Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Viking Woman in America

A lot of the fun of being a writer doesn’t make it into the final book. When I was researching The Far Traveler, for example, I visited LAnse-aux-Meadows, the village in northwestern Newfoundland where in the 1960s Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad discovered the only uncontested archaeological proof that Vikings visited America around the year 1000.

As Clayton Colbourne, a Parks Canada guide with a ginger beard and a happy tongue told me, a local farmer named George Decker took the Ingstads around to see what he called the Indian mounds.

We used to play on those mounds as kids, Colbourne said. There were eleven kids in my family. We had cows, horses, about ten sheep. My grandmother used to spin her own wool. My mother sent it out for spinning, but she knitted all night. Mittens for eleven kids, you know. There was no TV. Colbourne digressed a little further to describe the thrill of skating on black icesea ice just one night thickand how he still, at middle-age, will feed his lust for risk by running his snowmobile out onto the ice (in the local accent, the word comes out hice) before its safe. Sank it in the bog last year, as a matter of fact.

There are no cows or horses or sheep in this remote corner of Newfoundland now, Colbourne confirmed. No farms at all; only one place that sells a few turnips. Since the road went through to bring tourists to the Viking site, he and the rest of the forty or fifty year-round residents have relied on trucked-in food paid for by their Parks Canada jobs and the summertime profits from restaurants and guest houses. After it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, they even learned to pronounce their birthplace more properly: Lance-O-Meadows instead of Lancy Meadows.

George Decker, Colbourne said, resuming the subject at hand, used to make hay on those mounds. He staked it out—that means, he used it but he didnt own it. He picked that place because the grass was so tall.

The Spindle Whorl
The artifact found at LAnse-aux-Meadows that speaks most eloquently to me is a spindle whorl—proof that a Viking woman was on the expedition, for yarn-spinning was womens work in Viking culture. Birgitta Wallace, who began working with the Ingstads in the late 1960s and took charge of the dig in 1975, told me how it was found.

There was this young American boy, Tony Birdsley—hes now a lawyer. His father was in charge of a big factory in Corner Brook and was very active in the Early Sites organization. He got the Newfoundland premier interested in LAnse aux Meadows. So anyway, Tony was working for us and he was finding one stone after another.

“‘Birgitta, he would say, is this anything?
“‘No, Tony, its nothing.
“‘Is this anything?
“‘No, its nothing.
We did this over and over. Then he showed me the spindle whorl. I said, Anne Stine! Come and look! And we hopped and danced all around, Anne Stine in her yellow rubber pants and me in my white rubber pants, and Tony called over to Junius Bird”—a distinguished anthropologist from the American Museum of Natural History—“and said, What did I find? Theyre all going crazy.

It had been a horrible, miserable day, Birgitta said, cold and wet, one of those days when you work from teacup to teacup. I had brought a bottle of champagne in my backpack, and you can bet it was cracked open that night!

A Pile of Rubble
I had arranged a month before to meet Birgitta at LAnse-aux-Meadows during one of her periodic trips to consult with the staff and Viking reenactors there. We were to rendezvous at the visitors center, but as I toured the largest of the reconstructed houses—a spacious and sensible structure, with four rooms in a line—I came upon her in a far corner, deep in a discussion with Loretta Decker, the park supervisor, about changing the smoke holes in the roof to make them more historically accurate.

As we walked outside to see the actual ruins, Birgitta explained that she has spent many years reanalyzing Anne Stines work. Ive looked at all the photos, plans, and drawings—and I took notes at the time. I have gone back to the find bags and the earliest reports. They tend to be the most correct.

The walls the Ingstads mapped are now outlined by low grassy ridges interrupted by door openings, so that tourists can walk into and through the original houses without destroying the last traces of them. Birgitta darted from one wall to another, pointing with a sneakered foot at the mistakes: This room had a very clear door out to the west, toward the bog. No such entrance is cut in the ridge. That pit is not supposed to be here. And this is a wing—theres a wall over there. I see no sign of it. The house outlines had been made before Birgittas reanalysis.

She stopped beside the lower doorway of the largest house. Thats where the spindle whorl was found, she pointed outside, adding that the Viking woman had probably dropped her spindle somewhere inside the room, for the whorl had been found in a pile of recent rubble. Lorettas father and his father, George Decker, thought there was treasure in this mound, Birgitta said. When they were digging, they took the soil from inside the house, and threw it out there.

Clayton Colbourne at the park office had told me a more politically correct version of the same story: rather than treasure hunting, George and his son were digging a post hole for a fence. The Viking spindle whorl—true treasure, if only they had known it—was turned up, unnoticed, by their shovels and promptly reburied.

