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Did the Scots visit Iceland? New research reveals island inhabited 70 years before Vikings thought to have arrived
December 26, 2010 11:23 PM   Subscribe

Did the Scots visit Iceland? New research reveals island inhabited 70 years before Vikings thought to have arrived. This appears to be the first physical evidence that confirms the stories of celitc monks being on the island when the Norse arrived.
posted by novenator (41 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Makes sense. Why would Vikings go to an uninhabted island, their MO was plundering monasteries for treasure. Also makes sense the monks would go first, to hide their relics in remote caves from marauding Vikings. But who knows.
posted by stbalbach at 11:37 PM on December 26, 2010


Based on the quality of Icelandic cuisine, I say yes.
posted by bardic at 11:43 PM on December 26, 2010 [10 favorites]


Weird, I was reading about this issue earlier tonight for an unrelated reason. Cool to see some proof of their existence found.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:51 PM on December 26, 2010


"Did the Scots visit Iceland?"
What is meant by Scots?

Scotland at that time was rather confused. Scots consisted of pre-Celtic inhabitants, Briton Celts, Irish Celt immigrants who many think imposed their language which became Scottish Gaelic, and Norse (Vikings). Wikipedia says:
While there are few records, the Vikings are thought to have led their first raids in Scotland on the holy island of Iona in 794
I'm sure at that time and probably before certain "Scots" included a Norse component.

If Iceland was inhabited around 800 CE, 70 years before the Viking settlements, it was probably done by a Norse-Irish-Scots group that might have be considered Viking because they interacted with them.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:20 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why would Vikings go to an uninhabted island

To settle. I think you need to look at some viking history that isn't "The Secret of Kells".
posted by rodgerd at 12:30 AM on December 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Why would Vikings go to an uninhabted island
To settle.
Part of the Viking mythology is that they were just Berzerker raiders. They were often more-so settlers even of places that that they hadn't first raided and determined a good place to settle.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:50 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why would Vikings go to an uninhabted island

They misread that line in the guide as uninhibited.
posted by pracowity at 1:36 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I absolutely love these stories. A similar mystery from a few centuries later: Did the Spanish Armada visit Scotland? "It is said" that they did.

My old man is quite dark skinned for a honky. His old man especially so. Being of Scottish roots, he says he wonders if this is the reason.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:58 AM on December 27, 2010


uncanny hengeman - there is a similar origin myth to the Black Irish, although wikipedia suggests there isn't much to the theory.

And MonkeySaltedNuts - how can monks (with or without possible Norse heritage) be considered Vikings??
posted by molecicco at 4:06 AM on December 27, 2010


I guess they dug up the Buckfast empties. Chalk it down to a preemptive strike against Magnus Magnusson.
posted by scruss at 4:32 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


there is a similar origin myth to the Black Irish, although wikipedia suggests there isn't much to the theory.

My great-great-grandfather always referred to his youngest daughter, my great-grandmother, as "black irish" because she was the only child of six that did not have pale freckeled skin and red hair. Oddly though, she was born just a bit more than 9 months after a traveling Cuban band came to town and my great-great-grandmother just couldn't get enough of their music. Must have had something to do with the mambo rhythms that reinvigourated those old, dormant celto-iberian genes or something.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:51 AM on December 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Molecicco - because viking, while it certainly gained strong connotations of raiding, meant someone who voyages overseas, so it would certainly apply to all Icelandic settlers, even if they were monks.
posted by Nothing at 4:56 AM on December 27, 2010


My point is more that vikings were, so far as I know, pagan, and that Christianization brought an end to the viking era.
posted by molecicco at 6:01 AM on December 27, 2010


My point is more that vikings were, so far as I know, pagan, and that Christianization brought an end to the viking era.

