Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Caves were places of fear for the Norse colonies of the North Atlantic, and were generally avoided. One notable exception is Surtshellir cave, one of the largest lava-tube caves in the world. Surtshellir's folklore, mythology, and historic narratives span nearly a millennium and are dominated by images of terror, the overthrow of the world's order, and the restoration of balance through the actions of Viking Age chieftains and community leaders. These stories begin with the being for whom the cave is named - Surtur, an elemental force of fire and lava whom the Norse believed was present at the world's creation and would destroy the world, men, and the gods at the end of time. Surtshellir has an impressive archaeological record, documented by the PI on expeditions into Surtshellir in 2001 and, with NSF EAGER funding, in 2012: a ship-shaped Viking Age structure 300 meters back into the cave, massive numbers of dismembered, intentionally fragmented animal bones, and a dry-stone wall 30 ft (10 m) long and 15ft (4.5 m) high built to block entrance or exit from the cave.

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This research was recently featured in an article in the May/June 2017 issue of Archaeology Magazine. "The Blackener's Cave: Viking Age outlaws, taboo, and ritual in Iceland's lava fields" by Samir S. Patel explores the archaeological and mythic history of Surtshellir, a large cave in Iceland's forbidding Hallmundarhraun lava field. From 2001-present, Kevin Smith and Þjóðminjasafnið/National Museum of Iceland's Guðmundur Ólafsson have worked together to uncover the strange history of this dark cave.