The archeological eye – an artist’s excavation of L’Anse aux Meadows

The following is an excerpt from my presentation at the AASSC (Association for the Advancement of  Scandinavian Studies in Canada) conference at Ottawa University on June 2nd, 2015.

In my attempt to re-trace the steps of the Viking explorers that discovered the New World, I’ve travelled from the island of Gotland in Sweden working my way north-westward through Iceland and Greenland, photographing archeological sites and saga sites throughout Scandinavia. I wanted to learn as much as possible through first hand experience and personal observations. And like all great histories, my research raised more questions than provide answers.

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Eriksstadir, Dalir, Iceland

In the Dales region of Iceland, where archeologists have excavated the presumed site of Erik the Red’s farmstead, the modestly sized floor plan of a turf hut marks the beginning of the Vinland Sagas. Standing here I thought to myself, had Erik the Red had not clashed with his neighbors precipitating his own exile, would Greenland have ever become a significant Norse settlement? Had the Vikings not colonized Greenland, would they have discovered Vinland? This line of questioning prompted a metaphysical approach. I studied the landscape– it’s properties, sense of space, the climate, and change over time. These observations progressed into more abstract ways of thinking as I noted the subjective qualities that these sites impressed upon me.

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Continental Rift, Thingvellir, Iceland

From my own imaginative perspective, I believed it was no coincidence that the Norse stumbled upon North America via Iceland and Greenland. The continental rift that divides North America from Europe cuts across Iceland – the very chasm that Iceland’s settlers chose to establish their open-air parliament. Could they have already sensed that they were living on the threshold of a whole new world?

During the summer of 2014, seven years after my first visit, I once again found myself at the Northern tip of Newfoundland. This time I was equipped with the knowledge gained from years of research and observation, as well as a 4k high definition video camera and a small camera crew, ready to perform what I call a sensory excavation of the elusive L’Anse aux Meadows.

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On site at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, Newfoundland and Labrador. Filmed with the permission of the Parks Canada Agency.

My preoccupation with archeology is not uncommon within the realm of photographic art. The areas where landscape and photography meet often recall notions of history, memory, identity and experience. Artist’s fascination with the prehistoric was made apparent with the rise of the conceptual and Land Art movement throughout the 60’s and 70’s but lately a focus on archeology within the field of contemporary art is on the rise. Proposing that a preoccupation with archeology was one of the dominant trends in contemporary art, a recent exhibition presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago titled “Way of the Shovel: Art as Archeology” presented works from some of today’s leading artists, reflecting their interests in history, archaeology and archival research. Largely composed of lens-based works (photography and video), the exhibition in someway refers the familiar TV network known as The History Channel. The artworks however, express a greater concern for remembering histories, challenging notions of truth and reflecting upon the process of excavating, rather than presenting any material as evidence, scientific or otherwise.

Jeff Wall Excavation

Jeff Wall: Fieldwork. Excavation of the floor of a dwelling in the former Sto:lo nation village, Greenwood Island, Hope, B.C., August, 2003, Anthony Graesch, Dept. of Anthropology, University of California at Los Angeles, working with Riley Lewis of the Sto:lo band, 2003. Transparency in lightbox, 219.5 x 283.5 cm

Perhaps this sense of curiosity and imagination was the driving force behind Helge Ingstad’s expeditions to find the place from the Sagas known as Vinland. A Norwegian explorer, Ingstad was not a professional archeologist or historian when he came upon the site at L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960. Following the intuitive approach of an explorer, Ingstad believed that the Norse would have chosen to build their settlement in a land where they would have felt at home, “where they might live according to the old pattern of Nordic culture.” Having already travelled to the Norse settlements in Greenland to observe the characteristics of the landscape and consider the living conditions of the inhabitants, Ingstad then travelled to America, beginning a Northward journey up the coast from Newport in Rhode Island. According to his writings, he intuited all the while that he would most likely find the traces he was looking for in Northern Newfoundland. During this expedition as with previous journeys, Ingstad took an anthropological approach, showing his appreciation for local knowledge, talking to people along the way and asking locals whether they had seen traces of old house-sites.

