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.

Eriksstadir 001

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.

Thingvellir rescan 001

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.

Grassy mounds

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

Tour group

Video Still from “The New World”, L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

 

 

 

 

 

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Encountering Igaliku

Today’s Igaliku, which was once Norse Gardar on Einarsfjord, was the next location on our itinerary. I say “our” as my partner Andreas and I met up with cinematographer Terryll Loffler on the boat from Qassiarsuk to Igaliku, to begin shooting the restoration of some stone structures at Gardar. Gardar was a very affluent farm during the Norse occupation and the Episcopal centre of Greenland, the place where the Bishop lived.

The 4 km walk from Ittileq to Igaliku was full of anticipation. We were excited to meet Georg Nyegaard and his team and the stroll along and old tractor trail known as the ‘King’s road’ was very pleasant. As we came over the crest of the hill, our first view of Igaliku was astonishingly pastoral and idyllic.

Shortly after settling in the house that became our home for the next week, we began shooting Georg, Jacob and Henrik as they began their survey and cutting the long grass around the ruins. Besides the presence of our two teams, we understood that these ruins were a very lively place within the spirited community of Igaliku. Tourists and locals regularly wander in and out of the ruin site and the children use the large stones and lintels as their playground. Before long, the kids were swarming us, curious about our cameras and sound equipment so Andreas and Terryll allowed them to assist with the video until we realized the impossibility of keeping them silent while recording.

Location shot

Terryll takes video footage of Henrik working on the straightening of a potentially hazardous lintel.

camera with kids

The children took turns looking at the images projected on the ground glass of the view camera

We have been working here for five days and have had the opportunity to witness two weddings and experience a slice of daily life in Igaliku during the summertime, where the children play freely throughout the long days and visitors like us are made to feel welcome by the local community.

kids at ruins

Children gather in the ancient playground

Greenlandic wedding

The customary wedding attire for Greenlandic weddings is simply gorgeous

From the homeland to new(found)land

The subject of westward exploration and colonization has interested me for as long as I have been working with landscape. In America, photography and the settlement of the West of have been long connected, as the medium was born during a time when documenting the landscape was of utmost significance.

One of my goals with this project is to retrace the steps of Norse explorers from their homeland to the New World, passing through Greenland and into Newfoundland and Labrador. The Viking homeland consists of the Scandinavian countries we know today as Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Typically, Viking explorers and merchants based in Sweden would travel east into Russia and down to Constantinople. As Norway faces west toward the open sea, these Vikings tended to travel west, towards England, Ireland, the Hebrides and Iceland. It is these lands to the north and west that Norse explorers are said to have colonized, settled, or even discovered (from a European perspective).

Map showing the westward voyages of Viking-age explorers. Islands such as the Shetlands, Orkneys, Faroes, Iceland and Greenland formed stepping-stones from which seafarers could travel. Map borrowed from an on-line source.

As a Canadian, I feel connected to their Westward travel routes as the Norse can be credited for being the first Europeans to discover and attempt settlement in the New World circa the year 1000, unlike previously documented history, which attributes that claim to Columbus in 1492. It is hard to believe that it was only in 1960, when a Viking-age cloak pin was unearthed at L’Anse aux Meadows that history was re-written.

More than a few circumstances made the discovery of the New World by the Norse a possibility. Combine the craftsmanship of Viking longships with political unrest in Norway, and a cultural resilience to the northern climate with a huge dose of chance, and voilà! Long story short, a Viking ship on-route to Greenland is blown off course and discovers new land.

The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.  For more on Viking ships, see the Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, Denmark. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Of course, I can’t take my journey along these routes too literally. First of all, I am travelling mostly by plane and car. When I did travel by boat from Greenland and down the coat of Labrador, I was overcome with seasickness, making the seafarer’s reality that much more vivid. I am also visiting areas of the Nordic landscape in parcels, and not necessarily from East to West. In fact, my story began in Newfoundland, when I produced the series titled Unmarked Sites.

“Most Easterly Point” from the series Unmarked Sites by Jessica Auer.

The Sagas: part documentary and part fiction

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.