Iceland Road Trip Day 4!

The latter half of our Iceland trip consisted of a road trip around the country. I absolutely loved getting to see the different small towns and communities throughout Iceland, the beautiful landscape, and the history and setting of the literature we read in our classes with Dr. Bryan and Dr. Cotterill. One of my favorite days was June 11th. It was extremely cold and windy and rainy all day- so much that we skipped seeing a waterfall because we were all pretty miserable. After seeing some craters and doing some hiking in the morning, our last stop of the day was Skriðuklaustur. This was the site of an old monastery, one of the last built in Iceland. Next to the ruins was a house built by Gunner Gunnarsson, a famous Icelandic author. We got to learn about both the monastery and the author there.

Gunner Gunnarsson was born and raised in Iceland in the late 1800s but moved to Denmark for his studies and to become a writer since the Danish education system was much better than Iceland’s at the time. He received 6 Nobel Prize nominations in literature and almost won in 1955. His most famous work was Guest the One-Eyed. It was turned into a silent film. It was the first Icelandic work to be turned into a movie, the first Icelandic film by a foreign director, and the second movie filmed in Iceland. Gunnarsson had a falling out with this director because of creative differences and didn’t end up going to the premiere of it, which was a two day event since the movie was 4 hours long.

Gunnarsson came back to Iceland after his career came to a halt to build his house on the east coast of Iceland. The house wasn’t as big as he originally wanted, but is still the largest single home built in Iceland. After a while, he no longer wanted to live there and donated it to the Icelandic government, which to this day is still the largest donation to the Icelandic government by an individual. The project of building the house took several ten thousand man hours of labor. One man spent 200 hours washing rocks for the outside walls. He refused to come visit the house once turned into a museum because he was triggered so hard. Gunnarsson also spent over $72 million (in today’s currency) on labor alone.

Down the hill from his house is the ruins of an old Augustinian monastery. The site was unusual that it had the monastic quarters right next to the church, which originally threw off archaeologists. Archaeologists also dug the remains very differently. They would dig a 5cm piece of section, draw what the remains looked like, then dig 5 more cm and do the same thing. This allowed them to removed the ruins and accurately recreate the site. Icelandic archaeologists are also able to accurately determine the time period of ruins based on the lava layers. There are distinct layers of different kinds of dirt that correspond to different volcanic eruptions. Whatever layer the ruins are located in is the time period of the ruins.

There were also over 300 human remains found in the cemetery in the church yard. Scientists were able to determine the gender, age, and different diseases of each body. Based on different diseases and treatments to fractured bones, they were able to determine that the monastery functioned as a hospital. They had around 100 patients living at the monastery at any given period of time. They treated broken bones, helped with pregnancies, and even had some patients with stage 3 syphilis.

These are recreated ruins of the Augustinian monastery built in eastern Iceland. It was the last monastery built before the country converted to Lutheranism.


In the cemetery of the monastery, Dr. Bryan gave us a lecture talking about an old Icelandic Saga in which the valley we were standing in took place. The people of the saga ended up having to cross over the mountain that was behind the house we visited. Dr. Bryan also pointed out the only grave with a headstone there, belonging to Jón Hrak. There are many legends and folklore about him and they say that he was sort of the butt of everyone’s jokes, so much that instead of being buried east to west per tradition, he was buried north to south. Many Icelanders are familiar with this jingle about him:

Kalt er við kórbak,

kúrir þar Jón Hrak.
Ýtar snúa austur og vestur
allir nema Jón Hrak.
Translating to:
It’s cold at the choir’s back,
there lies old Jon Hrak.
Everybody’s buried lying East to West,
everybody but Jon Hrak.
Dr. Bryan claims it’s funnier in the traditional Icelandic; I’ll trust him on that.