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Video Still from “The New World”, L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

In one of his anecdotes, he tells that upon arriving in Newfoundland, he felt as though his curious questions troubled some of the hardworking residents who found his inquiries about old traces to be somewhat disconcerting seeing that he was “spending time looking for traces of people who lived a thousand years ago instead of doing useful work.” I must add here that I have often felt the same type of apprehension from some people when I tell them about my own research as an artist.

When Ingstad’s investigations finally brought him to L’Anse aux Meadows, his perpetual question regarding the remains of old house-sites was finally answered by a local chieftain of sorts by the name of George Decker. Once Decker brought Ingstad over to the grassy mounds overlooking Épaves bay, Ingstad was struck with a sense of recognition, despite never having been there before. About this experience he wrote:

“There was so much at L’anse aux Meadows that reminded me of what I had seen of the surroundings of the Norse farms in Greenland: the green fields, the rippling stream, the open country, the view of the sea, and perhaps something else that was not so easy to fathom. Here the people from the Arctic island would have felt at home.”

From this passage, I would like to draw attention to “that something else that was not so easy to fathom.” While the ambiguousness of this statement may irritate those who are scientifically minded, I myself feel an affinity towards Ingstad’s use of intuition as it echoes the very sensation I experienced while visiting L’Anse aux Meadows as well as many other Norse Sites. And perhaps it is this very feeling that awakens the desire in all of us to understand where we come from and how we got here.

With this these landscape observations in mind in, I present a work-in-progress excerpt of my video project titled “The New World”.

VIEW EXCERPT ON VIMEO

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Video Still from “The New World”, L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

 

 

 

 

 

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Back to where it all began

I first visited L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland in 2007, when I had gone there to scout the location for another project. My first thought was “there’s not much to see here!” but still, I was captivated with the place. The subtle traces of this secluded cove had stirred my curiosity– enough so that I would eventually set out to re-trace the steps of the Viking explorers that discovered the New World.

Seven years later, I once again find myself at the Northern tip of Newfoundland. It is my fourth visit and this time I’m prepared to visually capture the subtle qualities that makes L’Anse aux Meadows such an elusive site.

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The archeological remains of turf longhouses form a semi-circle around the cove where Norse explorers had established a temporary settlement circa 1000.

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Interpretation at the site includes stone plaques that describe the presumed function of each turf building

Over a five-day period, I am shooting a video intended for gallery installation. Equipped with a 4k digital cinema camera, and accompanied by Terryll Loffler and Andreas Rutkauskas, we are filming the landscape and archeological remains, as well as people, in a style that can be described as video portraiture. The idea is to perform a visual excavation of the site.

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Using a high resolution cine-camera will support the feeling of “being there” for the gallery viewer.

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Filming from a boat to see how the Norse may have viewed the site when they first arrived ashore

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Capturing a video portrait of Dale, a Parks Canada interpreter.

In chatting with Parks Canada interpreter Clayton Colbourne, who grew up a few hundred meters from the archeological site and had played on those grassy mounds as a kid, I knew there was something to be said about the pull of this place. When I explained why I kept returning over the years, without being able to put into words what exactly drew me here over and over, Clayton shared his own perspective. “I’ve never felt the need to travel,” he said. “Everything I need is here.”

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The reconstructions of a longhouse and outbuilding are based on the floorplan of the mounds seen in the first photograph above. Scan from a 4×5 negative.

Special thanks to Parks Canada for their collaboration. “A New World” was filmed on location and with the permission of the Parks Canada Agency, at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site UNESCO World Heritage Site, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Encountering Igaliku

Today’s Igaliku, which was once Norse Gardar on Einarsfjord, was the next location on our itinerary. I say “our” as my partner Andreas and I met up with cinematographer Terryll Loffler on the boat from Qassiarsuk to Igaliku, to begin shooting the restoration of some stone structures at Gardar. Gardar was a very affluent farm during the Norse occupation and the Episcopal centre of Greenland, the place where the Bishop lived.

