Iceland was first populated by Norwegian Vikings way back in the mists of time. It was in fact during the 9th Century when they first arrived on their Viking ships. So this is really rather recent when put into the context of world history. Over the proceeding centuries those hardy souls endured the harsh conditions of the wild and beautiful Icelandic terrain. They survived violent volcano eruptions and shuddering earthquakes. They were battered by wild storms and survived the ravages of long icy winters. The majority of the Icelandic people you will meet on your travels will be descendants of these Vikings.
So as you admire Iceland’s natural beauty spare a thought for its people too. Finding out about the settlement and development of Iceland offers a whole new dimension to your trip. The fascinating history of Iceland can be explored in various museums around the island. There are in fact many ways to connect with and discover the Viking stories. From musical shows taking you through the Icelandic Sagas in song to re-enactments of battles or Viking feasts in themed restaurants.
In this article, we will look at the theme of settlement in general and all that came with it. We are also going to look a little more in depth at the Viking ship. These feats of engineering and craftsmanship are what enabled the Vikings to set out and explore new lands after all. Without them, Iceland would have remained uninhabited for many more years.
Types of Viking ships
The ships built during the Viking era were as unique as they are fascinating. They are generally split into two types. Merchant ships that were designed for moving cargo along rivers and coastal regions. Then the famous warships that were much sleeker and more manoeuvrable. They are often depicted with dragon’s heads or other fearsome motifs at the prow and the stern. Oar ports down both lengths of the ship allowed for optimum rowing angle and speed. The oars could then be pulled up and in and stored when the ship was under sail.
How were Viking ships made?
Viking ships were in general much lighter and much easier to control than other boats. They were built using what is known as the Clinker technique. This method used split planks of wood laid to overlap with one another. They would then be riveted together securely using iron. Bulbous wooden ribs maintained the integral shape of the hull during the construction process.
Viking ship burial
Another interesting phenomenon of the Viking world was ship burial. In Norway there are a handful of examples of preserved Viking ships that were discovered in this manner. The ships were used as coffins for important figures such as kings and queens.
The most famous in the Oseberg Ship currently housed in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. The burial mounds also contained two female skeletons and a number of richly carved wooden items such as a trolley and pail. In 2018 the National Geographic reported that is was the largest Viking ship discovered to date. This amazing find was extremely well preserved and some twenty metres in length.
In 2019 the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage found another ship buried. This ship was spotted using geo-radar technology and is thought to be more than 1,000 years old. So another very exciting discovery made possible by the use of advancing technology.
Visit a Viking ship
This unique technique has been studied in great depth and replicated successfully too. Iceland’s most famous Viking ship is a replica known as the Islendingur. It was faithfully studied and lovingly built by the ship builder Gunnar Marel Eggertsson in 1996. This beautiful reconstruction was completely sea worthy too. In fact it set out on a successful voyage to New York and back in the year 2000.
If you are travelling in Iceland you can actually go and visit the now retired Islendingur. It is housed in a huge glass atrium at the Viking World Museum on the Reykjanes Peninsular. The peninsular is not far from Reykjavik and is actually home to both the Blue Lagoon and the Keflavik International Airport too. If you are hiring a camper van then exploring this varied peninsular makes for a great short self-drive road trip.
Other Viking themed outings in Iceland
For a great all round introduction to the history of Iceland you should head to the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. The exhibit focuses on an excavated great hall and one of the first houses ever built in Iceland. It is a really well rounded exhibition curated and devised by the Reykjavik City Museum. Entry to the exhibition is included on the Reykjavik City Card. If you are planning on spending a couple of days in the capital it is well worth investing in one. Also in Reykjavik is the famous Sun Voyager sculpture inspired by the form of a Viking ship.
Another very important Viking site lies on the famous Golden Circle. The Thingvellir National Park is one of three important sites on the route. It has great historical significance as it was home to the Althing. This was the Viking outdoor parliament that regularly took place on this site from the 9th to the 18th Century. If you are hiring a campervan then the Golden Circle makes for an excellent first foray.
For a little bit of fun you could also visit Hafnarfjörður located on the Reykjanes Peninsular a short drive from Reykjavik. It is a well-preserved traditional village known as the Viking Village. Here enthusiasts can stay the night in a Viking themed hotel or guesthouse. Alternatively, simply pop in for lunch or dinner at the Viking restaurant. It is a lively and fun experience for the whole family with singing ‘Viking’ staff and plenty of feasting.
For those keen for a little seafaring you can even sail an authentic Viking ship! If you are road tripping through Iceland’s Westfjords then visit Þingeyri. From the harbour it is all aboard for the excellent replica of the Gokstad Ship currently on display in Oslo. Your guide will tell you stories from the sagas as well as sharing information on Viking sailing techniques. You might even get to sound the Viking horn as you leave the harbour!