From the western lip of Almannagja Fissure, the view spans continents: the fissure is the western boundary of a graben (a depressed block of rock bordered by two parallel faults) that marks the Mid-Atlantic Ridge cutting through Iceland. The 8 km long fissure is one of the rift features that makes Thingvellir National Park such a dramatic setting, caught between the North American and Eurasian plates. The tectonic plates pulling apart formed the landscape into lava fields and rift scarps, with tall cliffs and shallow rift lakes forming a backdrop to a cultural landscape that is equally impressive. Thingvellir National Park was the site of the Althing, the Icelandic national assembly, from 930 to 1798 C.E. For the Norse, a “thing” was a governing assembly of the free members of society, where laws were set and disputes were settled. Fragments of the stone and turf booths where attendees of the Althing met in the open air are still visible in the park; it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 for its significance to Icelandic culture and history.
Recent news of Norse remains in North America has rekindled my interest in what was once the main theme of this blog, the connections between literature, myth, and archaeology. Much of Viking archaeology has been spurred by scholarship of medieval literature; some of the most notable archaeological discoveries of the past two centuries have been those guided by details from the classical and medieval epics. The impulse to look for archaeological roots to literary sources like the Icelandic Sagas, with their accounts of Viking adventures spanning Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and America, illustrates the power that stories have over even the most academic of imaginations, causing researchers to embark on long quests for sites like the lost Viking Vinland.
The Icelandic Sagas are prose histories written in the 13th and 14th centuries describing events that took place in the 10th and 11th. While most of the sagas focus on folk stories or family histories, some depict the Viking expansion westward: the settlement of Iceland, Greenland and the western land known as “Vinland.” Stripped of their supernatural trimmings of ghosts and seers, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Eirik the Red tell similar stories of the arrival of Icelanders on the northeast coast of America, at first the accidental result of the harsh storms of the northern Atlantic, but later a deliberate attempt at colonization, four centuries prior to Columbus.