Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Were Medieval Women Artists? How Do We Know?

In the subtitle for my book Ivory Vikings, I took a chance. I dropped all the qualifiers. Rather than cluttering up the cover of my book with "may have" or "perhaps" or "maybe," I came out and said that a woman carved the Lewis chessmen.

The subtitle reads: "The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them."

Some reviewers objected: "Though more full of conjecture than the assertive subtitle suggests, Brown's account is nonetheless fascinating," said Publisher's Weekly.

"OK," said a reviewer for a medieval studies blog, "that title is quite attention grabbing: women as medieval sculptors and artisans? Not sure how that will be discernible in the art but I have not read the book yet so..."

In the text of the book, I do carefully re-insert all the "may haves" and "maybes." "Did Margret the Adroit carve the Lewis chessmen under a commission from Bishop Pall?" I ask in the introduction. "Unless the Skalholt dig is reopened, and proof of an ivory workshop is found, we cannot say yes or no. But 'the limited evidence' places Iceland on equal footing with Trondheim as the site of their creation."

I also rail against the book editors and graphic designers who take out all the qualifiers when asserting that the Lewis chessmen were made, instead, in Trondheim, Norway. Yes, I did it too; guilty as charged. Reader, beware: titles exaggerate. Marketing is not scholarship.

We cannot say if Margret the Adroit really carved the Lewis chessmen or not. Medieval artists did not sign their work. Gender is not, as that reviewer noted, "discernible in the art."

And yet, should we so matter-of-factly dismiss, as that reviewer seems to do, the idea that Margret was capable of it? "Women as medieval sculptors and artisans?" Really? Pshaw!

The Saga of Bishop Pall presents ample evidence that Margret the Adroit was a true "medieval sculptor," working on an equal footing with her male colleagues Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, and Thorstein the Shrine-Smith at the cathedral of Skalholt in Iceland in the late 1100s and early 1200s. This contemporary saga, written within a generation of the bishop's death, has never been translated from Old Norse, however, so you can't expect every medieval scholar to be familiar with it.

So let's look for women artists in a more mainstream place: medieval Spain.

In 2008, a pair of researchers from Duoda, the Women's Research Center of the University of Barcelona, M.-Elisa Varela Rodríguez and Teresa Vinyoles Vidal, published the essay “Scattering Light and Colours: The Traces of Some Medieval Women Artists” in a series called The Difference of Being Woman: Research and Teaching of History. The essay, which includes the images reproduced below, can be downloaded here:

In March 2014 it was circulated by the website, which is where I learned of it. That link is:

Rodriguez and Vidal write of women artists who lived and worked near Barcelona between the 10th and the 14th centuries--and who actually signed their work. "Some artists of embroidery wanted to leave their name for history," the researchers note.

One was the late 10th-century abbess Maria de Santa Maria de les Puelles de Girona. The epitaph carved on her tombstone begins: "Maria of venerable memory, working with great effort every day on holy works..." Add Rodriguez and Vidal, "Maria wanted to leave a trace and she did so in the way that she knew how. In the parish church of Sant Feliu of Gerona a magnificently woven and embroidered stole is conserved ... on which there appear some letters that identify Maria as the author of the work." Those letters read: "[Remember], friend, Maria made me, whosoever wears this stole on themselves take it from me that they will have God as their help." The researchers continue, "Although the words 'know' or 'remember,' are blurred on the weaving, we can permit ourselves to interpret it in the following way: Maria wanted to be remembered, she was conscious that she had realised a laborious and beautiful work."

Another textile artist who wished to be remembered for her work was Elisava. She "signed the so-called banner of Sant Otto, which, originating in la Seu d’Urgell, is conserved in the Textile Museum of Barcelona. An art historian defines Elisava as commissioner of the piece," Rodriguez and Vidal write, "but we do not agree with that theory, we think that the clear affirmation 'Elisava me fecit' has to do with the real work, not only with paying for or sponsoring the work." They date the banner to 1122.

A third medieval Spanish woman artist painted the 115 miniatures in the Beato de Girona, "one of the richest manuscripts pictorially within the tradition of commentary on the Apocalypse." It is dated to 975. An inscription in the manuscript, as Rodriguez and Vidal interpret it, "clearly declares the authorship of the work to be of a woman with the name of En who is a painter, is fully aware of her task, and is also aware of its importance. … we interpret the text Dei aiutrix, helper of God, in that sense that through her the divine is transmitted to us … And she does it as a woman, which is why the illustrations of the Beato de Girona are different to that of other Beatos attributed to men painters. The Beato de Girona is the richest of miniatures, it is the richest in the palette of colours that it uses, and it is also unique in the interpretation that the painter makes of some scenes or passages."

