Journey’s end

As I settle in on my Icelandair flight from Reykjavik on my final journey home, I am happily surprised to discover a new series on the in-flight entertainment system (watching tv while flying is peculiar pleasure for me.) It wouldn’t take much for a Saga enthusiast like me to get excited by the very notion of such a documentary series but the lively intro to Ferðalok (or Journey’s End in English) provides a compelling contrast to most other historical documentaries. The gripping musical score immediately transported me into a world of stunning Icelandic characters captured with hip cinematography, where sweeping views of the Saga landscapes provide the setting for reenactments of events we may have read and imagined but have never witnessed with such vividness.

Produced in Iceland, Ferðalok endeavors to compare the literal events of the Sagas with contemporary archeological research and interpretation. By exploring how the Sagas can be directly linked with a tangible environment, this new mini-series will undoubtedly reawaken an interest in these old heroic stories, which have defined the culture of a nation where almost all of the citizens can retrace their family lineage back to the first settlers.

Besides being fashionable and entertaining, Ferðalok is smart. Combining English and Icelandic narration, the program is written and hosted by the young and stylish lady archeologist Vala Gardarsdottir, who guides the spectator to various significant Saga sites and discusses the course of events and their analysis with other professionals in the field. The on site archeological explorations are assembled with reenactment scenes of the Sagas and studio interviews with even more experts who provide a vast spectrum of scientific, literary and sociological interpretation.

As of yet, six episodes have been released. Without going into too much detail about each one, I will disclose what is predicable: half of the episodes deal with the Islanders’ favourite – Njal’s Saga. Granted this story has been deemed to be the most sophisticated in terms of its narrative complexity and style of writing, I hope that a continuation of the series will move on to look at events from the less popular Sagas. I am however very pleased that episode 3 was dedicated to examining the persona of Auð the Deep Minded, the most prominent woman of the settlement age. Auð was not only the leader of one of the most successful settlement expeditions, but she is mostly known as a historical figure rather than a Saga character – her character positions the series smack in the middle of a world which oscillates between history and mythology, archeology and storytelling.

Although it is not necessary to read the sagas before viewing Ferðalok, I highly recommend it to feel like a participant in unraveling these stories.

View the trailer here but note that the musical score of the trailer is outdated and differs from that of the show, which was a change for the better.

Hildarendi 001

I photographed this Njal’s Saga site in 2011 – the infamous hillside of which Gunnar of Hlidarendi says “lovely is the hillside – never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.” Episode 2 of Ferðalok features this consequential scene that leads to the demise of a beloved Saga hero.

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The final journey

As I have noted before, the heathen people of the Viking Age had a number of burial practices, from assembling ship-shaped cremation rings to building elaborate burial cairns, yet the most beautiful and enigmatic of their graves are usually concealed beneath the ground, graves in which men or women have been sent on their final journey in Viking ships. If someone were distinguished enough, their burial ship would also contain numerous gifts to bring with them to the afterlife, such as weapons, jewelry, horses and perhaps even slaves.

After shooting in Greenland, I have traveled to Vestfold, Norway, where the most impressive burial ships have been excavated. I first learned about these at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo but have returned to visit the sites from which these large oak timbered ships and their artifacts have been unearthed. One unique example is the Oseberghaugen, the mound in which the remains of two Viking age women were found, along with the skeletons of twelve horses, a large wagon and an abundance of other valuables. One can only imagine the process of filling a 21 meter-long ship with these bodies and treasures, burying it in the ground and filling it over with earth.

Mounds

The Oseberg mound (left) and the Gokstad mound (right). The ship buried in the Gokstad mound measured 23 meters long and 5 meters wide.

Once the Viking Age had ended (after the mass conversion to Christianity) these burial practices were forgotten about and the mounds would simply appear to be random hills in the landscape, until 19th century farmers curiously investigated by digging into them a little and contacting the authorities upon their astounding discoveries.

The presence of such large or extensive ship burials in Vestfold has astounded historians who are keen to link sites such at the Børre Mound Cemetery to the legendary Yngling dynasty of 9th Century Norway. Luckily, from my perspective, so many of the mounds remain unexcavated – their secrets protected with their precious contents.

Borre cairn and mound

The Børre Mound Cemetery is now a National Park where you can stroll around and explore seven exceptionally large mounds and some cairns.

