Thingvellir National Park is located about 30 miles east of Reykjavik, Iceland's capital. It's an easy day trip, or a visit can be the beginning or end of a jaunt around Iceland's "Golden Circle, a 186-mile route that connects three of the country's most magnificent natural attractions. The other two wonders are Geysir, the original geothermal spout from which we get the word, and the stunning Gulfoss waterfall. Together, these phenomena are not only awe-inspiring sights to behold; they also offer insights into Icelandic culture and history.
The dramatic contours of Thingvellir's landscape bring to life Iceland's epic geology: the Park is located in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates intersect. Where else can you stand with each of your two feet on different continents?
Thingvellir merits a visit of several hours in duration. It's the dramatic setting for fantastical natural features like Öxará River, which runs through the spectacular Almannagjá Gorge; and Þingvallavatn, which is Iceland's largest natural lake. The adventurous can even scuba dive in the Silfra fissure.
Thingvellir's terrain is also like a text on the settlement of Iceland and the development of Western democracy. The country lays claim to establishing the world's oldest surviving parliament which began meeting in 930 at Thingvellir, which means "assembly plains". The site is also significant in Iceland's spiritual history; it is here that the shift from paganism to Christianity became official. Today, on the spot where this momentous event occurred in the year 1000, is a simple and beautiful white-steepled church built in 1859.
Oxararfoss Waterfall, Thingvellir National Park - Image Credit: Giuseppe Milo / FlickrThingvellir National Park has been studied extensively by archeologist Margret Hallmundsdottir since 2010. Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a place of tremendous beauty and historical and cultural significance, as the location of the world’s oldest parliament.
I met Margret at the burial grounds adjacent to the church, where she was engaged in excavation. Indeed, she describes herself as “a typical dirt archaeologist….. we are the ones that dig and dig and are constantly in the field as others write and travel and talk.”
Meg: We met at Thingvellir National Park, which is an amazing national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Can you share an overview of the park and its historical significance?
Margret: This is difficult to describe in a few words. No place captures the rich history of Iceland and the Icelandic nation quite like Þingvellir, situated by the Öxará river. Iceland was settled in the late ninth century A.D. The settlers were mostly from Norway and the British Isles. Þingvellir, also known as "Parliament Plains," served as the gathering place for the Alþing general assembly from around 930 until 1798. The assembly consisted of the law council, called lögrétta. Their people would be sentenced for crimes.
The Split Between Paganism and Christianity
Paganism was widely accepted from the beginning of the settlement period, though some settlers were almost certainly Christian. Icelanders worshipped the old Gods with sacrifices. At the same time, the practice of Christianity was spreading in neighboring countries. Before the year 1000, various attempts were made to introduce Christianity to Iceland, but the traditional pagan practices remained prevalent.
In the summer of 1000, a momentous event unfolded at Þingvellir's Alþing assembly. Chaos threatened the young society as the Parliament was split into two groups: pagans and Christians. Each faction appointed its own Law Speaker and disregarded the laws of the opposing side. The two Law Speakers reached an agreement that Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, the pagan Law Speaker, would determine the religion to be followed by all Icelanders. Þorgeir hid himself away for a night and a day then walked to the Lögberg and declared publicly that Icelanders should take up Christianity, suggesting that pagans might continue to practice their religion in secret.
Þorgeir's decision was brilliant. He knew that if Icelanders did not take up Christianity, as the kings of Scandinavia demanded, they would not send ships here to trade, and we would have become isolated. His decision was that we would take up the new faith but we could practice the old in secret and still do pagan practices. My opinion is that this was a brilliant political act.
Thingvellir National Park Center of Icelandic Culture
Thingvellir was the center of Icelandic culture. Every year, people would flock to Thingvellir from all over the country during the two weeks of the assembly, sometimes numbering in the thousands. They set up dwellings with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing and stayed in them for the two weeks of the assembly.
Although the duties of the assembly were the real purpose of going there, ordinary people gathered at Thingvellir National Park for a wide variety of reasons. Merchants would sell their goods and services, and ale-makers brewed drinks for the assembly guests, no less than leading national figures and experts in the law. News spread from distant regions, and festivities and games were held. Young people met to make their plans. Traveling farmhands sought employment while vagrants resorted to begging. Thingvellir was a meeting place for everyone in Iceland, laying the foundation for the language and literature that have been a prominent part of people's lives right up to the present day. Major events in the history of Iceland have taken always place at Þingvellir and therefore the place is held in high esteem by all Icelanders.
Lögberg, the Law Rock
Meg: Iceland was one of the world's earliest democracies. Can you explain the meaning and significance of Lögberg, the Law Rock?
