New archaeological evidence may suggest that visitors from Scotland and Ireland could have settled in Iceland before the arrival of Vikings.
Dr. Kristján Ahronson, a professor at Bangkor University, has traced a swath Christian crosses carved in stone, ranging from the simple to the more complexly stylised, extending from the British Isles to the southern coast of Iceland. Made in about 800 CE, these crosses might suggest Irish and Scots found homes in Iceland decades before the Vikings arrived.
“The caves at Seljaland are among approximately 200 surviving artificial cave sites in southern Iceland,” Dr. Ahronson wrote in his new book, Into the Ocean: Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North. “In our work at Seljaland, we recorded over 100 simple crosses and 24 more elaborately carved or sculpted examples. The crosses bear a range of striking stylistic similarities to early medieval sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland, such as that found at the important early medieval monastery of Iona in Argyll as well as more extreme locales for Scotland’s early Christian communities such as St Molaise’s Cave on Holy Island (off Arran) and at isolated north Atlantic places such as the tiny island of North Rona (north of Lewis and the Scottish mainland). The Seljaland caves are remarkable in their own right for the concentration of sculpture found there and because of the very fact that they’ve been dug out of the rock, and form part of a poorly understand yet distinctively Icelandic phenomenon, now dated to Iceland’s earliest settlement.”
In an article in The Conversation, he elaborated further on the research process itself.
“We were able to accurately date one of these caves by finding construction waste from where it had been excavated from the Icelandic rock,” he said. “We related this waste material to layers of volcanic airfall, ash layers that have been dated by international teams of researchers with remarkable precision and are a powerful dating tool for this part of the world. And we developed new methods to study the surface of volcanic ash layers that helped us to better understand the processes by which people cleared and managed that woodland, and contributed to creating the pastoral landscape that we recognise today. Again, these human activities can be accurately dated and chime with the our other lines of investigation.”
While far from conclusive, the new research does lead the way to further archaeological research into who were the first people to settle Iceland. While the first permanent settlement is credited to Viking explorer Ingólfur Arnarson, previous Vikings have made temporary landings.
Speculations have been raised before about the presence of Irish monks already living in Iceland when the first Vikings arrived, a contention first put forward in the 12th century manuscript Íslendingabók, but this claim has been largely considered unverifiable.
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