HUMAN SETTLEMENT AND VOLCANIC LANDSCAPES OF ICELAND
Jan Driessen, Nicolas Kress
In June 2023, J. Driessen and N. Kress conducted a field survey in the Southwest part of Iceland (Fig. 1). Our aim was to find out more about the link between volcanism and human settlement and to see to what extent volcanic activity had influenced settlement patterns, including abandonment and resettlement. Prior to our visit, a series of publications were consulted (see annexe) – some of these have detailed descriptions and plans of the sites.
We first visited the Reykjavik Museum where a very instructive tephrochronological soil profile is presented, showing a series of ash layers that impacted the island (Fig. 2a-b). One of the main chronological diagnostic layers is that called the Landnàmslag of 870 AD, a tephra layer that precedes the construction of a well-preserved Long House (Fig. 3a-d) which forms the core of the Settlement Museum, also in Reykjavik. This structure is supposed to have been constructed by the first Viking settlers of the Bay around this time.
Settlement layers in Reykjavik are dated on the basis of four different tephra layers: that of Vatnaalda in 871, Eldgja in 930/940, Reykjnes in 1226 and Katla in 1500.Fig. 3a-d. Settlement Museum Longhouse. The bottom pictures show the 871 ash layer predating the settlement as preserved.
The Reykjavik Longhouse was inhabited between 930 and 1000 AD
A similar Long House was excavated at Hofsstadir, in the outskirts of Reykjavik (Fig. 4a-b). The building existed between the Settlement period (AD870-930) until the 12th c. AD. The house was 8 by 30 m and was repaired several times during its occupation?
Lava volcano museum
We also visited the Lava volcano museum in Hvolsvollur where the specific relationship between the Laki eruption and its human landscape are presented. It also discusses the Eyafjallajökull eruptions of different periods, including that of 2010.
The specific intention of our field trip was to visit two different landscapes, that of Laki and Hekla, two eruptions that each considerably affected the island but also impacted other parts of the world. 12 sites were hence visited.
The Laki Eruption of 1783-1785
The lava flow is said to have destroyed 20 farms and people from 30 others were forced to flee. The ash cloud and toxic mist contained a lot of fluorine and sulphur, affecting men, livestock, crops, and ground water. The island lost a fifth of its population, also with people moving to Denmark. The ash cloud also affected many other European nations, causing crop failure. Some connect the French Revolution and its preceding famine with the Laki eruption.
Especially instructive are the farmsteads near Hvoll (Figs 5-7) where we were able to locate four different sites. Hvoll 1 (63.9090319-17.6814440) is a small hillock south of the Hvoll Guesthouse. It is characterized by a series of standing stones, almost megalithic, near the remains of a structure that comprises at least three different rooms. From this hillock, a wall leads east for about 20 m, connecting Hvoll 1 to Hvoll 2. Hvoll 2 is also on a small hillock opposite Hvoll 1 and behind the Guesthouse. About 200 m to the east of the Guesthouse is another abandoned structure, Hvoll 3, with at least two different rooms. Each of these farms shows a similar conservation state with walls overgrown by peet. No archaeological material was seen.
The Hraunshús is partly hidden from the north by a peculiar standing rock. It is about 1,5 km northwest from the Hvoll Guesthouse (Fig. 8)
The Hekla Eruption
Hekla is a 1491 m high ridge-shaped volcano that remains very active with eruptions in 1947-8, 1970, 1980, 1981, 1991 and 2000. We were particularly interested in the 1104 eruption since detailed archaeological work has been done by Icelandic archaeologists in identifying areas that were particularly affected. We did not identify specific 12th c. locations but visited the area of Hella
Farmstead at Keldur (Fig. 11)
In addition, the following archaeological sites were visited, most of which were also affected by volcanic activity:
There was a medieval convent with cloister at Kirkjubaer between 1186 and 1554, partly revealed through excavations. (Fig. 12)
The Alþing in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is the area where the Icelandic people met on a yearly basis and decided community-related issues, spoke justice etc., a sort of national assembly. It is installed in a 7 km long rift that forms the eastern boundary of the North-American tectonic plate. (Fig. 13)
To allow people visiting, there was a temporary village at the foot of the assembly area. This is called Thingbúdir and was excavated (Fig. 14). It comprised many huts which are now overgrown unfortunately.
