"A Congo Village for Western Norwegians": Njardarheimr in Gudvangen

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It was a regular humid Saturday morning here in New Jorvik, USA, when I opened my browser hoping for news of the old country, so that just for a minute or two I could forget the dismal stank of the big city. Scrolling through my feed, I was swept to the edge of my seat at the sight of a letter to the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen from the day before. It seemed to be a merciless slaughter of the newly erected "viking village" of Vikingvalley - Njar­darheimr in Gudvangen, on the beautiful banks of Nærøyfjorden, incidently a UNESCO world heritage site (the landscape, not the village).

I leaned over to light a smoke from the perpetually burning miniature raven banner that stands on my desk and got to reading. The scathing critique was penned by a certain Aud Farstad, an author, and apparently some kind of healthcare historian. Below the subheading "Why do they want to present a ficticious Viking Age at the world heritage site?" the main title "Viking-Kitsch" beamed at my eyes, illustrated by an outdoor barbeque and a wooden statue of Georg Hansen standing at the prow of a viking ship. The visionary, the dear leader if you will, to Gudvangen's banana republic. As I went on I could hardly believe what I was reading. Lest it be unsaid: Farstad isn't pulling any punches. Like a reboot of Carpenter's They Live set to a Viking backdrop, she's donned her magic kitsch-ray glasses and revealed the sinister agenda hidden beneath the dragon heads. All out of bubblegum to chew, she proceeds to kick ass.

CONSUME

In her smörgåsbord of complaints, Farstad begins by alluding to the ongoing discussion of negative consequences of mass tourism in Norway. This ruse keeps the reader's attention long enough for her to slip us the real reason behind her letter: Let us for a minute, avert our eyes from the cruise lines lining their pockets with fjord murder, and take a look at what we are offering them by means of representation, she implores. She recently went to Gudvangen and was shocked by what she saw, she says. The UNESCO heritage badge is a confirmation that what we have in the fjords, and sites like Gudvangen in particular, is not only unique but fragile. Culturally and naturally distinct as this region is, it would be hard to disagree. Her critique directly attacks Njardarheimr's own illusion of authenticity which consists, according to her, of false representations, pseudo-historical architecture, and bizarre sales tactics consisting of attaching the prefix "viking" to everything. "Enjoy yourselves on the viking lawn!" as one caption hilariously reads. This mockery of history and our heritage reads almost like some sort of financial conspiracy with the tourist industry against the heritage site, she seems to claim, while also selling the tourists short with false representation.

All fair game if you ask me. But it doesn't take long before the letter takes a turn towards the counter-productively absurd. Much like the verbal scorn exibited by humiliated saga housewives, Farstad goes way overboard with her critique of Viking Age representation by staking the claim that the Viking Age possibly never actually existed(!). Citing some ghostlike and unnamed "historians", her complaint about "Viking activities", "Viking food" and so on, is not problematic just for the sake of obvious authenticity issues, but for the fact that "Viking food never existed". According to what seems to be be her line of reasoning, a "Viking hot dog" becomes a non-entity, not just because the so-called Vikings didn't eat hot dogs, but because there were no Vikings to eat hot dogs (!?). Is she being sincere? It is difficult to recognize her Viking Age revisionism in any history book I ever read. She is either splitting hairs on a subatomic level, a post-ironic genius, or she is insane. This is Poe's law in action.

They could haul a 10th century longhouse through a rift in time and space, and it wouldn't make a difference to Farstad, who claims she wouldn't mind such a circus anywhere else but the UNESCO site. She takes personal offense by the need to speak English in a nearby Hotel's souvenir shop, and is enraged by the fact that the menu of its attached restaurant is written in Bokmål, in the heartland of the Nynorsk norm of written Norwegian. Bokmål, as all Nynorsk writing Norwegians know, is the language of the enemy. The language of the regime.

She takes it as a personal insult that she, a red blooded Fjordwegian, whose ancestral blood saturates the land's vertical soils, for which the fathers fought and mothers wept, is subjected to this "Congo Village for West Norwegians". A term that recalls the controversial Congo Village displayed in the "amusement section" of the 1914 World Fair in Oslo, where people gawked at a staged ethnographic display of authentic negros doing authentic negro things (though presented as a Congo Village, the bulk of the participants were West African). A human menagerie of sorts. To stretch this analogy even further, she suspects that the "vikings" of Njardarheimr aren't even Norwegian, but - hold your breath - Eastern Europeans. " "Vikings" ", as she says in quotation marks. If she had paid to enter she might have found out, but apparently she refuses to do so.

Admitedly, some of Farstad's critics don't seem bright enough to get the point she is trying to make with the curious Congo Village analogy, which is by far the most original part of the text. Most obviously, I think she is trying to say that both are morbid displays that inspire no authentic respect for its apparent subject matter. It is only her clumsy delivery that leads denser readers to think she was assaulting African tribal culture as a whole, as if the mere act of being reminded of an embarrassing 104 year old ethnographic display is antithetical to current year discourse. That being said, Farstad's neurotic stance towards ethnography and cultural heritage is not without precedence. Rather, it finds itself in a fine tradition of inner struggles of the Norwegian self-image, constantly wrestling between chronophobic self-loathing and national pride, best exemplified by one time minister of justice Johan Castberg on the subject of Norwegian contributions to the World Fair in Paris, which I've translated below from the 1888 proceedings of the Norwegian Parliament:

 
"This has come to remind me of something a German told me many years ago. He said that in a market square down in Hamburg he had seen a man covered in feathers, sitting and ripping apart live hens and roosters with his teeth, spilling blood and feathers around him, and above this display it was written with big letters: "Ein Wilder von Norwegen", – a wild one from Norway, Mr. President!
I fear that something similar may happen to us if we allow ourselves to send to Paris, the cured hams and gamalost and fermented herring – and why not bring the fur pelt? We can afford it, we have enough of them left. But it would truthfully be sad if any of us present here today, should come to Paris and find the Norwegian people registered in some exhibition catalog as «Les Samojèdes de Norvège» – Samojeds from Norway, Mr. President!"
Johan Castberg

Johan Castberg

 

Mrs. Farstad ends her letter by asking rhetorically, as I know I have on many occasions, if people don't feel that real cultural heritage is worth presenting. I'd like to use the opportunity to point out to her that, at the very least, things can get a lot worse. One day we might well be begging for a place like Njardarheimr.

