Archaeologists have discovered the remains of rare artifacts from the Middle East in an Icelandic cave that the Vikings associated with Ragnarök, an end-times event in which the gods would be killed and the world engulfed in flames.
The cave is located by a volcano that erupted almost 1,100 years ago. At the time of that eruption, the Vikings had recently colonized Iceland. “The impacts of this eruption must have been unsettling, posing existential challenges for Iceland’s newly arrived settlers,” a team of researchers wrote in a paper published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Archaeological work shows that after the lava cooled, the Vikings entered the cave and constructed a boat-shaped structure made out of rocks. Within this structure, the Vikings would have burned animal bones, including those of sheep, goat, cattle, horses and pigs, at high temperatures as a sacrifice. This may have been done in an effort to avert Ragnarok.
Near the structure, archaeologists discovered 63 beads, three of which came from Iraq, said Kevin Smith, deputy director and chief curator of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, who leads the team excavating the cave. The team also found remains of orpiment, a mineral from eastern Turkey, near the stone structure. This mineral was used at the time to decorate objects, but very few examples have been found in Scandinavia. “Finding it inside this cave was a great shock,” Smith said.
Historical records indicate that the Vikings associated the cave with Surtr, a giant in Norse mythology who would ultimately cause the series of events known as Ragnarök. According to Viking mythology, “the world would end when Surtr, an elemental being present at the world’s creation, would kill the last of the gods in the battle of Ragnarök and then engulf the world in flames,” the team wrote in the paper.
The archaeologists don’t know why such rare goods from as far away as the Middle East were left in the cave. The Vikings traveled as far as the Middle East and these goods may have made their way to Iceland through trade routes.
But one possibility is that they were meant to appease Surtr, in hopes that he would refrain from destroying the world. Another possibility is that the goods were meant to strengthen Freyr, a Viking fertility god who fought Surtr.
In the Ragnarök story, Freyr dies fighting Surtr and is unable to stop the end of the world. The presence of numerous animal bones — animals being part of a fertile landscape given that they reproduce — supports the idea that the objects were placed in the cave to strengthen Freyr in hopes that he could defeat Surtr and stop Ragnarök, Smith said.