"So many men of lore claimed land, that the whole country was settled in the course of sixty winters so that since it has not been peopled..." —Ari "Froði", Landnámabók
How, when, and by whom was Iceland settled? For these questions, Landnámabók has been a vital source for formulating hypotheses. Written in the 12th century and describing events beginning in the 9th century, the book covers Iceland and the genealogy of its early inhabitants. It contains accounts of individual settlers, their journeys to Iceland, and the legal and social structures of the time. Yet, not all agree it is a factual account of events. The debate surrounding Landnámabók primarily revolves around its historical accuracy and the extent to which its accounts can be considered free of bias or influence from powerbrokers of the time of its writing. Like many medieval texts, Landnámabók was written several centuries after the events it describes. Therefore, the details presented in the manuscript have been a subject of scholarly debate. How could such a detailed account be collected 200 years after the settlement?
Historians and archaeologists have used Landnámabók in conjunction with other sources to reconstruct Iceland's early history. In this blog post, we will draw from three sources: Literary, archeological, and genetic to make sense of the settlement of Iceland. We will review the texts describing the settlement, address why the primary text, Landámabók, was written, discuss disputes over the accuracy of Landnámabók, consider the archeological evidence, discuss the possibility of a pre-Norse settlement, determine where the first settlers arrived and where they came from, and review genetic studies that inform knowledge of the settlement. Finally, we will draw some conclusions from all these sources about what it is that can be considered true.
Books describing the settlement
Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders) is a short historical work covering the early history of Iceland. It was written by Ari Þorgilsson (1067-1148) also called Ari "fróði" (IR# I133667) which means "the wise" or "the learned". The book describes the settlement of Iceland, the formation of a legal system imported from Norway, the calendar, the partition of Iceland into quarter regions, the conversion of the Icelandic people to Christianity, and the history of bishops and law speakers. In the foreword, Ari writes quite humbly:
En hvatki er missagt er i fræðum
þessum, þá er skylt at hafa þat
heldr, er sannara reynist.
But whatever is mistaken in this
scholarship, it should be held
rather what turns out to be true.
Landnámabók, the Book of Settlements, was a much larger undertaking. It is an intriguing and remarkable document whose origins and version history are complicated. It is believed that Ari "froði" is also the original author. On his mother's side of the family, Ari was the great-grandson of Guðrun a main character of Laxdæla Saga which may have lent him an understanding of many early settlers. In the preface of Heimskringla, Snorri Sturlusson comments on where Ari "froði" obtained his knowledge:
Ari...was the first man of this land who wrote down lore both old and new in speech of the North...Ari received manifold knowledge from Þuríður daughter of Snorri Goði, a woman wise of wit. She remembered Snorri her father who was near thirty-five when Christ's faith came to Iceland, therefore nothing wonderful it is that Ari knew many ancient tales both of our lands and the outlands.
These lines give insight into the conduit of Ari's knowledge. One primary source was Þuríður "The Wise" Snorradóttir (1024 - 1112), the woman described in the quote above. She was 43 years his senior. Þuríður (IR# I136509) provided much of the information for Landnámabók and also may have helped those who wrote the Sagas with the facts that she knew from growing up as the daughter of a famous saga character Snorri Goði. For those unfamiliar with Snorri Goði, he was an intelligent and crafty Chieftain, small in physical size, but good at gaining the support of his peers and getting revenge. He is described in several of the Sagas of the Icelanders.
It seems natural that such a huge undertaking as the history of the settlement of Iceland would be a collaborative project. So as one might expect, others contributed to Landnámabók. For example, the chapters describing East Iceland's history were part of a collaboration between Ari and Kolskeggur "The Wise" who lived in the East. Ari did not have detailed knowledge about the Eastern region and relied on Kolskeggur for help in writing down these sections. Still others are believed to be experts who informed Ari. In Sturlunga saga, for example, Teitr, Ari's tutor, is cited as the expert on his ancestor Ketilbjörn "The Old". A narrative about Ketilbjörn appears in Landnámabók. Clearly, Ari talked to and learned from many elders in writing the text.
