Hofstaðir is the name of a
Viking era settlement, located in the upper Laxá valley in
northeastern Iceland, in use between c. AD 940–1070.
The Viking Age site consisted of a large hall-like building,
pit house dwellings, and a church (built ca. 1100). A
boundary wall enclosed a 4.5 acre field, where hay was grown
and dairy cattle were kept during the winter.
From its first excavation, the monumental size of its
central hall and its place name seemed to indicate that the
settlement was a heathen cult site. From the mid-20th
century, however, that interpretation was challenged,
primarily because the site, although large, was much like
any other farmstead. Recent archeological
excavations suggest that Hofstaðir was primarily a chief's
settlement, with a great hall used for ritual feasting and
events. During the Viking Age, a fairly robust population occupied the site during the spring and
summer. Fewer people lived there during the winter months.
Founded in the middle of the 10th century, the site
continues to be occupied today.
Composite Photo of the Hofstaðir site
The site's largest building is a hall, typical
sites, except that,
it is twice as long as an average Viking
hall. At 38 meters in length, the hall is the largest Norse longhouse yet excavated in
A separate room at the north end has been interpreted
shrine or inner sanctuary, where wooden stakes with carved faces
representing Nordic gods may have been housed. A huge cooking pit is located in the southern end.
A smaller building stood adjacent to the south-western side of
the great hall, and a smaller ancillary room connected to the
hall on the south-eastern side (See
Diagram "Location and Number of Cattle Skulls" below).
on various hints, the hall may have originally been planned
as a shorter building, and only been extended to its full length as a
result of a substantial enlargement near the end of the
10th century. Such a change assumes that the earlier
building was planned to a skewed outline, or that substantial
adjustments were made to the wall-line in the central part of
the building, neither of which seems likely.
Aerial Short of Hofstaðir showing
the octagonal shape of the site
While most postholes are shallow, a small number of
deeper-set postholes seem to be aligned on a regular grid. This
divides the length of the building into four sections of equal
length, each further divided, apparently on a unit of 1.85m, a measure, corresponding to a
fathom (6 feet), often seen in Scandinavian buildings from this
period. Otherwise, there seems to be little
patterning in the rows of postholes, which divide the hall into
three aisles. Lucas claims, many were 'obviously later
insertions ...though it is impossible to phase the posts as a
group' (2013, p. 70).
A set of horizontal beam slots, marking
partitions in the side-aisles of the main hall, may indicate
individual sleeping berths or cubicles for guests. But
since no such partitions are known from other comparable
buildings, these beam slots may simply be joists,
designed to carry the floor planking of side-aisle platforms.
When partition walls occur in Viking Age Scandinavia, these
consist of a line of vertical posts, which presumably supported
a cladding of daub or horizontal planking. Thus this
interpretation stands in stark contrast to the grand, open
rooms, which appear to be the very point of Scandinavian hall
buildings, as evidenced by the architectural innovations created
to achieve them.
The interpretation of the Hofstaðir site as a
heathen temple or a large feasting hall with a heathen shrine, comes from
the recovery of at least 23 individual
cattle skulls, located in two distinct deposits at the southern
end of the hall.
Hofstaðir site (center).
Animals bones found at Hofstaðir include
those of domestic
goats; as well as those of fish, shellfish, birds, and
a small number of fox, whale, and seal. One house
yielded the bones of
of a domestic
cat. Radiocarbon dates on animal bone range between
1030-1170 RCYBP. While a majority of the bone fragments
represent the normal refuse of a Viking Age settlement, a group of cattle skulls with abnormal butchering marks
found in and around the great hall display signs of ritual
Skulls of at least 23 individual specimens
recovered from outside the building show signs of specialized
butchery. These marks include fracturing of the frontals by a
heavy and fatal blow between the eyes; and where the base of the
skull is preserved, evidence of a powerful shearing blow, which
would have decapitated the animal. The cattle were killed while
yet standing, an immensely
impractical technique, but one capable of producing a spectacular
fountain of blood since the animal's heart would still be beating.
Advanced surface weathering on the exterior of the skulls,
combined with unweathered interior surfaces, suggest that the
skulls were displayed on the outside of the building for an
extended period of time, after the soft tissue had been removed
or rotted away.
The cattle skulls were
primarily found in two clusters at the southern end of the hall,
an area which generally held more artefacts, suggesting more
activity (See diagram below). Eight (8) skulls were located on the
south-western exterior of the hall, associated with two major
entrances. The interior of an ancillary room on the
south-eastern side of the hall contained
14 more skulls, along with the fully articulated
skelton of a female sheep; unbutchered, it had also been killed
by a heavy blow to the forehead, unlike normal contemporary
practice. A single (1) cattle skull was located just
north of the projecting porch at the northwestern entrance.
All of the skulls were found within areas where turf
walls and roofs had collapsed, suggesting that they had been
suspended from the eves or the rafters where they appear.
