Viking-age burial sites and pre-historic art

There is something magical about pre-historic sites. Perhaps it is the mystery behind these enigmatic locales, the collapsing of time one feels while visiting, or the atmospheric settings themselves. But something exciting and indefinable happens when you step into these time capsules, especially when you are all alone.

Lilla Bjärs cemetery in Gotland, Sweden. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer

There is no need to visit Stonehenge among a hoard of other tourists, or view the Nasca lines from a roaring aircraft. Just go to a Viking-age burial ground.

A favorite among my subjects, these sites are great for shooting with a large format camera. It is as though the grass and stones are simply waiting there for me.  They are one of the most patient subjects on earth.

Trullhausar cemetery in Gotland, Sweden. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

However I cannot help but consider my photographs as merely documentation of already existing artwork. Though these sites had a practical function, there was an art to sending off the dead. The Vikings practiced a variety of burial customs: burial mounds, ship burials, rock mounds, cremation rings, and standing or rune stones to commemorate those lost at sea.

A cremation ring at Lindholm Høje cemetery near Aalborg in Denmark. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

It is no wonder that prehistoric art has inspired many contemporary sculptors and land artists. Nevertheless, what does it mean to resurrect these monuments within a contemporary framework? I hope to delve into this question while reading Lucy Lippard’s book Overlay: Contemporary art and the Art of Prehistory. More on this at a later time.

The Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. An Earthwork created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970. I traveled there to make this photograph in 2004. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

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On female heroines

Many people have heard of Erik the Red and his son Leif the Lucky. Although these two men have been credited for establishing the Norse settlements of Greenland and Vinland, Gudrid Thorbjornardottir, also known as Gudrid the Far-Traveller, is the leading hero of the Vinland Sagas.

Perhaps the first European to give birth to a child in the New World, Gudrid may have also been the instigator of several journeys to explore Vinland, one that left her and her second husband floating about at sea for several months. And although some of Gudrid’s accomplishments may be legend more than history, it is very likely that she travelled more widely than any other woman during the Viking Age, from Iceland to the New World and back, and then on a pilgrimage along the eastern route to Rome. The life of this resilient and elusive lady is extremely well researched in the book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown.

A statue of Gudrid Thorbjornardottir with her son Snorri at Glaumbaer in the North of Iceland. Gudrid settled down in Glaumbaer after travelling to Vinland with husband Thorfinn Karlsefni. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Turf hut replicas at the living museum in Glaumbaer. Author Nancy Marie Brown assisted in the excavation of a viking-age farmhouse just meters from the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum grounds. Image scanned from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

In this book, Brown attempts to comprehend the meaning of the term skörungur used to describe Gudrid in the Sagas. Brown, not wanting to go much further than defining a skörungur as a woman of strong character, alludes to several other qualities these Saga Age women may embody; intelligence, independence and bravery.

Two more significant skörungur appear in another Saga, The Laxdaela Saga, a story that covers several generations of characters from the Dalir region in Iceland.

Most of the Dales were originally claimed by Aud The Deep Minded, who after being widowed by an Irish King , sailed via Norway to establish a new life during the settlement of Iceland. Bear in mind that a desolate 10th Century Iceland would not have normally been a great attraction for a Queen. Aud then divided and gave parts of her land to family, friends and freed slaves.

The main protagonist of the Laxdaela Saga is Gudrun Ósvifsdóttir, who like many saga characters, commits deeds that are as heinous as they are fascinating. After causing the deaths of two men who vied for her affection, she confesses to her son, “To him I was worst whom I loved the most.” She lived out the rest of her days as a nun in Helgafell.

View from the top of Helgafell facing east. A common belief is that those who climb to the top of this modestly-sized mountain will be granted three wishes, as long as they follow three simple instructions (which I managed to mess up!). Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

A stone marks the grave of Gudrun Ósvifsdóttir in the churchyard at Helgafell, Iceland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Although all of the Saga authors remain anonymous, historians speculate that the Laxdaela Saga was composed by a woman, due to its feminist perspective and cast of exceptional female characters. I have an affinity for these women who were leaders of their time. Even in the 21st Century, landscape photography remains a male-dominated occupation, so trodding the same ground as these characters has been very inspiring.

There are two other modern-day women worth mentioning in regards to these sagas. Let us not forget Stine Moe Ingstad, the Norwegian archeologist, who along with her husband discovered the remains of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows and subsequently carried out the initial excavation. Finally, there is Birgitta Wallace a Swedish-Canadian archeologist who led more recent excavations with Parks Canada. I had the pleasure of meeting Birgitta at the latest conference for the Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada.

 

From the homeland to new(found)land

The subject of westward exploration and colonization has interested me for as long as I have been working with landscape. In America, photography and the settlement of the West of have been long connected, as the medium was born during a time when documenting the landscape was of utmost significance.

