Thursday, December 23, 2010

Did the Scots visit Iceland? New research reveals island inhabited 70 years before Vikings thought to have arrived


Kverkarhellir cave is a deep artificial cave that was dug out of soft rock.
New research indicates that construction on it began in ca. AD 800, nearly
70 years before the Vikings are believed to have settled Iceland.
Photo by Tom McGovern
Seljalandshellar cave is a three chambered artificial cave located near
Kverkarhellir. On its walls 23 carvings of the cross have been found.
A typological analysis reveals that they are similar to crosses drawn
in western Scotland in AD 800 and earlier. Photo by Kristján Ahronson   
One of the crosses found in Seljalandshellar cave. Analysis indicates
that it is similar to those carved in western Scotland
in AD 800 and earlier. Photo by Kristján Ahronson.
It is now thirty years since clerics, who live on the island [Thule] from the first of February to the first of August, told me that not only at the summer solstice, but in the days round about it, the sun setting in the evening hides itself as though behind a small hill in such a way that there was no darkness in that very small space of time... – Dicuil, an Irish monk, writing in AD 825, translation by J.J. Tierney.
New archaeological discoveries show that Iceland was inhabited around AD 800 – nearly 70 years before the traditional dating of its Viking settlement.
One possibility is that these early inhabitants may have been related to Irish monastic communities found throughout the Scottish islands at that time, and described in Viking-Age and medieval texts.
“Questions surrounding Iceland’s first settlement in the early medieval period have been of longstanding interest for scholars,” said Professor Kristján Ahronson of Prifysgol Bangor University in Wales and Visiting Professor at the University of Toronto. He led the team that made the discoveries.
As an example of the longstanding interest in this topic, Ahronson pointed to the University of Toronto’s Sir Daniel Wilson, who argued in 1851 that “when Norseman first visited Iceland in the latter half of the 9th century, it was uninhabited, but they discovered traces of the former presence of Irish monks.”
Kverkarhellir cave
One discovery was made at Kverkarhellir cave, on the land of Seljaland farm in southern Iceland. The cave is 7.5 metres long, and dug out of soft rock. Nearly 200 of these artificial caves have been found on the island. “Tool marks on the cave walls vividly illustrate the artificial nature of these sites,” said Professor Ahronson.
What makes Kverkarhellir special is the preservation of layers of sediments outside the cave mouth, specifically those from nearby volcanoes. Iceland has experienced many volcanic eruptions in its time. When an eruption takes place, a layer of ashy material known as “tephra” is deposited on the surface.
Ahronson said that these tephra layers are a “powerful dating tool,” which can be used to study past land surfaces and any artefacts found in these sediments. With this in mind the team went to work, digging just outside the entrance of the cave. As expected they encountered these tephra layers, including one from an eruption that happened around AD 871.
But when they dug deeper, unearthing older layers of sediments, they found something else. Ahronson said that they discovered “waste material from an episode of construction” – evidence of early activity at this cave. This discovery identifies Kverkarhellir cave as “older than any other site currently known in Iceland.”
To determine how early this presence was, the team measured the amount of wind-blown sediment that lies between the tephra and the waste material.
“Using the generally accepted but rough estimates for sediment accumulation in the area, (we have) a date of around AD 800,” said Ahronson, “though very local factors (affecting sediment accumulation) pose a challenge to precise dating.”
Animal tracks discovered dating to AD 871
To learn more about southern Iceland’s past environment, Ahronson’s team analyzed the form of tephra layers, looking at how they fell onto the ground.
If there are trees or a thick understory of vegetation, the ashy material will not land in some places, leading to gaps or features in the tephra layer. Also if an animal walks over tephra their footprints may be preserved.
The team plotted these irregularities out in 3D. This is a new technique involving excavation and mapping, initially tested over a small area - three by two meters in size. 
Nevertheless the team achieved clear results – including the fascinating discovery of possible animal tracks.
“Unexpected linear depression features were found in the tephra layer,” said Ahronson. “The size, shape and distribution, hold out the possibility that these were created by medium-sized herbivores, such as sheep or small- and medium- sized cows.”
The tracks date back to around AD 871, many decades after the new evidence for people at Kverkarhellir cave, but just about when the large-scale settlement of Iceland by Vikings is generally thought to have begun. 
The only larger mammals native to the island before humans arrived were arctic fox – which these tracks do not belong to.
A grassland environment in AD 871
There’s more.
The team discovered that these animals would have been walking over open grassland. When they analyzed the form of the tephra layer they found that, aside from the footprints, it was continuous and well-defined without “holes” or irregular gaps. In other words, there was little vegetation obstructing the volcanic material as it fell upon the ground.
 “Interpretation of this data suggests an open grassland environment without tree cover,” Ahronson said.
He said that there could be two reasons for this – some sort of natural process that kept this area free of trees. Or, it could be that humans were responsible for deforestation in the area. “Woodland clearance would probably have occurred several decades before AD 870 in order to produce such an open and well defined tephra layer.”
Curiously it looks as if the area was reforested sometime later. When the team analyzed tephra from an eruption around AD 920, they found that it contained “a number of medium-sized irregularly shaped gaps,” Ahronson said. “These were interpreted to be the result of a lush understory of vegetation.” A sign, perhaps, that Vikings and their animals had abandoned this area, or that its woodland was being managed.
Crosses in caves
A second cave site at Seljaland, close to Kverkarhellir, contains possible evidence of early occupation.
It’s known as the Seljalandshellar cave group and contains 19 large and 4 mid-sized carvings on its walls - representing the Christian symbol of the cross. The team has been recording this art, and creating detailed illustrations of it.
 Ahronson emphasized that it is difficult to firmly date these carvings; however, he notes that their style is similar to early medieval crosses seen in western Scotland.
“Typological analysis of many key characteristics of this material – leaves us to note fundamental parallels, specifically with the early medieval sculpture from the west highlands and islands,” he said. “In western Scotland, we would generally see most of this comparable material as predating the Viking Age,” in other words AD 800 or earlier.
He added that “none of the sculpture from Seljaland, intriguingly, has any parallels we can identify with Scandinavian traditions at that time.”