Margret: Lögrétta was the legislative assembly and therefore the supreme institution of the Alþing in the Commonwealth period, which was the era from the time of Iceland's settlement until 1262 when the country become a subject of the Norwegian king. The Lögrétta's responsibilities encompassed resolving disputes, enacting new laws, and granting exemptions from existing laws.
The Law Speaker presided over Lögrétta meetings, where 48 chieftains convened on a central platform. Each chieftain had two advisors who sat in front and behind him. After the bishoprics at Hólar and Skálholt were established, the bishops also had seats at the Lögrétta. The number of men who sat at the Lögrétta was thus 146, or 147 if the Law Speaker wasn't a chieftain. The Lögrétta convened on both Sundays during the general assembly, as well as on its final day, and more frequently if the Law Speaker deemed necessary. Observers were permitted to attend the Lögrétta proceedings, but standing within the terraced area was prohibited.
A Day in the Life of Thingvellir Archaeologist
Meg: You've worked as an archaeologist at Thingvellir National Park since 2010. Can you describe your duties, and share a little bit about a couple of your most interesting finds?
Margret: I started out on a brief assignment by the church to observe any archaeological impact while the new pavement was being installed. It is required by law that an archaeologist must be present to monitor disruption to a historical site, especially in places like Þingevellir. What was supposed to be a few days turned out to be a 12-week excavation because naturally there were remains under the turf, including an older part of the church.
Then I started doing a survey of all the archaeology in the park. That work is ongoing but has been a bit on hold, due to a big increase in tourists. All the energy of the park has been to accommodate those guests as best we can. This huge tourist expansion was very rapid in Iceland and we have been doing our best to strengthen our tourist industry to cope with that.
Remains Are Everywhere at Thingvellir National Park
What surprises me most in þingvellir as an archaeologist is that the remains are everywhere. And we can see that we know so little about the past in Þingvellir. This is due to limited archaeological research excavation in the park. There is still so much information that the ground holds and so much history that we do not know about.
So many times my heart has jumped as I have been excavating, sometimes because of a find or artifact, sometimes because I realized I was unearthing a building when seeing a few stones in a row, or finding a floor layer. It all depends on the context of what I am doing. One Thingvellir find that stands out is silver coins that can be dated from Otto III from 983-1002. Otto III became a king at three years old and was killed at 19. His grandmother Adilhide ruled with the him so the coin is marked Otto und Adilhide. A copper weight I found in Thingvellir National Park was also very special, as my gold signet ring. All of these finds I found around the church in Thingvellir. But there are so many more I could tell you about.
Icelanders Are Independent Spirits
Meg: Would you say an independent spirit is a characteristic of Icelanders? I realize that all people are different, but can you share your thoughts on the essence of the Icelandic character, and what you believe shaped that?
Margret: We are very special people and our tough nature is because we are a very small nation of just over 360,000 souls, and we are an island in the middle of the Atlantic. This all makes Icelanders the way we are. Icelanders are generally very hardworking. This trait may be rooted in our Viking origins, or from living and laboring in a harsh terrain for centuries. It has become increasingly common for individuals nowadays to hold two or even three jobs. In Iceland, it is quite typical for people to commence their work at a young age, with the government even offering summer employment opportunities for children as young as thirteen who show interest. Many teenagers juggle part-time jobs alongside their studies, driven by their desire for financial autonomy.
We might come across as closed-off at first, at least especially for Americans, as we do not use small talk. The conversations at the counter would be, “Good morning”, the amount, and “Would you like a bag?” But during the last three years, we have added, “Have a nice day”, most likely due to tourism. Icelanders are perceived as rude by some newcomers, but this is only because we tend to talk straight and to the point. It also means that Icelanders will not go out of their way to please you unless they genuinely like you, then you can expect very helpful people. We love to have fun and if there is alcohol involved, we will burst out singing a lot. We are proud, strong, hard-working people. We might be described as people of fire and Ice. We can be a bit ice-y at first but get to know us. There is a lot of fire underneath, just like in our country.
Epic Sagas Preserved Through Oral Tradition
Meg: I have read that Iceland has one of the world's highest literacy rates. Certainly, when many people think of Iceland they think of the sagas. For those who are unfamiliar with the sagas, can you explain what they are?
Margret: The family sagas as they are called are prose narratives mostly based on historical events that mostly took place in Iceland in the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries, during the so-called Saga Age. Most of them were written in the 13th century. They were written on calf skin as the paper was not available. They tell stories of the settlers. Landnáma is about who settled where in Iceland. There we have information on the names and the origins of all the major settlers in Iceland.
