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The Settlement Exhibition, Iceland

The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871±2 is an exhibition on the settlement of Reykjavík, Iceland, created by the Reykjavik City Museum. The exhibition is based on the archaeological excavation of the ruin of one of the first houses in Iceland and findings from other excavations in the city centre. The exhibition is located in 101 Reykjavík, on Aðalstræti 16, on the corner of Aðalstræti and Suðurgata.

The focus of the exhibition is the remains of a hall from the Settlement Age which was excavated in 2001. The hall was inhabited from c. 930–1000. North of the hall are two pieces of turf, remnants of a wall which was clearly built before 871±2, hence the name of the exhibition. Such precise data dating is possible because a major volcanic eruption from the Torfajökull area spread tephra across the region and this can be dated via glacial ice in Greenland. The hall is among the oldest human-made structures so far found in Iceland. Also on display are objects from the Viking Age found in central Reykjavík and the island of Viðey.

The exhibition is held by the City of Reykjavík and run by the Reykjavík City Museum.

History and contents

In 2001 archaeological remains were excavated in Aðalstræti, which turned out to be the oldest relics of human habitation in Reykjavík, from before AD 871±2. The findings included a hall or a longhouse, from the tenth century, which is now preserved in its original location as the focal point of the exhibition about life in Viking Age Reykjavík.

On the south side of Aðalstræti an old house stood for many years at no. 16, which had seen better days. On either side were vacant lots, used for parking. Old Reykjavík residents remembered a grand building on the corner of Aðalstræti and Túngata, called Uppsalir. It had been demolished in the 1960s, when the Reykjavík urban plan called for a highway to be built through Grjótaþorp. The building to the north had been torn down long before; it was one of the 18th-century buildings which had been built for the Innréttingar, the woollens workshops which marked the beginning of urban development at Reykjavík. In the summer of 2000 the City of Reykjavík concluded a contract with Minjavernd (antiquities preservation) on the construction of a hotel on the Aðalstræti 14, 16 and 18 lots. The old building at Aðalstræti 16 was to be renovated, and new buildings would be constructed on either side. In 1971-75 archaeological excavations had been carried out on the Aðalstræti 14 and 18 lots, revealing relics from the Settlement Age. It was thus known that further relics could be expected to be found at this location, and that archaeological excavations would be necessary before any development of the land could take place. In brief, the Reykjavík City Council decided that the excavations should be carried out, and assigned the Director of the Reykjavík City Museum to supervise the project.

The Settlement Exhibition, Iceland

Preparation began in the autumn of 2000, when several preliminary trenches were dug on the sites. The Icelandic Institute of Archaeology was appointed to carry out the excavations, which began in January 2001. Before long the remains of a hall were uncovered, and north of it fragments of turf wall. Further examination revealed that the building was of a type known from the Settlement Age, the Icelandic term for the period 870-930, in the middle of the Viking Age. The wall fragments were no less important. They were covered by the Settlement Layer of tephra, from a volcanic eruption believed to have more-or-less coincided with the beginning of the settlement of Iceland. This indicated that the wall had been built before the tephra was deposited. It transpired that the hall was very well preserved: the walls were in good condition, as was the central hearth. Hence it was proposed that the hall should be preserved. The find reawakened debate on the beginnings of Reykjavík, on settlers Ingólfur and his wife Hallveig and the site of the first farmstead. Preliminary ideas on an exhibition and a building for it were drawn up, and the Reykjavík City Council ultimately determined that the site should be preserved, and an exhibition building should be built around it to house an exhibition on the settlement in Reykjavik.

In 2001 the Mayor appointed a group to work on ideas on conservation and exhibition of the relics. The group consulted with focus groups and six designers; on the basis of their work with them, they submitted their proposals to the Executive City Council in June 2002. Construction work commenced in the autumn of 2003, and meanwhile the exhibition concepts were developed further. The exhibition 871 ±2 is the fruit of work which has been carried out over the past six years, based on scholars' theories on what the heritage sites in central Reykjavík can tell us about the life and work of the first settlers. The City of Reykjavík had previously carried out archaeological excavations in central Reykjavík. In 1971-75, excavations were made on Aðalstræti and Suðurgata; the project marked the 1100th anniversary of the settlement of Iceland. The Reykjavík City Museum has followed up on these studies as opportunities have arisen, generally in connection with construction or roadworks in the city centre, and has carried out small-scale excavations. Examples include excavations at Suðurgata 7 and Aðalstræti 8, and elsewhere on Aðalstræti, for instance the present Ingólfstorg square, and on the Parliament House site when a car park was constructed there. Gradually, quite a clear picture of the early settlement in the Kvos area has been achieved. In 1986-94, extensive excavations were carried out on the offshore island of Viðey, which added yet more to knowledge of the early history of Reykjavik.