Stöng in Thjorsardalur is a Viking hall dating to the 11th c. AD and is thought to have been deserted during an eruption of Mt. Hekla in 1004 together with some other farms in the same valley. There are also remains east of the hall, probably a smithy and a cow shed. The area was reinhabited for a while afterwards but then deserted after 1300. The site was excavated in 1939 by Danish archaeologist Aage Roussell. The hall forms part of about 80 sites in the Thjorsdalur area. The hall may have been inhabited by Gaukur Trandilsson. (Fig. 15)
Stöng reconstructed Hall near Stöng in Thjorsardalur (Fig. 16)
Seljalandshellir is a small settlement with houses and cave dwellings (Fig. 17)
Rutshellir is a manmade cave of about 20 m deep, which may have been a smithy, and which may have remained in use till early in the 20th c. (Fig. 18)
Remains of houses, also partly installed in caves. (Fig. 19)
Hjörleifur’s Hill, hence named after the adoptive brother of Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland. He was killed by his slaves who later settled the Vestman islands. The farm was first on the west side but the Katla eruption of 1721 destroyed it and forced moving upland in the south side. (Fig. 20)
There are two farmstead ruins with field demarcations, all now overgrown, that can be made out on the southwest hill. An information board notes that these farms remained in use till 1936.
This photo shows the two abandoned farms on the top of the hill. (Fig. 21)
Hella Caves (Fig. 22)
Steinahellir Cave is a large cave used between 1818 and 1905 as the region’s assembly area but later become a sheepshed. (Fig. 23)
Brekkur is also an abandoned farmstead but the terrain did not allow a closer look (Fig. 24)
Cave houses constructed in lava fields, made in the 18Th c. AD (Fig. 25)
We also visited Keldur, one of the better preserved 19th c. settlements where e.g. turf construction can be observed. Some buildings include much older elements. (Fig. 26)
Skógar Folkmuseum and reconstructed houses. It also has a good archaeological collection. (Fig. 27)
In addition, field observations were made wherever possible, as this section, near Dalbaer (Fig. 28)
We also inspected several Rettírs, collective initiatives for sheep management suggest interesting sociopolitical parallels for Bronze Age Crete. On Iceland, these go back to the 12th c. AD at least. They usually comprise a circular area, called almenningur and triangular stalls. The structures can be in turf, stone or wood and are nowadays repaired with cement plates. (Fig. 29)
Works consulted prior to trip
Andrew Dugmore, Mike Church, Kerry-Anne Mairs, Thomas McGovern, Sophia Perdikaris and Orri Vésteinsson, Abandoned Farms, Volcanic Impacts, and Woodland Management: Revisting Þjórsárdalur, the “Pompei of Iceland”, Arctic Anthropology 44:1 (2007), 1-11
Elín Ósk Hreiðarsdóttir, Jakob Orri Jónsson, Kristborg Þórsdóttir, Ragnheiður Gló Gylfadóttir, Sigrún Drífa Þorfinnsdóttir og Valur Magnússon, Lagning jarðstrengs á Suðurlandi: deiliskráning í Skaftártungu, Álftaveri, Þingvöllum og Austur-Landeyjum, Reykjavik 2019.
Elín Ósk Hreiðarsdóttir, Gudrun Alda Gisladottur, Kristborg Þórsdóttir and Ragnheiður Gló Gylfadóttir, Abandoned settlements at the foot of Mt. Hekla: A study based on a field survey of Rangárvellir, Archaeologia islandica 11 (2015), 33-56.
Joe Walser III, Rebecca Gowland, Natasa Desnica & Steinunn Kristánsdóttir, Hidden dangers? Investigating the impact of volcanic eruptions and skeletal fluorosis in medieval Iceland, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 12.77 (2020):