Definitely; no true Nor(se)man ever raided another tribe's territory after they settled down and became Christians.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:26 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Conquest isn't the same as raiding.
posted by simen at 6:33 AM on December 27, 2010


*ding dong*

Hello, friend! Brother Olaf and I are here in the neighborhood telling people the good news about Odin and the coming Ragnarok! Are you prepared for the final battle of the gods, and the renewal of Midgard?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:35 AM on December 27, 2010 [32 favorites]


The evidence seems no more than suggestive. Some rubble between ash layers, some crosses that kinda look like Scottish ones, and a set of what might be footprints maybe of a sheep.
posted by LarryC at 7:30 AM on December 27, 2010


Those hooves are too big for shee--oh shit.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:56 AM on December 27, 2010


"Are you prepared for the final battle of the gods, and the renewal of Midgard?"

The swords and armor? Oh that. We're um, collecting for United Way.
posted by sneebler at 8:40 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


hmmm, Odin loving free-booters.
{chick-chick}

"please, come in"
posted by clavdivs at 8:57 AM on December 27, 2010


molecicco: My point is more that vikings were, so far as I know, pagan, and that Christianization brought an end to the viking era.

The Viking era continues until the 11th century or so. King Harald Bluetooth officially Christianised Denmark (and Norway) in the 10th century sometime. So the Vikings became Christian - the two are not mutually exclusive...
posted by Dysk at 9:18 AM on December 27, 2010


According to the legend, the monks consisted of three priests; one who had been involved with financial impropriety, another who was extremely dim, and a third that was violently senile. The legend also states that their bishop didn't think he had sent them far enough away.
posted by happyroach at 9:29 AM on December 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


*ding dong*

Not a single cover of The Yggdrasil was spelled correctly.
posted by griphus at 10:02 AM on December 27, 2010


>>Did the Spanish Armada visit Scotland? [...] My old man is quite dark skinned for a honky. His old man especially so. Being of Scottish roots, he says he wonders if this is the reason.

>Oddly though, she was born just a bit more than 9 months after a traveling Cuban band came to town and my great-great-grandmother just couldn't get enough of their music.


He's descended from the bastard son of a swarthy travelling minstrel! I love it. I'll have to let him know of that possibility.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:05 AM on December 27, 2010


As MonkeySaltedNuts says, define 'Scots'. Alba? Pictavia? The British Kingdoms around Glasgow?

What the article says is 'Irish Monks', which covers a tradition as much as a nationality (a particular form of Celtic Christianity). That would have covered those in the Kingdom of Alba, as well as any in the Pictish and British kingdoms that followed those traditions. It was common for Irish monks to seek isolated retreats on islands in the sea, so a monastic settlement of Iceland is fundamentally plausible - the only question is whether or not anyone found the place in order to settle it.

Secondly, we wouldn't expect to find much in the way of evidence. Iona, which we know was a large, successful monastery in this period (rather than a small retreat) has almost nothing to be found archaeologically. There's a boundary ditch, and a tiny part of the later church - and that is from one of the chief houses. A small, deliberately spartan settlement is going to leave even less. I'm not going to leap in and say that this definitely is proof positive - just that any evidence is going to be very small scale, and probably open to other interpretations.

A similar mystery from a few centuries later: Did the Spanish Armada visit Scotland? "It is said" that they did.

Errr, no, it is known that the Armada sailed around Scotland and Ireland after 'God blew and they were scattered'. A large number were wrecked, some may have made port in the British Isles - the folk tales surrounding the Armada in Scotland and Ireland are legion, of varying levels of veracity, but what is not in doubt is that they were there. Of course the Armada visited Scotland, albeit in most cases in the form of bodies and ship parts washed ashore.
posted by Coobeastie at 10:20 AM on December 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Celtic monks? A brother shamus?
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:21 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


no true Nor(se)man ever raided another tribe's territory after they settled down and became Christians.

I read somewhere [CITATION NEEDED] that this was one of the reasons they went out with a whimper as a global force.

They had a smallish base population and spread themselves out too thin. A large proportion never returned home, happy to stay put and assimilate with the locals... and the Berserker crazy was quickly bred out of them.

