Viking Age Outlaws


The Hallmundarhraun lava field—basalt dark, with great swells and a froth of white moss—looks like a stormy sea whipped into a frenzy and frozen in place. It begins under the Langjökull glacier in mountains to the east and winds some 30 miles to Hraunfoss—literally, “Lava Falls”—where a crystalline river of meltwater pours directly from its wide, stony face. When the lava flowed at the end of the ninth century, shortly after the Vikings arrived on the island, it was probably the first volcanic activity of its kind that northern Europeans had ever witnessed. Those early residents of western Iceland may have heard eruptions, seen a fiery glow on the horizon, and tracked its spread across the landscape, a spread that ultimately consumed around 90 square miles.

Hallmundarhraun, just a few hours’ drive from Reykjavík, is riven with lava tubes which form when fresh molten rock flows through an existing field of cooled lava. Over time, the ceilings of some of these tunnels partially collapse to form caves. There are some 500 across Iceland, and around 200 hold evidence of human occupation. One of these caves is Surtshellir, part of a lava tube complex that is Iceland’s longest, at more than two miles. It is named for Surtr, the elemental fire giant of Norse mythology, the "scorcher" or "blackener," ruler of Muspelheim, who will kill all gods and life at the end of time. Inside is one of the more enigmatic archaeological sites on the island.


Deep within the cave, archaeologists discovered an oval-shaped stone enclosure that could be among the oldest standing Viking structures in the world. And, in the center of the enclosure, the archaeologists found a lead cross, and then three other lead pieces. They had been pecked and gouged, suggesting they were used as official weights. Archaeologist Kevin P. Smith thinks that they were not dropped by outlaws, but rather placed there (and not burned) deliberately—to end a tradition of ritual offerings around the time Christianity came to Iceland. "It has closing deposit written all over it," he says.

The strange artifacts and patterns of color and origin, to Smith, echo this more mystical explanation. In the Landnámabók, it is not outlaws that Surtshellir is explicitly tied to, but the poem of praise to the giant. Traditionally, such poems were powerful incantations, still remembered, in this case, hundreds of years after the island-wide conversion to Christianity. Smith’s theory is that the cave was the site of rituals dedicated either to keeping Surtr in or to supporting Freyr, a Norse god of fertility and agriculture who opposes Surtr. The enclosure, in addition to resembling a Viking hall, could also be interpreted as a ritual stone boat, related to the mythology of giants. The colors of the beads are also associated with Freyr, and the absence of black beads or jasper is interesting, as the color is tied to Surtr.

The labor involved and the value of the remains suggest to Smith that the rituals were organized at the chieftain level. "The punch line is that it worked," he says. "The volcano never erupted again."

Kemo D. 7

Source: Archaeology Magazine

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