The author in Gudvangen. No complaints about the natural scenery.

The author in Gudvangen. No complaints about the natural scenery.

OBEY

As a complement to the swiftly aging and dying race of Norwegians who can't stand the sight of anything older than Martin Luther, there are those whose historical illiteracy is only rivaled by their burning passion for the past. Though this "past" is often limited to the narrow window between Harold Fairhair's conquest in the 9th century, and the moment Olaf the Holy quit smoking.

I already am eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ideology, says the chronic sniffler and culture critic Slavoj Žižek in The Perverts Guide to Ideology (2012). In the context of Viking Age representation and cultural heritage, it would be more fitting to switch verbs. I would say that we are sleeping. Sleeping all the time in the warm pig sty of authenticity. And in terms of this, no small percentage of Viking Age re-enactors are famous for their lavish slumber parties. Everybody is too busy braiding each others' hair and playing telephone to notice that they are sitting in pig shit, and the concept of authenticity smudged by an inability to take their research beyond the level of monkey see, monkey do. What I am about to repeat below is an all too familiar example of that culture, which insists on its own efforts, while constantly making every excuse to never improve their essential quality, and hence their educational value, in an age where it's never been easier to access the latest research, acquire raw materials, or employ craftspeople.

"I've heard ignorant people comment on things before", retorted Njardarheimr's CEO Frode Aas Tufte when the national broadcasting agency NRK invited them to defend their honor against Farstad's media raid, and would not take the criticism seriously. He also said something similar to me, when I commented under a facsimile of the original article that Njardarheimr is fine if its sold as what it is, namely a set of bungalows with dragon heads attached. On Farstad's claim that the village represents historical fabrication, he says they have not made any false claims, and that the buildings are based on documented Viking Age building techniques, with necessary modifications due to building regulations. When asked by the reporter if something more authentic would have been suitable for the world heritage site, Tufte replied with the following cop-out: "How it was in that time is unbelievably complicated and based on a lot of guesswork."

He's not exactly lying, but even when we consider the many uncertainties of early Norse architecture, modern building regulations, and their intended use, none of it serves to explain why Njardarheimr looks more like a children's movie set than any open air museum I've seen. Turns out they have an excuse for that too. According to their homepage, the village is intended as a place where "captivating stories of the Vikings and their age will be retold without the rains of a museum".

While I can understand the desire to shield one's brainchild from being pissed all over by third parties, I find Tufte's chosen defense perplexing. Treating any voice that doesn't suit his hearing as the words of ignorant people who don't know what they are talking about, only makes him look like an idiot. Clearly anybody less than enthusiastic about Njardarheimr is such a person, because they are not mind readers. One minute they insist on the authenticity of the product, while denying any such responsibility the next, or saying that they were under time constraints, trying to run a business, and so on, and so on. Always returning to the fact that the public doesn't know what their intentions are. The last part is true: I don't think anybody knows what they are doing.

Since then, medieval historians have come to describe the houses in Njardarheimr with terms like "garages with runestone inspired decor". John McNicol from the University of Tromsø points out diplomatically how it seems apparent that commercial concerns came before authenticity, tailored to a commercialized "Viking experience", which there is nothing wrong with in itself.

I admit that by ways of the carpenter's trade (in Njardarheimr's case also a concrete finisher, electrician, and brick layer) I don't have much worthwhile to say. But you don't need to be a museum conservationist to see that the famous Spanish "Monkey Jesus" fresco was a botched restoration job, either. Speaking as an academic, as well as from fifteen or so years of experience with living history communities, tourism, and museum education in and out of a Viking Age setting, I will still say that in terms of authenticity Gudvangen get a C-. That's solely based on their effort, hard work, and dedication to getting things expensively wrong. If they can't handle such assessments, they should stop hiding behind their self-righteous indignation, denying their bullshit like it's the Emperor's New Clothes. Their automated response that "none of our critics have seen the site" would have made sense in a world without photography, and I can say as somebody who's stalked its gravel pathways after closing time, that it looks exactly like it does in the pictures. If all they wanted was a vikitsch money-maker they already have it. From the perspective of the business it's all good. If it's supposed to be a playful and noncommittal arena for infotainment, great. Just be honest about the fact. They could be LARPing for all I care.

Last thing I heard, Tufte still refuses to accept critique and states that Njardarheimr is neither a theme park nor a museum, but a workshop for the Viking and Iron Age. Fair enough.

As a concluding remark I would like to treat Mr. Tufte and Mrs. Farstad to one authentic Viking chair each:

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...

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Norse culture and language "irrelevant" to students, says Norwegian government agency. They are dead wrong

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The Norwegian Directorate for Education are chipping in for a shallower, more intellectually flaccid world, as a panel tasked with proposing revisions to the school curriculum recently suggested cuts to older linguistic and literary history from the Norwegian subject curriculum. This is part of the Ministry of Education and Research's newfound doctrine of renewal, intended to pave way for what they think will be a more contemplative and considerate educational platform, to the abandonment of "irrelevant" subjects.

Schools barely touch upon Old Norse in the first place, so we may rightfully ask what there is left to cut before these lifelines are entirely severed. Downsizing whatever remains of a cultural historical perspective would no doubt have the opposite effect, if the goal is to encourage the intellectual development and independence of the students.

Awareness of our linguistic heritage is essential to understand, not only the basis for the immense regional richness of our language, but also how Icelandic and Norwegian developed into two distinct languages. Such things are relevant to any society wishing to understand itself and its surroundings in a long-term perspective. Never has this been more important than today.

