Where the Sun Never Sets: Life Outside the Viking Museum in Lofoten, Norway

Through the window of my room, in the little white house at the foot the museum, I sit at my desk; a broken, white chip-board drawer, refashioned into a writing table and decorated with a purple sheet, to hide the screws.

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Several empty coffee mugs stand along a cracked window pane as my eyes – ignoring the gradual accumulation – scan each paragraph over and over:

‘Axes’, ‘Chisels’, ‘Rasps’ and ‘Awls’; ‘Adzes’, ‘drill-bits’, ‘timber’ and ‘Bronze’.
If there is a finite number of times one can repeat a set of words before they all start to blend, then surely I am about to approach it. But I know myself – by tomorrow, I will be stapling the edges of a PhD proposal I had been working on since Christmas and posting it back home, to UCD School of Archaeology.

“The all too Norwegian smells of overly strong coffee and tobacco drifted in behind the music, while the chicken and pork below barbecued and beckoned me to join the party.”.

DSCN9811I pull my face away from the laptop screen, resting my eyes for a moment; noticing where I am. Beyond the cups on the ledge, a road stretches along a row of Norwegian houses – the occasional truck roaring past a wave of blues, yellows and reds that move away towards the next town. While alongside them, telephone wires slouch between the heads of each street lamp like the lines on a stave of music – only drooping, as they wrap around the foot of every mountain.

Not a single cloud could be seen beneath our sleepless summer sun in Lofoten and just as I imagined what my housemates were doing with their day, the tinny sound of a tiny Bluetooth speaker crept through the open window.

bbqIt was the first rainless day we’d had in weeks and my housemates – all seven of them – wasted no time in making use of it. They sat on the veranda connecting their phones in turns; crackling a compilation of hip-hop, reggae and unforgivably what sounded like Norwegian rap. While their voices blended in a muffle of Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and English – talking over each other in different dialects but all laughing in the same language.

The all too Norwegian smells of overly strong coffee and tobacco drifted in behind the music, while the chicken and pork below barbecued and beckoned me to join the party.

 

Such life, is what gives a house character. Without it, a place like the Chieftain’s longhouse at Borg, is merely a box of decoratively carved walls. Though magnificent, they are empty without the droppers of the things in the ground.

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Amanda and Espen

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From Left to Right: Jared and Tom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The walls of our house were by now accustomed to the voices of Tom, a leather worker and graphics designer from Holland; the first to arrive after me. He was followed by Hanne, a Norwegian Media Studies student who had driven several hours from the South of Norway to spend her summer guiding in the longhouse. Filling the back seats of her car were the several musical instruments of Goran, an archaeology student from the University of Trondheim – who had, not only a passion for Viking Archaeology and a knack for medieval music – owned as much viking clothes and jewellery as I did knives and tools.

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Using a database of maps and satellite images, Goran and I hunt for local archaeological features in the area.

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Espen turns sharply, as the second group gains on us.

Espen, a good friend and sailor, arrived a day or two before Goran. He was shortly followed by Bernhard, whose height made me feel more like a Hobbit than a Viking, and who’s head in an inadvertent tribute to the book, never truly forgave the chandelier in the hallway. Both of them had studied sailing at the Fosen Folkehøgskole and would now spend their summer on the lake, lifting sails and rowing tourists about in our miniature Gokstad ship.

“On a rainier afternoon the HDMI cable is our source of entertainment – that and the collective pot of movies that circulates between those with external hard-drives; the currency of a world without wi-fi”.

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Niek tells the one where Thor loses his hammer.

As the summer came in, it brought with it the few remaining stragglers; like Johanne, a trainee nurse who would work in the cafe, and Niek another archaeology student from Holland – who was good at fight reenactment but would also discover this year a flair for Norse storytelling.

A dull moment never occurs in a house of such concentrated interests; though, on a rainier afternoon the HDMI cable is our source of entertainment. That and the collective pot of movies that circulates between those with external hard-drives; the currency of a world without wi-fi.

 

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Movie night at the white house!

A nicer evening is usually spent hiking, driving or sailing. Though nothing creates a gathering quicker than a sizzling pan of barbecued food. And in the end, a guitar is usually heard and Jared can always be seen somewhere in the back, reaching into his blue, waterproof sailing bag and handing out a few bottles of home brewed beer; a hefe-weisse or a dark ale, but occasionally some of his more unique brands of chilli, coffee, and even seaweed beer.

After a few months, faces and voices became familiar, routines became synchronised and rituals blended. So much so, that our little White House barely even resembled the empty, quiet shack it was when I first moved in.

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“… nothing creates a gathering quicker than a sizzling pan of barbecued food”. 

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Espen and Hanne, during a tasting of Jared’s beer.

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Gaute boards our smaller Viking ship for an evening race around the lake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Laura Di Mauro, one of our Italian Guides

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“… their voices blended in a muffle of Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and English – talking over each other in dialects but all laughing in the same language”.

