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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Back to where it all began

I first visited L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland in 2007, when I had gone there to scout the location for another project. My first thought was “there’s not much to see here!” but still, I was captivated with the place. The subtle traces of this secluded cove had stirred my curiosity– enough so that I would eventually set out to re-trace the steps of the Viking explorers that discovered the New World.

Seven years later, I once again find myself at the Northern tip of Newfoundland. It is my fourth visit and this time I’m prepared to visually capture the subtle qualities that makes L’Anse aux Meadows such an elusive site.

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The archeological remains of turf longhouses form a semi-circle around the cove where Norse explorers had established a temporary settlement circa 1000.

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Interpretation at the site includes stone plaques that describe the presumed function of each turf building

Over a five-day period, I am shooting a video intended for gallery installation. Equipped with a 4k digital cinema camera, and accompanied by Terryll Loffler and Andreas Rutkauskas, we are filming the landscape and archeological remains, as well as people, in a style that can be described as video portraiture. The idea is to perform a visual excavation of the site.

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Using a high resolution cine-camera will support the feeling of “being there” for the gallery viewer.

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Filming from a boat to see how the Norse may have viewed the site when they first arrived ashore

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Capturing a video portrait of Dale, a Parks Canada interpreter.

In chatting with Parks Canada interpreter Clayton Colbourne, who grew up a few hundred meters from the archeological site and had played on those grassy mounds as a kid, I knew there was something to be said about the pull of this place. When I explained why I kept returning over the years, without being able to put into words what exactly drew me here over and over, Clayton shared his own perspective. “I’ve never felt the need to travel,” he said. “Everything I need is here.”

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The reconstructions of a longhouse and outbuilding are based on the floorplan of the mounds seen in the first photograph above. Scan from a 4×5 negative.

Special thanks to Parks Canada for their collaboration. “A New World” was filmed on location and with the permission of the Parks Canada Agency, at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site UNESCO World Heritage Site, Newfoundland and Labrador.

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.

Of groves and grave mounds

“Gotland was first discovered by a man called Thielvar. At this time Gotland was bewitched so that it sank by day and [only] surfaced at night. But that man brought fire to the land for the first time, and after that it never sank.” –  The Gotlandic Saga, 13th Century Gotland

Though Gotland is largely known for the extensive presence of medieval churches and cathedral ruins, the landscape is also peppered with the remains of pre-historic sites, presenting a complex layering of history. I came here looking for Viking-age sites, for which I thought I had developed a keen eye for, only to be deceived by these millennia-old stones, graves and hill forts.

Tjelvar’s grave is a ship-shaped stone setting found close the eastern coast of the island. I had seen stone settings like this in Denmark, which dated to the early Viking-age. Yet most of these ship-shaped graves in Gotland date back to the Bronze Age, over a thousand years before the Vikings. Despite the historic discrepancy, it is interesting how the Vikings resurrected the ancient practice, though it is certainly not aesthetically surprising.

Tjelvar’s Grave was probably not constructed in Tjelvar’s time, as it is said that he was the first man to set foot on Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Furthermore, the practice of imitating the past continues today. On the west coast of the island, I found another ship-shaped stone setting, only to be told by archeologist Dan Carlsson that it is a replica, constructed by an amateur within the last few years. Dan was kind enough to take me around the island and we discussed among many other ideas, the process of archeology and of reading the landscape.

This replica stone setting is about 1km away from an authentic bronze age setting at Gnisvärd in Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Besides the approximately 4-page Guta Saga (History of Gotland), there are no other sagas of Gotland, and since there are no Viking-age sagas to work from, archeologists can only look to the landscape to tell the story. Ironically, in Iceland where they have the sagas that point to specific sites, very few artifacts are found in the ground. In Gotland, the landscape contains a treasure-trove of artifacts. When archeologists dig in the right places, they are likely to find silver hoards and coins in addition to bones and housewares.

Some Viking-age coins in an exhibition case in the Bro Parish in Gotland. The coins were minted in Visby, Gotland and are stamped with the symbol W (for Wisby). Photo by Jessica Auer.

Of course, any amateur archeologists that dig for coins and other treasures in Gotland would be prosecuted. But I asked Dan if it was okay to walk over burial mounds and he said it was perfectly fine, even if I was to put my tripod on a grave. When Christianity arrived, the idea that walking over the dead became problematic, but before this there were traditions that involved walking over burial sites, especially those of your ancestors.

Archeologist Dan Carlsson and I ponder the form and contents of this bronze age cairn. Photo by Jessica Auer.

As a photographer, I cannot actually dig in the ground and search for truth, but the mere practice of reading the landscape allows me to create my own interpretation of this place.

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.

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.

Of islands and open sea

The open sea confronts us. It is ultimately the one place that we cannot dominate. We are as much at its mercy today, as we may have been during the time of the Vikings. But when we look out towards the sea, our imagination sparks fantastic questions. How far away is that horizon, is there anything past it and how can we go there?

The open sea taken from the high coastline of the Faroe Islands. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer

Islands are an oasis. They conserve nature and culture.  We can intimately explore them, but we must be prudent as they are fragile ecosystems. An island in the open sea is a sanctuary, but don’t be fooled by its protection. Trust me, I’ve been to the Faroe Islands, host to some of the worst weather in the world.

I waited five days for the rain and fog to clear before I could make my first successful photograph. On Mikanes. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

The Faroes were used during Viking times as a staging point between Norway and Iceland. Located approximately 650 kms from the coast of Norway and 700 kms from Iceland, these islands are still used today as a stopover on the Smyril ferry line from Denmark to Iceland.

Many Vikings did settle here. The lush green coasts and sublime beauty will give you a hint as to why. The smallest capital city in the world, Tórshavn is still home to a parliament that was established during the Viking Age. On the rocks of Tinganes (Parliament Jetty) I found a Viking Age carving in a rock – a compass rose.

A rainy day find. A sundial or compass rose carved into the rock and dated 1569. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

The hostile weather was barely of consequence to the Vikings, who knew how to navigate in these waters with their karves and knarrs, different types of ships built for travelling locally among islands and fjords or overseas.

The fjord on the left of this image is essentially a Viking highway. Taken from Streymoy in the Faroe Islands. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.