Did The Norsemen Reach The Shores Of Svalbard During The Viking Age?

Whether or not the Norsemen discovered the barren Arctic archipelago of Svalbard in the Viking Age remains a rather debated matter nowadays. Theoretically, given their in-depth knowledge on ship building and navigation, the Norsemen were able of reaching Svalbard.

There are far greater milestones with regard to Norse exploration which can be identified as furtherest eastward as the Caspian Sea (trading even on the Silk Road) and as furtherest westward as Vinland, modern day Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Illustration from a 16th century chronicle entitled ‘Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus’ (‘The History of the Northern Peoples’) by Olaus Magnus, depicting a group of Norsemen transporting their longship on land. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

So it is that reaching the frozen shores of Svalbard during the end of the Viking Age does not seem such a far-fetched achievement after all. Nonetheless, several questions inevitably arise while we are at it, most notably when exactly was Svalbard spotted for the very first time and by whom.

According to some Old Norse annals from Iceland, Svalbard was supposedly discovered after a 4 day voyage east of Iceland in 1194. ‘Svalbarði’ (as the archipelago was known in Old Norse and still referred to as in Icelandic) could have been known to both Icelanders and Norwegians throughout the Viking Age. These islands also appear described under this collective name in the Icelandic chronicle ‘Landnámabók’ (‘The Book of the Settlements’).

Part of Svalbard’s coastline, as photographed in the spring of 2017. Image source: www.unsplash.com

However, it is not known for certain if the denomination ‘Svalbarði’ actually referred to Svalbard proper. Chances are it could have actually been either the volcanic isle of Jan Mayen (which is closer to Iceland in the east) or part of the eastern coast of Greenland (which is located westward of Iceland). Furthermore, in Old Norse ‘Svalbarði’ translates to ‘cold shores’, which further complicates the quest.

The second edition of ‘Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarum’ (‘Sea map and description on the northern realms’) by Swedish scholar Olaus Magnus does not mention Svalbard. Instead, Greenland is placed both eastward and westward of Iceland. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Even if the Norsemen did firstly spot Svalbard at some point in the late 12th century, in reality, it is quite improbable that they founded a temporary (let alone permanent) settlement somewhere in the archipelago in the process, primarily given the lack of archaeological resources.

This alleged medieval discovery is shrouded in the obscurity of a few mentions rooted in the earliest Icelandic manuscripts, yet no hard archaeological or historical evidence was discovered (to date, at least).

Documentation sources and external links:

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4 Responses to Did The Norsemen Reach The Shores Of Svalbard During The Viking Age?

  1. Per Kreutzmann says:

    I have some old danish magazines called ‘Polarfronten’. And in one release from december 2000 (I know it’s sometimes ago) it is stated that one norwegian archaeologist Kristin Prestvold is hoping that a stone construction found on Svalbard, is an old viking grave. That could be an important evidence for that norwegian vikings came to Svalbard earlier than anybody else.

    Do you know if the construction have been excavated and what the results and conclusions were?

    Thanks in advance.
    Per Kreutzmann, Møn, Denmark

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hello Per,

      Unfortunately I do not know, but thank you for bringing up this possibility. I might be interested in further finding more about it in the future and then updating this article. Thank you for your readership as well!

  2. Sebastian Ravn says:

    The fabulous and sometimes confusing Icelandic language..
    “from Langanes on the north side of Iceland it is four “dægri” sea to Svalbard on the north of Hafsbotn” (Rudmose Brown, 312).
    Dægri could mean both 12 or 24 hours in Old Icelandic.
    In Icelandic “dægr” usually meant one night or one day, so 24 hours would have meant two dægr, hence dægra-mót or dægra skipti. “twilight in the morning and evening” (Homiliu-bók) in Edda “tuttugu ok fjórar stundir skulu vera í tveimr dægrum” (twenty-four hours should be in two dægrum).

    When we look at known sources of travel, it’s the 24 hours (astronomical day) or the Danish dögn, which is described in Landnámabók where the journey between Iceland and Ireland is five dægr, between Norway and Iceland seven, between Iceland and Greenland four etc.
    This would also be the most likely method of counting “dægri” mentioned in the annals, and in that case a full 24-hour period from Langanes on the north side of Iceland, they would have landed on Svalbard somewhere around the west coast of Spitsbergen and not Jan Mayen as the 12 hour “dægri” indicates that they did.

    Additionally the the coast of Spitsbergen is cold and icy and fits the translation of Svalbarði perfectly.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Fascinating indeed! Thank you very much for your comment, time, and readership on The Dockyards! Thanks for sharing this very interesting and valuable knowledge! All the best! Alt det bedste!

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