Icelandic archaeologists rush to record ruins in path of lava

2021 April 29

Iceland has a well-recorded oral history, with a mixture of legend and verified fact, which dates back to its settlement hundreds of years before literacy reached Iceland. The recent volcanic eruption in Iceland threatened to bury in lava one such minor site, which was referred to in oral history but whose contents are still unknown. Below, an Icelandic-language article from 2021 March 20 describing the situation has been run through google translate; I have lightly cleaned up the translation in parts.


Oddgeir Isaksen, an archaeologist at Minjastofnun, is on his way by helicopter to the eruption site in Geldingadal [“castrated horse valley”] in Fagradalsfjall [“beautiful-valley mountain”], to investigate whether there are any real traces of the settler Ísólfur’s cairn. This is the last chance, as the alleged cairn is on its way under lava.

Ísólfur’s cairns at Ísólfsskáli are mentioned in old place name registers and it is said that Ísólfur wanted to be buried in the valley. “He wanted to be buried where his geldings [castrated horses] had the best”, it says.

Oddgeir says in a conversation with mbl.is that these archeological remains are in great danger due to the lava flow, which is heading towards the alleged cairn. What Oddgeir wants to do is measure the cairn, photograph it and try to assess whether there really was a grave there or not.

In the picture, the cairn is marked and everything looks like it will eventually go under lava. Kristinn Magnússon

Did not get to go to Geldingadal before eruption

It is common for place names which refer to graves and are named after certain settlers to turn out to be natural creations rather than actual dungeons or burial mounds. However, it is common for [pre-Christian] graves and cairn place names to turn out to contain real relics - which could be the case here.

Judging by lava flow forecasts, the lava is heading for the cairn. “Of course it’s sad, but it just shows the importance of archeology, because there is a cultural heritage that can just disappear at any moment. This is happening in many places, for example where it disappears due to a landslide by the sea,” says Oddgeir.

During this earthquake cycle, experts from Minjastofnun have traveled around the area and listed listed monuments in the most dangerous area. Before the eruption, however, no permission was obtained to enter Geldingadal due to the danger of the eruption, so now they have to go at the last minute.

Ara Gíslason’s place name register says about the cairn in question: “On the east side of Fagradalsfjall there is a hill, called Stórhóll, just west of Nátthagaskarð. North of it is a bend and then deep valleys with lawns, called Geldingadalir. There is a thicket on the surface, and it is said that Ísólfur á Skála is buried there […] He wanted to be buried where his geldings had the best.”

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