Featured Image: (Dreamstime | Dalius Baranauskas | Photo 140734494).
The Surtshellir cave in western Iceland is a phenomenon. Not only for its name that refers to the giant Surtr who destroyed Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, at the start of Ragnarök. People are drawn to the cave from its earliest existence. Archaeologists have found items that show people came here to perform rituals. The sagas also tell stories of outlaws who hid in the cave (see Lost Viking Settlements: 3. Icelandic Commonwealth Era (part 3)). This week, a scientific study reveals the further hidden depths of the Surtshellir cave. More importantly, they give a timestamp; when the cave was formed, when people started using it and when they stopped using it.
New Reveals since 2012
After the first settlers arrived in Iceland, a volcanic eruption occurred. If you think the drone videos of the present eruption instill a sense of awe, just imagine how this force of nature looked to the settlers. In any case, the lava streams of that early eruption created the Surtshellir cave. And dating the animal bones gives the telltale sign that people performed rituals in the cave not long after its formation.
There is more. The archaeologists venture deeper into the cave and make a unique discovery. They find a Viking ship carved into the bedrock (see the articles below for images). Inside the ship are many animal bones, too. Nearby, are also beads from the Iraqi region and minerals from the Turkish region. These items from faraway regions say a lot about the trade networks of the Icelanders. They also say a lot about the importance of the rituals to the settlers by offering such valuable items.
The rituals in the Surtshellir cave continued until Iceland converted to Christianity (around 1000 C.E.), according to the study that is summarised on LiveScience. See the original article on Science Direct: Kevin P. Smith, Guðmundur Ólafsson, Albína Hulda Pálsdóttir, ‘Ritual responses to catastrophic volcanism in Viking Age Iceland: Reconsidering Surtshellir Cave through Bayesian analyses of AMS dates, tephrochronology, and texts,’ in: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 126 (2021). doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2020.105316.
For further reading on the earlier excavations, see: Kevin P. Smith, Guðmundur Ólafsson & Thomas McGovern, ‘Surtshellir: A Fortified Outlaw Cave in West Iceland,’ in: The Viking Age: Ireland and the West (Proceedings of the Fifteenth Viking Congress, Cork, 2005) edited by John Sheehan and Donnachadh O’Carráin (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010), pp. 283-297.