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Margret Hallmundsdottir is an archaeologist who has been conducting assignments for Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park since 2010. Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a place of tremendous beauty–and historical and cultural significance, as the location of the world’s oldest parliament. I met Margret at Thingvellir, as she was on the ground–literally. Indeed, she describes herself as “a typical dirt archaeologist….. we are the one that dig and dig and are constantly in the field as others write and travel and talk.”
Previously, Margret worked at the Árnesinga Folk Museum from 2000-2009. While there, she completed her degree in archaeology, had three children, and worked cleaning the floors of stores at night.
In sharing with us her experience and heritage, Margret gives us a window into Iceland as a country, and into our shared human condition–that we are all shaped by our cultural landscapes. Margret embodies her own observations of the Icelandic people as products of their history and environment–hardworking and resilient. At the same time, she is a proponent of “softer” skills–such as story-telling and artisanal traditions–as having real-life, practical benefits that upcoming generations need to be empowered with–or our societies will suffer the consequences. Enjoy her story!
Meg: What about your early life made you want to become an archaeologist?
Margret: When I was 10-years old I decided to become an archaeologist. From very early on, I was fascinated by the past. A few years before I was born, my mother went to Italy and bought a lot of books about Roman history. When I was three to 10-years-old, I would look at them all the time. My mother told me about Pompeii and I loved to hear her talk about it. So I think it was my mother that lit this passion about the past. She was a stay-at-home mum, but she was incredibly smart and well-read and the most intelligent person I have ever known. My father was a master carpenter who never understood my passion for the past.
Iceland’s Thingvellir is a UNESCO Heritage site where the country’s forms of government & religion evolved
Meg: We met at Thingvellir, which is an amazing national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Can you share an overview of the park and its historical significance?
Margret: This is difficult to describe in few words. No single place epitomizes the history of Iceland and the Icelandic nation better than Þingvellir by the river Öxará. Iceland was settled in the late ninth century A.D. The settlers were mostly from Norway and the British Isles. At Þingvellir – literally “Parliament Plains” – the Alþing general assembly was established around 930 and continued to convene there until 1798. The assembly consisted of the law council, called lögrétta. Their people would be sentenced for crimes.
Paganism was widely accepted from the beginning of the settlement period, though some settlers were almost certainly Christian. Icelanders worshipped the old Gods with sacrifices. At the same time, the practice of Christianity was spreading in neighboring countries. Prior to the year 1000, various attempts at spreading Christianity to Iceland were made with varying results, but the pagan practices still held fast.
Then, in the summer of 1000, a great event happened at the Alþing at Þingvellir. Chaos threatened the young society as the Parliament was split into two groups: pagans and Christians. Each faction had its own Law Speaker and refused to acknowledge the laws of the other side. The two Law Speakers agreed that Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, the pagan Law Speaker, should decide which religion all Icelanders should follow. Þorgeir hid himself away for a night and a day, then walked to the Lögberg and declared publicly that Icelanders should take up Christianity, suggesting that pagans might continue to practice their religion in secret.
Þorgeir’s decision was brilliant. He knew that if Icelanders did not take up Christianity, as the kings of Scandinavia demanded, they would not send ships here to trade, and we would have become isolated. His decision was that we would take up the new faith but we could practice the old in secret and still do pagans practices. My opinion is that this was a brilliant political act.
Thingvellir was the center of Icelandic culture. Every year, people would flock to Thingvellir from all over the country during the two weeks of the assembly, sometimes numbering in the thousands. They set up dwellings with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing and stayed in them for the two weeks of the assembly.
Although the duties of the assembly were the real purpose in going there, ordinary people gathered at Thingvellir for a wide variety of reasons. Merchants, would sell their goods and services, and ale-makers brewed drinks for the assembly guests, no less than leading national figures and experts in law. News was told from distant parts; games and feasts were held. Young people met to make their plans. Itinerant farmhands looked for work and vagrants begged. Thingvellir was a meeting place for everyone in Iceland, laying the foundation for the language and literature that have been a prominent part of people’s lives right up to the present day. Major events in the history of Iceland have taken always place at Þingvellir and therefore the place is held in high esteem by all Icelanders.
