If you’re a history-nut, which I can proudly proclaim I am, the first thing you might do when traveling to a new place is check out its museums, investigate it’s history. Iceland interested me because of its weird geography, but also because of its interesting past. Having an affinity for Viking/Scandinavian folklore, I was drawn to it’s roots. So on my second day in Reykjavik I journeyed forth to explore the local lore. After some styr(Icelandic yogurt) salami and coffee, I set out towards the Perlan or Pearl, home of the Saga Museum. It sits easily within view, high on a hill above Rekjavik proper.
It was a pleasant twenty minute walk to said hill. Along the way I enjoyed some interesting streets and odd advertisements. Foreign adverts are one of my favorite things about traveling. My favorite Icelandic ad so far was for their national coat company of choice, 66 north.
The Pearl is an interesting building, a glinting glass dome atop four of the city’s main water tanks. Apparently it has an awesome revolving restaurant upstairs during the high season. The prices also make your head spin.
Just inside I was greeted by a grimacing Viking. I guessed I was in the right place. The Saga museum focuses on key characters and events outlined in the country’s history and legends, told for hundreds of years before they were written down. Kind of like a eerie silicon figure time-line from the first settlement to christian reformation. I’ve read(or tried to read) a couple of the Sagas and was interested to see how much actual history is woven into the fiction. Where that line should be drawn is debateable, but the sagas provide an excellent historical framework where written records can’t be found. I did the audio guide, it proved worth it to get the extra info. Here’s the essentials you need to know:
- Iceland is supposed to have been originally colonized by Irish monks. Not a lot of archaeological evidence for it besides place names. Apparently they got out when the heathens showed up.
- Vikings from modern Norway were the first permanent settlers. They were organized in chieftain/family groups until it was necessary to set up some provisional government. This would grow to be the Althingi, the first European parliament where chieftains met and discussed laws, disputes, etc.
- The Althingi made the decision to convert the entire island to Christianity around the year 1000. Though the old Norse gods would remain for centuries to come as the culture shifted.
It was a very visceral introduction to Icelandic history. A crude, but effective reminder that these aren’t just stories on rags and bones in the dust. There are real people and real struggles at the heart of these tales. I was struck by how bleak of an existence living in ancient Iceland must have been. Yet this was(and still is) a land famous for its artists, poets and craftsmen. I was also impressed, if a little freaked out, by how life-like some of the figures were. This is no Madame Tussaud’s but you can tell a ton of care went into making everything feel accurate and lived in. Check out the gallery at the end of the blog for more scary wax viking goodness.
Overall I found the Saga Museum very interesting, if a little bit brief. The figures lead you in a circle in a small room(ending in a gift shop of course) that would have been very disappointing had I not purchased the audio guide. However if you find yourself in need of a pleasant walk, a little history and some breathtaking views, the Pearl is worth a Trip.
As my first museum of the day, It did serve as an excellent prologue to the day’s main attraction, The National Museum of Iceland.
After a quick bite to eat I set out across town, along the winding highway. My destination was about a half-hour walk from the Pearl, and with my trusty android phone and my backup fold-up paper map I was a master navigator, like the Norse boatmen of old! Right?
What happened next shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who knows me. I got lost. Leave it to me, in the smallest capital city in Europe.
I blame it on the local language. Its beautiful to listen to and, aesthetically, I can appreciate its long, nonsensical words. I had even written down the long trains of symbols that I was looking for on my map. With circles. And arrows. And red ink. But when it came down to it the only word I could recognize was the name of the damn country, “Island”.
I knew the sign in front of the museum would be something like “Visiknigcigign Neshviskd des Island” or Something something something of Iceland. To my joy, after following the directions I found myself in a circle of official looking buildings, each supporting signs fitting that very description! They even had studious looking people coming and going! Surely this was the place. I put away my map and walked straight into the lobby of the first building, one happy camera toting, backpack wearing tourist. Strange that a museum would have armed guards. Or a buzz through lobby protected by bulletproof glass.
I had wandered into a high security section of the University of Iceland. Specifically a building reserved for high-tech genetic research. I was promptly escorted out. In a nice way.
But all was well. Turns out I was just on the wrong end of campus. I turned the corner and there it stood like a longboat in the harbor.
I opted to go without the audio guide for this museum. I wanted to take my time with the bones, the wood, the iron. No more facsimiles, this was the real thing. These were the real artifacts, crafted by the same hard hands that forged this land out of fire, ice and steel. And it was worth getting lost to end up here.