While Ari and Kolskeggur document a detailed history, the book underwent several modifications by different authors. The oldest version was written in the first half of the twelfth century. Then Styrmisbók appeared around 1220 AD. Following this, law speaker Sturla Þórðarson wrote a version called Sturlubók between 1275 and 1280 AD. Haukr Erlendensson wrote a version around 1306 AD. There was a parallel version called Melabók written around 1300 AD by the lawman Snorri Markusson of Melar. Skarðsárbók appeared in 1636 AD and Þórðarbók in 1650 AD. I will not go into detail about the differences between each of these versions or how they interrelate, but be aware that the versions differ to some degree. Notably, Landnámabók was first printed for consumption of the masses at Skálholt in 1688 (pictured) on the order of Bishop Þórður Þorláksson (1636-1697).
Why was Landnámabók written?
There are at least four reasons or any combination of them together that Landnámabók may have been written. It could have been an exercise to chronicle historical events. It could relate to the tithe that began in 1097 AD. Landowners had an essential role in the administration of Church affairs and earned significant income from the tithe. Documenting their ancestral claim may have motivated this history. It may also have been written to parcel land, assign title to families, and as a means of valuation. Or, it could have been an effort to map the Island through genealogy and storytelling. Thus far, we have not been able to ascertain why Landnámabók was written. The true reasons are unknown.
What are the disputes about the accuracy of Landnámabók?
One concern with the accuracy of Landnámabók is the long period between the settlement and the writing of the book. People of the same generation as Ari and Kolskeggur were descendants that were 6 or 7 generations removed from the first settlers. Some of the elders of the time were 5 generations away from the settlement. Þuríður "The Wise" Snorradóttir has already been mentioned as an elder who conveyed Iceland's history to Ari. Another example is Ari's foster-father Hallr who was born in 995 and was five generations from his ancestral settlers (Benediktsson, 1969). Many families would likely have been able to trace their ancestry back at least 5 generations and know where they first landed in Iceland. Certainly, however, not all families were capable of this. In some cases, names of farms or other place names reflect settlers with no direct descendants or who had possibly left Iceland in subsequent generations. We find in Landnámabok that some lesser-known settlers are not named. So the book does not reflect a complete history.
Many of the disputes about Landnámabók accuracy reflect land boundary disputes waged by powerful chieftaincies. Smith (1995) provides a clear illustration of this. According to Landnámabók the Norse chieftain Kveld-Ulf and his son Skallagrim left Norway for Iceland after conflicting with Harald Fairhair. Kveld-Ulf died en route, leaving his son to establish a farmstead at Borg, which is now a small town in Western Iceland. Skallagrim claimed all of the land between two rivers, the Norðurá and the Hvítá from the mountains to the ocean, and established farms and homes for his followers to rule this large swath of land. Skallagrim's relatives became the leaders of this regional dynasty with governance over the area. However, in the Sturlubók version of Landndmabok, farms to the east of the river Norðurá give land title to Skallagrim. That is, the Sturlubók version of Landnámabók asserts that the entire region around Borgarfjord was within Skallagrim's original land claim. However, another version of Landndmabok (Melabók) limits Skallagrim's land claim to areas west of Norðurá River. When these sources were written, this river marked two political districts in western Iceland. Successors to Skallagrim's chieftaincy had no legal claim to land east of the Nordura River. However, due to the political and family leanings of the authors of these different versions of Landnámabók, accounts of the landholding differ.
What have archeologists determined?
Archeologists dispute the claim in Landnámabók that Iceland was completely settled in 60 years. We know from archeological evidence that the island was covered in forest upon the arrival of the settlers. Much of the land did not become usable for farming until much later. Radiocarbon dating tells us that the earliest settlements were coastal or around inlets of fjords and that much later settlements moved inland (Smith, 1995). This leaves open the possibility of waves of settlers over a much longer time span than reported in Landnámabók. If there were settlers 100 or more years later, these persons are not known or recorded.