Meg: Iceland was one of the world’s earliest democracies. Can you explain the meaning and significance of Lögberg, the Law Rock?
Margret: Lögrétta was the legislative assembly and therefore the supreme institution of the Alþing in the Commonwealth period, which was the era from the time of Iceland’s settlement until 1262 when the country become a subject of the Norwegian king. The work of the Lögrétta was multifaceted as it settled disputes, passed new laws and granted exemption from laws.
The Law Speaker governed Lögrétta meetings at which 48 chieftains sat on a central platform. Each chieftain had two advisors who sat in front and behind him. After the bishoprics at Hólar and Skálholt were established, the bishops also had seats at the Lögrétta. The number of men who sat at the Lögrétta was thus 146, or 147 if the Law Speaker wasn’t a chieftain. The Lögrétta met on both Sundays included in the general assembly, as well as on its last day, and more often if the Law Speaker so desired. Everyone was free to follow the proceedings of the Lögrétta, but no one was allowed to stand within the terraced area.
A Day in the Life of Thingvellir Archaelogist
Meg: You’ve worked as an archaeologist at Thingvellir since 2010. Can you describe your duties, and share a little bit about a couple of your most interesting finds?
Margret: I started out on a brief assignment by the church to observe any archaeological impact while new pavement was being installed. It is required by law that an archaeologist must be present to monitor disruption to a historical site, especially in place like Þingevellir. What was supposed to be few days turned out to be 12-week excavation because naturally there were remains under the turf, including an older part of the church.
Then I started doing a survey of all the archaeology in the park. That work is ongoing but has been a bit on hold, due to a big increase in tourists. All the energy of the park has been to accommodate those guests as best we can. This huge tourist expansion was very rapid in Iceland and we have been doing our best to strengthen our tourist industry to cope with that.
What surprises me most in þingvellir as an archaeologist is that the remains are everywhere. And we can see that we know so little about the past in Þingvellir. This is due to limited archaeological research excavation in the park. There is still so much information that the ground holds and so much history that we do not know about.
So many times my heart has jumped as I have been excavating, sometimes because of a find or artifact, sometimes because I realized I was unearthing a building when seeing a few stones in a row, or finding a floor layer. It all depends on the context of what I am doing. One Thingvellir find that stand out is silver coins that can be dated from Otto III from 983-1002. Otto III became a king at three years-old and was killed at 19. His grandmother Adilhide ruled with the him so the coin is marked Otto und Adilhide. A copper weight I found in Thingvellir was also very special, and my gold signet ring. All of these finds I found around the church in Thingvellir. But there are so many more I could tell you about.
Meg: Would you say an independent spirit is a characteristic of Icelanders? I realize that all people are different, but can you share your thoughts on the essence of the Icelandic character, and what you believe shaped that?
Margret: We are very special people and our tough nature is because we are a very small nation of just over 360,000 souls, and we are an island in the middle of the Atlantic. This all makes Icelanders the way we are. Icelanders are generally very hardworking. This trait may be rooted in our Viking origins, or from living and laboring in a harsh terrain for centuries. It is not at all unusual for people today to work two or even three jobs. Most Icelanders start working at a very early age and the government even provides kids with summer jobs from the age of thirteen if they are eager. Most teenagers have a part-time job alongside their studies, and are eager for financial independence.
We might come across as closed-off at first, at least especially for Americans, as we do not use small talk. The conversations at the counter would be, “Good morning”, the amount and “Would you like a bag?” But during the last three years we have added, “Have a nice day”, most likely due to tourism. Icelanders are perceived as rude by some newcomers, but this is only because we tend to talk straight and to the point. It also means that Icelanders will not go out of their way to please you unless they genuinely like you, then you can expect very helpful people. We love to have fun and if there is alcohol involved, we will burst out singing a lot. We are proud, strong, hard working people. We might be described as people of fire and Ice. We can be a bit ice-y at first but get to know us. There is a lot of fire underneath, just like our country.
