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Irish and Scots may have been first to settle Iceland, researcher finds

It has long been believed that the first people to inhabit Iceland were the Norse settlers who arrived around the year 874 AD. However, the discovery of Christian crosses carved into man-made caves in the southern part of the island is offering evidence that Celtic-speaking people from Scotland and Ireland had come to Iceland around the beginning the ninth century.

Seljalandshellar cave in the Westman Islands  - Photo by Kristjan Ahronson

Seljalandshellar cave in the Westman Islands – Photo by Kristjan Ahronson

The research is revealed in the book, Into the Ocean: Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North, which has recently been published by University of Toronto Press. Written by archaeologist Dr Kristján Ahronson of Bangor University, it shows he found these cross markings in these caves which are very similar found in Scotland and Ireland.

Iceland Cross carving - photo by Kristjan Ahronson

Iceland Cross carving – photo by Kristjan Ahronson

There are about 200 man-made caves in southern Iceland, and Ahronson focused on several located at Seljaland, which lies near the Isle of Heimaey. He explains, “In our work at Seljaland, we recorded over 100 simple crosses and 24 more elaborately carved or sculpted examples. The crosses bear a range of striking stylistic similarities to early medieval sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland, such as that found at the important early medieval monastery of Iona in Argyll as well as more extreme locales for Scotland’s early Christian communities such as St Molaise’s Cave on Holy Island (off Arran) and at isolated north Atlantic places such as the tiny island of North Rona (north of Lewis and the Scottish mainland). The Seljaland caves are remarkable in their own right for the concentration of sculpture found there and because of the very fact that they’ve been dug out of the rock, and form part of a poorly understand yet distinctively Icelandic phenomenon, now dated to Iceland’s earliest settlement.” –

In an article for The Conversation, Ahronson offers more details on this site: “We were able to accurately date one of these caves by finding construction waste from where it had been excavated from the Icelandic rock. We related this waste material to layers of volcanic airfall, ash layers that have been dated by international teams of researchers with remarkable precision and are a powerful dating tool for this part of the world. And we developed new methods to study the surface of volcanic ash layers that helped us to better understand the processes by which people cleared and managed that woodland, and contributed to creating the pastoral landscape that we recognise today. Again, these human activities can be accurately dated and chime with the our other lines of investigation.”

The evidence has impressed scholars. David Griffiths of the University of Oxford commented, “This is an important and detailed book, based on serious scholarship, fieldwork, and recording. It will re-energize the debate around the earliest settlement of Iceland,” while Richard North from University College London added, “Ahronson’s archaeological material is given in exhaustive descriptive and photographic detail, making a tempting case for the settlement in circa 800 of a community of Christian Gaels from Ireland or the western British Isles on the southern Icelandic coast.”

Dr Ahronson is now looking into what living in this community must have been like, and what animals these settlers may have brought with them. Furthermore, how did this settlement play a role in the arrival of Norse peoples to Iceland later in the ninth century?

Ahronson adds that, “The history of early Celtic ‘saints’ and their role in spreading Christianity along the western seaboard as they sought seclusion is well-established. What my work has done is to demonstrate that they could have travelled far further, as far as Iceland, in their quest for the wild places in which to follow their religious life. Certainly, the presence of such communities in Iceland – before the well-established arrival of Viking-Age Scandinavians – would explain our discoveries at Seljaland.”

For more information about Into the Ocean: Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North, please visit the University of Toronto Press website. You can also read some of Kristján Ahronson’s early research, from the article One North Atlantic Cave Settlement: Preliminary Archaeological and Environmental Investigations at Seljaland, Southern Iceland, which was published in Northern Studies, Vol.27 (2003)

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