AncientPages.com – Strikingly similar carvings and simple cruciform sculptures mark special places or places that were once sacred and are spread over an area stretching from the Irish and Scottish coasts to Iceland. We can look at Skellig Michael, which rises from the sea 12 km from the southwest coast of Ireland; to Aird a’Mhórnar in the Outer Hebrides of North Uist; to Noss Island, Shetland; and to Heimaklettur Reef in Iceland’s Westman Islands.
Norwegians landed in Iceland in 872. Credit: Oscar Wergeland – Public domain
Also in South Iceland, a number of the 200 man-made caves found there are marked by similar sculptures carved into the rock. And these dark outlying places suggest another answer to a puzzle we thought we’d solved long ago.
Iceland was one of the last island groups on Earth to be settled by humans. As you might expect, the late 9th century Scandinavian settlement has long been of great interest to local people. These artificial caves suggest that we should rethink our traditional history. The Viking The arrival could actually be dated to the Celtic speaking people of Scotland and Ireland around 800 AD.
Crosses mark the place
Our search for answers to these questions led Dr. Tõnno Jonuks and I to the Westman Islands, which lie a few kilometers southwest of the Icelandic mainland. We found our way up to the Heimaklettur cliff on Heimaey, the largest of the islands, in search of one of these mysterious cross sculptures.
And we found what we were looking for: a large cross carved into a small niche in an otherwise exposed cliff face—similar to other crosses carved into the rock in some of the 200 man-made caves clustered around farms in southern Iceland. Then, to our surprise, two more crosses along a high ledge overlooking the harbor and the busy fishing town of Heimaey – all key exhibits on the way to the team’s early discoveries.
These have contributed to research focused on Seljaland, which is nearby on the mainland and now appears to be Iceland’s oldest settlement, around 800 AD found elsewhere in southern Iceland) is related to early medieval sculpture in Britain and Ireland.
The islands off the west coast of Scotland have long been known as a core area of early medieval monastic communities that produced these simple cruciform sculptures – and each sculpture is believed to be the result of a spur of religious devotion. What has been unclear is the nature and extent of their settlements outside the Gaelic-speaking world.
The flourishing of Gaelic monasticism is well established for the early medieval period, with individuals and monastic foundations of the “Irish School” penetrating large areas of Europe, and accounts of North Atlantic travel and settlement. Likewise, the religious impulse is to seek “desert” or wilderness in the ocean. However, we were left wondering if this impulse introduced these communities to Iceland before the Old Norse-speaking Vikings who later dominated this Atlantic zone.
How we made our discovery
Working with world-leading Edinburgh illustrators and analysts Ian G Scott and Ian Fisher, we found striking stylistic similarities in Iceland to the early medieval sculpture of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. This area includes the important monastery of Iona in Argyll, as well as extreme sites for early Christian communities in Scotland, such as the cave of St Molaise on the Holy Isle (off Arran in the Firth of Clyde) and in isolated locations in the North Atlantic such as the small island of North Rona ( north of Lewis).
The Seljaland Caves are notable in their own right for their concentration of sculptures and for having been dug out of the rock, forming part of a poorly understood but distinctly Icelandic phenomenon. We were able to accurately date one of these caves by finding construction debris from where it had been excavated from the Icelandic rock.
Me and Dr. Kate Smith from Exeter University, we linked this waste material to layers of volcanic air, 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 for studying the surface of volcanic ash layers, which helped us better understand the processes by which humans cleared and managed forests, helping to create the pastoral landscape we know today. Again, these human activities can be precisely dated and influence our next lines of investigation.
What must it have been like to make the journeys across the Atlantic to this wild northern island with its coastal forests? Were the early journeys inspired by observing the migratory bird trails of Scotland and Ireland, which today include the Scotch goose and the ruffed grouse?
What were the challenges of early life, and how and when did humans set about converting forested landscapes into the pastures needed for sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, and horses? Were pigs particularly useful in clearing forests or perhaps fires? Did pioneer life present special opportunities and how did it relate to life at home? Finally, how did this early phase relate to the large-scale Viking settlement that followed 100 years later? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered now that we can say that the story of human settlement in Iceland is not quite what we once believed.
Written Christian AhronsonLecturer in Archaeology, Bangor University
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