Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Vikings are Coming!

That was the headline in my copy of this morning's Observer which has quite a large feature on the cultural invasion of Britain by a number of forthcoming 'TV sagas, epic novels and a major exhibition' which 'testify to a fascination with all things Norse'. All of that is excellent news. But OK, dear Observer, if only you'd been reading this blog, you'd have known that they never really went away!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme Dat Ding

Some years ago, on one of my rambles to Orkney, I stopped off in Dingwall, Ross-shire. As all Viking aficionados know, the place-name comes from an Old Norse word for an assembly site, found most notably at Þingvellir in Iceland, but also at several places in these islands, the two Thingwalls on either side of the Mersey, or Tynwald on the Isle of Man, plus a few scattered about the Scottish islands. On that brief visit to Dingwall, I wandered into the museum, and saw a few signs of Viking awareness, but not many. Otherwise, it was a charming place.

Now I read in The North Star that the very town centre car park in which I parked my car on that day is reported to be the site of the Viking Age assembly mound, according to some rather vaguely unspecified archaeological investigations (though not yet excavations) carried out last month. The various worthy persons interviewed in the article all foresee a great future for Dingwall as a Viking tourist hotspot. How things change in a few years...

While searching for a suitable image for this post, I came across the above golden bull on a handsome black plinth. If you look carefully, there is an attempt to render the name Dingwall in both Old Norse and runes, but, oh so sadly, such a dismal attempt, especially the runes. They are really neither one thing nor tother, and I'm not even that sure what exactly they are meant to spell. I predict a rash of dodgy 'runic' inscriptions in Viking tourist spots around the country, each one feebler than the last. Please, please, please guys, if you want to do something like that, get in touch with a real runologist, like those splendid chaps at Hotell Svava and Kirkwall Airport did.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Ships and Men

The exciting recent discovery of an intact Viking Age male weapon burial in a 5m. boat on the Ardnamurchan peninsula has been widely reported in the media today, for instance The Guardian. Apparently, the artefacts are fantastic - the electronic version of the Guardian article has a nice short film of an axehead being dug up. We all await further details. And luckily, a few of the guy's teeth have been preserved, so we will soon know what he ate and where he grew up, once Janet Montgomery has done her work of stable isotope analysis. Ardnamurchan, though isolated today, is of course on the main seaway from Norway, through the Northern and Western Isles, and down to the Irish Sea, so it is not at all surprising to find such a burial there, rather than on the islands, which is where all previous ones have been found.

The excitement is tinged with sadness at the almost simultaneous announcement of the death of Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, the nestor of Viking boat and ship studies. He's the third eminent Viking to die (all of them far too young) within the last six weeks or so, following hard on the heels of Mark Blackburn and Richard Hall. May they all have a splendid feast in Valhalla together, while the surf pounds outside, as Ormr Barreyjarskáld might have said at the Ardnamurchan funeral:
Útan gnýr á eyri
Ymis blóð fara góðra.
Ymir's blood [the sea] crashes out there on to the sand-bank of good vessels.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Wasdale Web

By a happy coincidence, I have just been (re-)reading Vatnsdœla saga today, on the very same day that fellow blogger Emily, over on Saga-steads, is travelling through Vatnsdalur itself (its northern reaches pictured right). Her blog is its usual readable self, with interesting observations about the afterlife of the sagas in present-day Iceland, and some beautiful photos (she seems to have had better weather than I did!). But the best nugget in her blog is that the inhabitants of the valley are currently working on a tapestry version of the saga, à la Bayeux. So far, all they seem to have is a drawing of chapter 26 of the saga, on which they are embroidering away, but it looks really good - you can recognise the events of the chapter quite easily.

Even my favourite bit of chapter 26 is there, though it is hard to represent visually (see if you can find it...). The hero Thorstein sends his shepherd off to find out what is going on at a neighbouring farm he is in dispute with. He tells him to recite poetry while he waits for them to answer his knock. When the shepherd returns and tells Thorstein that he had recited twelve verses before they admitted him, then Thorstein knows for sure that skulduggery is afoot. Presumably, it can be worked out by timing a standard dróttkvætt stanza and multiplying it by twelve - I make it about six minutes. An interesting thought that poetry can be used as a measure of time...

The title of this post, by the way, refers to Vatnsdalur's English namesake, Wasdale in the Lake District, and its WWW presence. Just thought I'd get that in, since I'm going thither again soon - but it also seemed appropriate. W.G. Collingwood thought Vatnsdalur one of the most beautiful valleys in Iceland, and the same could be said of Wasdale. Now they just lack a tapestry (and a saga).