A layer of Tephra from ca. AD 920. The light spot indicates an area where
the trunk of a tree may have been. Photo by Kristján Ahronson

19 comments:

  1. Thanks for that article. As a Lowland Scot, it is good to see that our history is even more complicated now!

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  2. One of the most exciting things about history, archaeology and palaeontology for me is how the unepected just keeps turning up with such contemptuous persistence and in such unexpected places (and to quote Hardy - 'through times to times anon, and leaping from place to place over oblivion').
    Thanks for the news.

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  3. Thank you both! The great thing about archaeology and history is that there is always a discovery waiting to be made :)

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  4. I had read somewhere that when the Vikings arrived, they encountered an old man - possibly Irish. And when teh Irish arrived, they had found traces of Roman soldier settlement.

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  5. Every generation discovers its own ignorance long after adolescence; when of course they knew everything.

    Thank you for an enlightening article!

    Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from New Hampshire!

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  6. The female lineages of the modern Icelandic population (mtDNA haplogroups) is in important part from what seems to be Ireland and/or Great Britain. It was always thought to be from slaves brought there by Vikings settlers but it's now possible that at least a little part of it was actually from former Celtic settlers, I guess.

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  7. The "light spot" in the last photo was not "where the trunk of a tree may have been" but the burn from one of Lew's light sabers! (;-) re: seriously now, where on the net? is any info on this Lew or Lou from northern Scotland that I only saw a part on http://www.history.com/schedule/12/2 of: "Ancient Aliens: Alien Tech Super-heated death rays" from 9-10:00 p.m.

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  8. http://www.extremeiceland.is/
    We offer caving tours to most of the caves in Iceland :)

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  9. Based on the dates, wouldn't it have been Picts rather than Scots?

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    1. It would have been gaels from Ireland and/or western scotland since picts remained pagan. Pagans didnt carve crosses.

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    2. Pictland is actually full of stones, carved by Picts, many of them bearing crosses. It is not absolutely clear when Picts accepted Christianity. Portmahomack on Tarbat peninsula is Pictish, and has a Christian cemetery yielding carbon-14 dates in the sixth century. By the end of the seventh century, Picts were clearly Christian: Bruide mac Der Ile, king of the Picts, was a friend of Adomnán, abbot of Iona, who supported his very ecclesiastical 'Law of the Innocents'.b All this predates Ahronson's circa 800 horizon for these caves.

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  10. Thank you Stephen, you raise a good point. The Picts tend to be associated more with eastern and northeastern Scotland. Whereas the art found at Seljalandshellar suggests that the Iceland visitors were connected with the Western Highlands.

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  11. I would have said Eastern and Northern, rather than Northeastern. Hunter certainly argues for the Pictish influence in the Outer Hebrides until the Norse invasions. I understand the spread of 'Irish Christianity' with St. Columba as a potential source as well, but there is an argument that this was largely indistinguishable from 'Pictish Christianity' by this time.
    That said, I'm sure that Scots is more accessible for the general reader anyway ;-)

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  12. Is there any indication that the pre-Norse visitors brought in any domesticated animals at all? Or the purpose of the artificial caves?

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  13. Thank you for your questions Sue Ann!

    -The footprints in the tephra are likely from herbivores. However they date to AD 871. It could be that these animals are descended from those brought by early visitors. Of course it's also possible they were brought by Viking settlers.

    -The main use of the artificial caves would have been as shelters. Of course the large number of carvings found at Seljalandshellar cave suggest they were used for more than that.

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  14. Amazing things - facts change fast the last years. Soon the history will change completly, the time of truth is coming!

    Would love to visit Island ...

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  15. Of course when you read Scots here, it should read Irish, Dicuil was an Irish monk, commenting on other Irish monks in the Faroes and Iceland.

    So, no Scots made it to Iceland, and certainly no "Lowland Scots" - what a joke!

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    1. Much will depend on what you mean by 'Scot'. The inhabitants of the Gaelic-speaking west of what is now Scotland certainly thought of themselves as 'Scoti', and Iona was referred to by Bede in the early eighth century as lying in 'Scotia'. The word originally meant 'Ireland', but came to refer to anywhere where 'Scoti' (Irish, Irish-speakers, Gaels) had settled. But how do we know that Dicuil came from the Irish Scoti rather than the 'Scottish' Scoti - perhaps from the Hebrides. He says that his teacher or superior ('magister') was called Suibhne, and that was the name of the abbot of Iona in eighth century at about the time when Dicuil was a young monastic student, before he want to the court of Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. So why can Dicuil not be a Hebridean - even an Iona - monk?

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  16. The nationalist urge was not as strong among Celtic Insular Christians."Welsh' Irish" "Dalriadic Scots" etc could, and did all interact.They all shared a cool hairstyle and dated Easter from the Jewish Passover. This upset quite a few. I think as time opens new doors in archeological discoveries we will see 'Papar' discoveries west of Iceland. Indeed the ring headed cloak pin found in Newfoundland is not Norse. Like the 'Celts' presence in Iceland it like they has been assumed to be slave made. While there were Irish and Norse on both sides, never the less, it is a good thing Clontarf was won by the Irish.

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