Finally, it is worth noting most of the settlers are not mentioned. Landnámabók mentions landholding men along with a few of their wives who stood out as prominent women. Only the occasional enslaved person is mentioned. However, most women and enslaved people go unmentioned and we know little about their stories, who they were, and from where they came.
Was there a pre-Norse settlement?
"In that time ... there were Christian men here, who the Northmen called "Papar", but they went away afterward because they did not wish to be here with heathen men, and left behind Irish books, bells and bachalls." —Ari "froði", The Book of Icelanders
So begins the Book of Icelanders with a reference to Irish hermits living in Iceland before the Northmen arrived. Most believed that the placename "Papey Island" a small 2 square kilometer Island off the coast of East Iceland was the home of these hermits. However, archeological excavations have failed to find an early Irish settlement. What was discovered on Papey Island was a Norse settlement (Eldjárn, 1989). To date, there is no evidence of pre-Norse settlement. Poems written in the 18th Century identify the caves at Ægissíða, in South Iceland as inhabited by Celtic monks before the Norse settlement, but there is no archeological evidence to support this theory. The caves appear to have had ancient human inhabitants but nothing ties them to the pre-settlement period. To date, we cannot say anything about a pre-Norse settlement other than what is written in literary sources.
When did the Norse settlers arrive?
For this question, what is written in Landnámabók, and what studies of sediment and radiocarbon dating reports seem to line up. Much debate about the settlement of Iceland for the past 50 years has centered on something called “old wood”. Wood found at archeological sites dates to 700 AD whereas grains found at the site date to 870 AD; the time of written accounts of the settlement. Early on, archeologists believed that because of the “old wood” the written settlement date was inaccurate. However, since grains appear much later, it is doubtful settlers survived on wood alone! Now most believe the settlement date is correct and much wood that was used in the early settlement was driftwood that may have been over 100 years old. Indeed, as mentioned above, the settlements around 870 AD were coastal and had easy access to driftwood (old wood).
Where did the first settlers come from?
"Wise men say that a variety of landtakers were baptized, most of these came from west beyond the sea [British Isles]...but in few cases did this pass on from parents to progeny, for the sons of some of these men built temples and did sacrifices, and completely heathen the land remained for about 120 years." —Ari "Froði", Landnámabók
Ingólfr Arnarson (849 – 910) is identified in Landnámabók as the first permanent Norse settler of Iceland, together with his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttir and foster brother Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson. The group brought with them Irish people held in bondage who rebelled and were later killed at the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. The Vestmenn or "Westmen" is a term for the Irish (men from the West). According to tradition, Ingólfr and his family settled in Reykjavík in 874. As the story goes, many other settlers were Norwegians with harrowing stories of seeking refuge from the oppression of King Harald Fairhair who was trying to consolidate power in Norway. The story though is more complicated than this. Of the 435 named settlers in Landnámabók, only 130 are identified as coming from Norway directly. Fifty of them are identified as coming from the British Isles. Many of these identify as "Norwegian" in ancestry but had lived in the British Isle (mostly Scotland, Ireland, and the Hebrides) for a long time and many were born there. Most settlers in Landnámabók do not have a listed homeland. Laxdæla saga gives insight into the unstable environment Vikings faced in the 9th Century in the British Isles. Many likely sought refuge in Iceland as they were pushed out of these places by local chieftains and petty kings. Landnámabók suggests some settlers then brought enslaved people or married free people from the British Isles.
What do genetic studies tell us?
Genetic studies are an important source of information about the origin of Icelanders and can confirm or deny what is written in textual sources. A study by Ebenesersdóttir et al. (2018) examined ancient genomes from 27 skeletal remains unearthed in Iceland that were from the settlement period or soon after. These authors demonstrate that the earliest Icelanders were a combination of Norse, Celtic, and individuals who were an admixture of both. They also found that ancient Icelanders as a group are much more similar to their source populations in Scandinavia the British Isles and Ireland than are modern-day Icelanders. This has to do with something called "genetic drift" which is a change in the frequency of genes in a population due to random chance. Being separated from Norway and the British Isles for so long has resulted in differences between Icelanders and those origin populations. Volcanic eruptions, famines, and pestilence on the island may have resulted in different gene frequencies of the survivors than of the source populations in Norway and the British Isles. Another interesting finding is that there are unequal contributions from the ancient founders to the contemporary Icelandic gene pool. While ancient Icelanders appeared to have roughly 50% Celtic ancestry, modern-day Icelanders only have roughly 30% Celtic ancestry. One theory is that since Celtic settlers were enslaved by the Norse their lives were tougher and they had fewer opportunities to successfully raise children. This would result in a higher frequency of progeny from Scandinavian settlers.