The layout made it easy. You ascend a series of steps and arrive amid the remains of ancient Iceland. It was a little overwhelming at first as there was so much to take in. But focusing on the path laid out before me led me through the ages, beginning with the country’s volcanic history. Layers of sediment behind glass tell the tale of volcanoes erupting 20 million years ago, thrusting up this young nation from the Mid-Atlantic ridge. It is the continued broiling of this hot-spot that provides the geothermal energy to heat the city. And the country continues to grow, as the continental plates drift apart at a rate of 2cm per year.
Next I was led to dwell on the buried remains of early settlers; an infant and it’s mother, a warrior buried with his horse. Along with them were combs, jewelry, even game pieces. All the diversion a corpse could ask for on the journey to Paradise.
Paradise in this case was Valhalla, a land of eternal battle and feasting. If you died with a sword in your hand, you were honored by Odin, Thor and all the Norse gods in this grand hall. If you died in bed, it was off to Hel. Hel’s a she. Daughter of Loki. She’s not pleasant.
Continuing, I was led down rows of lit drawers filled with artifacts. There were many shiny bits of treasure, jewelry, coin and woven finery, but also many common place items as well. I really enjoyed looking at the common man’s tools, what he used to till the ground and feed his family. Some tools and jewelry could easily be in use today. In fact they’d look damn fashionable.
Next we moved into ecclesiastical territory as the country transitioned from pagan to christian theology. As time passed the technology improved and I became astounded by the detail, the artistry at work in the woven fabric, the wrought metal and carved wood. I feel like any metal smith or carpenter today would be proud to call this their work, and I don’t even want to think about how much they would charge for it’s production.
I love the way this museum was laid out. I was never at a loss for information. Alongside every artifact and display was a brief written explanation along with many interactive video displays, speaking in several languages. Every effort was made to humanize the subject, to see from their perspective. Skeletons were laid in the ground beneath your feet. Ornately carved wooden beams encircled tiny enclosures where sacred objects sat in dim light. The only downside was the sheer amount of things to look at. Some parts of the museum feel cluttered, but its not a big place and I can understand. There’s not a single item I saw that didn’t deserve it’s place on the floor.
The second floor was interesting as well, displaying life in Iceland as it was up until the mid-twentieth century. I’m more of an ancient history kind of guy, but it was fascinating how little life changed for the common man in that span of time.
Overall this museum was the highlight of my day, an excellent tour of Icelandic history. A trip to Reykjavik isn’t complete without it.
After a quick bite to eat and a coffee, I was ready to leave, when I saw that I had missed something. Something small, but important. An imprint of old ideas onto the new.
This tiny statue might be the Norse god Thor, lord of the thunder. Or it might be an early representation of the christian God. It might have been used as both. We’ll probably never know, but It could easily go either way. Whenever I read about this process of conversion, this is the artifact I see featured the most, and I almost missed him. Seeing him at the end served to remind me of the impact our first stories have on us, even in modern times. Worshiped or not, the old gods and the old ways are still here. You can’t separate them from the culture any more than you can it’s modern christian values. Maybe the best beliefs come from blending local traditions with imported revelations.
Like good coffee. Or scotch.
As I dodged raindrops back to my hostel, I saw one more museum. Amid the shops and restaurants of downtown sits the Settlement Exhibition, an underground exploration of an ancient longhouse buried beneath the city. Dated at around 871 AD, it represents the earliest known settlers on the island.
Primarily it served to show what the area would have been like for those first settlers. And though the house itself is little more than a circle of stones, the museum fills in the gaps with interactive videos and projected table displays that allow you to explore the house. IN 3D! Well in projected 2-d on a table 3-d. The best part for me was the panorama around the site, which tried to show what the natural environment of the bay would have been like before human habitation.
It was interesting, but not worth twenty dollars. Probably the least inspired of the things I saw that day. If you’re really bored and you’ve seen everything else, I suppose. The museum has a tie-in with a recreated village on the other side of town that I would have liked to see…but it wasn’t open while I was there. Damn it shoulder season…
That about does it for my history day. After that I jumped outside and grabbed a hot dog. This stand was much ballyhooed by many to be the most popular food stop in the whole city. I have to admit, they were tasty. Worth the line.
Then I hung out in the huge Opera House/Borg Cube to wait out the rain. Why hasn’t this place been used in a star trek movie yet?
Thanks for reading! Click on me face for the photos!
Next up I see some killer landmarks and chase some green ghosts in the sky! The Golden Circle awaits!!
Onward to glory!