Is gender discernible in the art? These researchers believe it is, in this case and in that of the wall murals Teresa Diez painted in about 1316 for the Real Convento de Santa Clara de Toro, and which she also signed. Teresa chose to paint the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, contrasting feminine mediation and patriarchal power. "The exhibition of this pictorial-textual message, an explosion of colour and light, would undoubtedly move one to a religious devotion," Rodriguez and Vidal write. "Teresa Diez uses a language that is an invitaiton to life, full of poetry, light; an artistic language following the paths of the emerging gothic style. She interprets it in a personal way." Her work, they say, offers "an immense carpet of colour."

"It should also be pointed out that," conclude Rodriguez and Vidal, "when so few names of women artists appear to us, it must be deduced that there were many more that were anonymous, and also others that history may still discover."

One of those women artists whom I hope other medievalists will soon discover, through my book Ivory Vikings, is the 12th-century ivory carver from Iceland, Margret the Adroit.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

America2Iceland's Sagas & Vikings Tour

Iceland is the hot place to go these days (pun intended). Every week, it seems, I hear from someone who just "did" the land of fire and ice.

Well, I've got news for you. You can't "do" Iceland in one trip. I've been going to Iceland since 1986--and the place isn't done with me yet.

It's not only that I've missed whole quadrants of the country. The places I know still astonish me. Each year, I notice something new or--paradoxically--very old, like the Viking Age longhouse that was discovered under a Reykjavik parking lot last year and is forcing a critical rethinking of the city's development.

And then there's the weather. 

Last summer, from the farm where I like to stay, I gazed for days and days at the high white ice caps in the center of the island. But the one day we traveled toward the sea, the mountains by the coast wrapped themselves in clouds. Majestic Snaefellsjokull simply disappeared.

I knew it was there, laughing behind my back. The West is one part of Iceland I know very well: from Borgarnes to the Breiðafjorður, out to the tip of Snæfellsnes, and in to Surtshellir cave at the edge of the highlands. The West has a wonderful variety of landscapes--farms, fishing villages, lava fields, glaciers, beaches, waterfalls. On various trips I've found a path through the lava that had long been lost, crouched behind a rock while a sea eagle strafed me, rode a horse through a swift salmon river (careful not to let the eddies dizzy me), collected crowberries, watched fox pups play, rescued trapped sheep, frightened myself in a pitch-dark cave, drank sweet water from the well in another, soaked in a wilderness hot pool, sunned on the flank of a volcano.

I'm not a naturalist: What draws me to this part of Iceland are the medieval sagas, with their tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and hard times and strife. Tales of a satisfying life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace. 

These sagas, this landscape, has inspired nearly all my books. It's here that I found one perfect horse in A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (Stackpole 2001), and learned how Icelandic folklore and mythology are infused with horses.

Here is where the story of Gudrid the Far-Traveler begins, the Viking woman who explored North America 500 years before Columbus. I've written about Gudrid twice, as nonfiction in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007), and in the young adult novel The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (Namelos 2015). Guðriður grew up on the tip of Snæfellsnes, in the shadow of the glacier some people call the third most holy spot on earth. (Seeing it rise out of the sea is certainly one of my favorite views of Iceland). 

In the twelfth century, West Iceland was ruled by Snorri Sturluson, that unscrupulous chieftain who has become the most influential writer of the Middle Ages, in any language. My book Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) is his biography. Here he wrote the Edda, which contains almost everything we know about Norse mythology. Here he wrote Heimskringla, his history of the kings of Norway. Here he probably wrote the first (and maybe the best) of the Icelandic sagas: Egil's Saga. And here he died, murdered, cringing in his cellar, for having betrayed the king of Norway.

Here, as well, Snorri and his family may have cornered the market on walrus ivory. As I argue in my latest book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them (St Martin's 2015), the land of the sagas may also have been a land of world-class visual art in the Middle Ages. 

The best way to research my books, I've found, is to walk through the landscape where history happened, to live where my subjects lived and face some of the same challenges. To cross rivers on horseback, for example, or climb a volcanic crater. To experience the midnight sun in summer, when the birdsong never stills, as well as the dark days of winter (though I must admit, I've let a very few of them stand in for the rest). To marvel at the beauty of white glacier ice, black lava rock, blue (or slate-gray) sky, and jewel-green fields. To feel the spirits of the land in the breath of the wind, the sting of rain, and the warmth of the sun.

I'd like to bring you with me. Since 2012 I've been leading tours in West Iceland for the company America2Iceland, which is based on the farm of Staðarhús in Borgarfjörður. Earlier on this blog I've written about our Trekking Bootcamp I, an adventure tour for horseback riders. 

But we also offer a tour for non-riders, for people who like to learn about Iceland's sagas and its Viking past. For people who'd like to meet real Icelanders and see more of the country than just the surface it presents to the usual tourist.

This year's "Sagas & Vikings" tour will take place from July 10-16. We'll begin in Reykjavik, with a visit to the Settlement Exhibition, then travel to Thingvellir, site of Iceland's ancient parliament and locus of many saga episodes. We'll end our day at Staðarhús, where we'll settle in for a week in a comfortable, family-run country hotel.

