Evidence to support the theory that Hiberno-Scottish monks preceded the Norsemen as settlers of Iceland.
Until recently, it was believed by many archaeologists that the first people to inhabit Iceland were the Norse settlers who, in the second half of the 9th century, migrated across the North Atlantic (reaching as far as the American continent). Although there have been suggestions that Scottish missionaries may in fact have preceded the Norse settlers in arriving at Iceland half a century earlier, the lack of archaeological evidence for such a theory - which has been based on a number of limited contemporary Norse accounts - has prevented widespread support for the idea from being generated. However in recent years there have been a number of discoveries that seem to support the idea that a Hiberno-Scottish mission may have the first to attempt to create a permanent settlement on the Icelandic land mass.
The Hiberno-Scottish mission was led by a group of Irish and Scottish monks who sought to spread Christianity throughout Europe. They were mainly active from the early 6th century until the 13th century, although small pockets remained until the late 19th century. The Hiberno-Scottish mission was motivated by such religious zeal that they often braved conditions that many other explorers would have deemed impassable. By the late 8th century, the Scots would have been aware of the existence of a large land mass to their north, partly due to the paths of migrating birds and also because of distant volcanic activity. It is therefore entirely in keeping with their other activities that they might have dispatched a mission to visit the island of Iceland and convert any natives they might find.
The Norse settlers who reached Iceland in the 9th century are said to have noted traces of the monks' activities, and there is evidence to suggest that the monks left shortly before the arrival of the Norsemen. Some scholars have suggested this is unlikely, and that the Norsemen may have driven the monks out, but there are a number of arguments against this theory. There would be no reason for the Norsemen to lie about the subject, and they would more likely have loudly advertised their victory over the monks. There is also no reason to doubt the idea that the monks left Iceland just before the Norsemen arrived simply due to coincidence. The monks will have found no native societies to convert to Christianity, and would therefore have considered their work to be over.
In 2010 an important discovery was made at Kverkarhellir cave on the Seljaland farm in southern Iceland. An artificial cave nearly 8 metres in length, Kverkarhellir is one of hundreds of such caves on the island and has significant tool markings on the walls that indicate a link to the monks rather than the Norse settlers. An analysis of sediment deposits around the mouth of the cave showed conclusively that there were settlers living there in around 800 AD, almost a century before the Norsemen arrived. Either the Norsemen were wrong about their arrival date - unlikely, given their accuracy in other areas - or there was indeed some form of temporary settlement on Iceland at around this time.
In another cave, just a few metres from Kverkarhellir, a number of mid-sized crosses were found carved into the walls. The cave, known as Seljalandshellar, is decorated in a fashion that is not entirely out of keeping with the Norse style of the times but which is much closer to the types of crosses left in other locations around Europe by the Hiberno-Scottish monks. The Seljalandshellar crosses are the strongest archaeological evidence to date of a significant Hiberno-Scottish missionary presence on the island. Crucially, while the Seljalandshellar crosses do not fit with the key Scandinavian markings of the period, they are remarkably consistent with the Hiberno-Scottish tradition of the late 8th century - ie the period before the Vikings would have been likely to have cross-influenced the region.
Until the discovery of the evidence at Kverkarhellir and Seljalandshellar, the theory of Hiberno-Scottish monks preceding the Norsemen as settlers of Iceland was just an idea. However there is now strong evidence to support this idea, and the idea of the Hiberno-Scottish missionaries having arrived in Iceland in around 800 AD and stayed until around 870 AD is no longer preposterous. In fact the weight of evidence discovered recently does seem to be almost irrefutable, to the point that it may be necessary to completely revise modern histories of the Icelandic nation. However the monks clearly did not leave a lasting impression on Iceland, and the island's history is still overwhelmingly dominated by the influence of Norse settlers.
Byock, Jesse. Viking Age Iceland. London, Penguin Books, 2001.
> Free essay filed in: Archaeology on December 27th 2010.
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