Heathen Buried in Iceland, 1,100 Years Post-Mortem

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Heathen Buried in Iceland, 1,100 Years Post-Mortem

A burial took place in Reykjanesbaer municipality in southwest Iceland yesterday. The news wouldn’t have had any special significance if not for the fact that the person buried, an ancient heathen, passed away 1,100 years ago and the ceremony took place inside the Viking World museum.

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The Viking World museum. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

The heathen in question is on loan from the National Museum of Iceland. The skeleton was unearthed from a pagan grave at the farm site Hafurbjarnarstadir in 1868 along with the bones of a dog and a horse, a sword and various other objects, Morgunbladid reports.

The burial ceremony is part of an exhibition at Viking World, which will continue for the next two years.

According to museum director Elisabeth Ward, research has shown that most Icelandic settlers were pagan and that paganism was practiced among the first generations of Icelanders.

“We are reconstructing the pagan grave from Hafurbjarnarstadir,” Ward explained. “The skeletons are placed in a wooden boat, which is a replica of a Viking boat, and sand from Hafurbjarnarstadir has been put inside. Some people believe the man was buried inside a boat but it is not quite clear.”

Ward said chieftains were often buried inside their boats and the size of the boat depended on the material wealth of the deceased. Such burial practices are also known among other pagan cultures. “Maybe it has to do with the person having a means of transport to another world.”

Among objects on display at Viking World is the ship Íslendingur, which is a replica of the Gokstad ship, a Viking ship excavated in Norway. It was found inside a grave containing bones from a human, dog and horse.

The timing of yesterday’s ceremony, December 1, was considered particularly suitable because that is when Ásatrúarfélagid, the pagan society in Iceland, holds a ceremony in honor of the four land wights of Iceland.

The archeological discovery at Hafurbjarnarstadir is among the first in the country. A local farmer found bones in the sand in 1868. He called for a priest who contacted the National Museum, which had just been founded.

They were advised to begin the excavation before the area was damaged and they found bones of a man, dog and horse and one of the most decorated swords from the Viking Era which has ever been found in Iceland. The point of a spear, an ax, a sharpener and various other objects were also uncovered in the excavation.

When the farmer and priest had removed all the objects they found iron nails and noticed that the grave had the shape of a ship. Few of these nails reached the National Museum and therefore doubt has been cast upon the grave having been a boat grave.

However, a few other such graves have been found in Iceland.

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