The 4 km walk from Ittileq to Igaliku was full of anticipation. We were excited to meet Georg Nyegaard and his team and the stroll along and old tractor trail known as the ‘King’s road’ was very pleasant. As we came over the crest of the hill, our first view of Igaliku was astonishingly pastoral and idyllic.

Shortly after settling in the house that became our home for the next week, we began shooting Georg, Jacob and Henrik as they began their survey and cutting the long grass around the ruins. Besides the presence of our two teams, we understood that these ruins were a very lively place within the spirited community of Igaliku. Tourists and locals regularly wander in and out of the ruin site and the children use the large stones and lintels as their playground. Before long, the kids were swarming us, curious about our cameras and sound equipment so Andreas and Terryll allowed them to assist with the video until we realized the impossibility of keeping them silent while recording.

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Terryll takes video footage of Henrik working on the straightening of a potentially hazardous lintel.

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The children took turns looking at the images projected on the ground glass of the view camera

We have been working here for five days and have had the opportunity to witness two weddings and experience a slice of daily life in Igaliku during the summertime, where the children play freely throughout the long days and visitors like us are made to feel welcome by the local community.

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Children gather in the ancient playground

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The customary wedding attire for Greenlandic weddings is simply gorgeous

On Eriksfjord

When the Norse disappeared from Greenland in the 15th century, the only traces of their 400-year occupation were the ruins of their farms and settlements throughout the numerous fjords of southwest Greenland. The most legendary of these fjords, was settled by Erik the Red – Greenland’s first colonizer. For centuries after the Norse vanished their lands lay mostly untouched until another wave of colonization and settlement returned to these remote farms. As the memory of the Norse faded so did their place names – Eriksfjord became Tunulliarfik, and Erik’s farm at Brattahlid was resettled as Qassiarsuk.

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The ruins of Brattahlid can be seen in the foreground of modern Qassiarsuk

I flew into Narsarsuaq, a former U.S. military airstrip called Bluie West One, which also breathes a new life as a commercial airport and operates daily in summer. It welcomes researchers and adventurers to South Greenland from around the world. Amazingly, the airport is only 5 kilometers across the fjord from Qassiarsuk (Brattahlid), making this significant Viking Age site relatively simple to visit. Before heading across the fjord I spent a couple of days in Narsarsuaq, taking the opportunity to hike to the largest non-polar ice cap in the world. While staying at the hostel I met other groups of researchers ranging from glaciologists to peregrine falcon specialists. So far it seemed that I was the only one in search of Norse sites.

Crossing Eriksfjord in a small boat took merely 10 minutes. In the perfectly bright overcast sky, I set out to begin photographing the ruins and the reconstruction of Thjodhild’s church, the first Christian chapel in Greenland, built at the time of the Norse conversion to the ‘new’ faith. It was at the replica site that I met Lars, the keeper of the keys for the reconstructed Brattahlid buildings. Lars is a typical local – he was born in Qassiarsuk and lives in the yellow house closest to the ruins.

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This replica of the chapel at Brattahlid had also been reconstructed in Iceland

Spending five days in Qassiarsuk afforded the time for hiking to ruin sites up in the fells (mountains) and on iceberg laden Tasiusak fjord.  Although these piles of historic stones stand impressively against the sublime Greenlandic landscape, I was more captivated by the juxtaposition of the ancient and modern architecture of Qassiarsuk.

