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Society, economy and culture
Project topic
Culture & history

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Fieldwork location

Geolocation is 64.7842, -20.72771

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Science / project summary
This grant will salvage endangered and unique archaeological deposits from Surtshellir, (Surtur’s cave), a unique archaeological site in Iceland. These thin floor deposits, from a Viking Age structure built 300 meters into a cave, are immediately endangered by looting and unintentional damage from unregulated tourist access and ultimately threatened by the eventual collapse of the cave itself. Surtshellir, itself, is a unique site in the North Atlantic, envisioned as the home of the being (Surtur) who would destroy the world and who was manifest in a massive volcanic eruption at the time Iceland was first settled by Norse colonists. Medieval texts describe Viking Age chieftains traveling to propitiate this fire-giant in Surtshellir and, later, to defeat outlaws said to have taken refuge in the cave. Thirteenth century sources describe brutal political acts of mutilation and revenge carried out by chieftains inside this cave during the 1240s. These and other references suggest that Surtshellir may have been the most feared place in Iceland, but also a location linked to acts of social restoration by medieval Iceland’s chieftains. Understanding this unique site therefore has the potential to provide new insights into the sacred and social roles of leaders within Iceland’s complex indigenous society. Work done by the applicant and three of this project’s members inside Surtshellir in 2001 and in 2012, with EAGER funding from NSF’s Arctic Social Sciences program documented that it contains (1) one of the best-preserved Viking Age structures in the world, (2) a massive dry-stone wall, and (3) a pile of domestic animal bones, crushed, chopped, burned and thrown from the structure deeper into the cave. Research undertaken in 2012 also revealed that the site contains intact, but thin, floor deposits within the Viking Age structure and that those deposits contain objects (beads, fire-starter fragments, whetstone fragments, among others) that were heretofore unrecognized and have the potential to unlock questions of why this site was constructed and what was done in this extreme location. Specifically, the assemblage of objects present within these deposits will help us answer whether the site was a shelter for outlaws at the time of Iceland’s parliamentary origins or whether it was a sacrificial site integral to Norse ritual and political life, intended to prevent the end of the world or at least further volcanic eruptions. As the archaeological remains in Surtshellir cave are actively endangered through unregulated tourism and are threatened by the inevitable collapse of the cave in which they are located, this project will provide critical documentation of these deposits before they are destroyed and will help to guide community and national economic development plans for interpreting the cave and making it more responsibly accessible by the Icelandic Antiquities Office (Minjastofnun Íslands) and the National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands), both of which are partners in this research. This project brings together a uniquely qualified team from Brown University, the National Museum of Iceland, the Icelandic Antiquities Office, and the University of Iceland to document and salvage the Viking Age and medieval remains inside Surtshellir, one of the North Atlantic’s – and northern Europe’s – most unique archaeological sites.