I am not alone in my conviction that Old Norse is doomed. I don't think Norwegian universities will teach Old Norse in 40 years. With no institutions to speak its case, recruiting students will be harder than ever. It's true that there's been some resurgent interest in vikings and Norse mythology, in part thanks to popular culture, but what good is this to an academic field that hinges on a more long-term historical awareness. If I hadn't been introduced to Norse literature at a tender age, it is very unlikely that I would have ended up pursuing my degree. That spark was, at least in part, lit by the school system. One I thought was founded on principles of encyclopedic wisdom.

Now, it's abundantly clear that the government has limited enthusiasm for people pursuing the liberal arts. But when my generation was younger, we were actively encouraged on grounds that, whichever direction we chose, the system assured it would all pay off. Now that the oil age has long since peaked, politicians want no liability for the precariat they gave birth to. But regardless of our perceived "relevance" to the Social Democratic Kingdom of Norway, the fact remains that people like us are necessary for the sake of our cultural memory, which in turn is an asset to the cultural flora of the world.

What sort of society are we aiming for, if we do not nurture our culture, alienating future generations from literature we are internationally famous and celebrated for. There is a real possibility that soon, generations will grow up entirely unaware, and consequentially uncurious, about their own native tongue. Who should introduce them, if not the schools. Old Norse is the mythic language that articulates our origins. Norse culture is popularly perceived as the ethnogenesis not only of Norway, but all of Scandinavia, Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands. It provides context to how and why, exactly, the Nordic countries manifested in past and present. Our ups, and our downs. We are not incidental, but the result of a plastic development across generations. Here we are, a thousand years later. Politicians, of all people, should see the worth of a great myth.

The agency has expressed their desire to increase cross-cultural understanding. These chronophobes ignore the aspect of time. Whether by intent or accident, the result of their proposal is that the school system will embrace amnesia. When I thought Old Norse was threatened, they are telling me it's not threatened enough.

If the past is another country, then there is obviously a need for understanding between past and present man. History provides examples that we may seen in ourselves, and the lesson it teaches is different than what we get from observing our neighbors. Norse literature and language offers a window into a different world. It is a mirror through which we may see the other in ourselves, and reminds us that our own reality could have been much different. Because it was.

 

 

The Burglary at Bergen Museum: Make The Burglars Pay (And The Security Guard Who Helped Them Too)

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Storm-winds bellow, blackens heaven!
Comes the hour of melancholy;
Back is taken what was given,
Vanished is the relic holy.
~ A. Oehlenschläger, The Gold Horns

Here's a recap: On August 12th, 2017, the Historical Museum in Bergen became the scene of the most spectacular disaster ever to strike Norwegian museum history, as more than 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the site. The thieves had entered the museum storage through a window on the seventh floor, which they accessed from a shoddily secured scaffold.

Though the burglars triggered the alarm twice, they were left completely free to ravage the collections at their own pace. Initial reports claimed that the security guard had inspected the site, but noticed no signs of tampering. This claim smelled fishy from the start, and it was soon enough revealed that the guard never actually entered the museum, because it was windy, and he figured it was just the weather that had set the alarm off. 

When the alarm sounded again, he didn't even bother to leave his office, some 300 meters away. Instead, he presumably reset the alarm from the comfort of his chair. Nobody noticed that anything was wrong until Monday morning, when employees at the museum came in to find their workplace ravaged. 

Photo: Kari K. Årrestad/ Bergen University Museum

Photo: Kari K. Årrestad/ Bergen University Museum

The trail was cold. It bore several markings of a deliberate, planned heist - apart from the highly circumstantial, literal window through which the criminals could enter the museum, which would suggested that the thieves might have taken advantage of an immediate, short-lived opportunity. It was a confusing mix, and many, including myself, suspected the workings of an organized crime league. 

After all, who would be stupid enough to commit theft on such a grand scale without the proper network, means, and market? It was one or the other: It was either a well calculated scheme by a bunch of well seasoned art theft veterans, or an impulsive act of idiocy executed by desperate imbeciles.

In light of recent events, it seems indeed that we may have given them more credit than they deserved. But if there is one lesson to be learned here, it is that we must never underestimate the malice born in the union of opportunity and short-sighted stupidity.

Some hell of a drug

Photo: Bergen University Museum

Photo: Bergen University Museum

 

In October, the Bergen police department was contacted by a 49 year old man who claimed to be affiliated with the burglary, citing remorse for his actions as the reason for turning himself in. On November 9th, the local newspaper BA reported on the breakthrough: Two men were now in police custody, and another two have been arrested since then, and somewhere along the lines of 300 out of the more than 400 artifacts have been returned. The police say that they will not rule out the possibility of additional arrests, with the common denominator being drug related crimes and theft.

One of them has already plead guilty on account of embezzlement, but claims he found the treasure in a bag by the Strax house - a local health center and clinic for drug addicts, right across the bridge from Bergen Museum. As a former neighbor of the clinic, I am hardly surprised. Has the Strax house made its neighborhood a rattier, dirtier, more dangerous place? I'll give that an unequivocal lol yes, but there's no point for us to unravel the ridiculous saga of how Bergen city council sweeps society's undesirables under the rug. Not here at least.

Several artifacts are still missing. Apparently some of these are also gold objects, which is alarming for a number of reasons. Some of the confiscated items have suffered severed damage, in part due to neglect, but also deliberate maltreatment. The arm-ring from Stranda, displayed at the top of the page, was sawed straight through, for instance, which is suggestive of every conservationist's worst nightmare: The perpetrators sought to re-melt and sell it for its silver value. An insult to the integrity of the artifact.

If any of the objects have suffered this fate, it is far worse than any black market transaction. They will never pop up in an online auction. They will never pop up in a police bust. They are gone forever.

