A few weeks ago, I told you a little about my recent trip to Iceland. That trip fulfilled a childhood dream to visit a place where ancient Norsemen settled around geysers and hot steam rising from the ground, a place where glaciers, icebergs, and volcanos dominate the landscape. But settle the did. When the Vikings began to settle Iceland around 874 A.D., there were only stunted birch trees around the edge of the island. No forests like in other parts of Scandinavia or Europe, or Britain, where Vikings also settled. The Vikings used the small birch trees as supports for the roofs of their stone and turf houses, which had a typical “long fire” built down the middle.
Livestock was also kept inside the houses during the long, cold, and dark winters. The Vikings
brought cattle, horses and sheep with them on the boats to Iceland. Their main objective in immigrating was to find new land for raising animals. The climate was too cold to raise grains or vegetables, so animal husbandry, hunting and fishing became the main occupations.
The pioneers established farmsteads often supporting 50-100 people, but no real towns. The people were loosely governed by 39 chieftains who settled disputes. By 930 A.D., a gathering of all the chieftains began to settle serious crimes and blood feuds, if possible, at a place known as Thingvellir. Thingvellir is sometimes called the first parliament in Europe. The place is located at the rift between the American and Eurasian continents. The rift grows wider a few centimeters each year as tectonic plates shift. You can actually snorkel in the clear ice water of the rift, but I was cold enough as it was. As you can see below, the day was rainy and gray.
Archaeologists have discovered several Viking farmsteads, right where the sagas and oral histories said they would be, in recent years. This summer archaeologists were working on a site in downtown Reykjavik, next to a tavern that proclaimed it had been there since 1889.
We also visited the place where the 13th century chronicler of the Icelandic sagas, Snorri Sturluson, lived. Most of what we know today about Norse gods comes from Snorri’s writing. The 800-year-old manuscripts are displayed at a museum in Reykjavik, and the stone-lined hot pool at Snorri’s farmstead is still maintained. Just like many people today, Snorri probably enjoyed a good soak at the end of the day.