The Settlement Exhibition, Iceland

The traditional story of the settler Ingólfur Arnarson, and how he chose a place to live, is familiar to every Icelander. Much importance has been attached to accounts of the settlers given in the Book of Settlements and Book of Icelanders; for a long time the aim was to verify the traditions by finding Ingólfur's home. The discovery of the historical relics at Aðalstræti confirms that written sources and archaeology are broadly consistent, and that Norse settlers came to Iceland at around the time stated in Old Icelandic writings.

It also confirms that during the early years of habitation at Reykjavík, people did indeed live where tradition says, at the south of Kvos, the gravel ridge that divides the Lake from the sea. But archaeology cannot tell us the names of the inhabitants. The settlement exhibition Reykjavík 871 ±2 is the result of work by many people: those who excavated the site, those who built the exhibition space, came up with ideas on the exhibition, and developed them.

Advice has been sought from many quarters. When the idea arose of preserving the site, it was suggested that it might be possible to conserve it indoors, and foreign specialists in conservation were consulted. A visit by the managing director and a board member of ICOMOS (International Council of Monuments and Sites) to Reykjavík provided an opportunity to discuss the significance of the finds and the possibility of conserving them. Relics are exhibited 'in situ' in various museums and exhibitions; the fact that the relics are seen in their original location gives them a special significance. They are tangible evidence that "this is the place" - in this case the place where habitation at Reykjavík began. The project has called for collaboration between scholars and specialists in many fields: archaeologists, conservators, natural scientists and historians, museum staff, architects, designers, engineers, technicians, craftsmen, politicians and officials. It has been a demanding project, but everyone involved set out determined to resolve complex issues, many of which have not presented themselves before. The exhibition Reykjavík 871 ±2 brings together historic relics and modern technology, which is used to make the site accessible and explain the historical context of Reykjavík since the settlement. We who have prepared this exhibition hope that it will stimulate yet more interest in the history and culture of Reykjavík, among both Reykjavík people themselves and visitors to the city.

The Settlement Exhibition, Iceland

Why 871±2?

The title 'The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871±2' was chosen for the exhibition: a layer of tephra was deposited around 871 ad from an eruption in the Torfajökull area, about 400 km to the east. The layer, which was deposited all over Iceland, had been dated to 871, with a possible range of error of two years either way. The layer can be dated with this degree of accuracy by reference to ice layers drilled from the Greenland Glacier, as the tephra was also deposited there. The tephra layer has proved a boon to archaeologists, and it plays a crucial role in dating finds from the early years of Reykjavík history. The title of the exhibition is intended to underline the scientific approach which has been applied.


The exhibition was circumscribed by a number of factors from the start. It had been decided that a hotel would be constructed on the site, and hence the relics were to be preserved and exhibited in a basement under the new building. Clearly, there was a risk that an exhibition space in a basement would not be ideal, and hence importance was attached to making it interesting, and drawing the visitors' attention away from anything reminiscent of an ordinary basement. Thus a dark-blue oval exhibition wall was constructed around the hall, sloping slightly inwards or outwards. A photograph was set into the wall, showing the view in all directions from Reykjavík, as it is believed to have been at the time of the settlement. A lighted strip is also set into the wall at the level of the surface when the tephra layer fell.

The Settlement Exhibition, Iceland

The hall was built on a gravel ridge between the sea and the Lake. Conditions meant that it was necessary to excavate the floor of the exhibition space down below the surface of the gravel ridge on which the hall stood. The idea of the gravel ridge is preserved by the floor being partly sea-washed shingle, and gently undulating.

A working party of scholars was set up to discuss the content of the exhibition. Their discussions led to the basic policy that the exhibition should focus on the cultural relics and research on them, while the settlement myth would be briefly recounted before visitors entered the exhibition proper, and also in a computer-centre accessible to visitors. The distinction between historical sources and the archaeological excavation was to be clearly drawn.

The content of the exhibition was to be presented in as diverse a manner as possible, placing emphasis on the entertainment value of the exhibition approach, without sacrificing too much scholarly rigour. The exhibits are, of course, the main point, but interpretations and explanations were to be presented in interactive multimedia form, combined with a variety of more conventional exhibition techniques. An exhibition is, by its nature, primarily a visual experience, but senses of hearing and smell can intensify and diversify the experience; hence experts in these fields of human perception were invited to participate.

The Settlement Exhibition, Iceland