Horn Signaling at a Medieval Icelandic Monastery

A 16th century ceramic horn fragment was discovered at a former monastery site in Iceland. This object attracted attention as Iceland did not produce ceramics during the Middle Ages. Researchers of a recent study examine archaeological and written records of the region to build an understanding of how this horn traveled to Iceland, and its role in monasticism in medieval times.

Site Details, Findings, and Observations

The ruins of the Skriðuklaustur monastery in eastern Iceland were excavated between 2000 and 2012. The monastery operated for about 60 years from 1493 to 1554. It was abolished as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, in which religious reform was imposed on the Icelanders. It had at least 13 rooms and a cloister garden. Roughly 300 graves were found at the monastery cemetery. This was a large institution, and traces of human habitation indicate that the monastery was very active.

The monastery excavation plan. The star marks where the horn was found (Source: Mehler et al.).

Skriðuklaustur was also a pilgrimage destination. The monastery was a stopover for pilgrims traveling across the glacier Vatna from southern to northern Iceland. A shift to colder climate led to the growth of glaciers, which covered the route, rendering it unusable. Documents from 1496 reveal that the cemetery was also a burial site for the pilgrims who died along their journeys.

The study indicates that the horn appears to have been relatively small compared to horns found in Germany and Central Europe. Vertical scars on the fragment suggests that the horn consisted of at least two loops, and it shows traces of heavy wear, indicating that it might have been used frequently. Ceramic is also a very fragile material. The user of the horn must have handled it with care for it not to break. These findings suggest that the horn could have held some importance at the church.

Trade and Movement

A chemical analysis of the horn further revealed that the clay came from the Duingen area of northern Germany. This region was an important producer of ceramics during the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Ceramics were very widely distributed as well. These items were transported by ship to Bremen and Hamburg in northern Germany, which were important trading hubs at the time.

Natascha Mehler, one of the authors and a senior researcher at the German Maritime Museum, told GlacierHub about trade and movement of people during this time. She explained that 16th century Iceland was close in trade with merchants from Bremen and Hamburg. “They came to Iceland with their ships each spring, to remain there for the summer in their own trading stations, and in late summer they returned home” she said. Germans mainly conducted business in southwest and west of Iceland, around what is present-day Djúpivogur in Berufjörður. “This fjord is relatively close to the monastery at Skriðuklaustur and the monastery was surely provided with goods from abroad through this fjord,” added Mehler.

European goods were available at three trading stations located near Skriðuklaustur, where people from the region bought and sold their goods. People also traveled to Hamburg in northern Germany from Skriðuklaustur. One example from a historic text describes a sheriff and farm owner travelling to Hamburg via a ship from Hamburg. Some Icelandic clerics were educated at universities in Germany, and they used Hamburg and Bremen ships for their travels.

What Was The Purpose Of The Horn?

The fragment of the ceramic horn found at Skriðuklaustur (Source: Mehler et al.).

The lack of written history makes it difficult to build conclusions on how the horn reached the monastery. Researchers are, however, able to build some possibilities with observations and historical records. One possibility is that the horn was carried by a merchant from one of the trading stations. It is also possible that a traveler acquired it from areas in Germany such as Hamburg and Bremen and brought it back as a souvenir. The third possibility is that a pilgrim carried the horn to the site.

Although there remains uncertainty about how the horn arrived to the site, the use of the horn is better understood. Observations allow researchers to propose that is was used for signaling in the monastery. The length and coarse material would allow only one or two high notes. This limited range suggests that the horn was used for signaling rather than for music. Ceramic horn fragments were also found in German monasteries, and these also appeared to be signaling instruments.

This horn was found in what appears to be the guesthouse area of the monastery site, near the main entrance. Historical sources show that the entrance was once guarded by a man named Jón Jónsson, sacristan to the monastery. Some of his duties were to prepare the church for Mass, and opening and closing the alter screen. The sacristan was also responsible for sounding signals to wake the monks in the morning, and to sound the call to prayer. The horn would’ve been the perfect device for Jónsson to perform these tasks.

The horn that has been silent for centuries has recently come to the world’s attention. Observations and historical records indicate the horn’s use and origin, and gives us a glimpse of monastic life in medieval Iceland.

Vatna Glacier, the largest ice cap in Iceland (Source: Ron Kroetz/Flickr).

Click here to learn more about activities at the Skriðuklaustur monastery and the glacier route!