A fitting punishment

Okay, so four junkies are now sweating away in the can. What next? For starters, I think we need to make examples of those responsible. I am not making this appeal out of bloodthirstiness, but because symbol laden actions demand a symbol laden response. This includes not only strict punishment for the burglars, but criminal persecution of the security guard as well, who failed - not once, but twice - to do his job. He twice enabled the crooks to help themselves.

And so he made himself complicit. His behavior represents a severe case of criminal neglect and infidelity towards his duties. The situation that followed was a direct result of his personal laziness and lack of commitment. He did everything short of waving them goodbye. I consider it a given that the security guard be stripped of his position if this hasn't been done already. He should not be trusted to work in the field again. I would not oppose a prison sentence, and at the very least he should be forced to pay compensation for the losses. 

Foto: Ole Marius Kvamme / Bergen University Museum

Foto: Ole Marius Kvamme / Bergen University Museum

Obviously, no less of a burden should befall the burglars. It should be made abundantly, glitteringly, shiningly clear that they have done irreparable harm to our collective inheritance. It must be exceedingly obvious to all, that these crimes go beyond theft and vandalism. They should be dealt with harshly. Obviously, the one who turned himself in should be dealt a proportionately reduced sentence. Honesty should should pay, too, and if it leads one to turn them all in, then all the better. How does one even quantify compensation for the malicious theft of invaluable artifacts? It must go far beyond their matieral value, that's for certain. Harsh judgments have befallen people who did a lot less.

I am not a legal expert. I am not unbiased. I write under the conviction that any crime against cultural heritage is a crime against our ancestors, a crime against our future descendants, and and a crime against all of us. It's an insult to our inheritance, and we cannot sleep at night allowing such things things to happen.

If we give the security guard his part of the responsibility for this theft, we thereby set grounds for future and current security guards to be more diligent. If we do not send this signal, we invite it to happen again.

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Why I refuse to give Dale Garn a single penny (and maybe you don't want to either)

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So it seems I've taken it upon myself to become a sort of cultural historical watchdog. It's a filthy job, but somebody has to do it. The latest piece of historical misery comes to us in the form of a bizarre retraction on part of Dale Garn who, among other things, designs and supplies knitting patterns used by the Norwegian Alpine Ski Team. 

You see, Dale Garn - which is not to be confused with Dale of Norway, but is owned by House of Yarn, who is our main villain - decided to pull back a specific line of sweaters for the basic non-offense of having a runic design, in light of a recent spike in activity on part of a radical neo-nazi organization called The Nordic Resistance Movement. The sweaters would have been used as representational garments for the 2018 winter Olympics. Alas, no more, as Dale stated they did not want to support or be affiliated with a far-right organization. By doing so, that is exactly what happened.

By opting for a clumsy, cowardly approach they have done more than anybody else to give credence and monopoly to the organization they claim to detest. Fleeing with their tails between their legs, abandoning the heritage they claim to protect and cherish. Mind you, the popular sweater company Dale of Norway still sell the sweater (last time I checked, this sweater was even sold at Scandinavia House in NYC), and are as previously mentioned not to be confused with their sister company. All hail Dale of Norway.

The scandal was somewhat fueled by one of our nation's tabloids, VG, from whom I snatched the picture above (thank you Gisle Oddstad, VG / Terje Pedersen, NTB Scanpix, who own all rights to it etc.). VG's editor and the journalists Kristian Aaser and Martha Holmes demonstrate a worrying lack of source criticism and literacy when they refer to the algiz/maðr rune under the recent, anachronistic name "leben". 24 extra points for incompetency, VG, one for each rune in the elder futhark. You had one job. All in all, it's amazing that this piece of journalistic garbage made it past at least three people before it was published.

Associate professor Terje Spurkland, while being praiseworthy for his excellent and lively publications on the runes, also handled this in a way that disappointed more people than myself, as he was quoted by VG saying, ahem:

These runic letters should not have been on the sweaters. The Nazis used them in an unhistorical way, and today this is associated with Nazism.

Way to piss all over his own work and legacy. I would have expected something less ignorant from such an authority.

While it is certainly true that NRM applies the tiwaz/týr rune their emblem, it fails to explain Dale's decision, unless they are of the opinion that runes overall are too filfthy to be touched. I reckon they should do what everybody else does: They should rise above. At the very least they could have redone the design. Instead they issued a drastic statement, urging customers to delete, return, or destroy any promotional materials, books, pamphlets, posters, patterns and recipes associated with the sweater.

This means that if you happen to have the pattern for Dale Garn's Tor/Tora line of sweaters, you're probably in for a decent buck on ebay. Thank me later. I happened upon a short statement form House of Yarn, the owners of Dale Garn, who had this to say when confronted by a member of the public, translated by myself:

For House of Yarn it was an important and right decision to pull this design, back in August this year. The reason is easy to understand, and we do not wish to be taken in support of the dark forces that spread across the land, Europe, and the West in general. I'm sure you wouldn't knit a swastika pattern? It's the same issue with the tyr- and leben [sic] rune. We hope you find other designs and recipes with a much more positive message. 

Well I'm glad we cleared that up. Dale Garn thinks that runes are not conductive to a positive message.

Here's a history lesson: Runes are an entirely unique epigraphic system of writing used since the 2nd century AD, which despite all odds survived in certain areas as far up as until the 19th century. Runes are a cherished cultural expression, and and invaluable keepsake of Nordic culture. Within their origins and development, there lies hidden a fascinating story of cultural innovation and adaption in our ancient past. National Socialist usage is a brief second in the history of the runes. A speck of dust, a footnote. It is also worth mentioning, because it is often overlooked, that while Hitler suckled at the teat of national revivalism, he looked to Rome, not Germania, as his favored model for the Third Reich. The Norwegian police still keep the fasces in their insignia, across New York it adorns everything from granite columns to door handles, and nobody seems to give a shit. Putting Norse heritage through this sort of scrutiny is a convenient scapegoat, and nothing else. It was always the odd man out, never quite accepted in polite society. Whoever might wish to marginalize our heritage further have a great ally in Dale Garn, who hands it to them on a silver platter.

