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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