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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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Henrik slowly guides this two-ton stone back into place

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Henrik and Jacob working on the collapsed wall

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

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.

In the new world

The chance discovery of North America, or Vinland as the Vikings called it, is the fundamental inspiration for my artistic investigation. Yet I’ve been holding off on discussing the event in detail, taking the time to study the Viking world in Scandinavia before trying to understand the significance of Norse travels to a new world. But recent news in the archeological world prompts the urgency to respond to the recent discoveries. This past week, CBC television aired a documentary on the The Nature of Things hosted by the famous Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. The documentary titled ‘The Norse: An Arctic Mystery’ presents the research of Canadian archeologist Patricia Sutherland at a site called ‘Nanook’ on the south coast of Baffin Island. There, Sutherland has unearthed several artifacts that point to Norse origins, which leads her to believe that Baffin Island was a trading post between the Norse of Greenland and Scandinavia and the Dorset people of the Canadian Arctic, and potentially the first point of contact between the people of Europe and the Americas.

The suggestion that Norse explorers set foot on Baffin Island comes as no surprise. In the two sagas that describe the discovery of Vinland, The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga, references are made to places that the Viking voyagers explored. In one version of the events, a ship traveling across the North Atlantic to Greenland is blown off course and sights new land. Then subsequent expeditions to explore these lands are made by Leif Eriksson, son of the Greenland colonizer Erik the Red. As Leif travels from north to south along these uncharted coastlines, he gives names to these new lands; the northernmost he calls Helluland (stone-slab land), which is today commonly accepted as Baffin Island. The lands further south he calls Markland (forested land), probably Labrador, and finally Vinland – its location and extent are still disputed.

The Vinland map, which was believed to be from the 15th Century but now considered a forgery, shows “North America” at the top left. Perhaps the three peninsulas that make up the New World constitute Helluland, Markland or Vinland. We may never be able to come to understand the knowledge of the map-maker which is part of the beauty of this mystery. Image borrowed from the Internet.

In the CBC documentary, Suzuki opens up by stating, “The history books say that first contact between Europeans and native North Americans happened with Christopher Columbus in 1492, but what if they are wrong?” But David, let us not forget that in 1960, archeologists confirmed the grassy mounds at L’Anse aux Meadows to be the remains of a Norse settlement. Although Sutherland’s discoveries on Baffin Island may prove that first contact happened earlier than Columbus, we already know that Vikings were the first Europeans to discover North America around the year 1000. They most likely made contact with the native inhabitants but the encounters described in the sagas have not been confirmed by archeology.

Despite the science of archeology, I have always maintained that a certain amount of interpretation and imagination make up part of the practice. Could it be possible then, that Sutherland, with all of her enthusiasm, can actually will her theories to become true? As an artist, I personally find that fascinating.

But back to the story: in a scandalous turn of events, Sutherland was recently dismissed from her curatorial position at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The reason for her dismissal is not being disclosed but reader comments on the CBC website point to politics on Arctic sovereignty. This connection would be senseless and sad indeed, at a time when we should be celebrating the cultural links between nations of the north rather than taking nationalist and corporate points of view from further south. Yet keep in mind, like all the other mysteries, my perspective is only based on speculation.

In September of last year, as the winner of a short-story writing contest, I joined an Adventure Canada expedition that sailed from the west coast of Greenland across the Davis Straight and down the coast of Labrador. In this photo you can barely make out land on the horizon. This is Baffin Island but it was most likely the place the sagas described as Helluland. Scan from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.