As I’ve mentioned before, Iceland is a small place and much of it is mountain desert–think the Rockies without the pines. In what passes for arable land, the present lives on top of and alongside the past. Dig the foundation for a new building and the odds are that you will find the foundation of an old building, and possibly an even older building under that. Not every historical site or archaeological dig can be turned into a museum. With the exception of Thingvellir the idea of a Gettysburg-style expanse of land is impossible. Even historical markers as we know them are few and far between.
It makes for a different type of history-nerd holiday. For much of this trip we saw the places where things happened but not remains or even visual representations of the events. The site of an inland harbor, and where it stood in relation to a major estate, but no reconstruction of Viking ships in harbor.* The place where a famous battle took place, but no maps of troop movements. Instead of events, we’ve concentrated on the relationship between the nature of the land, its resources, a way of life, and the way it appeared in the Icelandic sagas. Why hot springs were important. Why men didn’t fight on horseback. Why the “long fire” in a chieftain’s feasting hall was a bed of coals rather than a roaring blaze. Quite frankly, if it weren’t for our guide, Nancy Marie Brown,–writer, Viking expert, and fan of all things Icelandic– we wouldn’t have a clue what we were looking at or why it mattered. **
All of which is a long way of saying that I was very pleased to get to the Settlement Center at Borgarnes. I was ready for a museum. The Settlement Center is a small museum with two well-crafted exhibits. One covers the discovery and settlement of Iceland by Vikings from Norway, a period several centuries before the focus of our tour. The second tells the story of one of the most colorful of the Icelandic sagas, the Egils Saga: complete with a gloomy poet-beserker hero, battles, love, betrayal, a wicked sorceress/queen,*** and hidden treasure.
At first I was disappointed to learn that both exhibits required an audio tour, a technology with which I have a long-standing hate-hate relationship. In fact, the audio and physical exhibits worked together beautifully, like 3-dimensional picture books for adults.
Here are some of the details that caught my imagination:
- Early settlers threw carved high columns, intended to be part of their main hall, overboard and settled where they came to shore. This seems like a large-scale version of divination by tossing rune sticks.
- Problematic relationships with the kings of Norway were a constant theme throughout the Viking period.
- A woman could claim as much land as she could drive a cart around in a day.
While we were in Borgarnes we stopped at a second museum that proved to be an unexpected delight. The exhibit Children Throughout a Century is a photographic essay of Icelandic children in the twentieth century, punctuated with physical artifacts. This is the sort of exhibit that can go sadly wrong–and often does. The Borganes Museum clearly has a top-flight curator in charge. Instead of a small collection of local photographs and worn-out toys, dutifully identified with name and place, Children Throughout a Century was a full room of uncaptioned photographs, displayed floor to ceiling in a way that showed changes from decade to decade without diminishing the impact of individual photographs. Artifacts–some directly related to childhood, others emblematic of a way of life–were displayed in shadow boxes hidden behind related photographs on hinged doors. From an American perspective it was fascinating to compare and contrast Icelandic images with those I carry in my head. (And a bit of a shock to realize how dated the images from the years of my childhood looked.) No Viking connection, but definitely worth seeing if you have a chance.
*I’ve written about the design of Viking ships a number of times (though not here on the Margins), but now I understand the importance of that design with my gut and not just my head. They were swift, narrow-hulled ships with true keels and shallow drafts that could sail long distances in the open sea using either oars or sails. Unlike the wider, deeper-hulled ships of western Europe, they could land men upstream from the mouth of a river or on the beach of a small island. The symmetry of the design, with an identical bow and stern and the mast at the exact center, meant the ship could go in either direction. Being able to withdraw from shore without turning around meant the ships could leave as quickly as they landed, increasing the blitzkrieg feel of a Viking raid.
**The dates for next year’s tour are already posted. Sign up now.
***Who learned her magic from the Lapps in Finland–a throwaway line that made me want to know more.
A LAGNIAPPE: For those of you who don’t see a history-nerd trip to Iceland in your immediate future (or even those of you who do), I strongly recommend the video series Journey’s End as a introduction to the link between the sagas and history.