Þingvellir: Archaeology of the Althing
By Aidan Bell
Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2010
Abstract: The Norse General Assembly of Iceland, called the Althing at Þingvellir, was central to early Icelandic society in the Viking Age. Not only was it the high point of the annual social calendar, but it was also the focus of their ideals of justice and law-making, which the early Icelanders refined into an art. Here a description is given of the character of the Þingvellir site and how Geology is affecting the Archaeology; an overview is given of how the Althing and other assembly sites in Iceland were organised, and the significance of the relationship between Religion and Politics is also discussed. An important aspect of this study is an up-to-date summary of key archaeological research so far undertaken at Þingvellir.
This study will focus upon the Althing during the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth from c.930-1262. The aim of this research is to focus upon one aspect of the archaeology of the Althing by re-analysing the as-yet unidentified Byrgisbúð structure. It is located on the neck of land called Spöngin, between two water-filled fissures on the eastern edge of the assembly area. This unusual structure has been excavated and studied previously, but has yet to be satisfactorily interpreted.
The re-analysis will be carried out in three parts, firstly to re-evaluate the excavation evidence in order to reconstruct the form and character of Byrgisbúð, and secondly looking at the existing theories surrounding the interpretation of the structure. Thirdly, this will then be placed into the context of the Althing through a comparison with other assembly sites. The hypothesis presented here is that Spöngin acted as a pagan sanctuary, and that the Lögrétta was originally located on Spöngin when the Althing was established in 930, but that it was later moved after the constitutional reforms of 965.
Introduction: The basic component of governance throughout Scandinavia during the Viking Age was the Germanic parliamentary tradition of the thing (þing) and these open‐air assemblies have long been recognised as an essential element of Norse political systems , which the Norse settlers then brought to Iceland. A Thing was a public assembly for free men who met to discuss matters of common importance in their area, as well as to legislate laws and administer justice. Each province was divided into smaller thing‐districts, based upon population or area . In addition, each region had its own thing, which in time became of greater importance than the district things, resulting in a pyramidal structure, with the general assembly, the Althing, at the top. Similar assembly sites are known from many locations across the Viking world from the Gula þing in Norway, to the Tynwald on the Isle of Man. Although the Althing in Iceland survived for many centuries, and the modern parliament holds the same name, the Isle of Man is the only Norse colony to have continuously maintained their thing tradition .
The Althing in Iceland was therefore not unique, but the area that it governed was unusually large . The Icelanders developed the concept of things further and created a system of law that was distinctly different from what had previously existed in Scandinavia . Throughout the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth (AD 930‐1262) neither the Norwegians, Swedes or Danes had succeeded in creating a unified law in their own nations and so the establishment of the Althing, the symbol of a national unified law in Iceland, was of great significance.