Epic sagas depict historical events from the Viking Age; Icelanders are still storytellers
Meg: I have read that Iceland has one of the world’s highest literacy rates. Certainly, when many people think of Iceland they think of the sagas. For those who are unfamiliar with the sagas, can you explain what they are?
Margret: The family sagas as they are called are prose narratives mostly based on historical events that mostly took place in Iceland in the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries, during the so-called Saga Age. Most of them were written in the 13th-century. They were written on calf skin as paper was not available. They tell stories of the settlers. Landnáma is about who settled where in Iceland. There we have information on the names and the origins of all the major settlers in Iceland.
The sagas are of course written a few centuries after the events are to have happened. Some say that they are all fiction but most likely the sagas are based on memories of actual events and people that lived here in the settlement period, that were preserved through oral tradition until they were written down. Of course it is possible that the writers would color the saga and perhaps change the stories during the period it was being of oral tradition. Archaeology has confirmed that some things are true, but we always have to assume that it changed. In my opinion the sagas are based on true story or events, and like in films and T.V., things get added on for entertainment.
Meg: You were the manager of a project that taught Viking Age skills and was part of the Leonardo Education Program of the European Community. Can you describe what the purpose of the training was, and what the Leonardo program is?
Margret: The Leonardo da Vinci program is a European Commission funding program focused on the teaching and training needs of those involved in vocational education and training. The program is part of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Program 2007–2013 and aims to build a skilled and mobile workforce across Europe. The program’s goal is to enhance the competitiveness of the European labor market by helping European citizens to acquire new skills, knowledge and qualifications and have them recognized across borders. It also supports innovations and improvements in vocational education and training systems and practices. All of the projects funded by the Leonardo da Vinci program involve working with European partners.
The main point is ensuring the ancient knowledge behind these practices does not become extinct and die out. The project that I was running was with Germany, England, Romania, Denmark and Iceland. We aimed to teach old Viking skills all over Europe. We built three houses, restored a German longhouse, made tar, carved wood, and did iron work.
We also made Viking beads, which were the jewelry of their time and perhaps a status symbol–the more you had, the better off you were. Women wore them on their chest between oval broaches. We found them in graves and in cultural layers from Viking Age especially in Viking houses, where they must have been mislaid. For example, I found nine beads in the floor of the longhouse that I excavated last summer.
Meg: From 2012 – 2015, you were involved in projects in experimental archaeology. Can you tell us what “experimental ” archaeology is, and also discuss a little bit about the craft of the Viking Age?
Margret: Experimental archaeology is when you try to reconstruct things from the past or use methods from the past in order to gain a better understanding of a procedure or technique. This is very important to me as an archaeologist because I believe that in order to understand what I am finding in the ground I need to know as much as I can about the process. For example, when I found an iron production site from the Viking Age, I was able to fully appreciate the significance of the site. That’s because a few years before, I had made an experiment of smelting bog iron myself and that helped me understand the procedure and what was coming up from the ground. I understood what I was seeing there.
Meg: You were manager of a project to foster adult learning from 2010-2012 called “Empowerment Through Storytelling and Folklore.’ Can you describe the program?
Margret: This was a project with a few EU countries that focused on storytelling and how important storytelling has been in Europe. We had workshops for people of all ages to learn from storytellers and be able to pass storytelling on. A primary goal was enabling young people to learn from older people how to tell stories and to teach the importance of telling stories. Because storytelling is becoming less and less the way it was due to changes in our societies. We wanted to learn from people that still have the skill of storytelling. Storytelling is something that each nation has but it is declining fast. The project was all about keeping this old tradition alive.
The idea of “empowerment” was meant as encouragement to people to tell stories, to teach them how to effectively tell stories and to demonstrate what storytelling is about. I myself learned that other countries have people who are known specifically as storytellers. But in Iceland we do not have a word for storyteller as such–we just say ‘he or she tells stories.’ In my opinion, this is because storytelling is such a large part of our identity that in fact we all consider ourselves storytellers in Iceland.
