Hjálparfoss, Commonwealth Farm, & Hella Caves

Searching for our Viking Heritage

It’s a busy afternoon visiting Hjálparfoss, Commonwealth Farm, & Hella Caves! After our visit with Bishop Christian at Skalholt, we took a long scenic drive and stopped at Hjálparfoss, which means ‘Help’ in Icelandic.


Iceland is chock full of waterfalls, big and small, thin and wide, powerful and trickling.  Hjalparfoss is where two rivers, Fossa and Thjorsa meet.  As the water cascades over the lava field created by the Hekla volcano long ago, it enters a clear blue pool, shown below.  From there the water feeds the country’s second largest hydroelectric dam a short ways downstream.

Hjálparfoss, Commonwealth Farm, & Hella Caves

The Commonwealth Farm

A replica of the turf farmhouse Stöng is a mile from the historic site on The Commonwealth Farm.  Stong  was buried under volcanic tephra in an eruption in 1104.  Built in 1974, The Commonwealth Farm celebrates the 1100th anniversary of Icelandic settlement and was opened to the public in 1977. 

Barrett appreciated the re-created longhouse as it gives perspective to the size of buildings and types of materials used during the Viking age.  It also explains why nothing but rock foundations, if anything, survived that timeframe.

Barrett at Stöng
Stöng, Interior
Commonwealth Farm Interior
Visiting Hjálparfoss, Commonwealth Farm, & the Hella Caves
Barrett at Commonwealth Farm Longhouse replica

Sitting next to the replicated Viking long house is another replica, this one of a church from the Middle Ages.  The replica is also based on archaeological findings from the Stöng ruins.

Hjálparfoss, Commonwealth Farm, & Hella Caves
Church replica at Commonwealth Farm

Jon tells us that we are running behind, and for what, we have no idea since we are out for an all day tour, but we wander back to the car and he drives like a crazy man.  Along the way, he tells us he made a reservation for us to see the Hella Caves. We hang on tight as our scenic drive becomes a mission to get there on time. And we are so glad we made it!

Hella Caves

Located on a farm, Ægissíða, on the South Coast, are twelve ancient man-made caves that have been ‘discovered.’  Four are now open to the public.  The caves are Iceland’s oldest archaeological remains that are still standing — as the long houses were made of wood and turf so any remains will only be ruins.  The caves are different since they stand exactly how they were built with the exception of some newer graffiti that was mixed in with ancient carvings, carved on the walls by people before it became a protected area.

From outside, it doesn’t look like much other than lumpy ground and some wooden doors.  Once you walk through that door, the world changes.  Over the centuries caves have been used as sheep sheds and barns by the farmers especially in winter. The caves provided shelter and also a place to store livestock food.  But the interiors remained largely untouched.

Hella Caves Entrance
A map showing 9 of the 12 caves
Hella Caves Entrance

Astonishingly, there are carved seats, a carved cross, ledges for candles, and in one cave there is an area that appears to have been for long term food storage and food preparation.  A kitchen perhaps?

Ventilation Shaft, Hella Caves Interior
Ventilation Shaft, Hella Caves

You can see the vent hole on top which allows air to flow in. It is amazing the work it took to create the vent with rocks and to have it last over 1000 years.

Hella Caves, Interior

Inside the largest cave, which clearly appears to be a church/prayer house is a carved cross.  The cross is not recent, but rather dates back to one of the oldest carvings in the caves.  There were steps on each side leading up to what would appear to be an altar place which had the cross carved on the wall behind it.  It was easy to visualize a service taking place long ago.

Hella Caves, Interior
Barrett and myself in front of the Ancient carved cross, Hella Caves Interior

Celtic Monks or Vikings or ????

This discovery throws some kinks in Iceland’s history, which would mean the Vikings were not the first to settle here in 871 potentially before Ingolfur Arnarson settled here. The Book of Icelanders, which was written between 1122 and 1133, indicates Monks were here prior to Arnarson but that of course is hundreds of years later leaving it open to whether it’s truth or fiction.

Hella Caves Interior

While the question remains to identify definitively who built the caves, for hundreds of years, there were stories  that Celtic monks settled the area prior to the Vikings, between the 7th- 9th centuries.  It wasn’t until access to these caves allowing for archaeological efforts that the mystery behind these caves were investigated.

Hella Caves Interior
Hella Caves Interior

It was a fascinating stop and I’m so glad we were able to see all four of the caves. It made the crazy car drive worth every moment!

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We love to travel and especially encourage women to go out and see the world! We love history, archaeology and understanding the different cultures throughout the world.

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