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Espen throws his coat over his shoulder, as we hike over the hills of Å; photo by Karianne Kaas.

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From Left to right; Espen, Stephen, Laura, Sivert (Espen’s Brother); Photo by Karianne Kaas.

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Photographer catches photographer – Driving through the Lofotens

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From Left to Right; Bernhard, Jared and Odd, a local sheep farmer; Photo by Laura Di Mauro

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From Left to Right; Bernhard, Jared and Odd, a local sheep farmer; Espen grabs a few heads for a last goodbye: Photo by Laura Di Mauro

“Where no-one uses their house keys, a knock on the door is replaced by the sound of a visitor kicking their shoes off.”

It was the end of April and the last dark sky of winter had passed over Lofoten. Terje unlocked the door and handed me the key.

“You are the first to arrive” he said, popping his head in on front of me. The old family had just moved out and it was so soon after the museum’s purchase that he hadn’t even been inside yet.

“We had to buy it” he said,  “Each year brings more crafters and guides and many can only work here if they have a place to stay’.

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A view of my room

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Settling in with a cold one on the balcony.

We inspected each room together; the kitchen, basement, bedrooms and bathrooms. We then stepped into a wide living room that  had a tv and on its wooden floor, a leather couch that wrapped around the half the room. A framed picture of the house, marked with the year 1985 stood on a coffee table at one end of the room. While on every wall, hung the collected decorations of an older generation.

Terje found the remote to the air conditioner.

“If it’s cold, just turn up the heat like this”, he said, pressing a button that offered no response.

Knitting his brow, he tried again before handing the device over to me, smiling.

“It’s ok, there’s some firewood down by the boathouse you can use”, he said gesturing to an old wood burner that was fixed in the corner of the room.

With a handshake at the hallway, he was gone. But no sooner had the door banged behind him, did I have my boots back on and was making my way down towards the boathouse, where, after a few minutes, I could see appearing through a slight fog over the hill, the shape of the Chieftain’s longhouse. A figure stood out in the middle of the road. It was tall and dressed in medieval clothes; standing in front of a wide open gate and waving his hands at an enormous white tour bus, guiding it into the car park like a Boeing 747 on a runway.IMG_0281

It was Manfred, a German guide who worked with me the previous year. He smiled at the bag of birch logs I was carrying on one shoulder and gave a hearty wave, before  jumping aside; narrowly avoiding the flow of  tourists that spilled out of the bus doors and into the car park.

I returned the wave and continued down the long winding road; flanked by grassy fields that seemed to surround Borg like it was sitting in a rocky bowl of green milk. The front door of the house closed behind me. I kicked off my boots, opened the wood burner and in a few minutes the room was glowing; orange, with the crackle of kindling.

 “I kicked off my boots, opened the wood burner in the living room and in a few minutes the room began glowing; orange, with the crackles of kindling”.

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Like a snail who carries his house on his back, I had once again overpacked. In anticipation of the limited amount of internet, I had brought many books that I knew I would need for my studies, as well as an arsenal of comics on my iPad, several 3DS video games and a violin to combat the boardroom.

I had started a different PhD proposal over a year ago, which focussed on the archaeology Early-Medieval and Viking-Age Ireland; however, by Christmas last year, I had changed my ideas, pushing my focus back to around 3,000 BC, examining the carpenters of Bronze-Age Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean.

To pass the time last year, I survived purely on the Viking history and archaeology books they sold at the museum gift-shop. But now, although the books in my suitcase were wrapped in the robes of a 9th century Viking bow-maker, their contents, as with my thoughts, were far away in ancient Egypt and Greece; peering over the shoulders of Howard Carter, as he pries open the doors of the child pharaoh’s tomb; or beside Menelaus and Paris as they slug it out by the gates of Troy.

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Brage Stenson

At the centre of a circle of stuff on the floor, I heard a banging in the hallway; but it was’t the rap of a fist.

Where no-one uses their house keys, a knock on the door is replaced by the sound of a visitor kicking off their shoes.

It was Brage, the apprentice blacksmith and a friend from last year. He was a bit taller and broader than me, and although his red tinged hair was thick and dark, his ocean-blue eyes always gave him away as a Scandinavian.

“Hei, Hei!, Lenge siden sist!”, he said with a smile after we embraced; to which I drew a blank.

“You still haven’t learned any Norwegian yet?” he asked laughing.
“How’s your Irish”, I said in defence.
“I only remember the one word you thought me” he answered, “When you couldn’t remember my name at first, you said you would think of the Irish word for ‘shoes’ ”.

“Oh yeah!” I laughed, remembering; “Bróga!”.

An apt name for someone who has a passion for walking and he certainly used his ‘brógs’ since I’de last seen him. We sat on the leather couch and he told me all about his bartending course in Barcelona; of the people he met, the laughs (and troubles) he had gotten himself into. He told me then, of how he walked across Spain on one meal a day. He listening to audiobooks on his phone on a pilgrimage from hostel to hostel, where eventually, he met a Norwegian family who offered him work on their farm in Northern Italy.