"Bjorn is just a Viking
He is very a handy with a sword
He loves nothing better
Than to cut and slash right through a horde
Mutilation
Jubilation
Friendly muscles in a tussle

Anna's a girl Viking
She is very handy with a spear
She won't wear silk stockings
Armour-plated garments are her sphere
In the fjords you can hear them
Eerie horns blow
Viking love show"

Berserk Warriors by Mental as Anything, with the angelic voice of Martin Plaza on lead vocals.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:37 AM on December 27, 2010


I agree with LarryC - based on the article, the archaeological evidence is astonishingly weak and ambiguous. Even the "70 years" of the title is highly hand-wavey:

“Using the generally accepted but rough estimates for sediment accumulation in the area, (we have) a date of around AD 800,” said Ahronson, “though very local factors (affecting sediment accumulation) pose a challenge to precise dating.”


I mean, "sediment accumulation rates" based on "the area" is .... an extremely dubious way of dating something (speaking as an archaeologist here) and you can see a hint of an appropriately cautious Ahronson hiding under the more sensationalist reportage. If it is definite human occupation under a sealed tephra then that is one thing, but the case made is very weak.

People love the stories of St Brendan and so forth, but the prospects of crossing the North Atlantic in the boats available at the time to the Celts seems extremely slim. Yes, Irish monks liked to have remote hermitages, but they were not suicidal, and you have to know there is someplace "there" before you go there. I'd like to see the full report on this evidence as well as a plausible model for these postulated events. Norse discovery is easily contextuable within Norse behaviour; within the Celtic frame, not so much.
posted by Rumple at 10:58 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


no true Nor(se)man ever raided another tribe's territory after they settled down and became Christians.

I read somewhere [CITATION NEEDED] that this was one of the reasons they went out with a whimper as a global force.


Your "somewhere" is pretty suspect. The Vikings became the core of many Western (and, for that matter) Eastern European powers. By the time the Normans invaded England, the Norse had pretty much supplanted the Anglo-Saxons (who had subjugated the Britons). England was a colony of the Viking's descendants.

But the Normans themselves were Franco-Vikings (which was the basis for William the Bastard's claim to English throne). Russia takes its name from the Rus, the Vikings who settled there. The Varangians were important players in Byzantine history. Scotland's history owes rather a lot to the Viking settlers.

If anything the Vikings stopped being Vikings because they *won*.
posted by rodgerd at 1:55 PM on December 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


People love the stories of St Brendan and so forth, but the prospects of crossing the North Atlantic in the boats available at the time to the Celts seems extremely slim. Yes, Irish monks liked to have remote hermitages, but they were not suicidal, and you have to know there is someplace "there" before you go there.

Would you rule out the traditional claim of a pre-Norman settlement of the Faroe Islands by monks, too? Since that's only a little less than halfway to Iceland from Scotland, it would seem like if they could've made it to the Faroes they could've made it to Iceland.
posted by XMLicious at 7:39 PM on December 27, 2010


Of course we did! We're much harder than the English. The English are aw a bunch o' pansies!
posted by dougrayrankin at 5:19 AM on December 28, 2010


The Vikings became the core of many Western (and, for that matter) Eastern European powers.

Sorry, that was a badly worded effort of mine. Try again:

I read somewhere [CITATION NEEDED] that this was one of the reasons they curtailed their opening-cans-of-whoopass everywhere they went.

So I don't really disagree with what you're saying, rodgered.

If anything the Vikings stopped being Vikings because they *won*.

Just like when the USA took a chill pill in 1989 when the wall came down.

Or when Genghis Khan made it to the Aral Sea and said "bugger this for a joke, we have sooo won this thing, let's just stop here."

It's not in our nature to stop.

I'm still happy to concede you are correct, but you're gonna have to do better than that. I'm an avid reader who never bookmarks anything, and that was a theory I came across [that might be wrong]. I'm not a historian.

But it's just two unsubstantiated positions at the moment.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:50 AM on December 28, 2010


Ha! Win. Here it is:

All the noble cultures of the past declined because the purity and vigor of the originally created race faded out. They were compromised by the seed of lesser races who were attracted to the works of the superior men.

The undeniable reason for their decline was then due to a kind of racial blood poisoning. Racial blood must, then, be preserved in its purity at all costs.

http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/r/romper-stomper-script-transcript-crowe.html
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:59 AM on December 28, 2010


Politics and technology.