Photographing these sites where there is not much left to see other than a perfectly mowed knoll set in the ‘middle of nowhere’ may seem a bit absurd, however the grave site called Bikjholberget at the Viking Age town of Kaupang provides inspiring visuals. In 1950, the excavation of a relatively small area revealed numerous small boat graves, most likely containing common people, in a wonderfully haphazard arrangement. Even so, at Kaupang and at any other of the mounds, one is left to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.

Kaupang compsite

The schematic on the left shows what the excavations at Kaupang revealed. The photo on the right features the small boat grave from the centre of the schematic.

Oseberg ship

A fortunate coincidence: while I was visiting Kaupang, a replica of the Oseberg Ship stopped in at the harbour after participating in a  Viking Ship ‘competition’ at Risør.

On leaving Greenland

400 years after colonizing a new world, the Norse settlers of Greenland disappeared. Departed, killed or vanished, a more precise theory varies with whom you talk with. Some believe that the colony, which had been dwindling for hundreds of years, could have collapsed due to climate change causing famine and that the remaining few faced isolation and left or died. What we do know is that after 1450, there were no concrete traces of Norse people in Greenland.

Centuries later, the Kingdom of Denmark sent emissaries to Greenland to assert sovereignty over the great arctic island, only to discover an exclusively Inuit population, and well, that second Scandinavian colonization is… History. Today Greenland is still making history. Known nationally as Kalaallit Nunaat, the country is in the last stages of regaining its independence.

Most people don’t realize it, but Greenland is part of North America. Though certainly remote, it is at the crossroads of the Old World and the New World, of East and West. This unique society is what makes Greenland’s culture as fascinating as its nature. After spending 20 (mostly cold) days in Greenland, I was looking forward to a good latté but extremely thankful to have taken part in historical research, met locals and travelers alike, and experienced this incredibly unique place.

Qaqortoq

Picturesque and modern Qaqortoq (formerly Julianehåb) is the largest town in South Greenland

Group pic

From left to right, Georg, Jacob, Andreas, Viking Explorer, Henrik and Terryll. The artists and archeologists got along splendidly.

Christmas beer

We celebrated our arrival and departure from the Hvalsey site with “Christmas” beers

On reconstruction and restoration

While most of the vestiges of the Viking Age lie in ruins or have been buried underground, a few examples of well preserved structures from the Norse occupation of Greenland still remain standing. The best example is the Hvalsey church, a stone structure complete with all four original walls that include openings for three entrances and two windows. The site of this iconic church, which rests on a sloping hillside pinched between a frighteningly steep mountainside and the stunning fjord, became our camp for five days while we photographed and filmed the restoration of the nearby hall.

Hvalsey light

A document from Iceland that tells of a wedding that took place here in 1408 is the last record of Norse presence in Greenland.

The north wall of the problematic structure had collapsed decades ago, leaving archeologists Georg and Henrik along with Jacob the restoration expert with the task of rebuilding the structure by referring to early 20th century photographs and using the original massive stones which lay strewn throughout the interior of the building. Back in Igaliku, the team has used simple hand tools and straps for the restoration of the unstable stone and lintel passageways, however this job was going to require a little more muscle.

photo for reconstruction

A photo from 1935 shows the state of the north wall before it collapsed

As we cruised towards the site in a passenger boat, another boat containing a small excavator glided alongside. The excavator would become an extension of Jacob who used the mechanical arm to lift massive stones, while Henrik directed his incredibly slights movements. Witnessing the process of replacing the stones was like slow motion; it would seem as though nothing was happening until the magical moment when a stone suddenly snapped into position. I asked Jacob how the Norse quarried and moved these stones with no machinery. It wasn’t more of a problem for them than for us, “they just did it” he explained austerely, using technology that we have completely forgotten about.

Henrik and Jacob humbly admit that there are very few restoration experts working today – in fact these are the only two currently tasked with saving the Norse Greenland sites. When asked why we should bother reconstructing ruins that have been crumbling for over a thousand years, Henrik explains, “Every time a little stone or two falls, the collapse is continuing. It could take a century, but if we don’t try and stop it…” He trails off, partly because he can’t find the words to describe the loss and partly so that we can take a minute to look and appreciate what we still see today.

Hvalsey restoration_01

Henrik slowly guides this two-ton stone back into place

Hvasey restoration 2

Henrik and Jacob working on the collapsed wall