Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Saga House

Where do writers get their ideas? Out of the blue. Here’s an example. From 1981 to 2002 I worked as a science writer at Penn State University. At the same time, I indulged my interest in medieval Iceland and its sagas by visiting the country every other year. Imagine my delight when a Penn State anthropology professor called one day to tell me about his research project in Iceland. It was the seed of my book The Far Traveler. Here, reprinted by permission, is my original report from January 2003 in the magazine Research/Penn State:

Around the year 1000, a woman named Gudrid sailed west from Greenland. She spent three winters in a land called Vinland, then sailed east to Iceland. Since the 1960s, archeologists have linked Gudrid’s home in the New World with the Viking ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
Now [in 2002] a team working in Iceland believe they’ve found the longhouse Gudrid lived in when she returned from America.
“That’s not what archeology is about,” says Paul Durrenberger, a Penn State anthropologist who was part of the team. “It’s not about finding somebody’s house.
“But,” he concedes, “we probably can name the people at some of these farms some of the time.”
The point of the project was to determine the power of an Icelandic chieftain. John Steinberg of UCLA [now at the University of Massachusetts-Boston] had studied bronze and iron-age chieftains in Denmark, trying to expand upon Timothy Earle’s findings with the Inca in Peru. Earle, who teaches at Northwestern, wrote the 1997 book, How Chiefs Come to Power: The Political Economy in Prehistory. In Iceland, Steinberg thought he might find out how chiefs lose power, how they are replaced by the centralized state, a process that Iceland’s sagas record as happening in 1262. Durrenberger was invited to join the project due to his 1992 book, The Dynamics of Medieval Iceland: Political Economy and Literature.
Using archeology to study a political system requires large-scale surveys of an area, not detailed excavation of one house. Yet these surveying techniques were developed in hot, dry climates where much of a culture’s record is visible on the land’s surface. “In Iceland, you can’t see anything on the surface,” Durrenberger notes.
The museum complex at Glaumbaer.
The Icelandic landscape is stark: black heaps of lava, high mountains streaked with snow, rivers blue with glacial till, hayfields green as jewels. The wind is never still. With no wood or building stone, the first settlers built houses of turf, like the sod homes of prairie pioneers. Some were lived in, patched and expanded, until the present age: The site of Gudrid’s farm is now a historical park, with a turf house open to tourists.
To see beneath the soil, Steinberg’s team used a remote sensing tool that measures electrical resistance. “It’s a tube 6 inches around and longer than 6 feet, quite heavy, that you carry on a strap on your shoulder,” Durrenberger explains. “The front end sends a signal down into the earth, and the back end picks it up. What you get, if you’re walking across the valley, is a series of squiggles. Brian Damiata, the geophysicist, puzzles over it, like somebody reading auguries in bird guts. If you stare at it long enough, you begin to see what he’s talking about. Turf walls do not convey electricity the way soil does.”
Combining this remote sensing tool with GPS (Global Positioning System) data, the team could map all the old houses in the valley, measure their sizes, and determine when they were occupied.
Iceland is good for dating such finds because of its history of volcanic eruptions. “You can date things by the tephra layers,” Durrenberger explains. “Coming down from the top, there’s a 1300 layer — black, gritty ash from an eruption in the year 1300. Then there’s soil, then the 1104 layer — very distinctive, shiny white. Then more soil, then the 1000 layer, a sort of grayish black tephra. Below that is the Landnam — the Settlement — a greenish black, gritty tephra.
A house dated before the Landnam layer had not been occupied long; Iceland had no native inhabitants before the Vikings arrived in 870. “So you should be able to see the shift from chieftain to state. It starts with longhouses, chieftain’s houses — they brought that idea on the boats with them. Then it moves to a dispersed pattern: a big house with a bunch of smaller houses around it, what Steinberg calls the Manor.” The Manor plan marks when the idea of property rights took hold in Iceland.
Once the walls were found and dated, the archeologists screened the dirt to find bones and plant remains, by which they could reconstruct the inhabitants’ diets and the climate. But it was the depth of the soil that told of a chieftain’s power: the mainstay of the economy was grass for raising sheep. “If you control that, you have a strong household.”
They were calculating the depth of soil in a hayfield when they found what might be Gudrid’s house.
The saga-age house was found in the flat hayfield
in front of the museum office.
They had dug holes to gauge the extent of the house when Gudmundur Olafsson, head of archeology at Iceland’s National Museum, visited and convinced the team to extend the excavation, uncovering a long wall with two smaller turf walls at right angles to it. Soon “it became quite clear,” Durrenberger says, what they had found.
“Here we have a longhouse with internal turf walls. Longhouses like this one are never found in Iceland, but they are at L’Anse aux Meadows. And we know this house was built later than that one. So how does this house connect to L’Anse aux Meadows?” He laughs. “The only thing to do now is to excavate further.”
Paul Durrenberger, Ph.D., is professor of anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 318 Carpenter Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-2694; This work was funded by the National Science Foundation.
John Steinberg’s Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey is still in progress. See their blog at
Steinberg (center) and crew (I'm the one in the Icelandic sweater).
In 2005 I joined Steinberg and Durrenberger as a volunteer, helping to uncover the tops of the walls of Gudrid’s house; you can read about that experience in The Far Traveler and in the series of posts I did for the Research/Penn State blog, "Secrets of Ancient Iceland." I've borrowed Rita Shepherd's photo (above) from that site.
Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! I just *have* to get there and see all this for myself!