries is a cave that may have been used to protect cattle and horses. Such stalls were known as nautahellirs and feature in the 13th century book Legends of Saints by Bishop Þorlákur, in which a cave collapse was recorded.
Collapses are also a risk for archaeologists. The caves are cut into sandstone which absorbs water and is prone to crumbling.
But the find is expected to become a major tourist drawcard.
The country has numerous other Viking-era sites that range from the historic to the kitschy. The Caves of Hella on the south coast is a popular attraction and the site of 12 man-made caves. Four were opened to the public in 2019, and the site is one of Iceland’s oldest standing archaeological remains.
Elsewhere, the Skógar Museum features many Viking artefacts, and Skyrland introduces visitors to the 1,000-year-old story of how a Viking dairy product (skyr) became a global health food. Nearby, Ingólfsskáli restaurant gives travellers the chance to experience Viking feasts with a contemporary touch.
Locals are optimistic that the discovery could cement Oddi’s place in the history books. Baldur Thorhallsson, whose family has been taking care of the Caves of Hella for nearly 200 years, said it was a positive development, who also says:
I’m a teacher, and I know that Icelanders love to hear a good story and caves are a great story.
My grandfather told me the history of the caves in Hella that his grandfather told him. Tourists love those stories as well.
Gottlieb, Jenna. “Iceland’s ancient caves reveal the island’s Viking early history”. iNews. London. 27 aug. 2022. 30 aug. 2022. <https://inews.co.uk/news/world/iceland-ancient-caves-viking-history-1817412>.
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