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Growing up in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall school children in the north east of England learn perhaps more about the Romans than most kids and with umpteen excavated sites within an hour’s drive there were plenty of opportunities to see how the Romans lived and what they left behind. The Vikings also came to these shores but those who set the curriculum obviously attach more weight to the legacy of the Romans than they do invading Norsemen; we studied them but in no great detail and so my knowledge of the Vikings is patchy at best. It took a trip all the way to Iceland to find out more, and not only did I learn about the Vikings in Iceland, I also learned a great deal about the Vikings in general – how they lived and where they went.
The Settlement Exhibition
…or to use its full name ‘The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871±2, so-called because of a piece of wall fragment that was found by archaeologists and dated to 871AD.
This fascinating exhibition is housed in modern purpose built premises in central Reykjavik. It looks very small from outside but the exhibition space is actually underground. An open platform lift is available for those visitors who require it.
It’s an interactive multi-media exhibition that explains what the island was like before the first settlers came and covers the Viking period looking at everything from what the Vikings ate to funeral rites and other traditions. There are little clips showing shadows performing different activities; they’re easy to understand but accompanying texts and displays of household, personal and agricultural items further enhance the displays.
In the centre of the exhibition space there’s an actual tenth century Viking long house which was unearthed by archaeologists working in the centre of Reykjavik in 2001. In fact, this long house is preserved in its original location: so significant was the find historically and culturally, Europe-wide and not just in Iceland, that this visitor centre was effectively built around it.
Worth a visit?
Indeed it is. We paid for standard admission and didn’t bother with the audio guides (available in loads of languages). Finds from the excavations are well captioned and there are plenty of text boards to explain the exhibits. We followed the path directed by the attendant and found that the first section delivers a good overview while the second section on the other side of the long house goes into more detail on topics such as recognising place names that came from the Vikings (and there are plenty in my native north east) and the spread of Viking influence across northern Europe. If you are short on time you can omit the second section but it is very interesting and goes into more depth without being too wordy.
In a small side room you can look at computer generated views of the long house showing the different areas of the house and what they were used for, as well as images that show the materials used in the construction. This gave more meaning to the piles of stones on display in the main space and from this, in conjunction with the other images and artefacts, I left with a much better understanding of how a Viking family lived.
I don’t know whether it’s a necessity because of the age of the long house remains but the exhibition space is dimly lit and my partner who has a visual impairment found it quite difficult to see some of the texts.
This exhibition is just the right size; there’s just the right information to absorb in one visit and I didn’t feel bombarded with things to read. There’s an element of being left to put together the story yourself using the short video clips and the unearthed finds which makes you feel like you are discovering history rather than being taught it.
Tourists tend to do more or less the same things in Iceland. It’s a big island but there are only a small number of easily accessible attractions and those attractions are so impressive that they crop up on everyone’s itinerary. If you take the Golden Circle tour, you’ll find out more about the Vikings and what you learn segues nicely with the content of the exhibition: it overlaps a little but mostly the tour commentary complements what you get from the Settlement Exhibition.
The price was very reasonable when you consider how expensive Iceland can be: I think we got excellent value from our visit.
At the time of our visit (April 2013) there was a small side exhibition covering the development of Reykjavik. When you think of what people have gone through to make it possible to exist on this largely inhospitable island in the middle of the North Atlantic it might sound odd to learn that in the mid 18th century those in charge of Reykjavik wished to do something to get the people, whom they considered lazy shirkers, to do some work. They wanted to use the island’s natural resources and the skills of the inhabitants to create wealth and improve living conditions and most importantly, Iceland had earned its trading rights from Denmark. A trading company was set up by Skúli Magnússon who later became known as the 'father of Reykjavik' for his part in developing the town.
This exhibition explains how the company came about, the industries it managed and how the city developed from a cluster of houses at the end of a muddy cut to a bustling town. The display only covers the period of the company so it stops a long way short of the emergence of Iceland in the latter part of the twentieth century as a successful player in the world of international finance: this was something I’d have been interested to know more about because of the way it is a complete contrast with the ways in which Icelanders previously created wealth.
Open daily from from 10:00-17:00
Adults 1.100 ISK (Ł6.10 at the time of writing) (or free with a Reykjavik Welcome Card) Children (18 years and younger): Free