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The viking explorer surveys these ruins on icy Tasiusak fjord

Revisiting Snæfellsness

I arrived in Iceland almost a week ago, eager to revisit some of the sites at Snæfellsness, a location that was especially significant during saga times. The Eyrbyggja Saga takes place here. The story begins with the settlement of the first chieftain and chronicles events that take place around the Eyr over a few generations. Why I am particularly interested in this Saga is because it is centered on a place, and not a particular character like the more popular heroic sagas. When visiting Snæfellsness, one can engage with the landscape of sagas by walking up hallowed mountains, meandering through lava fields and visiting the farmsteads of the original settlers.

I had been here two years ago when the wind and rain were dreadful enough to make it impossible to photograph with a 4”x5” view camera. This time around the weather was fair so I made my way directly to Laugarbrekka, the birthplace of Gudrid Thorbjornardottir, the heroine of the Vinland Sagas discussed in an earlier post. Located in the shadow of Snæfellsjökull, a extraordinary volcanic glacier, Laugarbrekka is steeped in mythology. Gudrid is not the only hero from the area as she lived right next door to Bárdur, the half-man, half-troll guardian of Snæfells.

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A monument of Gudrid and her son Snorri, who was born in Vinland, marks the farm at Laugarbrekka

Crossing over to the north side of the peninsula, I went to revisit the Beserkjahraun, the Berserker’s lava field also mentioned in an earlier post. Of course by the time it took to drive there, the weather had turned for the worse. Unable to photograph in the pouring rain, I explored the lava field looking for something I had missed last time, a path still visible from when saga character Killer-Styr had challenged the Berserkers to build a trail and stone fence to both link and divide the neighboring farm. After consulting with the locals and doing some scouting, I found the path and waited overnight with the hope of shooting the next day. The evening was a great opportunity to re-read the Eyrbyggja Saga on site.

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A great find: the stone wall that divides Hraun (now abandoned)  from Bjorn’s Haven (a still vibrant farmstead)

Thankfully the downpour turned into a drizzle, and in the bright overcast light, the lava field took on a dramatic look. After photographing the Berserkjagata, I did the short hike up to the ruins of a chapel at Helgafell (holy mountain) perhaps the most predominant site of the Eyrbyggja Saga. It was at the assembly near Helgafell where Erik the Red was exiled and subsequently made his journey to settle in Greenland – the next destination on my itinerary.

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Using a plastic bag to keep the rain off of the camera on Helgafell

On preparing for a voyage

One cultural aspect that defined the Viking Age was a predilection for traveling. Whether their wanderlust stemmed from the tradition of raiding for prosperity, acquiring or trading resources, searching out places to settle, or simply to explore freely, each expedition required a basic amount of planning and preparation. Long journeys were mostly taken during the summer months, when the fjords were free of ice and the sea less treacherous. The winter before would be spent building ships, weaving sailcloth, and preparing food such as cheeses and skyr (type of yogurt that is still popular today.) I imagine some time was spent training for possible conflict.

In just a few days, I’ll be leaving for my next voyage to continue photographing and making videos. Here I will share some of the process that goes into planning a 6-week shooting expedition throughout the North Atlantic.

Research and itinerary: In my quest to photograph along the westward routes of Norse explorers, Greenland is the most challenging place to visit and my main priority for this year. Over a year ago, I began contacting archeologists that may be working in Greenland this summer and found Georg Nyegaard from the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk. He was pleased to have me join him and his team in South Greenland for a couple of weeks while they work on the restoration of a few Norse sites. Flying into Greenland is most commonly done via Reykjavik or Copenhagen, so I decided to go back to Iceland, where I could re-shoot some of the sites I’ve missed due to inclement weather. Afterward I will travel throughout South Norway to photograph the Børre mound cemetery and the Viking Age village of Kaupang. Finally, no trip to Scandinavia is complete for me without stopping in Gotland, where I’ll visit some friends at the Brucebo residency.

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My itinerary in South Greenland includes  Qassiarsuk (Brattahlid), Igaliku (Norse Gardar) and Hvalsey (Hvalsey Fjord Church).