One of my goals with this project is to retrace the steps of Norse explorers from their homeland to the New World, passing through Greenland and into Newfoundland and Labrador. The Viking homeland consists of the Scandinavian countries we know today as Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Typically, Viking explorers and merchants based in Sweden would travel east into Russia and down to Constantinople. As Norway faces west toward the open sea, these Vikings tended to travel west, towards England, Ireland, the Hebrides and Iceland. It is these lands to the north and west that Norse explorers are said to have colonized, settled, or even discovered (from a European perspective).

Map showing the westward voyages of Viking-age explorers. Islands such as the Shetlands, Orkneys, Faroes, Iceland and Greenland formed stepping-stones from which seafarers could travel. Map borrowed from an on-line source.

As a Canadian, I feel connected to their Westward travel routes as the Norse can be credited for being the first Europeans to discover and attempt settlement in the New World circa the year 1000, unlike previously documented history, which attributes that claim to Columbus in 1492. It is hard to believe that it was only in 1960, when a Viking-age cloak pin was unearthed at L’Anse aux Meadows that history was re-written.

More than a few circumstances made the discovery of the New World by the Norse a possibility. Combine the craftsmanship of Viking longships with political unrest in Norway, and a cultural resilience to the northern climate with a huge dose of chance, and voilà! Long story short, a Viking ship on-route to Greenland is blown off course and discovers new land.

The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.  For more on Viking ships, see the Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, Denmark. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Of course, I can’t take my journey along these routes too literally. First of all, I am travelling mostly by plane and car. When I did travel by boat from Greenland and down the coat of Labrador, I was overcome with seasickness, making the seafarer’s reality that much more vivid. I am also visiting areas of the Nordic landscape in parcels, and not necessarily from East to West. In fact, my story began in Newfoundland, when I produced the series titled Unmarked Sites.

“Most Easterly Point” from the series Unmarked Sites by Jessica Auer.

The Sagas: part documentary and part fiction

Written accounts of life during the Viking era are presented in a collection of literary works known as Sagas. The Icelandic or Family Sagas are the chronicles that recount the settlement of Iceland and the voyages that eventually lead to the chance discovery of North America by Europeans. These sagas, which were written in the 13th Century, were first conveyed orally and then transcribed approximately two hundred years after they took place.

The Icelandic word ‘saga’ means both ‘history’ and ‘story’ – hinting at the documentary nature of the people and events from these narratives. But they are also works of fiction that include the author’s own style, exaggerations and interpretations.

Regardless, the sagas do convey a remembered history. They have been crucial to understanding the social and political structure of Viking life, and have provided archeologists with the essential clues (and inspiration!) to begin their excavations, including the excavation of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada (by Anne Stein and Helge Ingstad.) Moreover, the sagas helped to establish Iceland’s identity as a nation, one that is inextricably linked with landscape.

Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Here are a few observations on the style of these stories in question. They are presented in an explicitly defined historical setting and sometimes provide an accurate geographical reference. The sagas are formulaic in language and structure. Written in a style that is stark, factual and vivid in detail, they present a coherent narrative. However, they are perplexing with their presentation of a timeline and often include descriptions of supernatural processes. Therefore the sagas present historians with the difficulty of accepting them as historical documents.

After all one must consider the subjectivity of their authorship.

Replica of a late Viking-age chapel. Experimental archeology uses replica construction as a form of educated guesswork, which demands a certain level of interpretation. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Since it’s inception, photography has been considered documentary evidence. Photographs situate people in certain places and at specific events. By examining the evolution of the medium, we are able to date photographs, understanding changes to topography and architecture and tracing trends in fashion, economy and social life. Stylistically, documentary photography clearly identifies its subject, is usually quite detailed, and often accompanied by a title or caption that provides additional information. Up until the digital age, photography has been accepted as one of the most accurate mediums to represent the world. Yet even before the digital revolution, one had to question the subjectivity of the photographer. If the sagas contain everything from misinterpretation to outright fiction, so do photographs. It’s a matter of subjective authorship.

It is the ambiguity between actual history and the way it is told that interests me most and with this in mind, I hope to create a project that blends the fascinating aspects of documentary photography with the poetic nature of personal work.

A stone carving that I stumbled upon in the Highlands of Iceland. Viking-age art perhaps? Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Hello there!

I’m creating this blog from my studio at The Banff Centre, Alberta where I am currently an artist in residence until late August. I have come here to put my research, ideas, photographs and writing together, which will evolve into a project inspired by pre-historic landscape, Viking-age exploration and Saga literature.

A year ago, in 2011, I travelled to Scandinavia on the W.B. Bruce European Fine Art Scholarship to study and photograph archeological sites and saga sites. I am interested in the Viking era because it was a time when history was loosely recorded, leaving enough clues to interpret the past, yet ambiguous enough to spark the imagination.

A picture stone in Gotland, Sweden. The image has worn away with the weather and time. Photo by Sara A. Tremblay.

On this blog, I will be posting photographs from my work in progress, thematic observations, short book reviews and excerpts from my travelogue.