Far in the northern reaches of Iceland, nestled in between Mount Tindastóll and Laxárdalsfjöll Mountain, in a town called Sauðárkrókur, lies the 1238 Museum. Since opening last year, the 1238 Museum seeks to immerse visitors in the experience of the Icelandic Civil War.
Clash of the clans
From 1220-1252, Iceland was embroiled in a political feud between six families vying for power and influence. The most famous of these clans were the Sturlungar, led by Snorri Sturluson and his nephew Sturla Sighvatsson; the Haukdælir, led by Gissur Þorvaldsso and the Ásbirningar, led by Kolbeinn the Younger.
Snorri Sturluson was the chief of the Sturlungar clan, and a vassal for King Hákon of Norway from 1220 until his death in 1241. He was tasked with bringing Iceland under the sovereignty of Norway, but he did little to enforce the king’s will, which is what ultimately led to his downfall. Snorri’s nephew, Sturla, was also a vassal to King Hákon, and although he was much more aggressive in his work for the king, Kolbeinn and Gissur sought to gain power for themselves, and thus joined forces to defeat the Sturlungar, ‘Game of Thrones’ style.
Time for war
Exciting stuff. Upon entering the 1238 Museum, I met Steinunn, who would be giving me the grand tour, which began at the “Selfie Centre,” where I garbed myself up in authentic Viking clothes and took a somewhat embarrassing amount of selfies. I must admit, the woollen tunic and cloak made me feel like a badass and I dreaded taking them off, so I set about the museum dressed as a Viking.
It was then time to learn, so I marched off to read the thrilling history of Iceland’s civil war on the walls of the museum, which detailed the history of the aforementioned clans and would also set the stage for the museum’s augmented reality (AR) experience, which details the battle of Flóabardagi that happened on the Bay of Húnaflói, and their virtual reality (VR) war experience, both of which allow you to engage in battle.
Where the past meets the future
The AR station in the 1238 Museum is a massive round table with a raised relief map of the Bay of Húnaflói, where Steinunn says I can experience the last naval battle of Iceland, “Flóabardagi” through an iPad Pro. This battle saw the people of the Westfjörds pitted against the people of the North. The primary weapons used in this battle were large, heavy stones. On the iPad, the viewer can take control of any ship and use it to hurl rocks at another ship. Since the results of the battle are inconclusive even to this day, any outcome is potentially accurate. I led the people of the Westfjörds to victory.
Following my military victory, I continue into a large room outfitted with display cases full of weapons and armour. Steinunn tells me that even though all of the weapons are enclosed in glass, and replicated from the middle ages, the government of Iceland has the museum on a watchlist. The arsenal is extraordinary. Swords, spears, axes, and suits of plate armour all look impressive as an ethereal soundtrack plays in the background.
Next, we moved on to the VR room, where, as Steinunn puts it, “the past meets the future.” I had to take all of my Viking gear off at this point; the VR set wouldn’t fit over it. Once Steinunn got me all suited up, it was time to begin the simulation. Steinunn explained to me that while several artefacts had been recovered from the site of the battle which I was about to experience, Sturla’s spear was never found. My objective in the VR was to retrieve the spear.
The Oculus device went over my eyes, and the world turned black. Before I knew it, I woke up in the year 1238 on a beautiful summer day. A green mountain stood before me, rising high up into the sky. The birds were singing, the sun was shining, and it looked like it would be a lovely day. It didn’t take long for my fellow clan members to wake up and start the day by polishing their weapons. Today we were to go to battle in the name of Chief Sturla against Kolbeinn the Younger and Gissur Þorvaldsson.
Before we even got the chance to have breakfast, however, we were interrupted by a scout. We’re under attack, he said. Kolbeinn and Gissur had staged an ambush. I picked up a shield and moved to my station, where several spears and a pile of heavy stones were ready for me to throw at the attackers.
Stone after stone, spear after spear, I fought valiantly for my chieftain, but our attackers were better prepared—probably because they ate breakfast. Ultimately, Sturla was slain, and the battle was lost. There was a silver lining, though. Sturla’s spear stood upright in the ground in front of me. I grabbed it and stepped back through the portal into the real world.
Once the simulation had completed, Steinunn told me that I could still visit the site of this battle. So I did. Kakalaskáli was entirely covered in snow, but it was still an awe-inspiring sight. A cross to mark a grave stood in the distance, where a raven perched, and the same mountain in the simulation stood before me. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, and I could have sworn I heard the din of a thousand voices, shouting their battle cries.
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