I'm not going to tell you, dear reader, what to do or what to think in this matter. I'm an absolutist when it comes to freedom of thought. It's Dale's total lack of integrity, and disregard for heritage that bothers me. I don't even care about their tacky sweater. It's Dale's privilege to do as they please with their business, but it's our privilege to take our business elsewhere. Why not support a small, local yarn business that needs your money instead?

Dale Garn can afford to lose me as a customer. I don't even knit. What they cannot afford is their loss of reputation as an ambassador of Norwegian culture. They have demonstrated that they are undeserving of such an honor, by pissing all over the Dale legacy.

At the end of the day, Dale Garn's choice is all about making money and keeping customers. Let's see if they made the right decision.

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Anything for a Buck: Viking Themed Amusement Parks and Deliberate Destruction of Cultural Heritage in West Norway

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In 2013, I published a piece in Haugesunds Avis - my hometown's local newspaper, where I urged people to ask critical questions about the sincerity behind certain claims and intentions of a viking themed amusement park, which is planned to be built outside the village of Sveio in the Haugaland region, Southwest Norway. It was a futile attempt: Though I accused them of being opportunistic, and even dangerous profiteers posing as being genuinely interested in furthering local historical identity, none of the involved parties answered my calls.

Later, this park was named Thor's (sic) Rike, "Thor's Realm", which is an extremely awkward title insofar it contains no less than two typos (Tor is the name of the thundergod in Norwegian, and the apostrophe is not used like it is in English). Anyway, the debate died before it even began. Some people supported my critique, others saw no problem - though generally people seemed to think it was an ill-advised business idea overall. Seeing that West Norway hardly is a summer paradise, the stakes are pretty high.

Proponents of the theme park, which is simply referred to as "Vikingland" locally, claim that it will create much needed jobs in the region. Sure, manual labor is needed at least until it's finished. I bet guest workers will be queuing up for the opportunity to lay every single brick that comes after the mayor's customary first - as their privilege is. Besides, no carnival can do without two or three dozen teenagers to sell tickets and cotton candy for three or four months in the summer. Lastly, a handful of people who've studied something whimsical like, say, "leadership studies" are probably needed as well.

What do I worry about, people sometimes ask. Well, I do tend to worry about a whole lot of things, but I shall try to keep it snappy: Firstly, I'm not convinced that Tho'rs Rike is going to be the blessing they're promising. They'll have to live with my negativity, but after all, it's their duty to communicate with the public and explain to them, earnestly, what their intents are. Consequently I expect us - the public - to poke around ask some questions, as this is arguably of local community interest. As we should, wherever someone is hustling for coin. Especially, perhaps, when it's trying to get a piggy back ride from local history, and poses as an ally of ancient monuments.

I am worried about the long-term results, I'm gonna hide it. If this park ends up as a total fiasco, we don't go back to square one, but minus ten. As much as I love my native region, I would be lying if I didn't say that I believe it is a wretched hive of hollow materialism,  profiteering and suspicious, nepotistic in-trading. A gang of fairly well to do folks shaking each others' dicks on a leased boat, pretending to be regional saints. But it's gotten better, it's getting somewhere.

Anyway, as I was saying: If the park is a fiasco, I don't think people will have the clarity to see this as a failure of bad business decision, but a confirmation that, ahem, "cultural heritage" isn't worth spending a dime on. When I gaze into my crystal ball of pessimism, I think that patrons will say: If we can't make this Disneyland wannabe work, then we sure as hell ain't going to bother investing in any more of his viking horseshit. I think, that when the theme park goes, it's gonna suck any monetary willingness in with it, like a black hole.

Yeah, I do believe that Th'ors Rike will be a burden - not a supplement - to the rich cultural heritage of the region. A Viking Age burial mound to the people behind it, is only really worth something to these people if they can squeeze a dollar out of it. If not, there's no reason this shouldn't be a car park as far as these people are concerned.

This region served as the main seat of Harold Fairhair, the national unifier of Norway back in the 9th century. Where no less than two viking ships have been found, which contains an unprecedented continuity and number of ancient monuments from all ages of our nation's history.

So I do believe that the park will do more harm than good. I struggle to see what it has to offer the soul of locals, who should be inspired to look to their heritage with admiration and pride. All the talk about of "infotainment" is hollow and baseless, judging from what we've seen so far. A disguise used to get through the door and sell us their ice cream and rides, making a soulless mockery of our intangible and invaluable cultural history. Killed by this ridiculous commercialization.

The rubble at Tjernagel, a mound destroyed in 1983 - a stone's throw away from the site of the park.

The rubble at Tjernagel, a mound destroyed in 1983 - a stone's throw away from the site of the park.

I'm telling you, friends, that if you wish to see a vision of the future of infotainment, then imagine a plush mascot stomping on a museum educator's face - forever. 

The worst part is the fact that the committee behind T'hors Rike pretend to be genuinely interested in celebrating and fronting our cultural history, by publishing a bizarre series of local historical articles and fact sheets about the area, probably to serve as some sort of cultural alibi, though that hardly serves to explain why a theme park is a fitting supplement to the local landscape. "Get to know ancient Sviða!", "Did you know we're building it right up the road from Norways only national monument?". And if that wasn't perverse enough, the park is due to be wedged in between several ancient monuments, around the banks of Vidgarvatnet, meaning "the hallowed lake". One of them being the mysterious "Bridal Altar" (bruraalteret) tied in with local legends about a couple who drowned during their wedding procession. The park will also be right in the sight of the Iron Age burial mounds at Apeland. 

Now, I am not saying that people shouldn't be allowed to build within proximity of ancient monuments. If so, the whole region would have been more or less uninhabitable. However, we may wonder what our ancestors would think about crumbling in their graves in the shadow of an amusement park.