The sagas are of course written a few centuries after the events are to have happened. Some say that they are all fiction but most likely the sagas are based on memories of actual events and people that lived here in the settlement period, that were preserved through oral tradition until they were written down. Of course, it is possible that the writers would color the saga and perhaps change the stories during the period it was being of oral tradition. Archaeology has confirmed that some things are true, but we always have to assume that they changed. In my opinion, the sagas are based on true stories or events, and like in films and T.V., things get added on for entertainment.
Viking Age Skills Taught to Life-Long Learners
Meg: You were the manager of a project that taught Viking Age skills and was part of the Leonardo Education Program of the European Community. Can you describe what the purpose of the training was, and what the Leonardo program is?
Margret: The Leonardo da Vinci program is a European Commission funding program focused on the teaching and training needs of those involved in vocational education and training. The program is part of the European Commission's Lifelong Learning Program 2007–2013 and aims to build a skilled and mobile workforce across Europe. The program's goal is to enhance the competitiveness of the European labor market by helping European citizens to acquire new skills, knowledge, and qualifications and have them recognized across borders. It also promotes advancements and enhancements in vocational education and training systems and practices. All of the projects funded by the Leonardo da Vinci program involve working with European partners.
The main point is ensuring the ancient knowledge behind these practices does not become extinct and die out. The project that I was running was with Germany, England, Romania, Denmark, and Iceland. We aimed to teach old Viking skills all over Europe. We built three houses, restored a German longhouse, made tar, carved wood, and did ironwork.
We also made Viking beads, which were the jewelry of their time and perhaps a status symbol--the more you had, the better off you were. Women wore them on their chests between oval broaches. We found them in graves and in cultural layers from Viking Age, especially in Viking houses, where they must have been mislaid. For example, I found nine beads on the floor of the longhouse that I excavated last summer.
Margret's Love of Archeology Inspired by Mother's Passion for Past
Meg: What about your early life made you want to become an archaeologist?
Margret: When I was 10 years old I decided to become an archaeologist. From very early on, I was fascinated by the past. A few years before I was born, my mother went to Italy and bought a lot of books about Roman history. When I was three to 10 years old, I would look at them all the time. My mother told me about Pompeii and I loved to hear her talk about it. So I think it was my mother that lit this passion for the past. She was a stay-at-home mum, but she was incredibly smart and well-read and the most intelligent person I have ever known. My father was a master carpenter who never understood my passion for the past.
Experimental Archeology at Thingvellir National Park
Meg: From 2012 - 2015, you were involved in projects in experimental archaeology. Can you tell us what "experimental " archaeology is, and also discuss a little bit about the craft of the Viking Age?
Margret: Experimental archaeology is when you try to reconstruct things from the past or use methods from the past in order to gain a better understanding of a procedure or technique. This is very important to me as an archaeologist because I believe that in order to understand what I am finding in the ground I need to know as much as I can about the process. For example, when I found an iron production site from the Viking Age, I was able to fully appreciate the significance of the site. That's because a few years before, I had made an experiment of smelting bog iron myself and that helped me understand the procedure and what was coming up from the ground. I understood what I was seeing there.
The Importance of Storytelling
Meg: You were the manager of a project to foster adult learning from 2010-2012 called "Empowerment Through Storytelling and Folklore.' Can you describe the program?
Margret: This was a project with a few EU countries that focused on storytelling and how important storytelling has been in Europe. We had workshops for people of all ages to learn from storytellers and be able to pass storytelling on. A primary goal was enabling young people to learn from older people how to tell stories and to teach the importance of telling stories. Because storytelling is becoming less and less the way it was due to changes in our societies. We wanted to learn from people that still have the skill of storytelling. Storytelling is something that each nation has but it is declining fast. The project was all about keeping this old tradition alive.
The idea of "empowerment" was meant as encouragement to people to tell stories, to teach them how to effectively tell stories, and to demonstrate what storytelling is about. I myself learned that other countries have people who are known specifically as storytellers. But in Iceland we do not have a word for the storyteller as such--we just say 'he or she tells stories.' In my opinion, this is because storytelling is such a large part of our identity that in fact, we all consider ourselves storytellers in Iceland.
Icelanders Love Stories
We love to tell stories! It is just very normal for us from a very young age. Perhaps times have changed over the last 20-30 years but people my age and older can tell stories, and we know a lot of them. We live in isolated farms all over Iceland so storytelling was our way of survival in the darkness. My generation has grandparents and great-grandparents who lived in turf houses. So storytelling is in our blood and that is why we do not have a word or a profession for storytellers as such. Other countries do and that is what I learned most from this project: the importance of storytelling.
