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.


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.


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.

Of thunder and lightning

As I lay flat on my back, bundled in my down sleeping bag, I passed the time by counting the number of seconds between flashes of lightning and the pounding of thunder. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand… the ground beneath me shook. This was last week while I was on a backpacking trip in Canada’s rocky mountains. I was on retreat from computers, art, and inevitably Vikings, yet nature found a way of putting Norse mythology back in my mind.

It was a gorgeous evening when we hiked into Og Lake. We were in the alpine zone, too high in altitude for tall trees and so the views were open in all directions. The surface of the lake shimmered like a jewel within the wilderness landscape. As I hiked down from the Valley of the Rocks with my husband, we had the intuition to make camp rather quickly; set up the tent, pump fresh water, cook up dinner. There was only one other couple there. Our new friends were optimistic that the dark but colourful clouds were moving away from our camp.

Thunderheads approach our camp at Og Lake near Mount Assiniboine. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Minutes later, hale descended from the heavens. We took shelter in our tent. A lightning storm ensued and I was uncomfortably aware that our tent was the tallest structure around. Though the hale passed, the lightning did not. The wind had completely died and the storm clouds remained trapped above the lake. I lay there with my eyes wide open for almost three hours; the darkness was completely black in between bursts of lightning. I honestly believed that this could be it — the end. Overwhelmed by helplessness, I called upon the deity I felt was the most appropriate at the time: Thor, ruler of the sky and of thunder and lightning.

In the Old Norse polytheistic belief system, the Vikings had of course, their own God of Thunder. Thor, who wields the magical hammer nicknamed Mjöllnir is generally responsible for the protection of mankind. In the Prose Edda, Thor is referred to as:

“…the son of Odin and Earth, the father of Magni, Modi and Thrud, the husband of Sif, the stepfather of Ull, the wielder or possessor of the hammer Mjöllnir, of the mighty girdle and of the hall Bilskirnir, the defender of Asgard and Midgard, the foe and killer of giants and troll women…”

And although the name Thor is derived from the word thunder, most stories and illustrations that feature Thor with lightning bolts are from popular culture, a further mythological-ized version of the god. The Prose Edda, complied by historian Snorri Sturlusson  (1179-1241), is the most renowned work of Scandinavian literature. The Edda recounts the Norse creation story among other great tales, in which Thor and the other gods are humanized.

Returning to that night at Og Lake, obviously my plea to Thor worked. I am still alive to tell the story. Despite my down-to-earth way of thinking, my own fear prompted a calling for divine assistance. After all, it was a Thursday (Thor’s Day.)

Torsburg (Thor’s fortress) in Gotland. Initially assumed to be predate the Viking age by hundreds of years, archeologists have recently dated the upper part of the wall to the 9th Century. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.