Somebody's got to speak for the dead, a wise soul once said. This wouldn't be the first violation against Norwegian heritage in the region, or for that matter in the municipality of Sveio. When the 23 meters wide mound at Tjernagel was destroyed in 1983, it was already beyond 3000 years old. When it was around 2000 years old, in 1028, Þórarinn loftunga - who was one of the court poets of king Canute the Great - even described and named the mound in a skaldic poem. It is totally unique that a Viking Age source names a landmark of this kind. Nor can there be any doubt that the mound of Tjernagel served as a waypoint and beacon for seafarers over three millennia. And what a beautiful name it is: Tjernagel means "sword-nail", probably because its 400 cubic meters of rock shone brilliantly in the distances when viewed from the sea. Then, in 1983, some bureaucratic dwarves obliterated it. Why? To make room for a radio tower, a shortwave transmitter that was obsolete twenty years later. Twenty years it loomed in the crater of the 3000 year old Tjernagel mound, before they tore it down and turned it into nails. It's the sort of story that makes me wish ghosts exist, for the sole purpose of haunting the guilty parties.

Anyway. Short-sighted decisions leave permanent marks. If local moneymakers and the municipal council genuinely cares about the heritage they claim to celebrate, they can prove it by restoring the monumental burial mound at Tjernagel first, then they can go for rides.

Tjernagel bronze age mound, a navigational beacon and landmark for 3000 years, no more.

Tjernagel bronze age mound, a navigational beacon and landmark for 3000 years, no more.

This article is an extrapolated translation of an article I submitted to the regional newspaper, Haugesunds Avis. However, it was not printed. If you like what you're reading, you can support my voice by subscribing to the Brute Norse Patreon page, or by sharing this article.

 

Archaeologists Enable The Black Market By Destroying Historical Artifacts

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These are sad days for Scandinavian museum objects. Last week, 1some 400 objects were viciously burgled from the University Museum in Bergen, in all likelihood bound for the black market. Now, words of lament are howling from across the Swedish border as archaeologists have been forced to destroy artifacts recovered from digs, and objects such as scales, coins, knives, decorated foils, pre-Christian cult objects etc. are sent for scrap metal right on the site, if they are not considered unique enough to warrant conservation. Apparently too precious to own, but not to precious to be thrown.

This has already been discussed elsewhere on English language sites that are, diplomatically speaking, more tendentious in disposition, and where it plays right into the hands of a narrative where Sweden is on a masochistic binge to erase its own cultural memory to better accommodate swarthy hordes from across the sandy dunes. This will not be yet another article about that, but you cannot help but think that with this legislated destruction of their own cultural heritage, Sweden is not doing a very good job at combating the stereotypes pinned against them.

Let's add some much needed nuance: To my understanding, the destruction is for the most part carried out by private companies sourced to conduct routine and emergency digs on behalf of state archaeologists. Additionally, the items bound for the grinder are usually of negotiable historical value. These are digs that are often done in association with construction work, which none the less make up the bulk of Scandinavian digs, to the point where contemporary Nordic archaeology is more or less synonymous with highway projects and the like. Sweden, however, is unique in its employment of private archaeological companies for such tasks.

The fun thing about archaeology is that you never know what you're going to get. Sometimes you get little, sometimes you get a lot. This rings particularly true when it comes to emergency digs, in which the lack of time necessitates many tough choices. I'm sure more than a few artifacts and their contexts have met an untimely demise at the hands of such gambles, but it's debatable whether or not this is problematic if they would have been obliterated by machinery anyway.

Blasting the past

It's not unheard of to find examples of house remains, burials, or even cult sites where archaeologists can do little but step back and let the bulldozers in. In my hometown, there is the particularly grim example of the destruction of the Bronze Age burial mound at Tjernagel. A site unique not only for its impressive size, but for the fact that it's referenced in a skaldic poem from the beginning of the 11th century. The 3000 year old mound was destroyed in 1983 to make room for a since decommissioned radio transmitter. As baffling as this might seem, such practices have generally been accepted sacrifices on the altar of societal infrastructure.

However, extending this logic to artifacts is a new turn, or should I rather say; shockingly old. Especially considering that contemporary archaeology explicitly distances itself from its antiquarian roots in the 19th century, where conservation was entirely up to the excavators  who could more or less scrap whatever they saw fit. Deliberate destruction was not entirely unheard of, either, as the fate of the 8th century Storhaug ship shows. Buried in a massive mound on a particularly fertile stretch of farmland on my own native island of Karmøy, it was Excavated in 1886 by Anders Lorange. The Storhaug ship is estimated to have been at least 27 meters long. Three meters longer, and a century older, than the Gokstad ship. Lorange had no idea what to do with such a find, so he rounded up the artifacts and let the local peasants tear the ship apart for firewood. 

A child of his time, for sure. I have not met a sane archaeologist that didn't roll their eyes at Lorange's choice of action, so it's shocking to me that any Scandinavian archaeologist would return to the antiquated practice of scrapping artifacts they don't consider beautiful or important enough to save. You know, I really don't want to be one of those argument-by-current-year sort of people, I really do. But that sort of practice would hardly be tolerated in 1917 archaeology, let alone 2017.

The reasoning behind the choice to destroy these artifacts lies with the fact that museum stores are filled with metal objects of negotiable public interest. Okay, they better be filled to the brink, to the edge of absolute collapse, because the case applies to all the other Nordic countries, or Western Europe for that matter, but so far I've yet to see anybody else making screws and bottle openers out of Viking Age iron. The world may be headed off the deep end, we don't need to enforce such dystopian levels of recycling just yet.

It's been pointed out that most of the recycled material is more recent, modern trash that archaeologists are under no obligation to conserve. But there is an obvious paradox in the fact that, in theory, pocketing a rusty nail is a criminal offense but throwing it in the trash is not.