Mornings we'll spend reading, taking nature walks, and observing the lifestyle of a traditional Icelandic horse farm. Those so inclined can take a riding lesson or short trail ride (for an additional charge). 

Each morning's assigned readings, from my own books, will introduce the sights we'll see on our bus tour in the afternoon. We'll hike into the lava fields at Eldborg and Budir. We'll tour the sea caves and bird cliffs at Hellnar and Arnarstapi, and visit Gudrid's birthplace at Laugabrekka. We'll explore the town of Borgarnes, with its museums and geothermal pools, and Snorri's estate of Reykholt. We'll visit hot springs, wander along black and golden beaches, and see glaciers, volcanic craters, and waterfalls. And we'll meet the Icelandic horse and learn why the horse, not the dog, is "man's best friend" in Iceland. 

Over dinner--a gourmet meal served at the farm--we'll discuss what we've learned and seen: How Iceland was settled, why the sagas were written, how the country has changed since the Middle Ages, how its culture has so powerfully influenced our own.

This tour is limited to 12 people, so each will get my personal attention. For more information, or to sign up, see or contact Rebecca at America2Iceland by email at or phone at 1-828-348-4257. I think this is the perfect tour for first-time visitors to Iceland. Even if you've been to Iceland before, you'll see it in a completely new light.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Riding the Long Beaches of Iceland

Along the west coast of Iceland, beneath the great glacier Snaefellsjokull, is a magical riding trail uncovered only at low tide.

This route, across the Longufjorur or "Long Beaches," has been in use by horsemen and women since the Saga Age. Before roads were bulldozed through the Eldborg lava fields in the early 1900s, it was the main highway. Until 1933 you'd buy your soap and nails and flour at a general store out there on the sands, where now you'll find only seals and seabirds, hear only the sounds of surf--or hoofbeats on sand.

"It's a dangerous path if you don't know the tides," my friend Haukur warned, when he took me on the trail for the first time in 1995. When I wrote about that experience in my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I summed it up this way: "This is Iceland."

This August I hope to recreate that ride--with your help. I'm looking for 8 adventurers to sign up for the Trekking Bootcamp offered by America2Iceland from August 10-16: see

Photo by
Note that you need to be a good rider (intermediate or advanced), though the breed of horse you usually ride doesn't matter much. We will, of course, be riding Icelandic horses (it's the only breed in Iceland), but if you can trot and canter all day long, you'll quickly learn to tolt. You also need to be able to swim, just in case.

Why? The trail cuts the mouths of several rivers, some of them deep-channeled salmon streams, others edged with quicksand. The safe paths shift from storm to storm, while the force of the wind and its direction, and the fullness of the moon, decide how fast a rider must cross.

Ebenezer Henderson, a Scottish churchman who traveled throughout Iceland in 1814, described the crossing well: "We advanced at a noble rate, it being necessary to keep our horses every now and then at the gallop, in order to escape being overtaken by the tide before we reached the land. At one time we were nearly two miles from the shore; and I must confess I felt rather uneasy, while my companion was relating the number of travelers who had lost their lives in consequence of having been unexpectedly surrounded by the sea."

Henderson (or his guide) was exaggerating--but not much. In his book Summer at Little Lava my husband, Charles Fergus, told this story:

"A man known as Tobbi--short for Tobias--farmed during the 1600s along the Longufjorur.... Tobbi was known as a poet. One day a group of travelers asked him where they could safely cross over the sands. At work in his smithy, making a tool or repairing some article of iron, Tobbi answered them with a verse:
My work is going very slowly in the smithy,
Even through I'm clattering.
You should aim for Eldborg,
Under the hammer of Thor.
The travelers set off toward Eldborg. Perhaps they dawdled, crossing the sands. The tide rose and caught them, and they drowned. After that, Tobbi lost his ability to compose poetry and could bring forth only gibberish. He became known as Æra-Tobbi, 'Crazy Tobbi.' "

In 1995, riding with Haukur, an expert guide who knew the tides, I was in no danger. But I did get rather wet. We crossed over mudflats pocked with airholes and headed for several grass-topped islands abandoned by the tide like a pod of stranded whales. A sea eagle lifted off one of the islands as we approached and scolded us with a high-pitched cackle. Geese flew over, banking, startled.

We rode north onto the sandbar, across some grassy flats, back out through the sucky mud to the hard wet sand, whose color ranged from black to coffee-colored to tawny to gold. Tide pools, I knew, held tiny shrimp and sea lettuce; their bottoms were mosaics of shells.

The horses got spattered with muck and splashed water as high as our faces—icy, but delightful in the sunshine, since everyone wore rubber boots and rainpants or chaps. These were practiced riders, and they kept up a fast pace. The woman next to me occasionally rode at a trot, balancing above her saddle to spell her mount, yet I matched her speed easily, tolting all the time. Later I overheard her remark to Haukur that I rode a tolt well for an American. He, knowing I understood her Icelandic, grinned at me. “It’s the horse,” he said.

