From Iceland — Digging Up Reykjavík's Roots: Excavations Around The City Reveal Stories Of Iceland's Past

Digging Up Reykjavík’s Roots: Excavations Around The City Reveal Stories Of Iceland’s Past

Published August 6, 2015

Digging Up Reykjavík’s Roots: Excavations Around The City Reveal Stories Of Iceland’s Past
Katie Steen
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Around 870 A.D., a Viking named Ingólfur Arnarson bravely sailed off from Norway (possibly because of a blood feud, but that’s another story), and eventually landed on this rocky little island. He wasn’t the first guy to inhabit Iceland—actually, Celtic monks and other Norsemen had already stuck around for awhile, but then realised this country was damn cold and near-uninhabitable, and only an idiot would stick around longer than the time it takes to drive the Golden Circle.

After reaching Iceland, Ingólfur decided to “let the gods decide” where he would settle—in other words, he took the pillars from his high seat and tossed them into the ocean, then sent out a couple of his slaves to go find them in perhaps the most obnoxious game of fetch ever. Three years later, the slaves finally found them. They were unimpressed with the pillars’ landing spot, but Ingólfur was having none of their sass, and it is there that Reykjavík was born.

It’s strange to imagine, traipsing about the colourful Reykjavík streets, that there was ever anything else here besides bars and restaurants and shops with plush puffins from China… but think again! We’re literally walking on top of centuries of history, and though modern conveniences may distract you, sometimes a few reminders are unearthed.

Recently, several historical breadcrumbs have been dug up, largely due to the continuing increase in construction to make way for hotels and other buildings meant to siphon money from tourists. Almost ironically, while Reykjavík pushes itself to satisfy the needs of tourists with heavy wallets, pieces of Icelandic history seem to keep stepping in as if to say, “not so fast—we were here first.”

Early in July, in a lot designated for a new hotel off Lækjargata, a Viking-age longhouse even larger than the one at Reykjavík 871±2 was unearthed during construction. While the archaeologists working on the site expected to find and take away the remains of a 1799 turf house (which they did), they had no idea that a Viking treasure from as early as the 10th century was lurking deeper below.

Knock, knock

The Lækjargata excavation site is modestly sized, and to my untrained eyes, didn’t look like much besides a bunch of dirt and rocks, but with the guidance of archaeologist Lilja Pálsdóttir, the longhouse came into shape before my eyes.

I was surprised to realize that the roughly 20-metre-long house extends into the property next to the excavation site, serving as a reminder that there is still so much history under our feet yet to be uncovered. “People need to be aware that we have history everywhere,” Lilja said. “The earliest archaeological findings we have in Iceland are more spread out in Reykjavík than previously thought, and we need to think about that in a new way.”

“Almost ironically, while Reykjavík pushes itself to satisfy the needs of tourists with heavy wallets, pieces of Icelandic history seem to keep stepping in as if to say, “Not so fast—we were here first.””

Lilja walked me around large rocks that formed the base of the house, pointing out the various sections of the house, like the 5.2-metre long-fire in the centre of the house as well as the doorways. She also called my attention to an area with reddish dirt where a fire apparently had taken place, suggesting that perhaps this particular residency had ended in tragedy.

The sidewalk next to the site was quite crowded with passers-by stopping to peer inside the wire fence and watch the excavation. “Generally we find that people are very interested, and are thrilled to be able to watch us from the sidewalk and ask many questions. They are curious about what will happen to all the finds and to the house itself,” Lilja said.

While all the findings will go to the National Museum rather than remain on site, Lilja emphasised how important of a find the longhouse is for Reykjavík history. “The information we are getting now about possibly the first settlers in Reykjavík is invaluable! And it’s adding so much to the knowledge we already have.”

Ahoy, Reykjavík

During another excavation currently taking place in Reykjavík, located in the lot across from Arnarhóll (a grassy hill named after the legendary Arnarson himself!) where shops, houses and a parking garage are to be built, the team working on the area made another surprising discovery: walls from the Old Harbour of Reykjavík still standing, more or less intact.

Pétur H. Ármannsson, the section director at Minjastofnun (the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland), sounded really excited about the harbour walls, particularly because of the excellent condition they are in. “It’s an important discovery. It’s much more complete than expected. People knew that there were some remnants there, but not the entire piece,” he said.

Digging Up Reykjavík’s Roots -Art Bicknick

He elaborated on the historical importance of the walls, which date back to 1913. “That was the biggest engineering undertaking at that point in the history of Iceland,” Pétur said. “It’s a remnant of the old coastline of Reykjavík. This used to be the edge of Reykjavík, and this pier used to be the gateway into, well, not just Reykjavík but also Iceland! Everyone who arrived in Iceland, arrived in Reykjavík, came by ship.”

He sounded somewhat regretful that the walls were ever covered up in the first place. “It’s a remnant of an important part of Reykjavík’s history, which is now forgotten because of all this construction. The pier and the wall are hidden behind landfills.”

At the excavation site, right near Hafnarstræti (“Harbour Street”—makes sense, right?), Sólrún Inga, one of the archaeologists working on the site, showed me around the walls. “We didn’t expect to see this structure so complete,” she said. “Maybe we expected to see pieces of it here and there, but it has been preserved quite nicely under the modern surface.”

In addition to the walls, they’re also excavating a late 19th century “ice house” (a house used to freeze and preserve fish). Among the rubble, they’ve also found various artefacts, including some beautifully designed sherds, an old coin and an old bottle—“maybe whiskey: someone out drinking on the docks,” Sólrún shrugged.

The future of Reykjavík’s past

Because the pier walls are more than 100 years old, they are protected by the National Heritage Law. While the excavation team has been documenting everything it can, the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland will determine what exactly will happen to the walls.

“We want this piece—at least in part, but preferably the whole thing—to remain visible in the urban landscape of Reykjavík,” Pétur said, “and it is possible to do so, but it will require some changes in the planning proposal for the projects for this particular site.”

Digging Up Reykjavík’s Roots -Art Bicknick

Ragnheiður Traustadóttir, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation, agreed that the walls should be preserved, although she understood the potential issues that may cause for developers. “I think it’s very important that we try to preserve part of history,” she said, “although you cannot preserve everything, as the city has to develop as well.”

She also considered what implications discoveries such as the pier walls might have for future construction in Reykjavík as the city continues to build and evolve to adapt to the pressures of tourism. While excavations are required before constructing large buildings like houses or hotels, Ragnheiður seemed to think developers could be even more precautious. “Maybe it would be better to excavate first and plan afterwards. Yeah, that would be smart,” she said. “That could be something for Reykjavík to think about, because we know that in the centre of Reykjavík, there are a lot of remains.”

What will happen to the walls and the planned construction at the site has yet to be fully determined, but in the meantime, Pétur had one word of advice for people who happen to take a stroll by the water: “I would urge everyone to go downtown and look at this thing, because it’s very beautiful.”

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