In September 2019, I visited the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. While in Iceland, I visited many of the wonderful major natural landmarks in the National Parks in the southern Iceland. You can read about my experiences riding Icelandic horses, exploring waterfalls, volcanoes and glaciers, an iceberg lake and black sand beaches.
The National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik is situated on a slight hill, overlooking pleasant gardens, walking pathways and a feature lake against the city centre. On the opposite hill is the imposing white form of Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic Lutheran parish church of Reykjavik.
One of the most iconic figures of Viking Age and Icelandic archaeology is the tiny bronze statue of Thor known as the Eyrarland Statue recovered from farmland near Akureyri, Iceland in the 1850s. It is believed to depict a scene from the Prose Edda where Thor recovers Mjollnir during a wedding ceremony, seated with the customary Icelandic cross-shaped hammer between his knees.
Items recovered from Viking Age settlements show the lifestyle and intricate artisan work of jewellery makers from the Viking Age. The square-shaped box brooches worn by women to pin dresses, various designs for cloak pins, silver earrings and pendants plus beaded necklaces.
The weapons recovered from archaeological excavations in Iceland were from the Viking Age with weapons including long swords made from iron, spear heads, arrow head and shield boss, and a range of battle axe heads also made from iron. The two Viking Age battle swords are placed diagonally across the display and were recovered from graves in South Iceland.
A Viking Age sword blade with sword hilt inlaid with bronze recovered from excavations along with several spear heads.
A 19th century sword and several Viking Age axe heads, the larger two are 10th century battle axe heads recovered from South Iceland.
The items recovered from archaeological excavations from south Iceland in the Pjorsa Valley, where settlements were buried beneath constant pumice and ash fall after volcanic eruptions and depopulation of the entire was expected to have occurred. The archaeological evidence reveals the Pjorsa Valley was continually inhabited despite volcanic activity with the presence of settlements indicating it remained a key trading route connecting North and South Iceland from settlement until the 17th century. Archaeological finds recovered included trade goods, weapons, jewellery and household items.
The horse was incredibly important to Icelandic culture and archaeological excavations have recovered decorated bronze stirrups, elaborate cheek pieces for horse bridles, bits and items of harness.
An example of a bronze stirrup from a Viking Age saddle and an accurate replica showing the detailed engraving and metalwork.
A burial of a Viking Age warrior from Iceland buried on horseback with a battle long sword across his back, the remnants of wooden scabbard still covering the blade. The burial also includes an axe-head, shield boss, arrows, coins and stones. The requirements of any man travelling into the unknown. The burial is continued into next image which includes the remains the warrior’s horse.
The burial of the mounted warrior was impossible to capture in a single image. The horse burial indicates that this was an Icelandic horse, the same breed as the only native horse in Iceland today. Connections between of the burial and the importance of the horse in Viking Age culture are obvious, everyday life relied on horses for battle, transport and labour. There are also reminders between a warrior’s death in battle and the female spirits of Norse myth, the Valkyries, who collected the worthy dead on the battlefield to feast with Odin in Valhalla.
Another of the burials in the Museum is this one possibly of a missionary with numerous grave items including the clam shells common among religious missionaries and monks that travelled throughout Europe and into Iceland.
One of the strongest themes in Viking lifestyle was the connection of each man and woman to the Fate laid out by the gods. Of course, the gods were answerable to their own pre-determined fate and the Norns were the beings responsible for weaving the futures of men and gods alike. The classic description of the Norns weaving is the loom where entrails are used instead of yarn and the scissors that cut the red thread from the weaving are cutting life from the tapestry. The weavers, the three Norns are the mysterious and revered figures that tend for Yggdrasil and seem answerable to none but themselves.
Weaving was an important part of common Viking Age liftsyle with the necessity to keep protected from the harsh climate and landscape encouraging the herding and shearing of the flocks of sheep. These sheep eventually became native to Iceland like the horse and their sturdy forms provided meat, dairy and wool for the Vikings. It allowed products such as mittens and wool-lined boots to be created on the looms.
The traditional farm and household implements from Viking Age settlements were simple equipment not much different from Iron Age settlements with tools for ploughing fields, constructing turf houses, various grinding stones for preparing grain before baking, bronze house keys and cooking implements.
The classic image of Vikings displays them as uncouth and unclean but there are many examples of the importance good personal appearance and cleanliness had for Viking culture. The stories of the uncivilised Vikings was obviously a matter of perspective from the opposing side and probably also a good deal propaganda. Skilled craftsmanship is clear is the elaborately carved bone drinking horns.
Viking Age bone hair combs, beaded bracelets and arm bands.
Viking Age culture includes the adaptation of many technologies recovered from Viking raids. The influences of the Irish Celtic culture on Iceland are several such indicators where papar appears in connection with the Irish monasteries. Dozens of copies remain of The Old Covenant, a legal document detailing how Iceland was subject to Norwegian rule, the Norwegian Logretta would administer justice for disputes giving its rulings on a regular basis.
A sheet of restored parchment from a copy of Jonsbok, the first written legal code for Iceland dated prior to the 14th century. The code includes segments of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth approved in 1241 and the includes Iceland falling beneath the Norwegian Logretta, the rule and judgement of the law courts and king of Norway.
A copy of the Book of Icelanders dated to 1681. The original was first written by Ari the Wise in 1130 AD and provided the first written history of the Iceland from discovery to settlement.
Trade was an essential part of Viking culture and the Icelanders were no different. The early settlements of Iceland were founded on trade between different settlements and when required, warfare between them. The hoarding of silver and gold was common in times of war or uncertainty to protect valuables from being stolen by the opposing force. The silver hoard includes gold coins and in the upper section of the display, an example of the scales used in trade to price valuable objects against pre-defined weights that many Vikings carried with them.
An example of different small carvings from the Viking Age on the upper left and right images which may have also been used as game pieces.
In 1000 AD King Olaf of Norway began pressuring those settlements under the control of Norway to become Christian. In response, Iceland did so without bloodshed through a meeting of the Alþingi, a gathering of Icelandic chieftains which is recognised today as Icelandic Parliament. The Alþingi decided to adopt Christianity and despite the formal declaration to worship as Christians, only a few Icelandic Chieftains were actually baptised. Many ornaments, jewellery and artwork indicate a combination of pagan and Christian beliefs were retained well into the 18th century in Iceland. The silver 10th century cruciform pendants indicate the blending of Christian and pagan motifs.
Viking Age traders used pre-defined weights to determine the value of trading items. Goods were priced according to weight and these stones with bronze inlay indicate a set of specific weights for trading purposes.
An example of 17th to 18th century crupper bosses from horse harness which were engraved with prayers and charms to protect the horse during battle.