With the islands to our left, we rode on hard-packed sand, the tapping of our horses’ hooves making music with the wind and the seabirds’ cries. I could feel time almost stop, suspended in the wet air between sea and sky, as history clustered all around us.

Close on our right rose the snow-flecked mountains of Snaefellsnes, the Snow Mountain Peninsula. Ahead loomed the Snow Mountain itself, glacier-topped Snaefellsjokull, a classic Mount Fuji-shaped stratovolcano. Jules Verne began his Journey to the Center of the Earth from this mountain, and New Agers now affirm it the third holiest spot on the planet, ascending it in droves on the summer solstice and bringing new riches to the fishing towns down below. Gazing at its beauty, I wondered what the two more-holy places could possibly be.

Then suddenly we were off the sands and into another farmyard. After a short rest, we decided to take a swim--but I've written about that on this blog before. Read it at:

This August, we'll be riding from Gudmar Petursson's farm of Stadarhus, about 40 km from the beach. We'll spend the first two days at the farm, getting used to our horses in a clinic that will get you ready for the trek.

On Day 3 we'll ride 40 km to Hitarholmi, returning to Stadarhus for dinner, a soak in the hot tub, and a good night's sleep in private or double rooms (as we will each night). Day 4 is a 45 km stretch along the beach to Kolvidarnes--and we go whenever the tide is right, so it could be very early or very late. On Day 5, we'll do a 30 km ride out onto the sands and back to Kolvidarnes--again, whenever the tide is right. Then on Day 6, we'll turn inland, riding 30 km to Stori-Kalfalaekur, where we'll say goodbye to our horses. On Day 7, we'll regretfully fly home, with wind-chapped and sun-burned faces--or maybe a suitcase full of rain-soaked riding clothes, you never know. Either way, it will be a magical adventure.

Go to and sign up now for the Trekking Bootcamp 1 on August 10-16. I can't wait to show you the Long Beaches of Iceland.

And if you're not a rider, note that I'm leading a tour this year for you, too. See the riding-optional "Sagas and Vikings" tour offered by America2Iceland on July 10-16: "Sagas and Vikings" is an educational trip for the whole family through the scenes and sagas that have inspired my many books about Iceland, including The Far Traveler, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, Song of the Vikings,  and the latest, Ivory Vikings.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Iceland's Imaginary Landscapes

I'm reading Mountains of the Mind by Robert MacFarlane, a fine book that explores how the landscapes we see are mostly the result of our own imaginings. And I've just come home from a trip to Washington, D.C., where I was welcomed to the board of the Leifur Eiriksson Foundation, which awards $25,000 scholarships to Icelandic graduate students to study in America, or American graduate students to study in Iceland.

Monday afternoon, two of the outgoing Leifur Eiriksson board members, both Icelanders, accompanied me to the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum to see the exhibition "Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed" by photographer Feodor Pitcairn.

None of us knew who Feodor Pitcairn was, and the exhibition--and the companion coffee-table book, which was too heavy (and costly) to come home with me--failed to enlighten us. (Later I learned from his own website that Pitcairn was a "diver, naturalist, and underwater cinematographer" who had created the "signature feature" of the Smithsonian's new Ocean Hall, its "immersive, multi-screen, HD, site-specific video installation.")

All we could discover at the time was that Pitcairn had first visited Iceland in 2011. A newcomer. I wondered what he had expected to see. I wondered what "Iceland" called up from his imagination.

According to the Smithsonian's press office, "The exhibition will convey that Iceland is a geologically active wonder, with diverse and magnificent landscapes. The primordial quality of Icelandic landscapes offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the planet was formed and continues to evolve."

Or, in the words of Icelandic geophysicist and poet Ari Trausti Gudmundsson, written in bold yellow letters high on the front wall: "Nurturing landscapes reside all around us. The more pristine they are, the deeper they touch our mind, evoking humanity. They stir up waves of feelings, though never the same for each of us. This is primordial Iceland."

A large hall on the main floor of the museum, opening out from the famous elephant's rotunda, was set aside for the exhibition. The photographs were immense--one covered a whole wall--and numbered 41, I learned from the press materials. I was not inclined to count. I was mesmerized. Iceland all around me: Beauty all around me. Glaciers, icebergs, volcanoes, snow, steam vents, sulfur pots, cairns, a turf house, some trees. Using a large format digital Hasselblad, Pitcairn captured the color and detail of every lichen-coated stone, every leafless birch twig, every shimmer of ice or mineral rime or Northern Lights.

We were the only ones in the hall for the most part; a few tourists wandered through, but none lingered. We amused ourselves by guessing the names of places without reading the captions--some of which gave no place names, in any case.

We remarked at how odd it was that none of the scenes showed a single tourist. It's hard, nowadays, to find a time when some of these beauty spots are abandoned.

We played at picking our favorites: If you could afford one, which would you want on your own wall? I dithered between a stark scene, nearly black-and-white, of snow and peaks and wind-pruned trees and the glorious glacier shot that opened the show (and made the cover of the book).