A key question is whether male and female settlers had different origins. The Vikings were raiders and often raided coastal towns in the British Isles. In addition to their other violent behavior, Vikings were known to abduct women in coastal villages and farms. Also, many settlers were Vikings who came from the British Isles and were already intermarrying with the local population. It is possible that mostly male Norwegians and female Celts populated Iceland.
Understanding how to study the relationship between sex and origin with genetic analysis requires some explanation. On the human genome, the Y chromosome is patrilineal, meaning it is carried only from father to child. If the child receives one sex chromosome from each parent and one is a Y chromosome, then that child is born male. On the other hand, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is matrilineal, meaning it is carried from mother to child. Each child, male or female, receives mtDNA from their mother and only their mother. By tracing back from modern-Icelander Y chromosome DNA and mtDNA it is possible to compare these sequences to those of modern-day Norwegians and Celtic persons in (Scotland, Ireland, and the Hebrides) to estimate the proportion of males and female ancestral settlers from these two distinct areas. This was an approach used by Helgason et al. 2000 who studied Y-chromosome DNA. These authors found that 75%–80% of Icelandic founding males had Scandinavian ancestry, with the remainder having Celtic ancestry. Other studies indicate closer matrilineal links with populations of the British Isles through the study of mtDNA. These findings support historical sources that claim that the majority of females in the Icelandic founding population had Celtic ancestry, whereas the majority of males had Scandinavian ancestry.
The settlement of Iceland was a remarkable event. It was the last European country to be settled and the only one with a written history describing its settlement. Icelanders and Western Icelanders experience a sense of belonging and communality from the written history describing this human project initiated by their ancestors. The broad strokes of Landnámabók and Islendngabók have withstood the scientific scrutiny of archeologists and geneticists. The settlers were from Norway and the British Isles and the settlement happened around 874 AD. We can be sure though that at least some of the details found in Landnámabók are incorrect or reflect the bias of the storytellers. More importantly, many settlers, particularly women and enslaved people were excluded from the narrative. All Icelanders and Western Icelanders, scientists, humanities scholars, and laypeople should strive to continue to learn the truth about their past. As Ari "froði" said himself :
En hvatki er missagt er i fræðum
þessum, þá er skylt at hafa þat
heldr, er sannara reynist.
But whatever is mistaken in this
scholarship, it should be held
rather what turns out to be true.
Benediktsson, Jakob. (1969) "Landnámabók. Some remarks on its value as a historical source." Saga Book of the Viking Society, XVIII, p. 275-92.
The book of settlements: landnámabók. Vol. 1. Univ. of Manitoba Press, 2007.
Eldjárn, K. (1989). Papey – fornleifarannsóknir 1967-1981 (ed. G. Sveinbjarnardóttir). Arbók hins íslenzka fornleifafélags (1988): 35-188.
Ebenesersdóttir, S. S., Sandoval-Velasco, M., Gunnarsdóttir, E. D., Jagadeesan, A., Guðmundsdóttir, V. B., Thordardóttir, E. L., ... & Helgason, A. (2018). Ancient genomes from Iceland reveal the making of a human population. Science, 360(6392), 1028-1032.
Helgason, A., Sigurðardóttir, S., Nicholson, J., Sykes, B., Hill, E. W., Bradley, D. G., ... & Stefánsson, K. (2000). Estimating Scandinavian and Gaelic ancestry in the male settlers of Iceland. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 67(3), 697-717.
Smith, K. P. (1995). Landnám: the settlement of Iceland in archaeological and historical perspective. World Archaeology, 26(3), 319-347.