Absurdly, Sweden is the only Scandinavian country that allows private archaeological companies to perform such excavations, but it's significantly harder to acquire a private permit to use metal detectors there than it is in Norway or Denmark. Sweden banned unlicensed use of metal detectors in 1991 (Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundkvist gives an outline of their legality on his blog). Consequently, Sweden reports the fewest number finds from private detectorists, while the opposite is true for Denmark, which appears to be winning the karmic game as far as conservation goes. Whether or not metal detectors should be subject to draconian restriction is debatable, and is only relevant to this discussion as far as it relates to the black market. It's possible to argue that Sweden's restrictive legislation in itself serves as an enabler to so-called nighthawks. That is antiquarian slang for illicit detectorists. 

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The economy of destruction

Like the destruction of ivory, there is every reason to believe that destroying archaeological artifacts increases their perceived market value, even though they have never been legally obtainable to the public in the first place. With news spreading like wildfire about archaeologists destroying their own finds, the topsy-turvy world of Swedish archaeology finds itself in the situation where nighthawks may choose to claim a moral high ground. It is ironic and utterly inexcusable that artifacts have a better chance of surviving in the illicit market, than in the hands of archaeologists. If given the choice between seeing such items destroyed by the excavation teams, or sold privately, I would see them used as paperweights or mantle pieces in a private home any day. If museums can't even find a shoe box to keep them in, they might as well hand out licenses and auction them off legally. Any fate is preferable to legislated vandalism. If this is how the laws simply are, then one could argue that the laws regulating Swedish conservationism are long overdue for reconsideration. If the core of the matter lies with the fact that Swedish museums are criminally underfunded, then all the more reason to raise concerns.

It is particularly idiotic and counter-productive because archaeologists have been struggling to make themselves understood by the public for well over a hundred years. Archaeologists across Scandinavia struggle enough to communicate with landowners as it is, and this will only perpetuate the vilification of archaeology that is still prevalent in Scandinavian agricultural communities. The message these actions are sending out, is one where not only will archaeologists rip up your yard, but they might destroy whatever they find too. By standardizing last resort actions, they have created means for the black market justify itself, and where illegal possession of historical artifacts becomes preferable to their destruction.

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Raping The Muses: Burglars In The Bergen University Museum

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The other day I was met with a lunchtime read of the dreariest kind: Museum break-in, objects of great historical value stolen, said the headline in my news feed. Consider the picture below if you've never been to Bergen. It is the facade of the Bergen University Museum, specifically the Cultural History Collections, or The Historical Museum as they call themselves these days. Knowing the museum world, cold sweat struck me as I realized the gravity of the situation. After all, I live in Bergen and work for another museum group in the same town. I send tourists their way with warm endorsements, knowing they will have a great experience.

I'm sure we all hoped for minimum losses. That we were up against a clumsily executed crime by some aimless small-timer on an amphetamine bender. That security arrived swiftly, sending the burglar - or burglars - running. If not exactly leaving a trail of coins and flint fragments to follow, then at least some solid footage to identify perpetrators by.

The scene of the crime. Courtesy Bergen University Museum

The scene of the crime. Courtesy Bergen University Museum

 

It was too much to hope for. Assuming there was more than one, the thieves had climbed a scaffold outside the museum (discernible in the picture above) and smashed a window on the seventh floor which, by Odin's knackers, is part of the magazines. I've been up there myself during my brief stint as an archaeology student.

There is some seriously impressive stuff up there, and the timing could not have been worse: The permanent viking exhibit was down and due for reopening later this year. This may mean that many of the artifacts usually displayed downstairs might have been boxed up in the aforementioned storage. In other words, the thieves may have gotten away with a sizeable chunk of some of the museums most recognized treasures.

The dust settles I'm writing this less than a week after the incident, and many questions are still unanswered. Local newspaper Bergens Tidende quoted the museum director, the venerable Henrik von Achen, as saying that the stores dedicated to the safe keeping of Iron Age objects had had been plundered, among them several artifacts from the Migration and Viking Eras. After some initial confusion as to the extent of the raid the museum now reports 2̶4̶5̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶f̶i̶r̶m̶e̶d̶ ̶l̶o̶s̶s̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶i̶m̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶w̶r̶i̶t̶i̶n̶g̶. They expect the numbers to rise significantly as the tally continues. [Update 18/08/17: The museum has adjusted the number of losses to 400]

Thankfully, the museum maintains an extensive photo documentation program. Images of confirmed missing artifacts are uploaded to a dedicated Facebook group run by the staff, hoping to ease recovery by raising awareness and reaching out to the public eye. Though English information is somewhat lacking, these pictures say all you need to know: Dozens of tortoise brooches, bracelets, torques, keys, pennanular brooches, horse tacks, insular fittings, vessels, trefoil brooches, hack silver, coins, and amulets are confirmed so far. Who knows what else. Join the group it and see for yourself.

Just two of the many stolen tortoise brooches. Courtesy Bergen University Museum

Just two of the many stolen tortoise brooches. Courtesy Bergen University Museum

The questions we need to ask

There are a few serious question to be begged about how this was allowed to happen. Bergen has been plagued by professional art theft in the past, and the sad story of the presumably contracted raid on the Historical Museum in Lund also comes to mind, where precious objects from Uppåkra were lost in 2013. That incident bore all the markings of a professional, well planned burglary. It's less clear cut in the case of Bergen, because the items were practically handed to the burglars on a silver platter - and I'll tell you why.

First of all, the break-in is believed to have taken place some time on Saturday night, which is interesting insofar that it was only discovered about 8am Monday morning. Pardon my Ostrogothic, but if this is true, how the blazing hell does that happen? At first it was claimed that the burglars had executed the break-in without setting off alarms, but it was later admitted that the alarm went off twice. Are the Bergen Museum's security systems so dated that they do not point to a specific floor? How did the security guard fail to notice the broken window? If the burglar consciously set the alarm off twice to simulate false alarm, hiding in the meantime, then security must have fallen victim to the oldest trick in the book. One they should have anticipated. It would be an absolute humiliation to the integrity of the company, for such false positives should have no consequence to security routines - especially at an object of that importance. If this is the case, the guard is obviously not fit for such duties.