Photo by Feodor Pitcairn, courtesy the Smithsonian's press office.

My Icelandic colleagues passed those by. On the far wall, in a cluster of images, was a misty green fjord-side graced with two sheep. Those two sheep were the only animals Pitcairn had found in his imaginary Iceland. "That one," said Halla. "I would like that one for my birthday." (It is not among those images made available by the Smithsonian press office.)

In 1996, I spent a summer living in an abandoned farmhouse on the west coast of Iceland. The sea rose into the hayfields at high tide. Behind us stretched a vast jumbled field of rough lava. Across the fjord, snow-capped mountains fenced the sky, the grand shield-volcano of Snaefellsjokull rising Fuji-like at their furthest tip. I took well more than 41 photographs of primordial Iceland from that spot, each of them touching my mind, in Ari's phrase, and encouraging my imagination.

The next year I met a family who had once farmed there and had chosen to move away. "It's very beautiful," said the farmwife, "but the tides kept taking the sheep."

I will never see the Iceland she saw--or that my Icelandic colleagues see--or that Pitcairn photographs. As MacFarlane explains in Mountains of the Mind, most of what we see in a landscape we bring to it.

Feodor Pitcairn's exhibition "Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed" runs through April 2017. Photos of and from the exhibit are courtesy of the Smithsonian's press office.

Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, by Robert MacFarlane, was published in 2003 by Random House. I wish I could write like him.

If you'd like to come to Iceland with me and see the land of my imagination, sign up for my "Sagas and Vikings" tour, July 10-16, 2016, at

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Viking Home of the Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis chessmen, the subject of my book, Ivory Vikings, were found on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland in the early 1800s. The story of their finding is a bit muddled--maybe on purpose--and there are at least two plausible find spots.

Researching the question, I stayed at a guesthouse near the most likely spot, at Baile-na-Cille in Uig. "Baile-na-Cille" is Gaelic for "place of the church." "Uig" comes from the Norse word "vík," the root of "Viking," and the area does indeed have a Viking history.

One rainy day in June, Kevin Murphy, the assistant archaeologist at Museum Nan Eilean in Stornoway, met me there to give me a tour of the nearby Viking Age sites--or at least those that archaeologists have happened upon. Finding ancient sites is difficult here: the landscape can change dramatically in a very short time.

Baile-na-cille, Isle of Lewis
"From late autumn right through to March," Kevin explained, "you can have huge winds here. The whole area can look different after a few months. The whole west side of the Hebrides is like this. You could have three to four meters of sand covering a village and nobody would know about it." Mixed with the sand is pumice from volcanic eruptions in Iceland, the nearest land due west.

We drove a mile or so north to an arc of golden beach called “Borg Beach,” from the Norse for fort. Here, for example, Kevin said, "You’ve got a massive build-up of sand." He gestured toward one of the headlands. "That whole area of green behind the haze is all habitation of some description. It’s a bit conjectural. Nobody’s looked into it. Over there," he said, turning, "that telephone pole is stuck in an Iron Age wheelhouse."

Borg, Isle of Lewis
In the garden of the school behind us, in 1915, the skeleton of a woman was discovered. She had been buried in a typical Viking Age apron gown, with two large oval brooches fastening the straps. "This skeleton was eroding out of the hill, about here, give or take," Kevin said. "The interesting part is that the skeleton gives the impression that it’s early Norse."

Mary Macleod Rivett, another archaeologist working in the Hebrides, Kevin said, "met an old woman who had been at that school then. When Mary was talking to this old lady, she said, 'Oh, there was another one as well, with a helmet and a spear.' What happened to it? 'They put it in someone's shed and it fell to pieces.'"

We drove on to Reef, the site of another ancient graveyard. "What you’re seeing as a dump is an Iron Age burial. It's been completely excavated. Viking Age graves were found here too. This was just a green hillside. The sheep rubbed, the grass eroded, there was this 'blow out'"--a wind storm that scoured sand away until people started seeing skeletons poking out of the dune. "The wind can be really powerful in the winter," Kevin said. "If it's in the right direction, it just starts taking things out. In aerial photos from the 1940s, this is just a grassy hill."

Reef, Isle of Lewis
From the headland on which the graves were found, the golden sand beach stretches out for miles. A river bisects it, flowing from a shallow lake thick with grass and reeds. "The loch looks like a grassy field," said Kevin, "but if you stepped into it you’d be swimming." Between the loch and the beach are ranks of sand dunes riddled with rabbit warrens. As they dig their maze-like runs, the rabbits often turn up ancient artifacts. "Some years you don't get anything," Kevin said. "Some years the rabbits are very busy and you get boat rivets. They could easily be Viking. I think these lochs were probably used as a safe place to pull your boats in for the winter."

Archaeologist Kevin Murphy
At the end of the beach is a pre-Viking drystone tower or broch. "It’s only ankle high now, but you're standing on the top. There’s 20 to 30 feet of sediment covering it." To the Vikings it would have been a distinctive landmark. "Along the back of that hill, there’s been Viking Age artifacts found. You can see walls and mounds and all kinds of interesting things. Check Google Earth--you can see them that way. There's all those humps and bumps! This place really stands out for Norse. This is the spot."

