Published September 11, 2012
John Steinberg greets me at the Varmahlíð bus stop with a firm handshake. “Welcome to Varm-uh-hlid, welcome to Skagafjorder,” he says, noting the vast open fjord valley. He’s been coming to Iceland every summer for more than twelve years, digging into Icelandic soil in Skagafjörður, but at some point he stopped trying to penetrate the firm, formidable surface of Icelandic pronunciation. He tells me it’s a running gag with his team. Even the local farmers of Skagafjörður with whom he has worked for the last twelve years have played along. “Some of them pronounce things the way I do when I’m talking to them,” he jokes.
We drive north from Varmahlíð, past the scores of farms that line Langholt ridge, which make up the survey region. John skips the pleasantries and goes straight into lecture mode. He names and dates each farm, pointing out the grass-covered mounds, visible remnants of their ancient occupants. As context and landscape fuse, the whole region transforms and takes on a new dimension. I begin to get a vague image of the area as it was a thousand years ago. This is, after all, the goal of John’s project, the Skagafjörður Archaeological Settlement Survey (SASS). Rather than focus on one site, John and a team of archaeologists and geophysicists have been conducting a broad survey of the Langholt region to see how Viking Age settlement varied across a relatively homogenous area.
LET’S TALK ABOUT TURF
Mid-lecture, John sees a more hands-on method to communicate exactly what his team have been doing and working with over the last twelve years. We arrive at Glaumbær, a complex of turf-covered buildings surrounded by a turf wall. Though the buildings presently at Glaumbær were constructed relatively recently, John tells me that similar buildings have existed more or less in the same place since about AD 1000. “I’m just gonna pull in here and talk about turf,” John says.
Turf is an ideal insulator—it’s light and it keeps heat in very well. The builders of these structures, just like the ancient settlers, start by using driftwood frames and panelling. They then cut turf from peat bogs, let them dry and then lay them in a specific pattern—the pattern used at Glaumbær, called ‘klömbruhnaus,’ makes a herringbone look.
We walk to the top of a mound next to the kitchen building. John explains that the actual level of the ground is more than a few metres down, at the level of the parking lot. This hill is a midden, an artificial mound made up entirely of garbage and ash. “Everything that these guys did is in here,” John explains. “What they throw out is who they are.”
But while loads of narrative lays hidden beneath the middens, SASS is focused on the broader parts of the settlement narrative—dates and locations, rather than the specific material record. John and his team have taken core samples from farms’ middens to figure out the date of settlement. Using a method known as tephra chronology, they examine the thin layers of ash from specific volcanic eruptions to figure out the year each farm was settled. After taking core samples from every farm in the region, John and his team created a comprehensive map of the patterns and timelines of settlement in this part of Skagafjörður.
We arrive in Sauðárkrókur and pull into SASS’s laboratory, set up in the local schoolhouse. Although it’s well past eleven, the entire team is awake, milling about. John tells me this year’s group is smaller than usual: five PhDs and two students. Doug Bolender, like John, works with excavation, the shovel and trowel work. This is the work that people might typically associate with archaeology. But SASS takes several other approaches to archaeology. There’s John Schoenfelder, who is in charge of mapping. “I look at the ground, not beneath it,” he explains. As I arrive, he’s tending to his broken kite and model helicopter—both of which he uses for aerial photography. Kimmarie Murphy focuses on bodies; she’s reading studies and tossing around words like “cryogenic” on the other side of the room.
Brian Damiata is in charge of geophysics. He’s sitting by the most impressive piece of equipment in the room: a 2.4-metre metal case, housing a bright yellow tube. This is the Dualem 421, a device that sends electromagnetic pulses through soil. Turf, when buried, is a worse conductor of electricity than the surrounding soil, so when the Dualem shows a weaker signal, it may reveal something of interest. The instrument’s size has been a constant nuisance since they arrived with it at the Boston Logan Airport on their way to Iceland. Convincing Icelandair to take it was quite an episode. They’re packing it up now because half of the team is leaving the next day, bringing most of the heavy equipment back to the States.
As John, John and Brian finish their packing, Doug briefs me about this season’s work. This year, they’re collaborating with Icelandic archaeologist Guðný Zoëga on the excavation of a Viking Age church and graveyard at the farm Stóra-Seyla. Guðný studies conversion era Iceland and has done extensive work excavating early churches. This season is quite different from their previous projects, as it deals with the later time period around conversion—circa AD 1000 and after. But the progression seems logical to Doug. They’ve seen how early Icelanders settled, now they’re seeing how they congregated and buried their dead.
With the equipment packed up, the archaeologists call it a night around 1 AM. We leave Brian who prefers to sleep on a mat on the floor of the lab, and head to the team’s quarters, on the other side of town. The place has a bizarre, haunted feeling. Apparently travelling Polish and Maori butchers stay here during the slaughter season. I ponder the implications of slaughterhouse-tourism as I drift to sleep in a room filled with dusty trowels.
PASTRIES AND PERFORMATIVITY
We start the next day with kleina and danishes from the nearby Sauðárkróksbakarí. While some debate the pronunciation of the former, others discuss the variable nomenclature of the latter. (What’s a Danish called in Denmark? Vienna-bread. What’s it called in Vienna?) After breakfast, the Johns and Brian squeeze into their rental car. They have to lay the Dualem down the centre of the car, running from windshield to windshield. They set off for Reykjavík in what looks like the most uncomfortable seating arrangement possible.
The rest of the team gears up for another day of digging. Doug takes me to Skagafjörður’s Archaeological Department, upstairs of the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum. Kimmarie is listening to NPR, analysing a human skull and arm bones. These particular remains belong to a woman. Kimmarie shows me where muscle actually altered the shape of the woman’s arm bones from frequent strain. She was clearly engaged in some sort of demanding, repeated physical labour. These bones are from an earlier dig, directed by Guðný. They’ve only found one complete body in the churchyard at Stóra-Seyla this year. Otherwise, the burials are mostly empty. When I get to the excavation site, I learn the story behind this anomaly.
The excavation is at the fjord valley bottom, well below the level of the medieval farm. The grass layer has been removed, exposing a ground layer of dirt and tephra. The remains of the church and burials are clear enough to a non-archaeologist. Half of the foundation of the retaining wall remains visible—a stone semi-circle. The actual church itself was tiny—about seven and a half square metres. Doug points out the large cavities at the corners where the support beams once stood. He explains that we know very little about the actual function of these small local churches. Who was the preacher? Who was the congregation?
Just outside of the church’s foundation are the excavated burials, clear rectangular compartments. But they haven’t been finding bodies in them. At some point Seyla’s inhabitants moved the settlement and church up the hill. They exhumed the corpses and reburied them in the new churchyard. The team have found some human bones in these burials, stray hand bones and such. At one point Doug dislodges a tooth from the soil. I get a funny image in my mind of the ancient inhabitants carrying the bodies up the hill, their teeth and other assorted bones falling along the way.
Doug talks about the more theoretical implications of the site—beyond questions of everyday use. He’s curious about the actual experience and performativity of it. This conversation takes us to Heidegger, then somehow to animal behaviour. At this point Doug decides that I might learn more by digging rather than talking about baboons. According to an electromagnetic reading of the ground, there’s a chance there are some unexposed burials to be found. So Doug puts a trowel in my hand and I dirty my jeans, scraping a broad swathe of dirt. This isn’t glamorous archaeology, but by now I know that archaeology is much more than tombs and temples. I find it calming, even meditative. Thinking about all the equipment and planning behind SASS, I realise that it takes a real love of the process, not just results, to be an archaeologist.