The political impetus to raid - your brother inherited everything and cut you off after Dad died, and there was nothing else for you to do - changed as Scandinavia became wealthier and adopted laws and customs imported right along with the loot.

The technological advantages that allowed the Vikings to raid were obsoleted as the Europeans figured out large sailing ships, open-ocean navigation and organized navies - square-rigged longboats weren't going to cut it anymore.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:32 AM on December 28, 2010


Ha! Win

Sure, if you consider citing Romper Stomper a win. It does explain a lot, though.

Just like when the USA took a chill pill in 1989 when the wall came down.

No, more like the way the Romans spent less time expanding their empire and more time fighting with one another over who ran it.
posted by rodgerd at 11:47 AM on December 28, 2010


Rumple: "Irish monks liked to have remote hermitages, but they were not suicidal, and you have to know there is someplace "there" before you go there."

I disagree. The existence of "Thule" was known to Europeans since at least the 4th century BCE, especially following the descriptions of Pytheas and his circumnavigation of Britain. Admittedly, "Thule" was something of a movable feast given the Hellenes' relatively poor knowledge of Northern and Eurasian territories more than several hundred Km beyond their conquests and vassal States. However, following the Roman mapping of northern European coastlines and subsequent intercourse with the Germanic immigrants to Western Europe from what are now Scandinavian/Norwegian and German territories, by the mid-to-late Medieval period many writers (Tacitus, Orosius, Dicuil, Claudian) proclaimed the existence of a northwest territory beyond the Orkneys and Faroes. By the mid-Mediæval period, it's probable that Gael monks in northern territories often performed observations of migratory birds (there really wasn't a lot else going on I guess) and like the Norse explorers a century later, deduced the existence of a large wooded region northwest to where the impressive flocks would migrate in summer. The deduction of relatively distant land areas using migratory birds is a great tradition in seafaring, and grassland vs woodland is often deducible from the species of birds noted to be migrating.

Anyway, the strongest evidence I think comes from the Norse themselves, in their earliest accounts of the settlement of Iceland. Earlier sagas had described meeting the "Papars" (or "Fathers") in other settlements such as the Orkneys and Faroes. Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók, a 12th Century account of the settling of Iceland, prologues with the pre-Norse inhabitation of the island by Papars. While there may be a contemporary self-serving pro-Christianity ideology at work here, it's unusual for a contemporary work to credit the "discovery" of one of the triumphs of Norse colonial expansion to a different ethnic group... or for that credit not to have been redacted during later copies. The later Landnámabók is more matter-of-fact and less romantic and also credits the Papars with being there first. This may be more significant because the Landnámabók is a more overtly political work and seems to have been comissioned to establish the legitimacy of the Icelandic political elite, their geneologies and the status of the Alþingi. Again, why give discovery credit to the Papars?

And for people doubting the Norse-Gael expansionism/politics, well, given human's tendencies to interbreed across cultural and ethnic boundaries, the Norse-Gaels became a significant sociopolitical faction Ireland and northwestern Britain, and the surrounding seas, and many of the "classic" Norse names such as Ōleifr ("MacAmhlaibh") and Ívar ("MacÌomhair") and Ljótr ("MacLeòid") demonstrate popular Gael versions. In any case, the recent mtDNA revelations that the bulk of Icelanders tend to be descended from patrilineal Norse and matrilineal Gael/British ancestors (with a tiny admixture suggestive of a small, restricted population of northern Native American) indicates that the Icelanders themselves were mainly Norse-Gael, in genetics if not in politics, with other surprising genetic contributions.
posted by meehawl at 11:52 AM on December 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's not in our nature to stop.
cough gulfwarI cough

Romans spent less time

Expansion and contraction of empire was policy, the in-fighting was a direct cause of this. To wield power and challenge the emperor you needed legions, the more successful the better. So, the in-fighting was parallel with expansion and contraction. I would cite the tactics of Licinius as an example.
posted by clavdivs at 12:00 PM on December 28, 2010


cough gulfwarI cough

Just over ten years from Gulf War I until Gulf War II - in the meantime, we established enormous colonies military bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Now we have enormous colonies military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and we're angling for a presence in Pakistan, too, all made possible by political fallout from Gulf War I.

