þingvellir (Thingvellir) is the most important cultural heritage site in Iceland. The Althing (Alþing) – General Assembly – was established here in 930 and continued meeting for more than 850 years until 1798.
The Althing was an assembly for the whole country and there are good written accounts dating back to its earliest days. The assembly lasted for around two weeks a year and was held outside, mainly confined to two places: the Lögberg (Law Rock), and the Lögrétta (Law Council). Here laws were recited and announcements and summonses made. People made speeches, presented ideas and submitted proposals. In bad weather proceedings were held in the church.
The lögsögumaður (lawspeaker) was based at the Lögberg and was in charge of proceedings, memorising and reciting the laws. People travelled to the assembly from all over Iceland and erected temporary houses or shelters called booths, which had turf or stone walls and were roofed with a woollen cloth. The ruins of these can still be seen at Thingvellir today.
Location and Place Names
The precise location of the law rock and law council is unclear. Thirteenth-century documents place the Lögberg somewhere on the eastern edge of Almannagjá, with the Lögrétta possibly in the field in front of it, either north or east of the river, Öxará.
Place names, such as Drowning Pool and Gallows Rock can also shed light on some of the grimmer aspects of the proceedings.
Excavation and Evolution
Thingvellir is both historically and archaeologically the largest and most significant assembly site in Northern Europe. In addition to the visible remains, conducting archaeological excavations could shed new light on the site and its evolution – information that is unlikely to be obtained anywhere else.
Thingvellir National Park
In 1930, Thingvellir was declared a National Park and a law was passed designating the area “a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged.”
In 2004, the park’s cultural values were recognised when it was placed on the World Heritage List.
Thingvellir National Park is located in an active volcanic area, just 49km east of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, and covers 24,000 hectares, of which 9,270ha constitute the World Heritage property.
Its best-defined feature is a major rift which has produced dramatic fissures and cliffs demonstrating inter-continental drifting in a spectacular and understandable way. The park is enclosed by a varied belt of mountains on three sides, featuring grass-covered lava fields, with Lake Thingvallavatn lying at its southern end. This outstanding scenery gives the area its unparalleled value. The rift valley was a magnificent natural backdrop for the open-air parliamentary assembly (Althing).
The site includes both the National Park and some physical remains of the Althing itself, with fragments of around 50 booths built from turf and stone. Remains from the 10th century are thought to be buried underground.
The park also includes Thingvellir Church and adjacent farm, a population of arctic char in Lake Thingvallavatn, as well as remains of agricultural use from the 18th and 19th centuries. Its dramatic history dating back to the establishment of the Althing gives insight into how a Viking-Age pioneer community organised its society from scratch and evolved towards the modern world.
There is a well-known kinship between the Althing, Thingvellir, and Germanic Law and governance documented through the Icelandic sagas and the written codification of the 'Grágás Laws'. This closeness was strengthened in the 19th century by the independence movement and a growing appreciation of landscape values and their perceived association with ‘natural’ and ‘noble’ laws.
Furthermore, the Althing is closely linked to its hinterland (now the landscape of the National Park): an agricultural land that was traditionally used as grazing grounds for those attending the Althing, and across which the tracks led to the Assembly grounds. The park's fossilised cultural landscape reflects the evolution of the farming landscape over the past thousand years, with its abandoned farms, fields and tracks. Associations with people and events recorded in place names and archival evidence also document the settlement in Iceland as well as the high natural worth of this landscape.
The inspirational qualities of Thingvellir’s landscape, derived from its unchanged dramatic beauty, its association with national events and ancient systems of law and governance, have lent the area its iconic status and turned it into the spiritual centre of Iceland.