Viking-era woman sheds light on Iceland’s earliest settlers

Diet, artifacts tell tale of short life of the ‘woman in blue’

Viking-era brooches

EARLY ICELANDER  A young woman now determined to have been one of Iceland’s earliest settlers was found in 1938 in a grave with various Viking-era objects, including this pair of brooches.

Ivar Brynjólfsson/The National Museum of Iceland

ATLANTA — Iceland’s “woman in blue,” the partial skeleton of a young woman found in 1938 in a grave with Viking-era objects, was a child of some of the island’s earliest settlers, researchers reported April 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Tooth development and wear suggest she was between 17 and 25 years old when she died.

It’s not known if the woman was a Viking or if she came from another northern European population, said bioarchaeologist Tina Jakob of Durham University in England. A chemical analysis of one of her teeth indicates that, between ages 5 and 10, she started eating a lot of fish and other seafood for the first time after having previously consumed mainly plants and land animals, concluded scientists from Britain, Denmark and the United States working in collaboration with the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. Jakob was part of that effort. 

VIKING-ERA JAW A female’s jaw dating to the early 900s, with some flesh still attached, floats in a jar filled with light paraffin oil. The jaw belonged to one of Iceland’s earliest colonizers, known as the “woman in blue” for her indigo-dyed apron. Ivar Brynjólfsson/The National Museum of Iceland

“The ‘woman in blue’ was not Icelandic,” Jakob says. “She came from southern Scandinavia or the British Isles.” Between around 700 and 1100, seagoing Vikings from Denmark, Norway and Sweden settled in various countries, including Iceland. That raises the possibility that the “woman in blue” came to Iceland with Vikings.

A blue-dyed apron she wore — from which she got her nickname — and a strap from some type of garment display weaving techniques from 9th to 10th century Norway and Britain’s Celtic society, Jakob says. The apron’s plant-based blue dye was typical of female Viking clothing, she adds. Fiber and chemical studies show that Icelandic sheep provided wool used for these garments.

Radiocarbon dating of the apron, strap and one of the woman’s teeth indicate she was born around 900, the scientists conclude. Evidence of Iceland’s initial settlement dates to between around 871 and 930, Jakob adds.

While the woman lay in her grave, a Scandinavian copper brooch came in contact with her face, helping to preserve skin fibers. Bone and skin remains were unintentionally stained green because they were stored in jars filled with a preservative solution. These finds were recently transferred into jars of light paraffin oil to maintain preservation without further staining. DNA from the “woman in blue” is now being studied.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated May 3, 2016, to clarify the roles of the researchers and the National Museum of Iceland in the research.

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