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The Blackener’s Cave

Viking Age outlaws, taboo, and ritual in Iceland’s lava fields

May/June 2017

Surtshellir Iceland Lava Tube


The Hallmundarhraun lava field—basalt dark, with great swells and a froth of white moss—looks like a stormy sea whipped into a frenzy and frozen in place. It begins under the Langjökull glacier in mountains to the east and winds some 30 miles to Hraunfoss—literally, “Lava Falls”—where a crystalline river of meltwater pours directly from its wide, stony face. It’s very Icelandic: fire and ice, water and stone. When the lava flowed at the end of the ninth century, shortly after the Vikings arrived on the island, it was probably the first volcanic activity of its kind that northern Europeans had ever witnessed. Those early residents of western Iceland may have heard eruptions, seen a fiery glow on the horizon, and tracked its spread across the landscape, a spread that ultimately consumed around 90 square miles.


Hallmundarhraun, just a few hours’ drive from Reykjavík, is riven with lava tubes which form when fresh molten rock flows through an existing field of cooled lava. Over time, the ceilings of some of these tunnels partially collapse to form caves. There are some 500 across Iceland, and around 200 hold evidence of human occupation. One of these caves is Surtshellir, part of a lava tube complex that is Iceland’s longest, at more than two miles. It is named for Surtr, the elemental fire giant of Norse mythology, the “scorcher” or “blackener,” ruler of Muspelheim, who will kill all gods and life at the end of time. Inside is one of the more enigmatic archaeological sites on the island.


Until one is almost directly on top of Surtshellir’s entrance, an amphitheater-shaped depression, the arrested turbulence and uniform darkness of Hallmundarhraun conceals it. But the cave is no minor feature. It is giant-scaled, a leviathan’s burrow up to 40 feet in diameter, littered with massive, angular blocks of basalt calved from the ceiling. Around 100 yards into the cave, that ceiling opens to the sky, the result of a collapse centuries ago. Just before reaching this skylight, one encounters, partially buried under boulders from the ceiling, a titanic man-made wall, 15 feet tall and spanning the cave, made up of blocks, each weighing up to four tons. Just past the skylight, two small galleries branch off, one to the left and one to the right. These side caves, Vígishellir (“Fortress Cave”) on the left and Beinahellir (“Bones Cave”) on the right, are the remnants of an older, smaller lava tube bisected by Surtshellir. After one scrambles up a rockfall into Vígishellir, the darkness descends like a shroud. Light is swallowed and incidental sound amplified. Breath hangs in the still, cold, humid air.


A few yards into Vígishellir is a second man-made structure: an anomalous arrangement of stones, piled a few feet high to form an oval enclosure, 22 by 11 feet. Archaeologists believe it could be the oldest standing Viking structure in the world. Next to it is a pile of animal bones, methodically hacked into tiny pieces. Archaeological sites generally have telltale patterns that show scientists how they were used: domestic activity, craft production, ritual. Surtshellir eludes such clarities. The things it contains—and, more importantly, doesn’t contain—fit some patterns and resist others, and show just how difficult it can be to divine behavior, intent, and even emotion from bits of stone and bone.



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