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 Therefore the sagas present historians with the difficulty of accepting them as historical documents.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.