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Journey to the Center of the Earth: REVEALing a Subterranean Landscape of Fear in the North Atlantic


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Society, economy and culture
Project topic
Culture & history

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Geolocation is 64.7842, -20.72771

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Science / project summary
This EAGER grant will test REVEAL, a new 3-dimensional mapping and site documentation product developed by Brown University's School of Engineering, in the challenging subterranean environment of Surtshellir, (Surtur's cave), a unique archaeological site in the North. Surtshellir was named by medieval Icelanders for the fire-giant that Viking Age Norse colonists believed would bring about the destruction of the world. Medieval texts describe Viking Age chieftains traveling to propitiate this fire-giant in Surtshellir and, later, to defeat outlaws said to have taken refuge in the cave. Thirteenth century sources describe brutal political acts of mutilation and revenge carried out by chieftains inside this cave during the 1240s. These and other references suggest that Surtshellir may have been the most feared place in Iceland, but also a location linked to acts of social restoration by medieval Iceland's chieftains. Understanding this unique site therefore has the potential to provide new insights into the sacred and social roles of leaders within Iceland's complex indigenous society. Preliminary work inside Surtshellir in 2001 documented that it contains (1) one of the best-preserved Viking Age structures in the world, (2) a massive dry-stone wall, and (3) a pile of domestic animal bones, crushed, chopped, burned and thrown from the structure deeper into the cave. All are located deep within this, Iceland's longest lava cave. Now, we intend to use REVEAL to gain new information on the unique deposits inside Surtshellir and to use this opportunity to test REVEAL's ability to document archaeological features within the logistically challenging environments of subterranean and interior spaces, where it may be able to make its greatest contributions. Further, as the archaeological remains in Surtshellir cave are actively endangered through unregulated tourism and are threatened by the inevitable collapse of the cave in which they are located, this project will provide critical documentation and tools for the site's protection and long-term management by the Icelandic Archaeological Heritage Agency (Fornleifavernd Ríkisins) and the National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands), both of which are partners in this research.