You can read more about the L’Anse Aux Meadows historical site at the website Canadian Mysteries,

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bilbo’s Ride through Iceland

The first time I flew to Iceland, in 1986, I felt immediately at home. It was a strange feeling. I’d grown up in deep oak woods—Iceland had few trees taller than my head. There was no ocean near my home in Pennsylvania, no black beach, no wailing wind or horizontal rain, no tumbling waterfalls, no lava fields, no gleaming glaciers, no jewel-green fields alive with herds of horses. But in Iceland that first time, I felt I’d been there before. The landscape seemed insistently familiar.

Friends told me of having had the same feeling. Had we lived there in a previous life, I wondered? Did we have Viking blood?

It puzzled me for years, until I read a brilliant scholarly book by Marjorie Burns called Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, published by the University of Toronto Press in 2005. In it Burns argues that the landscape of JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth (except for the very-English Shire) was essentially Icelandic.

I had “traveled” to Iceland numerous times before 1986, unknowingly, while reading and rereading Tolkien’s books. Through college Tolkien had been my favorite author (in spite of the scorn such a confession brought down on an English major at an American university in the late 1970s, where fantasy was derided as “escapist” and unworthy of study). From his biography, I knew Tolkien had begun reading Old Icelandic in his teens. He loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the Icelandic sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. He was drawn to the “Northernness” of the Eddas: To their depictions of dragons and dwarves, fair elves and werewolves, wandering wizards, and trolls that turned into stone. To their portrayal of men with a bitter courage who stood fast on the side of right and good even when there was no hope at all.

Reading the sagas and Eddas was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because the Icelandic books were more central to our language and our modern world. Egg, ugly, ill, smile, knife, fluke, fellow, husband, birth, death, take, mistake, lost, skulk, ransack, brag, and law, among many other common English words, all derived from Old Norse. In Tolkien’s lifetime (though not by him), Snorri Sturluson’s Edda was described as “the deep and ancient wellspring of Western culture.”

But I also knew that Tolkien had never visited Iceland.

Marjorie Burns solved the riddle by showing how deeply Tolkien had been influenced by his reading of William Morris’s Journals of Travel in Iceland, 1871-73.

The hobbit Bilbo Baggins’s ride to “the last homely house” of Rivendell, for example, matches one of William Morris’s excursions from the 1870s point-for-point. Both riders are fat, timid, tired, and missing the small comforts of home. Each sets out on a charming pony ride that turns dreary, wet, and miserable. The wind is cold and biting. The landscape is “doleful,” black, rocky, with “slashes of grass-green and moss-green,” Tolkien writes. Chasms open beneath their feet. Bogs and waterfalls abound. The pony stumbles, the baggage (mostly food) is lost, the fire refuses to light. The rider nods off on the last leg and is astonished: There was “no indication of this terrible gorge till one was quite on the edge of it,” Morris writes. Narrow, it lay between steep cliffs cut by a deep green river. “We rode down at right angles into the main gorge, with a stream thundering down it; we rode round the very verge of it amidst a cloud of spray from the waterfall.” Finally the gorge debouched into a green valley with—not the elves’ Rivendell—but a handsome Icelandic farmstead. “A sweet sight it was to us: we rode swiftly down,” Morris writes, and soon were happily “out of the wind and rain in the clean parlor, drinking coffee and brandy, and began to feel that we had feet and hands again.”

I’ve ridden that ride (though not the exact route: that’s a plan for the future). But the rain, the cold, the biting wind, the peckishness, the fatigue, the astonishment at the landscape, the deep gratitude for the Icelanders’ warm hospitality, the thrill of feeling at the end of the ride “that we had feet and hands again”—all these are very familiar. All these make Iceland feel like home.

This essay was adapted from my book-in-progress, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, due out in October from Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Iceland's Passion for Liberty

Thingvellir, where Iceland's medieval parliament met.

Where does our concept of liberty come from? Scholars in the 1700s traced it to medieval Iceland.

Iceland was an anomaly in the Middle Ages. It bowed to no king.

The first settlers, coming to this cold and windy island outpost in the late 800s, had disliked the very idea of a king. Many had fled Norway, having lost their lands in the bloody civil war by which Harald Fair-Hair unified the country, becoming the first king of all Norway in about 885. As king, Harald claimed every farm and forest for himself, reapportioning the land to those who would pay taxes. He gave the Norwegians three choices: swear oaths of loyalty, leave, or face the consequences, which included torture, maiming, and death. Some who left went first to the British Isles, only to be pestered by kings and their oaths and their taxes there too. They sailed to Iceland to be free of such nonsense.

Iceland was settled by Vikings in the 800s.

