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Þingvellir: Archaeology
 of 
the
 Althing

Þingvellir: Archaeology
 of 
the
 Althing

By Aidan 
Bell

Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2010

Þingvellir – photo by Peter Konieczny

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.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Iceland

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