You're going to like archeology, he said.
Five weeks won't be enough. He was right. Archeology used to be about finding artifacts. A bronze cloak pin and a handful of ships rivets told us L'Anse aux Meadows was a Viking site. In Iceland, an inlaid cross and a silver Thor's hammer amulet found in the same 10th century grave told us the Vikings hedged their bets, while a horde of hacksilver, arm rings, and chains proved the Vikings did bring home and bury their treasure.
But in the last 10 to 20 years, modern science has made the world of the Vikings much more vivid and complex. Studies of volcanic ash and the Greenland ice cap have allowed scientists to date layers of soil in Iceland, and thus the house walls found in them, to exact years. New ways of collecting minuscule evidence, such as pollen grains, seeds, flies, lice, and fleas, have revealed disastrous environmental changes caused by Viking farming methods.
The isotopes of carbon in skeletal bone, the wear on sheep's teeth, the frequency of headless fish in garbage heaps, and the geographical distribution of seal parts have revealed what Gudrid and her peers ate, how they traded for favorite foods from farm to farm, and how they managed their sheep herds to maximize wool exports.
Tree ring studies can pinpoint when and where a Viking ship was made or patched, while sea trials of replicas reveal their speeds, their special handling qualities, and their weak points. DNA analyses can say where the settlers of Iceland, and thus Greenland and Vinland, came from, and show whether the tension between the new Christian religion and the ancient cults of Odin and Thor tore families apart.
Metal detectors and the newer remote sensing methods that use microwaves and other electromagnetic waves to see through the surface of the ground are locating not only buried turf houses, like the one at Glaumbaer. But Viking garbage pits and hay barns and boat houses and graves. By allowing experts to map out whole Viking settlements, they can reveal who was richer than whom and how power was gained or lost. Science can now tell me what a woman like Gudrid ate and wore, what she worked at, where her place was within her society.
What it can't tell me is why Gudrid was so remarkable, so utterly unlike our image of a woman of her time. Medieval women, everyone knows, did not stray far from home. But Gudrid traveled from Canada to Rome. She crossed the North Atlantic eight times. She earned the nickname the far traveler. We'll need to take the lights down and turn on the slide projector. The Far Traveler covers a lot of cultural history that I'm not going to talk to you about today-- how to sail a Viking ship, how to build a long house, how to weave a cloak or a sail, both of which were done only by women, what the Vikings ate, how their language affected ours, the status of women in the society, and how Christianity slowly changed their world.
What I'm going to focus on today are Gudrid and her voyages.
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She was born on Snaefellsnes, on the western tip of Iceland. The landscape in the west of Iceland is dominated by this great glacier Snaefellsjokull, which means "snow mountains glacier. Water hot enough for washing bubbled up from the ground not far away. The farm where Gudrid was born is now marked with a statue of her. It is called Laugarbrekka, or "hot springs slope.
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There were no indigenous people living in Iceland when the Vikings arrived, so a family could claim as much land as they could hold onto. The first ones to come claimed huge plots and set themselves up as chieftains. They gave land to anyone who agreed to fight for them. This grandfather came from Norway. But Gudrid's paternal grandfather came from Scotland.
And many of the settlers who came from the British Isles, like Gudrid's grandfather, were Christian. Gudrid's grandfathers were not only Vikings, they were farmers. The economy of early Iceland was based on making hay, since grass is the only crop that grows reliably in Iceland's harsh climate. This is a hay field at Laugarbrekka.
The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler | namelos
Those that I'm standing on are the remains of a turf house. The Vikings needed hay to feed their horses, cows, and sheep. Horses were necessary for transportation, since there are not many navigable rivers in Iceland. Cows were highly valued, because the Viking diet was based on milk and cheese. One of Gudrid's chores throughout her life would have been milking the cows and making butter and cheese, which was sometimes stored in bogs or up in the ice of the glacier.
In search of Icelandic lore
They also ate a lot of, meats pickled and sour whey. They milked their sheep also. Sheep's milk has more vitamin C than cow's milk. But sheep were mostly prized for their wool, which not only provided the Vikings' own clothing, it was their only export product. To keep her family and servants well dressed, Gudrid would have had to clean, sort, and spin the wool of sheep a year. To make the sail for a Viking ship required a million feet of thread. It took two women four and a half years to make and used the wall of more than sheep.
And I know this because there are two women in Copenhagen at the Center for Textile Research who did this. It was the dissertation of one of them. Keep that in mind. Because of the sheep and the cows and the horses, by years after the settlement of Iceland, erosion was becoming a problem.
In the next series of photographs, you can see what grazing animals did to Iceland's landscape. Even today, the sheep eat off the grass and the wind starts working at the exposed soil. The pasture turns into sand dunes, with a few tufts of grass showing, until, in some places, all you have is sand. This photograph is, again, Laugarbrekka, the farm where Gudrid was born. And you can see how much of it is bare gravel and sand, even though the farm has been abandoned for many years.
In the year , when Gudrid was about 15, her father took her to Greenland, where he hoped to begin again. Erosion may have been one of the reasons he left Iceland. Gudrid's father was a good friend of Erik the Red, who had discovered Greenland and set up the Viking colony there in So when they arrived, Erik gave them a farm. But Greenland wasn't really an improvement over Iceland.
Gudrid would have grown up in a house just like this one. It is essentially a post and beam wood frame with thick outside walls built up from blocks of sod or turf. The inside space is divided into three rooms by wooden partitions. The central living room had a long fireplace down the center, flanked by wide, wooden benches to sleep on, and paneled walls with decorative carving. Here's the reconstruction of Brattahlid, which is Eric's house in Greenland.
These two reconstructions are based on actual excavations. Strangely, the houses archaeologists found in Iceland and in Greenland are exactly the same size. An archaeologist from Iceland's National Museum believes wood was so precious that the immigrants literally pulled up stakes and brought the posts and beams and paneling of their houses with them.
He actually tried it with this replica. It was built in Iceland, then taken down and transported to Greenland. This is Eriksfjord in Greenland. The story goes that Erik the Red gave Greenland the name he did because people would be more inclined to go there if it had a nice name.
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But actually, Greenland is more icy and Iceland is more green. This fjord is about a five-mile walk from Erik the Red's homestead. I was there in May, when the lambs were being born and the fjord was still full of ice. This is the area of Eriksfjord where Gudrid lived most of her years in that country.
You can see the mouth of the glacier there on the right.