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 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

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.

greenland

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.

06_Gear

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.

On the idea of north

It is the last day of September and as I begin to travel back south, away from the Lofoten Islands and the Arctic Circle, I am scarcely conscious that I have indeed spent the last 8 days this far north. The temperature is balmy 8 º Celsius and has hovered around this point, day and night for almost the entire time I have been here. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the coast of Norway, even at 68º North, can barely be described as arctic. The leaves have turned yellow and orange but have not yet fallen and much of the grass remains a lush green. Despite the sublime setting, the islands and the rest of Nordland are hardly remote or inaccessible. I reached Lofoten by train and bus and will be leaving by boat and airplane. A nicely paved road connects the archipelago and extends to the very tip of Lofoten to a town simply named Å. After a few days I traded in my rental car for a bicycle, exploring the islands as a much slower pace.

When the largest Viking Age homestead was found in Lofoten in 1983, the archeological world was stunned, not only by the discovery of such a large home measuring 83 meters long, but by the fact that a politically and historically powerful household was being unearthed in the polar region. Like many other places in the northern world, Nordland had long been dismissed as a less important part of the country and so consequently this find gave new meaning to historical status of the area.

Borg seen from a distance. The Viking-age longhouse is located on a hilltop near the modern Borg church, overlooking a tranquil lake connected to the sea. Photo by Jessica Auer.

No one should be surprised that the landscape would have attracted a large and influential number of Vikings to the area. The deep fjords are the result of the past presence of enormous glaciers, which carved out the land that characterizes much of the North Atlantic. Of course the Vikings are not only linked to the north by their ability to travel throughout the fjords and across the sea but also their hearty nature and capacity to survive the cold winters in their turf-insulated houses.

A reconstruction of the longhouse has been built next to the museum in Borg. The turf siding is typical of most Viking-age steadings but the impressive wooden roof shingles are representative of Norwegian architecture, mostly seen on middle-age churches. Photo by Jessica Auer.

I mainly photographed the site at Borg where the large Viking Age homestead was excavated, as well as a presumed court site with the remains of several iron-age boathouses. However, most of the vestiges of the Viking age remain hidden under the ground and many grave fields are located further out on smaller remote islands. One has only read the landscape and make use of their imagination to figure out where these people once settled and traveled to. Archeologists and scholars believe that the Viking chieftain, who eventually abandoned his farm at Borg, moved west to Iceland, most likely to seek greater independence from the Kingdom of Norway. In my amateur opinion, I do not believe the ‘Lofotrs’ left to seek out better lands.

One of the more sublime-looking fjords in Lofoten, near the village of Reine. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Saved by a volcano

Here one moment. Gone the next. Rediscovered hundreds of years later. It happened to Stöng, a Viking Age farm, twice. The first time it came to pass like Vesuvius over Pompeii. In 1104, in the South-West of Iceland, Mount Heckla erupted and destroyed among many other farms, the one known as Stöng. Perhaps Gaukur Trandilsson, who lived there previous to it being buried in ash didn’t realize that the massive snowcapped mountain was a volcano.

We know about Gaukar and about Stöng, because their tale was preserved in writing. As with the other sagas, the story of Gaukar was passed down orally and then recorded long after Stöng was abandoned. Then once again, Stöng met a second fate, the destruction or loss of the manuscript of Gauker’s Saga, and along with it details of life and events at this farm.

Stöng, in the Pjórsárdalur valley in Iceland. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

However, the ash of a volcano managed to preserve the legacy that failed to survive in literature. Rediscovered in 1939, archeologists excavated the site and subsequently built a shelter to protect it from further exposure.

Unlike Pompeii in Italy, Stöng is not one of the county’s major tourist attractions, and while there is a resolve to conserve it, I felt the freedom to explore the site without being under the watchful eye of security. Located along a very rough dirt road, you need a high clearance vehicle to visit Stöng, making it a more private destination. The door was unlocked when I visited, and I  made sure to close it behind me, and leave my spare change in the unassuming jar – a small contribution to the maintenance of the site.

The main archeological site at Stöng reveals the floorplan of a very large hall. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

A few steps away from the shelter, one can find some open-air ruins as well. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

If you don’t have an SUV, you can visit Pjódveldisbæinn, a reconstruction of the Stöng farm, situated a few kilometers away on a much better road. I arrived after 5pm when the interior of the turf hut was closed to visitors.

Pjódveldisbæinn, a replica of the Saga Age farm at Stöng. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.