In 2001, an Icelandic construction crew was excavating a basement for a new hotel in the historic district of Reykjavik when they made a major archaeological discovery which included not only the oldest relics of human habitation in the area, which date from before the “official” settlement day of 871CE, plus or minus a year or two*, but a complete tenth century long house. Today the site is displayed in its original location** as part of a small but spectacular multimedia museum. Ghostly videos of everyday scenes from Viking life play out across a panoramic display of the modern Icelandic landscape–not only a cool effect, but illuminating as well. Interactive exhibits show how a long house was built and used.
- Long houses were a lot smaller than the sagas would lead you to believe. Roistering must have been done shoulder to shoulder. No wonder fights broke out so often. ***
- Tephro chronology: a form of archaeological dating that uses the relationship of finds to layers of volcanic ash. The layers of ash that are part of Iceland’s soil have been tied to written accounts of historical eruptions and layers of ash recovered from the Greenland ice cap.**** One layer in particular is important for dating early sites in Iceland: a two-colored layer of ash dating from around 871 CE, known as the “settlement layer”. Artifacts found below the settlement layer (like the bit of wall found in 2001) date from before the first known settlement of Iceland.
- Icelanders have mad museum building skills.
If you can only visit one museum in Iceland, the Settlement Exhibit at 871 +/-2 is the one to see.
* Hence the name of the museum
**Literally under the hotel.
*** I had a similar revelation at the much less interesting National Museum of Iceland, where the outline of a Viking ship on the floor made it clear just how small the dreaded dragon boats must have been. Not a ship I’d want to go to sea in.
****Evidently layers of ice can be dated like tree rings. Archaeology gets more fascinating all the time.