Assembling a crew: Viking Age seafarers would often travel in groups with multiple ships. My travel experiences have been mostly solitary however this upcoming expedition will entail making a film, something rather new to me. For the Iceland and Greenland part of the trip, I will be accompanied by my partner The Virtual Hiker, as well as filmmaker Terryll Loffler.

Preparing for remoteness: Some of the places where we will be shooting in Greenland are in the backcountry, where ruins have been well preserved as villages have not been built over or around them. Part of the expedition entails camping in the wild, with no electricity to charge camera batteries, and nowhere to buy or refrigerate food. After considering solar chargers, which are heavy and expensive, our solution to the lack of power is to stock up on Canon 5D Mark II batteries (we have a dozen)! In terms of dry foods, I’ve spent the last week cooking and dehydrating chili and curry dishes for us to eat in Greenland.

Bringing the right gear: I wish I had a Viking ship to carry all the gear we need to bring. Aside from the camping gear and warm clothing, we have abundance of photo and video equipment: 2 tripods, 3 tripod heads, a dolly track, a 4”x5” view camera with holders and other accessories, a light meter, a medium format film camera, 2 Canon DSLR cameras, sound recorders and microphones, along with laptops and external hard drives. Too bad there isn’t a Norse god for technology.

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Just some of the photo equipment I will bring along

Getting in shape: In order to be able to carry all this gear and walk long distances, I keep in shape with a combination of running and Yoga. I also practice orienteering with the Ramblers club in Montreal, yet I still managed to get lost at Fjäle in Gotland in 2011.

Finally, there is only so much one can do to prepare for travel. Sometimes being over prepared takes all the adventure out of the journey. Another important aspect of Viking Age culture was their belief in Luck (yes, with a capital L.) Some people were more Lucky than others, and some journeys as well. I hope for a good dose of Luck on this one.

On everyday life

There are many myths and exaggerations about the Viking culture. Many of these myths are actually perpetuated through imagery, others through our own distorted perception. My first introduction to the Viking world came from my father’s favorite newspaper cartoon, Hägar the Horrible, a red-bearded, horned-helmet wearing Norwegian who often goes on raids in England and France. For one, Vikings did not wear horned helmets, just regular iron helmets, and certainly not as everyday apparel. But the cartoon is brilliant in other ways, highlighting Hägar’s complex family life and relationship with his wife Helga. When Hägar is not off raiding, he spends time contemplating his own shortcomings and helping his wife with the daily chores.

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Hagär the Horrible, created by American cartoonist Dik Browne, has appeared in print since 1973.

The very term viking is misleading and actually refers to an occupation. I use it mostly to position a time and place – the Viking Age in the North Atlantic for example. But not all people in the Viking Age were Vikings. To go a-viking refers to going on a voyage for the purpose of raiding or exploring. Very few people were actually Vikings, and if you were, you were probably also a farmer or a trader, the most common occupations of the time.

In winter, when the rivers and fjords were frozen and the sea was treacherous, it was the slowest time for Vikings. Winters in the North Atlantic were not only cold, but also dark. Time was spent simply surviving on the homestead, and thankfully for the Saga enthusiasts, storytelling around the fire.

Three months have gone by since the viking explorer posted on this site, which means that I was not off a-viking myself. So what does the viking explorer do when she is not exploring? I think that there is somewhat of a parallel between the myth of the Vikings and the myth of the artist/ photographer. Although my days are quite varied, I divide my time between teaching, working in the imaging lab, putting together exhibitions, volunteering at an art gallery, researching and planning upcoming projects, and writing numerous statements, proposals, and grant applications. And like Hägar, I also have a family (I’m married to a photographer and have a cat named Olafur) and household chores to do. Although the most exciting part of my occupation may be traveling and photographing, these experiences are far from every life. I am nevertheless very grateful for every chance I get to go exploring.

To see recent “exploration” work of my students at Concordia University, click here.

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Olafur the Cat wants to go traveling too.