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Did Viking Greenland Collapse?

In 982 Eirik the Red discovered Greenland, according to the Icelandic sagas. The Viking colony there lasted 400 years, until 1408, when a wedding was held between an Icelander and a Greenlander—and that’s the last we hear of the Greenland Norse. Why, after surviving over 400 years, did these people disappear from history without a trace?

The puzzle of Viking Greenland captivates people, and I've written about it in three of my books, as nonfiction in Ivory Vikings and The Far Traveler, and as fiction in my young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, as well as on this blog. (You can read the section on Greenland from Ivory Vikings on, here:

One idea is that climate change worked in the Vikings' favor. Research in Europe had found signs of warmer temperatures between 950 and 1250, the so-called "Medieval Warm Period," which preceded "the Little Ice Age." But a new study of the Greenland ice cores (reported here: shows that the "Medieval Warm Period" (if it even existed) never reached Greenland. There was no change in the extent of Greenland's ice. Ruling out other factors, the researchers concluded that there was no warming in Greenland during the Viking centuries.

Thjodhild's church at Brattahlid. Photo by NMB.
Jared Diamond presents another theory in his popular 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He argues that the livestock the settlers brought with them, based on the Norwegian “ideal farm,” didn’t suit Greenland’s colder, drier conditions. 

Diamond writes: “Although Vikings prized pork above all other meats, pigs proved terribly destructive and unprofitable in lightly wooded Greenland, where they rooted up the fragile vegetation and soil. Within a short time they were reduced to low numbers.” For similar environmental reasons, he says, the Vikings were forced to limit the number of “honored cows” they kept and increase their herds of “despised goats.” A main cause of the “collapse,” in his view, is that the Norse refused to give up their unsuitable livestock and become dedicated seal hunters like the Inuit, who began moving south into Viking territory in the 1200s. He also thinks they turned up their noses at fish.

Eirik's Fjord, Greenland. Photo by NMB.
Despite the attractive environmental message in Diamond’s Collapse, I have problems accepting this model of the Viking diet. How do we know that Vikings prized pork and despised goat meat? 

Our main source for Viking culinary practices are the myths in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda. Snorri, writing in the early 1200s, gives the cow pride of place: Her copious milk fed the giant Ymir, from whose body the chief god Odin created the world. Pork is the meat eaten in Valhalla, the great hall in the Otherworld to which Odin welcomes warriors slain in battle; the same old boar is boiled each night in a huge cauldron, and in the morning he comes back to life. Odin himself is said to never eat, living on wine alone; yet in another tale, he and two lesser gods butcher an ox and roast it on a spit over a wood fire. A goat, meanwhile, produces mead instead of milk for the dead heroes in Valhalla to drink. Goat is also the favorite food of the war god Thor; the two goats that pull his chariot allow him to butcher and boil them every night. Provided that he saves every bone and wraps them up in the skins, unbroken, the goats will come back to life in the morning. Given the number of children named after Thor—one quarter of the names in the Icelandic Book of Settlements  are Thor combinations—his totemic animal seems unlikely to have been “despised.” Finally, three gods, Thor, Loki, and Njord, are all associated with fishing. In particular, Loki, the trickster god, is said to have turned himself into a salmon and invented a net.

Sandnes, Greenland. Photo by NMB.
When I interviewed her in 2006, Jette Arneborg, an archaeologist at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, pointed out to me a second problem with Diamond’s model of the Viking diet. It assumes that the Vikings were tidy, that they carefully cleared the table and carried all their dinner scraps out to the garbage midden. But there were no tables in treeless Greenland. And bones were valuable. Housewives collected them back into the pot and boiled them to make soup, then pickled them in whey to make “bone-jelly porridge.” Toys, dice, flutes, and game pieces were carved out of them, and needles and needle cases. They were crushed and dried and fed to cows as a calcium supplement or spread on the fields as fertilizer. Bones were tossed to the dogs or simply left on the floor.

Archaeologists have long bemoaned the squalid conditions of the Greenland Vikings’ floors. Layers of twigs, hay, and moss served an insulating function—they kept the permafrost from thawing and the floor from turning to muck. Sifting through samples of such carpeting, scientists have identified flies that feed on carrion and feces, as well as human lice, sheep lice, and the beetles that live in rotting hay. Shards of bone are scattered throughout, “a few clearly having passed through the gut of the farm’s dog,” one excavator writes. On the floor of the Farm Beneath the Sand, archaeologists even found fish bones.

