The Landnámssýningin (Settlement Exhibition), whose centrepiece is the extensive ruins of a Viking-age farmhouse, is one of Iceland’s most remarkable museums. Housed in a purpose-built hall directly beneath Aðalstræti, the structure’s oval-shaped stone walls, excavated in 2001, enclose a sizeable living space of 85 square metres with a central hearth as the focal point. Dating the farmhouse has been relatively straightforward, since the layer of volcanic ash which fell across Iceland following a powerful eruption in around 871 AD lies just beneath the building; it’s estimated, therefore, that people lived here between 930 and 1000.
As you wander around the exhibition, look out for the animal spine, probably that of a horse or cow, buried under part of the farmhouse’s western wall as a talisman to ward off evil spirits, a common practice during the Viking period. The exhibition’s wall space is given over to panoramic views of forest and scrubland to help give a realistic impression of what Reykjavík would have looked like at the time of the Settlement. Indeed, when the first settlers arrived in the area, the hills were covered in birch woods. However, just one hundred years later, the birch had all but disappeared, felled to make way for grazing land or burnt for charcoal needed for iron-smelting. Recent excavation work outside the museum at the corner of Kirkjustræti and Tjarnargata unearthed traces of eight iron-smelting furnaces and a charcoal pit, also from the 870s, where bog iron was used to produce various goods. Artefacts from the dig, including an ornate silver bracelet, are on display in the Settlement Exhibition.