Hrísbrú is the name of a Viking period farmstead and chiefly residence, located in the Mosfell valley of Iceland a few kilometers from Reykjavik. The site is strategically located on the slope of the northern side of the valley, where residents could see both the central valley and the coastline.
The site includes a traditional Viking Age longhouse occupied between ~790-1100 AD, a church and associated cemetery (built about 1000 AD), and a pagan cremation site. It is believed to represent one of the highest status residences of the Viking period on Iceland.
Viking culture in Scandinavia was ranked, with the highest level reserved for chiefs. Archaeologists have identified three ranks of Icelandic houses based on house size, artifacts and historical records: Hrísbrú is certainly one of the highest status Viking residences on Iceland.
Hrísbrú's longhouse measures 28 meters (92 ft) long, one of the largest Viking Age longhouses excavated in Iceland to date. It was a domestic space designed for a large extended family, with bow-sided walls built of turfs and stone, a tripartite internal room division and doors at the opposite ends. It had a central hall, two gable rooms and a covered entryway and anteroom from the western end.
Hrísbrú is mentioned as a chief's residence in several medieval sagas. Important personages who resided at Hrisbru include the Lawspeaker of the Althing Grimr Svertingsson, and the warrior-poet Egill Skallagrimsson.
Excavations have recovered plentiful imported glass beads, as well as tin-based bronze and iron objects. All of those exotic objects would have been imported for the use of the Viking chiefs.
Iron artifacts recovered from Hrisbru include five knife blades, probably hafted with wood or bone which has not been preserved. One knife found in the church was found to have been made with a core of high-carbon steel, wrapped in wrought iron. Evidence seems to suggest that small-scale iron working, perhaps limited to repairs, was conducted within the longhouse.
Iron recovered from the cemetery included clench bolts, probably part of coffins built from reused ship planks: its interesting that ship planks were used in this manner given that boat graves were a significant Viking tradition. Bronze artifacts were present in the assemblage but too corroded to identify function or form.
Beads from Hrisbru's longhouse include four black, red and blue beads that likely originated in Turkmenistan, and were traded up along the trade routes. Two beads were made with a decorative silver foil coating; three were made of glass colored with lead-tin oxide, similar to those made at the Merovingian site of Schleitheim in Switzerland. No evidence for local bead production was identified.
The faunal assemblage at Hrísbrú included sheep and/or goats, cattles and some pigs, with a significantly high ratio of cattle. Fish and marine mammals and birds were a lesser part of the diet. Zori et al argue that the higher ratio of cattle may represent evidence of feasting.
More evidence of feasting is from the production and consumption of barley beer, extrapolated from the substantial presence of carbonized barley (Hordeum vulgare) seeds wtihin the longhouse and in the midden.
Hrísbrú's Viking colonists abandoned the site in the late 11th or early 12th century AD, and the longhouse was buried by a midden, followed by aeolian soil deposition. Its floor, identified approximately 1 m (3.3 ft) below a meadow, was largely intact at the time of excavation.
Hrísbrú is today a working farmstead and village and it has been occupied steadily since the 9th century AD. Although the foundations of the longhouse and church were largely intact when excavated, the organic and metal objects are not, because of freeze-thaw cycles of the local climate.
Hrisbru was excavated as part of the Mosfell Archaeological Project, an international reseaerch project based at the Cotsen Institute of the University of California Los Angeles, under the direction of Jesse Byock.
See the Mosfell Archaeological Project for more information about Hrisbru.
Wärmländer SKTS, Zori D, Byock J, and Scott DA. 2010. Metallurgical findings from a Viking Age chieftain's farm in Iceland. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(9):2284-2290.
Zori D, Byock J, Erlendsson E, Martin S, Wake T, and Edwards KJ. 2013. Feasting in Viking Age Iceland: sustaining a chiefly political economy in a marginal environment. Antiquity 87(335):150-161.