Sailing out of the Sagas

By Amber Sandlin
Sun Star Reporter

Jon Erlandon gives a synopsis of Egil's Saga on Thursday Oct. 14, 2010. April Massey / Sun Star.

What do Vikings, the West Coast and Alaska have in common?  Professor Jon Erlandson studies them all. Erlandson currently serves as the Director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Oregon and studies the origins and development of maritime societies, human migrations and the peopling of the Americas. While his primary research interest is on the California Coast, Erlandson discussed his findings from a multi-year dig at several Viking Age sites in the Mosfell Valley in Iceland. On Thursday, Oct. 14, Erlandson came to UAF to discuss his findings.

Erlandson spoke of discoveries that he and his team had made that had been based on the Sagas of Icelanders. The Sagas were written in the 13th century and contain a wealth of information on social relations and cultural practices during the Viking Age, which lasted from the 8th-11th centuries. There is a debate however, on whether individuals, events and places described in the Sagas are primarily historical or fictional. American scholars tend to adhere to the historical argument, whereas European scholars believe the Sagas to be fiction.

Erlandson quoted a section of Egil’s Saga, the story of the 10th century warrior-poet Egil Skallgrimsson.  The passage described a discovery under an old church altar of large bones – almost inhumanely large – believed to have belonged to Egil himself.  The bones, the Saga continues, were dug up from their original resting place and later re-interred at a newer church nearby.

Erlandson then went on to tell the story of an old farmer living in the Mosfell Valley who claimed Egil had once been buried on his land. At the invitation of the farmer, Erlandson and a team of researchers began a series of multi-year digs in the area. Early in the excavation, the team discovered the ruins of an early Christian church that matched the church mentioned in the Sagas. While Egil’s bones were never found at the site, the team did find a burial plot underneath what would have been the church’s altar.

During their examination of the area, Erlandson’s team also discovered that an adjoining hill looked oddly unnatural. A closer examination revealed that the hill was man-made, and had been shaped to mimic the prow of a longship.

“Archaeology takes imagination to form the creation of symbolic features, such as the ship features at [the discovery location],” Erlandson said. After having discovered the boat-shaped hill, Erlandson invited local Icelandic archaeologists to the site. The native archaeologists, however, failed to see the prow-like shape; a failure Erlandson blames on the European academic community’s treatment of the Icelandic sagas.

Erlandson said that his team’s discoveries show that the Sagas should not be thought of as simple mythology or fiction, but instead should be taken as viable sources for historical inquiry.

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