Archaeologists working on a dig in Arnarfjörður in the Westfjords are excavating a 23-metre longhouse. It is the largest longhouse found in the Westfjords to date. The find seems to indicate that people were living in the Westfjords much earlier than previously assumed.

The size of the house indicates the occupants were well-to-do, an idea also borne out by several items found on the site. Among other items, 11 pearls, a silver ring, a chisel, and an axe were discovered. The area also contains a prayer house and a burial ground, in addition to several signs that ironworking took place on the premises.

Did Ironworking Cause Iceland’s Deforestation?

Archaeologist Margrét Hallmundsdóttir, with the Westfjord Iceland Nature Research Centre, is leading the dig.

“Through our excavations in the area, we’ve discovered that Arnarfjörður was fairly densely populated during the Settlement Age,” she says. “There are habitations on Auðkúla, Grelutóftir and Hrafnseyri, and I find it quite remarkable that all three show signs of rather extensive ironworking.”

Four ironworking furnaces have been excavated in Auðkúla and five in Hrafnseyri, she says. Additionally, the entire meadow in Hrafnseyri shows signs that ironworking took place there.

A spindle whorl discovered at the site

“The chronological dating shows us that the ironworking took place in the 9th and 10th centuries,” says Hallmundsdóttir. Along with other finds in the area, she says, this shows that ironworking was widespread during the age of settlement.

Iron in the Settlement Age was almost exclusively smelted from bog ore, using charcoal made of wood from the surrounding forests. “Research has shown that there was a massive collapse of birch pollen after the settlement, and forests vanished rapidly,” she says. “I think ironworking played a large part, because creating iron from bog ore takes a tremendous amount of coal.”

There is plenty left to do before excavation is over, says Hallmundsdóttir. She believes there is a cowshed next to the longhouse, and possibly another longhouse nearby.

Archaeologist Kristín Sylvía Ragnarsdóttir, mid-excavation

Will this Find Rewrite the Consensus on Iceland’s Age of Settlement?

Asked if she thinks recent archaeological finds such as this one may cast new light on the official historical record that says Iceland was first settled in 872-874, Hallmundsdóttir says: “Personally I think it’s possible that some people had settled in Iceland before the official age of settlement, but the first real deluge of settlers will have been around 870.”

She adds that more research will reveal more information in due time, though she isn’t necessarily expecting the current historical record to be overturned.

“But something could always come along that will broaden our knowledge,” she says. “That’s science. Always something new.”

Work on the site is expected to be completed next summer.