Newly Excavated Viking Dwelling May Be Oldest Found in Iceland

Archaeologists say the settlement, which may have housed a Norse chieftain, dates to roughly 800 A.D.

Norse Viking longhouse
Replica of a Norse Viking longhouse in Scotland's Shetland Islands. Archaeologists in Iceland have uncovered the remains of two ancient Viking longhouses that may have been among the island's very first settlements. Arterra / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Excavations in east Iceland have revealed what may be an ancient Viking hunting camp that predates the traditionally accepted arrival of the region’s first settlers by more than 70 years, reports Jelena Ćirić for Iceland Review.

Located in the Stöðvarfjörður fjord on a farm called Stöð, the remnants of Viking Age habitation were discovered by accident in 2003, according to Iceland magazine. The find, first excavated in 2015 by archaeologist Bjarni Einarsson, consists of two structures: One dates to between 869 and 873 A.D., while the other was probably erected around 800 A.D. The primary significance of these settlements lies in their age.

Compared with mainland Europe and Africa, Iceland’s human history is brief and well documented. A pair of books from the 12th century claim the island’s first inhabitants arrived in 870 A.D. at the earliest; one of these texts, the Landnámabók or Book of Settlements, states that Iceland’s first settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, who sailed from Norway to what is now Reykjavik with his wife, Hallveig Fródadóttir, in 874 A.D.

Landnámabók erects this wall at the year 874,” Einarsson tells Magnús Sveinn Helgason of Iceland Review. “Scholars have been hesitant and afraid to peek beyond it. I prefer to approach the question of settlement as an open book. The excavation at Stöð and several other sites in Iceland provide clear proof of human presence in Iceland decades before Ingólfur settled in Reykjavík.”

At 103 feet long, the later settlement is one of the largest longhouses discovered in Iceland to date, reported Sveinn Arnarsson for local television station Stöð 2 in 2018. (Longhouses were, as their name suggests, long and narrow dwellings favored by the Vikings.)

Speaking with Tom Metcalfe of Live Science, Einarsson says the Stöð longhouse is also the richest in Iceland. So far, the dig has unearthed Roman and Middle Eastern coins, glass beads, rings, and a gold fragment, as well as hacksilver, or pieces of cut or bent silver that served as currency.

“It is hard not to conclude that it is a chieftain’s house,” adds the archaeologist.

This treasure-laden longhouse was built within the ruins of the older, larger structure, which measured at least 131 feet long and “appears to be at least as old as the oldest structures … previously excavated in Iceland,” as Einarsson tells Iceland Review.

He theorizes 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.”

Such seasonal camps—marked by the conspicuous absence of domesticated animal bones—may have paved the way for permanent habitation in Iceland. And the Stöð site isn’t the only example of such settlements: Archaeological sites at Aðalstræti in downtown Reykjavík and Vogur in Hafnir similarly lack animal bones and appear to predate 874.

“This was a pattern of the settlement of the islands in the Atlantic Ocean,” Einarsson tells Live Science. “First, we had the seasonal camps, and then the settlement followed.”

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