I learned that by listening to a good storyteller you become a child again. I was given this insight by an Irish storyteller named Clare Murphy. She said 'I am going to tell you a story. First, notice how you are sitting: you have your arms crossed on your chest and you feel that you are too old to sit in and listen to a grown-up tell you a story.' Then she began and she was a fantastic storyteller. When she finished she said 'See how you sit now, you sit like a kid! Your body is leaning forward from the back of the chair you have been smiling and laughing the whole time, you are perfectly relaxed and your mouth was open a lot when I was telling you the story. You felt all the emotions of the story, you became sad, excited, and happy all at once. The adults who sat there with their arms crossed on their chest became children just because I told you a good story.' She was so right! This happened! The power of storytelling is so magnificent. We have to do everything to not lose this.
Fighting to Keep Storytelling Alive
We have to fight so that this story-telling tradition will not die. We have to read to our children and tell them stories both from our lives and our families lives, and just stories of everything. I fear that our young generation will miss out on things because they can access everything within seconds. They do not have to ask about anything anymore, and say "Mom, how was this in the past? Why did this happen?' They just Google everything they need to know, and boy are they good at that! What do we have to teach them when they literally have the whole world in their hand all the time?
Icelandic Share Traditions and Folklore With Ireland and Scotland
Meg: You studied folklore, and held several positions at the Árnesinga Folk Museum before undertaking assignments at Thingvellir National Park. Can you share some overall thoughts about the Icelandic traditions in folklore?
Margret: At the time I saw that I was able to start university, I was 27 years old and the mother of two boys. I knew that in the fall of 2002, archaeology would be offered as a course of study for the first time in Iceland. So I decided to start continuing my education by taking folklore while I waited for archaeology to be offered. I took folklore as a minor degree. I knew that I would learn things that would be useful to me later and I just have a genuine interest in all regarding the past.
We have seen that many of our fairy tales and folk stories are the same as those from Ireland and the Scottish isles. We have elves and hidden people like the Irish, and we have trolls like in Norway. The Icelandic folk stories came with the settlers from their countries. We know for a fact that around 60-64 % of the women settled in Iceland were from Ireland and Scotland, especially the north and the isles in Scotland. This is why we have so much similarity in folklore with them.
The Stories Live On in Thingvellir National Park
Because of our rural living, the stories lived on for hundreds of years. We were a country of just farmers spread out all over this huge land. There was a long distance between farmers. Isolation was very great. People sometimes just met others in church once a week and others lived too remotely to attend church so perhaps they did not meet other people for weeks and months. This is why the very stories from the age of Iceland being settled lived on in oral tradition until they were put down on calfskin.
After printing started in the 17th century most of the books that were printed were Christian books. Books have always been important. Farmers prized owning many books. Some of them had the old saga manuscripts in calfskin. Some people ate the calfskin during the famines so many were lost. In the 18th century a man who had been educated abroad started to collect these books from all over Iceland from farmers and churches, some completely intact, others just in parts. This is what saved our sagas and manuscripts. So folklore and the sagas are very important to us.
Eyarbakki a Place to Trade
Meg: Can you tell us a little bit about the Árnesinga Folk Museum?
Margret: It is a very small museum in a small village on the south coast of Iceland called Eyrarbakki. The museum is in a house that once was the home of merchants in Eyrarbakki--originally Danish merchants and later Icelandic. The shop in Eyrarbakki was huge and people from all over the south would travel to Eyarbakki twice a year to sell their woolen products and exchange them for imported goods like sugar, wine, grain, and household items.
Eyarbakki has been a trading center in Iceland since its settlement. We know that trading took place there in many forms from the beginning. First trading ships sailed up the Ölfusá River and traded from the ship. The harbor in Eyrarbakki has always been awful so the ships had to lay anchor outside and goods were transported to shore by small boats.
Then in 1104, Hekla erupted for the first time since the country was settled and the ash and pumice filed up the river so ships were not able to sail on it. But the eruption did not end the trading there. The Bishop in Skálhollt had all his ships land there and had a warehouse there. People from all over the south would come to Eyarabakki to trade during the summer.
Danish Merchants Make Eyarbakki an Important Village
Then the Danish king started a monopoly in Iceland and Danish merchants were only allowed to trade in the summer and had to go back to Denmark in the winter. The country was divided into shopping districts and you had to shop in your district. The south is a huge area, and all those people had to trade in Eyrarbakki. If you dared to shop elsewhere, you could face back-whipping.
