Has there ever been a contemporary archaeology of an artificial geyser? I’m not sure, and until very recently this is not a question that kept me awake at night. Regardless of the answer, it is probably time for such a thing to happen (again).
On a recent trip to Reykjavik in Iceland, a circular stone feature caught my attention during a visit to the Perlan, a geothermally-heated water storage facility that acts as a visitor attraction and is a landmark in the city skyline due to its hilltop location. It is the ‘number one attraction in Reykjavik’ according to their website.
Perlan sits within an extensive park with a network of pathways, and abuts the regional airport, which is actually a repurposed WW2 military airfield and so the area is also dotted with concrete and earthwork remnants of the former military use of this landscape. So there are already quite a lot of interesting humps and bumps for the archaeologist to ponder over before we come to the geyser.
Situated a couple of hundred metres to the south of Perlan on a slope down to the coast, and now located beneath a scary looking zipline are a series of features which relate to what was, until 2012, an artificial geyser denoted “Goshverrin” Strokur (“The geyser” Strokkur).
The physical remains
The remains of the artificial geyser consist of two circular stone arrangements, one of which was the geyser basin itself, the other a viewing and information zone. This is surrounded by remnants of a rope fence and warning signs.
The geyser itself erupted from the centre of a circular scooped basin some 4m in diameter bounded by a kerb of oblong igenous blocks. The floor of the basis is lined with cobbles of a similar petrology (at least visually) and within the central zone is an arrangement of irregular rocks set around a capped rusty pipe from which, presumably, water would forcibly leave when in operation. A layer of fine gravel is evident beneath this arrangement.
The basin is set concentrically within a larger circular enclosure, defined again by a block kerb. This setting is some 12-15m in diameter, with an incomplete boundary. This seems to have been some kind of demarcation, perhaps to keep viewers away from the hot water, and there are no obvious features in the space between outer boundary and the basin, a space that is now largely overgrown with vegetation.
Beyond this a now incomplete outer cordon marked by a rope boundary is evident in places, and some warning signs remain in place. The fence consists of evenly spaced – about 2m apart – squared wooden posts, most of which have warning signs attached to them; these are connected by a black rope. Separate free-standing wooden posts with warning signs are also evident outwith this cordon.
Immediately to the northeast of the geyser arrangement itself is a smaller circular enclosed and paved area, furnished with four information boards, that I took to be a formal viewing area for when the geyser was activated. This is shown in a photo above. It is a circular space again, about the same size as the geyser central feature, but surrounded by a more substantial wall. The floor of this area is cobbled, with a concentric design centred on a single square cobble and triangle arrangement. Set into the walls of this enclosure are a set of four information boards; these show clear signs of a lack of maintenance and are partially concealed by overgrown vegetation.
These boards essentially present information about Iceland’s volcanic setting, how geysers work in general, and specific details about how this fake geyser was operated. This is given in Icelandic and English, with accompanying geography textbook-like diagrams. The relevant text (and accompanying illustration) to explain how this all worked is:
“A hole was bored ?0m into the ground and outfitted with a steel pipe connected to a water conduit charged with geothermal water of temperature up to 125 degrees C. An interchangeable section in the upper part of the steel pipe makes it possible to constrict flow at that point. This equipment determines the height of the eruption …. confined basis surrounds the opening”.
To the east of these information boards, and also set into the same wall, is a metal box with a locked door. There is a sticker of a skull in the centre of the door and graffiti across the object. I assume this is either how the geyser was operated ie a control box, but I suppose it is possible that it is hatch leading to some subterranean access to the geyser workings.
The geyser appears to have been a very good simulation of a natural geyser, the most famous on Iceland being Strokkur. This erupts on a fairly regular cycle, at least once every 10 minutes, and shoots lukewarm water in the air up to 40m in height.
This phenomenon is caused by spring water leaching downwards coming into contact with volcanically heated rocks, the pressure of which shoots water and stream through a vent or opening at the ground surface. This repeats itself on a cycle which can be interrupted or even completely altered by earthquakes and volcanic activity.
The artificial geyser at Perlan therefore was an attempt to demonstrate this phenomenon in a relatively controlled fashion. I can find very little information online about its origins or use. It was constructed by The Reykjavik Heating Utility company and the travel website Petit fute had this to say:
To remind people that Reykjavík was named after the fumaroles of the many hot springs that once existed, the capital’s heating company decided in 1995 to recreate an exact copy of a geyser. Today, geysers and other steam jets have disappeared from the capital area due to the lowering of the water table. The new real-fake geyser, inaugurated in January 1998, operates for two to four hours a day and reaches a height of 20 to 30 metres.
The last time I can find evidence for it working was in summer 2013 in a blog, also the source of this photo.
There are surprisingly few photos of the geyser erupting to be found online but these suggest it was quite spectacular.
There is also some video footage online as well of course (this example from 2012):
The videos are useful as they give some more insight into how the geyser worked, with a good deal of steam before main eruptions, and the basin filled with slowly draining water after the event. It is likely that this cycle will have had implications for the localised flora and fauna in the same way as weird creatures congregate at ocean floor vents.
Weirdly, until recently there was also an artificial geyser inside the Perlan building, shooting water from the basement beside a central stair well. I think this was decommissioned when the building was revamped in 2018-19. It does look rather feeble but tourist guidebooks were still advertising this until quite recently. When the book is written about the typology of artificial geysers, file this one under ‘fountain’.
Geysers are spectacular natural places but subject to human manipulation. In some instances soap has been used to provoke eruptions, as used to happen at Great Geyser, and I was witness to at the Lady Knox Geyser, Waiotapu, in New Zealand. Here, a guy stood beside the orifice and told us all about ‘geezers’ before dropping a huge bar of soap down into the vent and running off to the side quickly. There followed an ejaculation of soapy warm water turning into a full scale geyser eruption that lasted quite a while. This rather hollow experience is ‘presented‘ to the public daily at 1015 am.
Incidentally, the type of soap used to stimulate a geyser eruption is known as a surfactant, and this practice has ceased in most places for environmental reasons. I would imagine the Perlan geyser eruption was started by someone pressing a button, perhaps in that metal control box, and did not require the use of soap.
Toward an archaeology of artificial geysers
Various comments on TripAdvisor suggest the Perlan artificial geyser stopped working in 2012, and there were plans to get it back up and running as recently as 2018. The fact a zipline goes right across the top of it now suggests it may never work again and will continue its decline (or elevation depending on how you see it) into the archaeological record and it looks to me like it is, to all intents and purposes, a ruin. Not only that but a significant ruin too: this an extremely rare example of this form of architecture with a fairly limited geographical and cultural distribution.
There is no doubt that this is now an archaeological site, and one that could benefit from some work. I would suggest the complex should be properly surveyed and mapped, while expeditious excavation may reveal information about the visitor experience of this site and allow study of any micro-environment caused by repeated soaking in warm water. (This might also identify whether soap was ever used here as a surfactant.)
Why bother? What can archaeology tell us here? Even although it was made in 1995 and went out of use within two decades, there are already few memories and images associated with it, and it will soon fall from oral tradition. Archaeology combined with ethnography should be applied to this site before it is too late – at some point places, regardless of how old they are, might as well be prehistoric. Otherwise, when archaeologists rediscover this site in 700 years time, they really will be starting from scratch when it comes to making sense of this diamond geyser.
NB If such a project has already been done by archaeologists at Reykjavik University, my apologies!