Eirik's Fjord, Greenland. Photo by NMB.
In her office at the museum, a converted Renaissance palace in downtown Copenhagen, Arneborg seemed worlds away from her job as codirector of the dig at the Farm Beneath the Sand. She described her days to me: going in by helicopter, using sandbags to hold the river back, excavating three to four inches of soil, then waiting for the sun to melt the next layer of permafrost. Wrapping every bone, every chip of wood, in wet paper and bagging it in plastic, the glacial river roaring past inches away. An open box on her desk held two animal bones from Greenland; they had been sent to the diet-analysis group, where someone saw a cross had been cut into each one and returned them to her, reclassified as artifacts.

“Of course they ate fish,” she said. “We do have one fishhook. We have sinkers. We have pieces of what I think were nets. We have fish bones from inside the house. If we sieve very carefully, we find them.” Of the 24,643 bone fragments found inside the house, 8,250 could be identified: 166 bones were fish bones. Only one was from a pig.

Eirik's house at Brattahlid, Greenland. Photo by NMB.
In 2012, Arneborg and her colleagues published a series of articles summing up many years of work puzzling out the Greenlanders’ diet. Their conclusion? “Greenland’s Viking settlers gorged on seals.” A press release, linking to the scientific publications, is available here:

Rather than looking at the bones in the Greenlanders’ garbage middens, for this study the researchers analyzed the settlers’ own bones: 80 Norse skeletons preserved in the National Museum of Denmark. They used a technique called isotope analysis that compares the ratio between carbon-13 and carbon-15 in the bones to determine how much of the person’s diet came from land-based food and how much from marine-based food. It can even distinguish between seals and fish.

“Our analysis shows that the Norse in Greenland ate lots of food from the sea, especially seals,” Jan Heinemeier from the Institute of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University told a University of Copenhagen reporter.

So the Greenland Norse did not starve. Why their colony disappeared is still a mystery.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Saga of Herdis, the Bishop's Wife

What is a saga? Confusingly, 140 texts written in Old Icelandic are labeled "sagas." Derived from the Icelandic verb "to say," saga implies neither fact nor falsehood. Today we place the Icelandic sagas in several genres--Family Sagas, Sagas of Ancient Times, Kings' Sagas, Contemporary Sagas (including the Bishops' Sagas), Knights' Tales, and Saints' Lives.

The best, the ones people usually mean when they say "the Icelandic sagas," are the Family Sagas. "The glory of the sagas is indisputable," they are "some sort of miracle," scholars gush. "In no other literature is there such a sense of the beauty of human conduct." Others praise the sagas' "earnest straightforward manner," their crisp dialogue and "simple, lucid sentence structure," their individualistic characters, their gift for drama, their complex structure, "the illusion of reality which they create," and their sophisticated use of "the same devices that we are accustomed to from modern suspense fiction." The Family Sagas are "a great world treasure," comparable to "Homer, Shakespeare, Socrates, and those few others who live at the very heart of human literary endeavor."

The Bishops' Sagas, on the other hand, have been dismissed by one expert as "backwards, stilted in style, and schlocky in hagiographical excess." No one gushes over the Saga of Bishop Pall. Few people, other than specialists, even read it--there's no English translation.

But that doesn't mean there aren't treasures to be found in it. The Saga of Bishop Pall is the only text to mention Margret the Adroit, the best ivory carver in all of Iceland, and the artist at the center of my book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them.

Another fascinating woman introduced in this saga is Herdis, the wife of Bishop Pall. Technically, Pall should have divorced her when he became bishop of Skalholt in southern Iceland in 1195. Church reformers had preached against clerical marriage for hundreds of years. The Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139 officially banned it. If previously married, upon consecration a priest must eject his wife and children from his home and take a vow of celibacy: The church should be his only bride.

Perhaps Pall tried. When he returned to Iceland from his consecration and moved into the bishop's quarters at Skalholt, he left his wife of 20 years and their four children behind at their family estate of Skard. A year later, however, Herdis and the children moved to Skalholt, and Herdis took over running the household. Whether she shared Pall's bed, we do not know; they had no more children. But foregoing her management skills was more than Pall could accept. According to the Saga of Bishop Pall, she was such a good manager that "she had been there only a few winters before there was enough of everything that was needed and nothing was lacking at the estate even if 120 people arrived, on top of the 70 or 80 in the household itself."

At the same time, Herdis continued to manage the family estate at Skard, which "stayed in good shape while she lived," says the saga, "for of all women she was the most zealous, both concerning her own work and that of other people, as experience well shows."

Skard lies between ice and fire. The roiling glacial river Thjorsa marks its western border, the foothills of the looming, cloud-shrouded volcano Hekla rise to the east. Skalholt is 15 miles away, as the raven flies; with two rivers to cross, it's not an easy horseback ride.

One day soon after Easter in 1207, the saga says, Herdis went to Skard to check on the farm there. With her went her son Ketil and daughter Halla, leaving Loft and his sister Thora at Skalholt. While she was there, the glacial river flooded. The ford across the Thjorsa became impassable.

Determined to return to Skalholt on the day arranged, Herdis hired a ferry. Ketil, then 16, and a priest named Bjorn crossed first, carrying over the riding gear and leading the horses, forcing them to swim behind the boat. One horse--Herdis's own--broke free of its rein and was swept down the river. Herdis did not respect the omen.