These skulls were presented in two different fashions:
one consisting of the "full face" of the animal, with only the
lower jaw removed, and a second comprising the "horn rack", with
the entire lower face cut away, leaving only the frontal bones
and horns attached.
Location and Number of Cattle
(Lucas and McGovern, 2007)
Where it was possible to determine gender,
the vast majority of the skulls were identified as male. Where
teeth remained attached, the age of death was determined to
range from young adult to middle-aged adult, a pattern very
different from that normally found on Viking era Icelandic farm
sites. Light wear of the manidular tooth rows of the cattle
found at the Hofstaðir site demonstrate that these animals were
in their prime, productive years, not elderly dairy cows at the
end of their run. These skulls are almost certianly those of
mature bulls, which appear to be large by the standards of
comparable cattle found in contemporary North Atlantic
regions. The Hofstaðir animals were clearly harvested for their
meat, in contrast to the local dairy profile. Dairy bulls, which
are commonly raised to puberty, bred widely, and then
slaughtered before they reach their full consumption potential,
are rare and expensive animals in most pre-modern agricultural
Radiocarbon dating on five of the skulls suggest that
the animals died between 50-100 years apart, with the latest
dated about AD 1000. This and the differential weathering
patterns provide evidence in support of a model of recurring
ritual slaughter, resulting in an accumulating cattle-head
display over time, rather than a single mass killing event. Lucas and McGovern
conclude that cult activity at
Hofstaðir ended abruptly in the mid-11th century, about the same
time a church was built, about 140 meters away.
Differential weathering patterns indicate
that these skulls were displayed face out on the exterior of the
hall for an extended time—months or years. The anomoly, however,
is that most were found concentrated in two fairly inconspicuous
locales, one inside and the other in an enclosed niche between
two buildings. Weathering patterns suggest that the skulls had
once been mounted in more exposed and visible locations on the
outside of the building for an extended time. The skulls were
not deliberately buried, but found in the remains of collapsed
turf structures, so the context in which they were found may
indicate that they had been intentionally gathered (perhaps to
be stored for the winter) before the building had been
abandoned. In this light, the fully articulated sheep found
inside the hall has been interpreted as a termination ritual.
All other animal burials in Iceland, identifed as
sacrifices, have either been horse or dog, not cattle.
Cattle bones are found in Viking Age burials in other Nordic
countries, but are much rarer than that of horses and dogs.
Horse burials are unusually common in Iceland as compared to
other parts of Scandinavia. Interesting in this
context, the Oseberg ship burial from Norway contained 13
decapitated horses. Other examples include the Gokstad
grave, also in Norway, and several decapitated horses
accompanying horse burials in Iceland. The horse burials in
Iceland, where they have been sexed, were all male.
Similarly, Adam of Bremen (IV, 27) describes the sacrifical
offering and display of nine kinds of male animals at a
heathen festival in
, held every nine years. Horses and dogs, along
with human beings, are mentioned among the sacrifices there.
Thietmar of Merseburg describes a similar ceremony at
in Denmark around AD 1015, where dogs, cocks, and
humans were sacrificed. The Icelandic Sagas also offer
several examples of ritual slaughter and feasting, as well
as animals specifically kept for such purposes.
The Symbolism of Sacrifice
first excavated by Daniel Bruun in 1908, who interpreted the
site as a pagan temple. The basis for his interpretation was
both the place name and the great size of the main hall. This
remained the dominant theory until the mid-20th century, when
the site was reopened by Olaf Olsen
(1965) who redefined it as temple-farm— the residence of a
chieftain who also acted as priest, presiding over religious
ceremonies there. Excavations at the site between 1992 and 2002,
led by Gavin Lucas and Thomas McGovern, resulted in the full
excavation of the long hall, and revealed new adjacent
structures. From this, it was argued that Hofstaðir was
primarily a chieftain's settlement, and that any religious
ceremonies conducted there would have been of secondary
importance to its political status, making the site comparable
to other monumental halls found in Nordic countries such as
Uppsala. The discovery of cattle skulls, slaughtered in
ritual fashion, demonstrates that that the heathen religion was
intregal to the political nature of the site.
Artifacts recovered from Hofstaðir include several silver,
copper, and bone pins; combs and dress items; spindlewhorls,
loomweights, and whetstones; as well as 23 knives. There
are several possible foundation deposits, found in
including a probable set of gaming pieces and a cow
Lucas, Gavin and Thomas McGovern. "Bloody
Slaughter: The Ritual Decapitation and Display at the Viking
Settlement of Hofstaðir, Iceland." European Journal of
Archaeology, Vol. 10 (1), pp. 7-30.
Icelandic Viking Site of Hofstadir By K. Kris Hirst
Hofstadir: Excavations of a Viking Age Feasting Hall in
North-Eastern Iceland (Institute of Archaeology
Reykjavik Monograph 1). 978-9979-9946-0-2, paperback $48 [Review]