How could the construction company be so daft as to not secure the site better? I would presume that security concerns would be part of the work routine, but really, the accountability lies with the museum trusted to keep these artifacts safe. Here's the museological bottom line: The security company screwed up, the construction company screwed up, and they should answer for it, but these were red flags that should have been recognized by the museum itself.

Contrary to the picture, Henrik von Achen isn't pointing any fingers. Courtesy Mette Anthun/NRK.

Contrary to the picture, Henrik von Achen isn't pointing any fingers. Courtesy Mette Anthun/NRK.

On that note I must add that the museum handled the situation as honorably as they possibly could. As the director Mr. Achen expressed, no museum suffering a break-in can honestly say that their security measures were good enough, so his integrity can't be questioned in that department. They have taken full responsibility for their own, painful losses. If thieves could be accurately anticipated, these things would obviously never happen, yet it goes to show that an up-to-date, thorough security regime is an undeniable and absolute necessity, because this is the alternative is the exact situation they are up against: There is no security footage, there are no suspects. These fragile artifacts may never be recovered, and some have most certainly sustained some kind of permanent damage. They could be sitting in the back of truck bound for the black market in Eastern Europe, or corroding in a puddle of bong water across town, but really they could be anywhere. Your guess is as good as mine. [Update 18/08/17: Media report evidence pointing in the direction that this was indeed a planned, professional strike. This is congruent with the types of artifacts that were stolen.]

Bergen University Museum is pointing no fingers. I suppose they can't, but as an independent voice, I can. I've worked in museums my whole adult life. I know the meager budget sob story all too well. Bad funding affects the security of artifacts, buildings and, last but not least, the museum work force itself. To update their security - as mentioned, an absolute necessity - I fear many museums will have to make cuts that do damage to other departments. We need artifact security, but job security too. To achieve this, many museums will require better funding, one way or another.

The first, cheapest, and easiest line of security belongs to the attentive museum worker, but while museums and their employees hold the task of protecting our cultural heritage, their ability to do this is remarkably dependent on politicians, and the biggest finger of them all, I shall point at them. Blessed is the museum that runs on ticket sales alone. I've certainly never worked at one. In fact, most museums are at the mercy of either private or government funding. Theft is not the only threat here. It's no secret that many museum magazines simply aren't up to scratch in terms of climatization. Finally I shall also break the taboo of criticizing the public, though I usually try to take their side in heritage matters.

Many Norwegians, spoiled by the nanny state as we tend to be, have entirely unrealistic expectations in terms of the duties and services of museums. As citizens of a heavily taxed social democracy claiming to care about public enlightenment, they expect museums to offer their services cheaply, or even for free. Even though entry fees are comparably cheap here, some will not pay the equivalent of two bus rides, or about 70% the price of a movie ticket to see a national treasure. Simultaneously, governments both past and present relieve themselves of their duties by cutting as much cultural funding as their conscience allows them, preferring to build anew rather than maintaining what they started. Meanwhile, museums who have been asking for decades, don't receive the funds to modernize. Still they are expected to fight off mold and vandals alike, even when they barely have enough to pay their workers in the first place. Relying to a great extent on intermediate positions taken as works of passion, with little to no hope of career development.

Replicas of the lost horns of Gallehus. The National Museum in Copenhagen.

Replicas of the lost horns of Gallehus. The National Museum in Copenhagen.

The museum is a sacred space

I extend my condolences not only to the Bergen University Museum, but to the Norwegian public whose cultural memory has been severely pillaged through this deplorable crime. Norway is a small country built on trust, and the benefit of the doubt. These are core ideals, and relevant to the ongoing domestic debate about so-called Norwegian values.

If, by any chance, the guilty party reads this essay, I want to tell you this, cocksucker, that I hope you realize the symbolic gravity of your deed. You stand shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban, who as a gesture of defiance against world heritage, reduced to rubble the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Your are hardly different from the black market speculation and outright destruction carried out by the zealots of the Islamic State. You are a 1:1 scale copy of the crooked goldsmith Niels Heidenreich who stole and destroyed the Golden Horns of Gallehus for the sake of nothing more sacred than his own greed.

Bamiyan. Picture courtesy of the Taliban.

Bamiyan. Picture courtesy of the Taliban.

This is what's at stake. Museums are sacred institutions, and I mean this quite literally, not as a trite, literary embellishment. The very term comes from the Greek mouseion (Μουσεῖον), which originally denoted a shrine or temple dedicated to the muses, minor deities of art and inspiration. Museums are temples to the memory of mankind. They are shrines in which we may converse with the past, which grounds us and gives our time and lives context. Offering new and old perspectives alike. Where culture is produced, examined, interpreted, and enjoyed. I'd even wager that beyond visiting the graves of loved ones, and family rites of remembrance, it is the closest thing the Western world has to ancestor worship. While all artifacts have indiscriminate value to the museum, the fact that these items were from Iron Age and Viking Era makes it all the more painful, as these periods have a firm grip on the Norwegian consciousness. The Viking Era being is our founding myth, the Norwegian ethnogenesis, the womb of the nation.

This is not lost on thieves. For artifacts to be recognized in terms of market value, all of the above must be taken into account. But this is nothing compared to the cultural worth of these artifacts. Like a temple, artifacts are deposited and sacrificed. Though they may move from museum to museum, from temple to temple, they must never be fully removed. Art theft is sacrilege. The burglar rapes the muses.

How can you help? By raising awareness, joining the Facebook group, sharing this article, and by keeping an eye open for any suspicious artifacts on the online market. I'm aware several auction houses have been notified. Let's not make it any easier for the criminals.