When the vikings first arrived in Iceland back in the 9th century, they discovered a coarse yet manageable new world ripe for the picking, uninhabited but for a few Gaelic monks on the southern coast. This strange, rugged land was worthy of conquering and survival over their scandinavian homeland stricken with civil strife and running short on arable land.
It was and still is a vast territory with dramatic rising glacial ranges from moonscape fields that run into coastal beaches of black sand and a land of no native timber, where necessity became the mother of invention. Homes were constructed of turf and drift wood that would wash upon the shores as well as from the endless supply of lava stones abound in the fields. The stone constrution also proved functionally sensible in this frequent earthquake prone environment, as homes could then “easily” be cobbled back up.
An outstanding example of these buildings still exist at the ancient homestead of Keldur in Iceland’s southeastern region. This last remaining and fully intact early settlement farmstead can be found mentioned in the Sagas from the 12th century. Traditionally a clan would head the farm with extended family living and working on site. Originally all living in the long house, there is evidence to think that a sudden and drastic climate change caused the move to smaller residential spaces to be built and long houses to be divided up to make easier to heat.
Additions and improvements at Keldur had been made over the centuries, but the original main hearth room still bears the dirt floors and ancient timbers with fascinating hints of traditional communal living. A tunnel discovered in the 1930’s runs from the main hearth room to the nearby small river and was thought to be for defensive purposes. Inside smaller spaces were formed originally for cooking and food storage and a connecting string of smaller turf structures served as various work and storage spaces such as a smithy, a mill, and livestock corral. The newest addition from the early 19th century remains near intact from it’s former glory, furnished with beautiful and simplistic folk furnishings and the silence combined with the gray skys made me feel as i might have been intruding on the spirits of those who still long remain at Keldur.
The last owner, whos family had farmed Keldur for almost 2 centuries, knew of its great importance to Icelandic heritage and over the years had collected much history on the site. In 1942 he sold Keldur and his extensive collection to the National Museum of Iceland who continue to care for and manage this amazing historic site.
Another resourceful form of shelter unique to Iceland’s southern coast, between the black sand beaches and volcanic mountains are numerous old cave structures.
Upwards of 200 of these man-made caves with wooden or cobbled facades are scattered about 90 farms in the region used over the centuries for storing hay,corralling livestock, smithy’s and even for trade. Forty one of these caves are now protected sites, but many still in use today. We stopped roadside on HWY 1 at Rútshellir, and explored this t-shaped ‘building’. The front entrance to the turf structure is a feeding area for sheep, then stepping up into the cave (approx 6’ft tall and 10 ft wide) where they take shelter. Walking up the left side exterior is an entrance to another connecting cave space much smaller and where a smithy had a shop for many years. Yet another example of Iceland’s people understanding and using Mother Nature to their benefit, despite her harsh ways.