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.

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On landscape and law

Many of the Icelandic Sagas begin with the same historical reference, the unification of Norway under one king, Harald “Fair-hair”. The Sagas describe how some Norwegians, threatened by this consolidation of power fled to Iceland, where during the Settlement Age a commonwealth government was established.

During the Settlement and Saga Age there were no towns or villages in Iceland and even today, some towns are comprised of a mere petrol station. Settlement was dispersed throughout the fertile valleys and some people would have to travel over a day to visit friends and neighbors.

Despite this geographic dispersion, the Icelanders developed a cohesive set of laws, which were presided over by “elected” Chieftains that formed the Law Council at the local and national assemblies called things. In Norway, the practice of local open-air assemblies already existed, but in Iceland, the lack of a formal hierarchy controlled by a king allowed Icelanders to create their own national identity.

Meaning the “meeting plains”, Thingvellir is the site of the ancient national Parliament of Iceland. Established in 930 in the west where many settlements were concentrated, farmers from the east, such as Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, had to travel as long as 17 days arrive by horseback, as described in his saga.

The Lögberg at Thingvellir. Digital snapshot by Jessica Auer.

It is no wonder that this site was chosen as it is a very distinctive landmark. Geologically, this is also the where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates diverge. A Large rock outcrop known as the Lögberg (lawrock), provided a platform for the Law Speaker to recite the laws from memory. The cliffs formed a natural amphitheater projecting the voices of speakers to a large audience. The plains below offered an ideal location to camp for the duration of the annual meeting.

The Almannagjá rift at Thingvellir. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Though law may seem like a lackluster topic to some, Viking Age farmers certainly knew how to make it interesting. This society lacked an efficient way of enforcing a verdict, so when legal action failed, the assembly could break into total violent chaos. Just imagine some sword, spear and axe wielding warriors bounding among these rocks.