Sandstone And Reverence: The Ancient Caves Of Hella

Sandstone And Reverence: The Ancient Caves Of Hella

Sam O'Donnell
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The caves of Hella are a wonder to behold. Nobody knows for sure how old they are, but many historians date them back to the early/mid-9th century, right before the Viking Ingólfur Arnarsson cast two carved pillars into the sea off the coast of Iceland, and settled where they landed. That would make the caves the oldest man-made structure in Iceland. But who built them? With an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, I ventured south to explore the halls myself.

Vikings, monks and farmers

“Ægissíða means ‘by the sea’ in Icelandic,” Álfrún, one of the caretakers of the site, tells our group. “But we are nowhere near the sea. In Gaelic, though, Ægissíða means ‘the man-made caves.’”

The Vikings did not dig tunnels or live in caves, and they did not initially follow Christianity. Therefore, it’s most likely that Irish monks, the settlers who predated the Vikings, were responsible for carving out these caves and using them for worship. Eventually, refusing to share their island with pagans, the monks left, abandoning not only their sites of worship, but also their caves.

Since then, the caves have been privately owned by farmers, and were closed to the public for many years.

Carvings and conservation

In the early part of the 20th century, people began to see the value in understanding and preserving the history of these caves. Starting in the 1960s, caretakers would give tours to Icelandic school groups. The students would tour the caves, and then carve their names and the date they visited into the soft sandstone walls. Only recently the caves have fully opened to the public, guided by a local historian.

“Ægissíða means ‘by the sea’ in Icelandic, but we are nowhere near the sea. In Gaelic, though, ægissiða means ‘the man-made caves.’”

The smell of hay clings in my nose as our guide Árni explains that farmers used the caves in the area to house animals for centuries. The first cave we visit was used to house livestock in the early part of the 20th century. Before 1913, no one knew that the cave was there. That year, a horse stepped into one of the chimneys in the field above the cave, which led to its discovery.

caves of hella

Photo by Art Bicnick

From the mouth of the cave, the walls extend back about 150 meters. A high ceiling in the front, where the chimney is, precedes a lower ceiling and a square alcove, which Árni says was most likely a domicile.

cave

Photo by Art Bicnick

A tight passageway leads to another cave with a ceiling that is only a meter and a half tall. When this cave was discovered, the farmers dug a well in it and used the cave to house their sheep. It is unclear what the purpose of this room was before that.

cave

Photo by Art Bicnick

A chapel and a cowshed

The final cave available to the public was most likely used as a place of worship. We cross a vast field to reach it. Two other caves have collapsed, but wooden supports jut out of the ground, holding them open for restoration. Árni tells us that the location of all of these caves would be ideal for settlers in the Middle Ages. “There is a river not too far from here where you can get fresh water,” he explains “And from this hill, you can see for a long way into the distance in all directions. Perfect for a Viking.” However, he also emphasises that the Vikings lived in longhouses. Therefore, if they did live in this location, it was probably not in the caves.

“Catholics come here from all over the world and hold mass.”

Finally, we step inside the third cave. It takes a moment for our eyes to adjust, but what we see when they do is spectacular. Seats are carved into the wall by the entrance, with a torch sconce dug into the sandstone above them. Directly in front of us, stairs lead up to another cave, which has collapsed. A short rail track has been built here, which Árni’s grandfather used to transport hay from this cave into the next one, where the cows lived.

the caves of hella

Photo by Art Bicnick

On the back wall, a cross is embossed. The cave was carved around this eroded symbol. Around it, intricate patterns are carved into the sandstone, although they are heavily faded. “Catholics come here from all over the world and hold mass,” our guide says. A palpable holy atmosphere lingers from over a thousand years ago, it seems.

caves of hella

Photo by Art Bicnick

A restoration project is currently underway, supervised by the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland. The goal of the restoration is to eventually open more of the caves to the public, and all income generated from the tours of the caves that are currently open will go to this end. As more is revealed about the caves, we can only hope to learn more about Iceland’s pre-Viking settlers.

Distance from Reykjavík: 95 km
How to get there: Route One East

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