This was like this until around 1765 when the Danish merchants were allowed to stay for the whole year round. Despite the abolition of the Danish-Icelandic Trade Monopoly, trade persisted in Eyrarbakki until the early 20th century. Thus, the town was an important village for centuries. At one point it was one the busiest towns in the whole country but the lack of a good harbor was a major obstacle to growth. The construction of a bridge over the Ölfusá river in the late 19th century sealed its fate.
My work at the Museum was meeting guests, working on the infrastructure of the museum, and later running the archaeology department. Of course, the highlight was taking over the archaeology as soon as I finished my degree. While I was studying archaeology, I worked at the museum in the morning and took classes in the afternoon plus raised three small children. At night I worked cleaning floors in stores after they closed. After midnight I would do homework. The challenge was to be able to do all this. Today I do not understand how I was able to do this but with a supportive husband and a desire to fulfill my childhood dream about becoming an archaeologist I managed to do and graduated with my first degree at the age of 32.
Beautiful Nature in a Difficult Environment
Meg: The landscape of Iceland is one of the most spectacular I've experienced, and I've been to a lot of places. Do you have any personal observations about the role of the landscape in the country's culture and its history?
Margret: When the settlers came to Iceland they did not come for the scenery, they came to look for land and better lives for their families. They built up a nation in beautiful nature but in a very difficult environment. The most challenging things are perhaps that we live on a volcanic island and on average every three years or so a volcanic eruption happens somewhere in Iceland. In 1784, for example, a large part of the nation died due to the eruption and its aftermath.
This has sharpened us because we constantly have to fight the elements and today we are 360,000 descendants of the strongest people--people who survived eruptions, earthquakes, famines, and hunger. So, yes, I would say that the landscape has sharpened us. We are very strong and independent people.
Iceland is located very north so our winters are long and cold and daylight during the darkest winter is less than four hours but we have fantastic summers with 24 hours of daylight. Knowing that helps us survive the dark and cold winters. But nature, as difficult as it was for us in the past, has also given us great gifts. We have so many natural resources. We have plenty of warm water from the ground that we are able to heat our houses with minimum cost. About 85% of the total primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from domestically produced renewable energy sources. This represents the highest proportion of renewable energy within any national energy portfolio. Thanks to Iceland's position on a volatile section of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland is a world leader in the use of geothermal energy, and there are six geothermal power plants in Iceland.
Rewarding Moments at Thingvellir National Park
Meg: Can you share what you consider your most rewarding moments?
Margret: Being able to make my dream come true and become an archaeologist and then having the opportunity to work as a full-time archaeologist since graduation. Running my own scientific research excavation on two sites since 2006 is very rewarding, as is working with the National Park of Þingvellir with all the great people there. There is not much more that I can ask for as an archaeologist. Personally, the most rewarding is that 24 years ago I met my husband, who has been my rock ever since. Being able to have three healthy beautiful children and watch them become wonderful young people. I consider myself a very fortunate person both personally and professionally.
Meg: Do you have a life philosophy that you could share, and, if so, how has Iceland's environment and history shaped your worldview?
Margret: My favorite expression is “If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger.” I think it sums up everything that has made us who we are here in Iceland. We are the descendants of the ones who survived and it is our environment and history that makes this my all-time favorite expression. And I genuinely believe that we are here to learn from the things that life puts in our path.
Best Place To Stay near Thingvellir National Park
When it comes to where to stay near Thingvellir National Park, there is a great variety of hotels and other accommodation options. You won’t have any problem finding somewhere to stay.
Below, I’ve listed a couple of different places to consider depending on what type of accommodation you are looking for.
The Heradsskolinn Historic Guest House, which is situated along the well-known Golden Circle tourist route, offers stunning views of the Eyjafjallajökull Glacier, Hekla Volcano, and Lake Laugarvatn. On-site amenities include a tour desk, café, bar, and bistro.
Heradsskolinn offers both private rooms and dorms and is housed in a former school building from the 1920s. Each accommodation has a lake or mountain view, a TV lounge with a pool table, and a brightly decorated interior.
In the bistro in Héradsskolinn, meals are served for breakfast, noon, and dinner. Visitors can unwind in the library or have a drink in the bar.
Within 16 miles are Thingvellir National Park and the well-known Geysir Hot Spring. It is 24 miles from the Gullfoss Waterfall. The guest house is directly near the Laugarvatn Geothermal Spa.
The Arbakki Farmhouse Lodge in Reykholt offers lodging, a garden, a communal lounge, and a patio in addition to offering mountain views. Free WiFi and reserved parking are provided at the farm stay.
A private bathroom with a shower and free toiletries is available. Each morning the Arbakki Farmhouse Lodge offers a continental breakfast. Visitors are welcome to use the hot tub at the lodging.
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Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.