But after fifty years of anarchy the Icelanders deemed some form of government to be, in fact, necessary, and in 930 a cabal of wealthy men worked out a way to share power. They divided the island into four quarters: North, South, East, and West. In each quarter, three spring assemblies were to be held (four in the larger North Quarter) to discuss local matters and to solve disputes. Each spring assembly would be governed by three chieftains, for a total of thirty-nine. To these posts, they appointed themselves.

The thirty-nine chieftains of Iceland were, in theory, equals, but some grew more powerful than others, for this new system of government was organized, not geographically, but by alliances. Uninhabited when it was discovered in 870, Iceland was home to at least 10,000 people by 930. (By 1262, when Iceland lost its independence, there would be 50,000.) There were no towns on the island, and would not be until the eighteenth century. Instead, Icelanders lived on scattered farms around the periphery of the island, which has at its center a vast, uninhabitable wasteland of volcanoes and glaciers. Some farms were immense, supporting up to a hundred people; others were as small as one nuclear family. Every farmer who owned at least one cow or boat or fishing net for each one of his dependents had to ally himself with a chieftain, paying him taxes, and, if requested, accompanying him to assemblies or fighting in his battles. The farmer could choose which of the thirty-nine chieftains he wanted to support, and he could change his allegiance once a year. But generally only the richer farmers dared annoy the local chieftain by choosing a more distant one.

Usually it paid to support a chieftain who lived close by. He was nearer to hand if the farmer was robbed, or his hay-store ran out in a harsh winter, and travel wasn’t so onerous when the farmer was invited to a Yule feast or summoned for a raid. Yet two chieftains often lived within a day’s ride of each other. In that case, it paid to choose the one who was less easily bullied, for the support of a chieftain was the only protection a family had from a rival clan. Only a chieftain could bring a lawsuit to one of the assemblies, and only a chieftain could answer it.

Thingvellir on a summer day.

In addition to the spring assemblies held in each quarter of the country, once a year, on the tenth Thor’s Day of summer, in the great rift valley of Thingvellir beside its deep blue lake, Iceland’s thirty-nine chieftains and their wives and children and followers gathered for the Althing, the General Assembly of all Iceland. The Althing was a grand party. Thousands of people stayed for two weeks in tents and turf-walled booths on the banks of the Axe River, drinking ale, telling tales, taking part in horse fights and wrestling matches, races and dice games, making wedding plans or finalizing divorces, witnessing court cases, and wrangling over the law.

Disputes between Icelanders of any rank could be settled at the Althing, by appeal to Iceland’s laws. There were five law courts: one for each quarter plus an appeals court, each with thirty-six judges. The judges were chosen by the chieftains, each chieftain being allowed to nominate or to veto a certain number. Presiding was Iceland’s only elected official, the Lawspeaker; he recited one third of the law code at each Althing. The place where he stood, called the Law Rock, was a height of land that formed a natural amphitheatre. The chieftains gathered around the Law Rock and, after the recitation, the laws were debated, adjusted, and agreed upon for, as the sagas say, “With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste.”

Iceland’s medieval parliament was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world in the mid-1700s by Thomas Percy, bishop of Dromore and friend of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Percy translated a long work on the history and lore of the Norse written by Paul-Henri Mallet, the Swiss tutor to the Crown Prince of Denmark and later professor in Copenhagen. Mallet drew heavily from Snorri Sturluson’s Edda and the Poetic Edda, and from Snorri’s history of the Norwegian kings, Heimskringla. He amplified Snorri’s works with other Icelandic sagas and sources such as Tacitus, Saxo Grammaticus, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Adam of Bremen, and Saxon law codes. He writes, “It will appear pretty extraordinary to hear a historian of Denmark cite, for his authorities, the writers of Iceland, a country cut off, as it were, from the rest of the world, and lying almost under the northern pole.” But Iceland’s medieval skalds, he declares, were “famous throughout the north for their songs.”

The white flagpole marks the Law Rock.

In Percy’s translation of Mallet, called Northern Antiquities, English readers found a world not only savage and sublime, but imbued with a passion for liberty. The religion of the Vikings was as “simple and martial as themselves,” Percy wrote. Their form of government was “dictated by good sense and liberty,” while their “restless unconquered spirit,” was “apt to take fire at the very mention of subjection and constraint.”

Or as Joseph Sterling wrote, prefacing his 1782 Icelandic Odes: “To them we are indebted for laying the foundation of that liberty which we now enjoy.”

This essay is excerpted from my book-in-progress, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, due out from Palgrave Macmillan in October 2012. If you'd like me to visit your area on my book tour, please let me know.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.