A visit to history: Reykjavik 871 +/-2, the Settlement Exhibition
I gravitate to archaeological sites on my travels: hunting for Celtic castros in Galicia, meandering through Etruscan graveyards outside of Bologna. One cannot imagine the thrill I had while wandering alongside, and sometimes on top of, Hadrian’s wall.
Of course, I am also interested in archaeological sites that document Scandinavian history: the Viking settlement in Newfoundland (the first European settlement in North America), Viking burial mounds in Borre (and the surrounding area), rock carvings in southern Norway, and the site of the Althing in Iceland. All of these sites are out in the open and are often in isolated places.
But there is one Viking excavation that can be explored indoors. In fact, an entire museum has been built around it. The museum or exhibit, depending on your definition, is known as Reykjavík 871 +/-2 The Settlement Exhibition. The plus or minus two stands for the parameters of numerical error within which the ruin of this ninth-century Viking Age longhouse was built. The exhibit contains a turf wall that had been covered by a layer of tephra (volcanic debris), allowing the site to be dated and reminding us that Iceland is an ever-changing volcanic island. This wall is thought to be the oldest evidence of human activity in Iceland.
So what is the advantage of building around an archaeological site? The most basic one is that one can enjoy the site no matter the season or weather. The latter in Iceland can be quite unpredictable, so by making the space more comfortable people have more time to explore. It also better protects the site from the elements and further compromise.
Another advantage is that the discovery remains in situ. Traditionally nations and/or institutions have removed statues and other art, as well as objects and even human remains, into larger institutions, often to countries and environments far removed from their origins. By using this alternative method, the artifacts have not been compromised by being amputated from their context. Of course there are some special circumstances which make this possible and practical: this site is located in Iceland’s most populous city, Reykjavík, right near its main square.
An interpretive and educational context has been added by constructing walls around the site. They serve as a canvas for a realistic, panoramic, photographic-quality depiction of 10th-century flora and fauna that encompasses the visitor. The images are not static, however. You can watch human activity in progress—a single man hunting a bird through the beautiful wilderness or a group pushing a boat into the water. The display even includes sounds and smells.
In fact, the entire exhibit is beautifully designed. Although the ruin is over 1,000 years old, the technology used to tell the story of the people who lived in Iceland at the time is cutting edge, perhaps the most innovative I have seen. I often find the touch screens and other devices in contemporary displays extraneous and distracting, mostly used for entertainment purposes, and becoming more and more formulaic. Not here.
According to the exhibit’s video, “With the help of the multimedia we try to bring you back in time and therefore we … invite you to step back into the Viking Age.” Here the use of interactive multimedia technology actually enhances the experience, allowing one to be engulfed in a prior time and place.
Some wonderful ways the technology is utilized include an explanation and graphic rendition of the longhouse in 3-D. Quite impressive and effective, for instance, is seeing the long rectangular pit in the middle of the house, lit by a virtual fire, so you can safely feel what it would have been like to be inside the building and also how they kept warm and were able to cook. There are details about how the longhouse was built that permit you to observe the construction in building block steps. On a larger scale is information about the Viking expansion and trade.
There is something powerful about walking within and touching an ancient site. This site is different from most, but the dark lighting and drama of the exhibition space mimics the meditative feeling of other natural sites. Even though you are indoors and not alone, it feels reflective.
The exhibit is easy to understand, even without a guided tour, as both Icelandic and English text is used. Tours are of course available in an assortment of languages, including English. And of course there is a gift shop. Icelandic souvenirs in general are beautifully made and unique. Here the usual suspects are available: t-shirts, pens, and edibles. But there are also things that more authentically represent your visit, such as an old game using sheep bones, historic Icelandic maps, and lovely candle holders made from a light metal molded into shapes found in the local environment.
In 2015, the Settlement Sagas Exhibition opened in the same building. Icelandic literature will certainly enhance your visit; I am sorry that this exhibit wasn’t there when I visited. The texts span the 12th and 13th centuries, but cover the era from the ninth century to 1,000, the year when Christianity is said to have begun.
The texts on view are Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), Islendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders), Kjalnesingasaga (The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes), and Jónsbók (The Laws of Later Iceland). Their website explains that “the world of the sagas is unique and internally consistent: a new society in a previously uninhabited land. These narratives have no parallel in world literature. The extent to which they depict real people and events is uncertain, but the external reality of the sagas—their chronologies, conceptions of origins and religion, recollections of the natural environment and accounts of volcanic eruptions—tallies well with what can be gathered from other sources.” Iceland does a great job of allowing the visitor to have access to these priceless texts without compromising their integrity.
Both of these exhibits are part of the Icelandic City Museum. According to the website www.visitreykjavik.is, “These two very different exhibitions hosted by the Reykjavík City Museum afford an unprecedented view into the ancient origins of Icelandic culture.”
These museums are very centrally located. Up the block sits the Tourist Office at 2 Aðalstræti, located in what is considered to be the oldest building in Iceland, which was built in the late 1800s and was for a time the bishop’s home. Both temporary and permanent public art are intertwined with this area. A block away is Austurvöllur Square, a popular gathering space. There is a statue to Jon Sigurdsson to honor the man responsible for Iceland’s fight for independence. Every year Oslo sends a Christmas tree as a gift to Iceland (since Iceland does not have such trees), which is placed in this square.
Opportunities to eat surround you from a world-famous hot dog stand to high-end fish restaurants and cafes. In fact, I was delighted to discover that one cafe offered pönnukökur, better known as Norwegian pancakes.
Iceland is an amazing place to visit in terms of its geography and geology. Of course, these two features played an integral part in how human settlements developed and beings adapted. So I recommend that even if you are traveling to Iceland to ride the tiny horses or to soak in the restorative waters of the Blue Lagoon, don’t forget to see this exciting museum that so wonderfully connects the land to its people.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 5, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.