On the second trip, the wind gusted up. The ferry hit a shoal and flipped, spilling Herdis, her daughter Halla, and her niece Gudrun, as well as the deacon who oversaw Skard and a man named Sigfus, into the icy, turbulent water. Sigfus made it to land, exhausted. The others, while the priest and the boy watched, helpless, drowned. The women, especially, had no chance, weighed down as they were by their heavy wool gowns and cloaks, against a current strong enough to overcome a horse.

"When the news came to Bishop Pall's ears, suddenly, in the middle of the night," the saga says, "it seemed to everyone that God had nearly given him more than he could bear. He could not eat, he could not sleep, until the bodies were buried, though he tried to cheer up everyone else as much as he could."

The pathos of this description--"in the middle of the night ... he tried to cheer up everyone else"--suggests to some scholars that Loft, Pall's son, the one left at home, was the author of the saga. His brother Ketil died in 1215, about 22, but Loft lived to old age, entering a monastery late in life and dying in 1261, about 70 years old.

You can learn more about Bishop Pall and his family in Ivory Vikings. Read about it on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Iceland's Medieval Art

The Lewis chessmen are among the most popular exhibits in the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. Found on the Isle of Lewis in the early 1800s, these walrus-ivory figurines have been called the best-known Scottish archaeological treasure of all time. 

Who carved them? Where? In my book Ivory Vikings, I evaluate the theory that they were made for Bishop Pall of Skalholt, Iceland in about the year 1200 by a woman artist named Margret the Adroit.

According to the Saga of Bishop Pall, the bishop was in the habit of sending expensive gifts to his friends in Norway, Denmark, Greenland, and the Orkney Islands. He surrounded himself with the finest artists in the land, four of whom are named in his saga: Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, Thorstein the Shrine-Smith, and Margret the Adroit, who was the best ivory carver in Iceland.

Until recently, scholars thought the Lewis chessmen must have been carved in a town like Trondheim, Norway. Iceland was too poor and backwards, they thought, to produce such sophisticated works of art.

They didn't know about Bishop Pall and his artists.

Why not? The Saga of Bishop Pall has never been translated into English. Besides, many scholars consider the Icelandic sagas to be fiction. Some of the sagas are. The word "saga" comes from the Icelandic verb segja, "to say," and it doesn't imply either fact or fiction.

The Saga of Bishop Pall, however, is as factual as any medieval chronicle. It falls into the category of Contemporary Sagas. These sagas were composed within a generation of the actions they describe. Their authors were often eyewitnesses to the events. 

The Saga of Bishop Pall is also backed up by archaeology. According to the saga, when Pall died in 1211, he was buried in a stone sarcophagus. This sarcophagus is the only one mentioned in Icelandic records. The country has no tradition of stone sculpture, and even Icelanders did not believe the saga account of Bishop Pall's sarcophagus--until they found it.

Bishop Pall's sarcophagus. From

In the mid-1950s, before the new church was built at Skalholt, archaeologists were called in to excavate. They were uncovering the floorplan of the huge cross-shaped medieval basilica, the largest wooden church in Scandinavia at the time, when one of the workers struck stone. "Of all the things that came to light during the excavations at Skalholt," said archaeologist Kristjan Eldjarn (who later became president of Iceland), "the grave of Pall Jonsson is the most important and meaningful. It is not certain that another such sign and wonder of the Icelandic sagas could ever be unearthed."

You can now see the sarcophagus in the basement of Skalholt Cathedral. Carved out of one large stone, of the soft reddish volcanic tuff found on the hill across the river from Skalholt, it is simple and elegant, its rounded lines ornamented only by two cylindrical knobs projecting from the broader end. The lid has been cracked by fire, perhaps by an inferno in 1309 that destroyed the cathedral, but otherwise the coffin shows little damage.

When it was opened, the researchers found a bishop's crozier carved from walrus ivory resting on the shoulder of the skeleton.

Bishop Pall. From
In 2012, any question that the skeleton was not that of Pall Jonsson was put to rest by carbon dating, which dated a bone sample to between 1165 and 1220. Pall lived from 1155 to 1211.

Bishop Pall's crozier.
Margret the Adroit would have remained a colorful detail in a little-read saga if the Icelanders had not decided to build that new, modern cathedral at Skalholt--and called first for an archaeological excavation. The existence of Pall's sarcophagus vouches for the overall truth of the Saga of Bishop Pall. The ivory crozier found inside it calls to mind the one Margret carved out of walrus tusk, the saga says, "so skillfully that no one in Iceland had seen such artistry before."

Bishop Pall's crozier is now on display in the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. We don't know if Margret made it, but if the one she carved was comparable, she was clearly a talented artist. And the description of Pall in his saga proves that this lover of fine things has the means, the motivation, and the taste to commission the Lewis chessmen.

(This story was first published on the "Stuck in Iceland" blog,

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):