We love to tell stories! It is just very normal for us from a very young age. Perhaps times have change over the last 20-30 years but people my age and older can tell stories, and we know a lot of them. We live in isolated farms all over Iceland so storytelling was our way of survival in the darkness. My generation has grandparents and great-grandparents who lived in turf houses. So storytelling is in our blood and that is why we do not have a word or a profession for storyteller as such. Other countries do and that is what I learned most from this project: the importance of storytelling.
I learned that by listening to a good storyteller you become a child again. I was given this insight by an Irish storyteller named Clare Murphy. She said ‘I am going to tell you a story. First, notice how you are sitting: you have your arms crossed on your chest and you feel that you are too old to sit in and listen to a grown-up tell you a story.’ Then she began and she was a fantastic storyteller. When she finished she said ‘See how you sit now, you sit like a kid! Your body is leaning forward from the back of the chair you have been smiling and laughing the whole time, you are perfectly relaxed and your mouth was open a lot when I was telling you the story. You felt all the emotion of the story, you became sad, excited and happy all at once. The adults who sat there with their arms crossed on the chest became children just because I told you a good story.’ She was soooo right! This happened! The power of storytelling is so magnificent. We have to do everything to not lose this.
We have to fight so that this story-telling tradition will not die. We have to read to our children and tell them stories both from our lives and our families’ lives, and just stories of everything. I fear that our young generation will miss out on things because they can access everything within seconds. They do not have to ask about anything anymore, and say “Mom, how was this in the past ? Why did this happen?’ They just Google everything they need to know, and boy are they good at that! What do we have to teach them when they literally have the whole world in their hand all the time?
Icelandic share traditions & folklore with Ireland and Scotland
Meg: You studied folklore, and held several positions at the Árnesinga Folk Museum before undertaking assignments at Thingvellir. Can you share some overall thought about the Icelandic traditions in folklore?
Margret: At the time I saw that I was able to start university, I was 27 years-old and the mother of two boys. I knew that in the fall of 2002, archaeology would be offered as a course of study for the first time in Iceland. So I decided to start continuing my education by taking folklore while I waited for archaeology to be offered. I took folklore as a minor degree. I knew that I would learn things that would be useful to me later and I just have genuine interest in all regarding the past.
We have seen that many of our fairy tales and folk stories are the same as those from Ireland and the Scottish isles. We have elves and hidden people like the Irish, and we have trolls like in Norway. The Icelandic folk stories came with the settlers from their countries. We know for a fact that around 60-64 % of the women settled in Iceland were from Ireland and Scotland, especially the north and the isles in Scotland. This is why we have so much similarity in folklore with them.
Because of our rural living, the stories lived on for hundreds of years. We were a country of just farmers spread out all over this huge land. There was a long distance between farmers. Isolation was very great. People sometime just met others in church once a week and others lived too remotely to attend church so perhaps they did not meet other people for weeks and months. This is why the very stories from the age of Iceland being settled lived on in oral tradition until they were put down on calf skin.
After printing started in the 17th century most of the books that were printed were Christian books. Books have always been important. Farmers prized owning many books. Some of them had the old saga manuscripts in calf skin. Some people ate the calf skin during the famines so many were lost. In the 18th century a man who had been educated abroad started to collect these books from all over Iceland from farmers and churches, some completely intact, others just in parts. This is what saved our sagas and manuscripts. So folklore and the sagas are very important to us.
Meg: Can you tell us a little bit about the Árnesinga Folk Museum?
Margret: It is a very small museum in a small village on the south coast of Iceland called Eyrarbakki. The museum is in a house that once was the home of merchants in Eyrarbakki–originally Danish merchants and later Icelandic. The shop in Eyrarbakki was huge and people from all over the south would travel to Eyarbakki twice a year to sell their woolen products and exchange them for imported goods like sugar, wine, grain and household items.
