Recent discoveries at an archaeological dig in the East of Iceland could drastically reshape the way we think about the settlement history of the country. Stone artefacts display complex technological craftmanship traditionally associated with Sami cultures rather than Viking stoneworking.

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Findings at the Stöð site present challenges not only to the dates of the earliest settlement of Iceland but also the identity of the first seafarers to populate the island. Archaeologists now believe that people of Sami origin were amongst the first settlers to Iceland presenting questions about the nature of the relationship between the Viking and Sami communities.

Settlement of Iceland

The archaeological dig at Stöð in Stöðvarfjörður fjord is arguably the most important excavation in Iceland at present. The site was discovered accidentally in 2003 and since then, archaeologists have uncovered two Viking Age structures and yielded fascinating clues regarding Iceland’s earliest settlement.

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The two structures overlap each other; the younger remains sit atop an older structure and had obscured the impressive size of the older building until last summer. Reaching almost 45-metres, the newly measured long-house is by far, the largest of its kind to be discovered in Iceland.

Traditionally, Ingólfur Arnarson is considered the first Nordic settler of Iceland, arriving in Reykjavík in the year 874 AD according to written sources. However, carbon dating at the Stöð site suggests that the people who built these longhouses arrived as much as 100 years earlier.

Bjarni Einarsson, the archaeologist managing the dig, believes the settlement at Stöð to be a seasonal outpost for resource utilisation such as fishing. Such camps were common across Scandinavia at the time, with people returning to their homes in the fall with supplies and increasingly more knowledge about the new land.

The name ‘Stöð’ in fact translates to camp or station and its location in the East of Iceland—the closest point to the Scandinavian mainland—adds credence to this theory. A lack of animal husbandry evidence further suggests the nature of these settlements was not permanent.

Where did they come from?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is not possible to identify the exact origin of the builders who constructed the outposts at Stöð but the high Nordic construction style indicates they were from Scandinavia.

Now, archaeologists believe that some Sami settlers were among those using these outposts. Over 200 worked stones and stone tools have been discovered at the site, some of which demonstrate extremely skilled craftsmanship only known to the Sami in the Nordic region at that time.

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Skillfully worked jasper and chalcedony artefacts indicate tremendously complex techniques that could not possibly have simply been developed but, rather, implies knowledge passed down over generations. The culture these stone tools most resemble is that of the Sami people, an ethnic group hailing from the modern day northern regions of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Russian Kola Peninsula.

The Sami People of Northern Europe. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The spread of the Sami people has been debated among historians and archaeologists for many years, and these recent discoveries suggest that their reach could have extended to Iceland.

Archaeologist, Bjarni Einarsson believes that this outpost could have been a Sami colony, under the leadership of a chief charged with the task of delivering resources back to the homeland. Traditionally, the Sami pursued a number of livelihoods and the camp at Stöðvarfjörður could have been used to fish, hunt seabirds and seals, as well as to produce oil from whale blubber.

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The settlement of Iceland could very well have been based on knowledge shared between Sami and Viking communities which only raises further questions regarding the relationship between these disparate groups. Evidence of Viking and Sami intermarriage is not unheard of and relations may have been closer in earlier times before the spread of Christianization which demonised and othered the ‘pagan’ Sami people from their Viking neighbours.

Excavation of the Stöð site is set to continue this summer season, bringing with it the possibility of further answers and, perhaps, many more questions.

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