“How about you?” he asked.

“Where did you go?” he asked, selecting a book from a pile on the middle floor.

“Wow”, I said, “I went to North Italy too, but my trip wasn’t that adventurous – It was for family and research – I spent ‘New Years Eve’ in Bolzano, a city in the Alps where my girlfriend’s parents live.” I said, “But every time I go, I stick in a visit to Ötzi, the 5,000 year old Iceman that was found in the nearby mountain”.

“It’s just a coincidence they happen to share the same town”, I added ironically.

“It was meant to be”, Brage said with a laugh, selecting a book on Egyptology from the pile at the centre of the room.

“I stayed for about ten days, but later that week her parents drove us to the Torino Museum of Egyptology” I said, continuing.

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A view of the mountainous backdrop that surrounds the South Tyrolean city of Bolzano.

“You wouldn’t believe the preservation of the wooden objects there!”.
“Inspiring?” he said, placing the book back down and spotting the violin in the corner.
“Well, it made me rethink my whole project!”.
“And your Girlfriend, Elisa, she is still studying Canada?” he asked.
“Yes”, I said, “She’s halfway through her PhD; three more years in Tissue Engineering’.

“Both becoming doctors, and neither the kind that will make a tonne of money” he said jokingly,

“You guys are crazy!”.

He picked up the violin.

“You’re learning to play?” he asked, plucking a string to his ear.

DSCN9644“I tried twice before, but I always gave up”. I said, “But this time, I pushed through the ‘sounding like a bag of cats’ phase; I’ve actually started to play some real pieces.

“I’ll wait a little before you give me a demonstration then” he said with a laugh, turning the grain in the light.
“Where did you get it” he asked?
“It’s my cousin’s” I said, “I took my brother to see the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums in Oxford in Febuary”.
“We stayed with family in Reading where; my cousin Nina, let me try her violin; she said she hadn’t played it in over a year, and so, gave to me”.

“Nice”, Brage said.

“I love it” I continued; “Maple body, ebony fretboard – you can still see the chisel marks on the headstock – There was a museum in Oxford had a few 18th century violins on display; it must be an amazing feeling to make one!”.

“Have you thought about what we’re going to make this year?” he then asked.

This, I was most looking forward too. Several weeks last summer were spent in the smithy, forging a Norwegian Sami Knife. We never got it fully finished and burnt the steel a few times. But it got the ball rolling for a challenging tradition and the project this year was a good one.

“Yes”, I said, reaching for my laptop and opening it,  “While I was in Toronto visiting Elisa, I went to the Royal Ontario Museum”

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Espen, Brage and I, working away together in the Smithy.

“Since I was small, I had always wanted to see a dinosaur skeleton,” I said, “So, while at the Museum, hoping to indulge my inner child, I stumbled upon an exhibition that was dedicated to the ‘First Peoples’ of Canada that had a wide  collection of Native American objects; that’s when I saw these”, I said, turning the Macbook around; revealing a selection of 18th -19th Century Western Bowie knives.
“You want to try to make one?” he said.
“Do you think we can?”, I asked.
“Well”, he answered, “We have the forge; I can’t think of a better place to try” he added with a grin.

I saw Brage everyday during the rest of the summer and over the next few months, my empty hallway began gradually filling with shoes. The tables and chairs of the little white house by the foot the museum began slowly accumulating jumpers and coats; while my toothbrush in the glass above the bathroom sink, one-by-one, gradually gained several new companions. The firewood by the burner eventually lost its use, while the windy rattle of the walls was replaced by the banter of housemates.

It was 2:30 AM at my white chipboard writing-desk and the party downstairs was in full swing.

I read the title of my proposal once more. In less than a year I had discovered whole a new direction and designed a whole new project; I wondered how many things would change again before the end. But first step was compete.
I squinted at a sun that now rose from behind the mountain, filling my room with new light.

A new project – A new challenge.

I attached the document to an email, addressed it to ‘UCD School of Archaeology’ and hit ‘send’.

I wouldn’t hear back from them until mid August, but I had the whole summer to forget about it. In the meantime, I needed to fill our little white house with stories; like the time Stephen finally closed his bloody computer, came down and joined the party.

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The midnight sun slowly creeps over the mountain outside my window, moments after I submit my proposal.

‘Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article please ‘Follow’ me on WordPress or add your email address on my Homepage to receive updates on my latest posts’

 

Selected photos by Karianne Kaas: https://kariannekaas.wordpress.com

 

 

2 Comments on “Where the Sun Never Sets: Life Outside the Viking Museum in Lofoten, Norway

  1. A great read! A grand conclusion to a fantastic year. Thanks for the memories, Stephen!
    I sincerely hope that our paths will cross again someday.
    Will you return to Lofotr next year, or has your museum work concluded?

    Like

    • Well I still have more articles of my summer to write as my work at college begins. So more to come! In terms of future projects, we’ll just have to see! 🙂

      Like

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