Meanwhile, the post-war colonies bases in Japan, Korea and Europe are still going strong.

10 years is nothing. From a history perspective, we kept on rollin'.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:29 PM on December 28, 2010


Sure, if you consider citing Romper Stomper a win. It does explain a lot, though.

That was a joke. Up to my usual awesome standards, you will note. Claiming it as win just takes it to the next level.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:39 PM on December 29, 2010


10 years is nothing. From a history perspective, we kept on rollin'.
posted by Slap*Happy



10 years is an eternity for a young republic that is democratic. I have no problem with imperial comparisons, though they should be valid. If the United States was a true empire, in the classical sense the United States would control 83.6% of the planet, the first empire to do so and most likely fail, but hey, world records seem on par with a lot of the worlds attention span IMO. How you ask, POWER. The power of the state over its citizens and subjects in Imperial conquest and maintaining order. The United States is* the only nation-state to have had the sole means^ to dominate most of the planet. But that time has passed, what became the greatest military device ever built, was not used enmasse to ‘wipe out evil’. The U.S. rather used this to scare the shit out of any nation-state that wants to create another world war, an unholy conflagration our ancestors warned us of. The United States had a window of opportunity to lay waste to anything if ‘we’ decided to act as a real empire. One can counter this claim with so many aspects of the human condition namely the repellant nature of such a move by the American people for which I do agree. But if the emperor commands it, the legions roll and they use FIRE enmasse when opposed enmasse.…this is a historical fact about the classical model of imperial rule across many civilizations.


What you must realize also is the nature of “bases”, outposts what have you. If a country asks the United States to leave, she will. (very debatable-wag-wag) One could counter this is by positing that the empire could employ the use of covert warfare to affect a population to keep the bases open (this would be just military, ‘empire’ also has “bases” of culture and commercialism) by what ever nefarious fashion that could be devised. (hmm) But it is human nature of resistance to rise and finally address occupation or bases upon its soil not matter what compact its leaders of old agreed upon to have said bases there in the first place.

Tomorrow, Japan could announce that it wants U.S. military forces out of its sphere of influence and barring legal treaties which are just mechanisms of social compact, easily made, easily broken and most likely do so but with some face.
Germany as well. The Middle East, South America, wherever. The sun does not set upon your vision of American empire . Lazy complacent, scared, worn, tired? A sure sign of empires wane is when it’s military is hobbled with multiple wars (the U.S. can effectively fight 2 and one half wars at a time, limited in Imperial terms and even 2 and a half might stretch it though the untapped resources in the U.S. is impressive.)
The tenets of empire do not allow these events of occupation to go unchecked, as with Roman history, resistance rises and empire responds, for instance the Roman emperor eastcoat/westcoast thing prolonged empire by 200 years. (more or less)
So it would seem natural to leave an area, say like Cuba , but we have a treaty and there GITMO remains. The covert warfare between the U.S. and Cuba since 1960 is evident and remains one the saddest in modern U.S. history. IMO, the Cuban people have risen above this despite the terrible things each side did, this is common knowledge. Maybe the U.S. is on the right path with Cuba, I do not know, I hope so, I want to honeymoon there someday. With-in the tenants of empire lies fear for the lesser power and this is the balance beam of non-military control usually in the guise of commerce as trade goods are a reality in what ever political system that has asserted itself with-in the tenants of classical empire. If America was an empire in the classical sense, Cuba would be a protectorate. It is not, a proud nation despite the politics and covert warfare. IMO, if Americans of Cuban heritage develop even stronger bonds of familial and commercial relationship on both sides, on equal terms, one will see a new form of democracy , a model of peace that many if not all can respect.



*debatable concerning military logistics and not based upon popular support of said military strategy.

^monopoly of atomic weapons

FANKS! Col. Maclean ;)

posted by clavdivs at 4:11 AM on December 30, 2010


Politics and technology.

The political impetus to raid - your brother inherited everything and cut you off after Dad died, and there was nothing else for you to do - changed as

posted by Slap*Happy


later, technology and empire,
opps, already did that.
posted by clavdivs at 4:16 AM on December 30, 2010


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