Eyarbakki has been a trading center in Iceland since its settlement. We know that trading took place there in many forms from the beginning. First trading ships sailed up the Ölfusá River and traded from the ship. The harbor in Eyrarbakki has always been awful so the ships had to lay anchor outside and goods were transported to shore by small boats.
Then in 1104, Hekla erupted for the first time since the country was settled and the ash and pumice filed up the river so ships were not able to sail on it. But the eruption did not end the trading there. The Bishop in Skálhollt had all his ships land there and had a warehouse there. People from all over the south would come to Eyarabakki to trade during the summer.
Then the Danish king started a monopoly in Iceland and Danish merchants were only allowed to trade in the summer and had to go back to Denmark in the winter. The country was divided into shopping districts and you had to shop in your district. The south is a huge area, and all those people had to trade in Eyrarbakki. If you dared to shop elsewhere, you could face back-whipping.
This was like this until around 1765, when the Danish merchants were allowed to stay for the whole year round. Even after the Danish–Icelandic Trade Monopoly was abolished, trading continued at Eyrarbakki up until the early 20th century. Thus, the town was an important village for centuries. At one point it was one the busiest towns in the whole country but the lack of a good harbor was a major obstacle to growth. And after a bridge was built on the river Ölfusá in the late 19th century its fate was sealed.
My work at the Museum was meeting guests, working on the infrastructure of the museum, and later running the archaeology department. Of course, the highlight was taking over the archaeology as soon as I finished my degree. While I was studying archaeology, I worked at the museum in the morning and took classes in the afternoon plus raised three small children. At night I worked cleaning floors in stores after they closed. After midnight I would do homework. The challenge was to be able to do all this. Today I do not understand how I was able to do this but with a supportive husband and a desire to fulfill my childhood dream about becoming an archaeologist I managed to do and graduated with my first degree at the age of 32.
Meg: The landscape of Iceland is one of the most spectacular I’ve experienced, and I’ve been a lot of places. Do you have any personal observations about the role of the landscape in the country’s culture and its history?
Margret: When the settlers came to Iceland they did not come for the scenery, they came to look for land and better lives for their families. They built up a nation in beautiful nature but in a very difficult environment. The most challenging things are perhaps that we live on a volcanic island and on average every three years or so a volcanic eruption happens somewhere in Iceland. In 1784, for example, a large part of the nation died due to the eruption and its aftermath.
This has sharpened us because we constantly have to fight the elements and today we are 360,000 descendants of the strongest people–people who survived eruptions, earthquakes, famines, and hunger. So, yes, I would say that the landscape has sharpened us. We are very strong and independent people.
Iceland is located very north so our winters are long and cold and daylight during the darkest winter is less than four hours but we have fantastic summers with 24 hours of daylight. Knowing that helps us survive the dark and cold winters. But nature, as difficult as it was for us in the past, has also given us great gifts. We have so many natural resources. We have plenty of warm water from the ground that we are able to heat our houses with minimum cost. About 85% of the total primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from domestically produced renewable energy sources. This is the highest share of renewable energy in any national total energy budget. Thanks to Iceland’s position on a volatile section of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland is a world leader in the use of geothermal energy, and there are six geothermal power plants in Iceland.
Meg: Can you share what you consider your most rewarding moments?
Margret: Being able to make my dream come true and become an archaeologist and then having the opportunity to work as full-time archaeologist since graduation. Running my own scientific research excavation on two sites since 2006 is very rewarding, as is working with the National Park of Þingvellir with all the great people there. There is not much more that I can ask for as an archaeologist. Personally, the most rewarding is that 24 years ago I met my husband, who has been my rock ever since. Being able to have three healthy beautiful children and watch them become wonderful young people. I consider myself a very fortunate person both personally and professionally.
Meg: Do you have a life philosophy that you could share, and, if so, how has Iceland’s environment and history shaped your world view?
Margret: My favorite expression is “If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger.” I think it sums up everything that has made us who we are here in Iceland. We are the descendants of the ones who survived and it is our environment and history that makes this my all-time favorite expression. And I genuinely believe that we are here to learn from the things that life puts in our path.