For years I’ve been an avid reader of Icelandic sagas, and for that reason I’ve wanted to go to Iceland for a long time. Over the years I’ve noticed that when I hype myself up with expectations over a long period of time, I’m invariably disappointed. So it has been with a certain amount of dread that I’ve been facing the prospect of actually setting foot in Iceland.
As soon as I landed at Keflavik international airport I noticed the colour of the light and how lush and saturated everything looked. As I drove into Reykjavík I was struck by how utterly alien the landscape looked. All new geology caused by volcanic activity, no trees in amongst the rocks, just tiny little heath and lichen. I got such a shock when I stepped out of the car to take this picture.
Although the ground is obviously very rocky, the rocks are covered in such think lichen that it is like walking on the softest and most luxurious shag carpet that you could possibly dream of.
After we spent about half an hour marvelling at the amazing landscape we got back in the car and within about ten minutes I saw a small tornado off in the distance.
Although I’ve been through areas within an hour of one passing through the countryside and a small town in Ontario, Canada years ago, and have seen close up the destruction they cause, I’ve never seen one actually happen. More amazement!
After boggling on the tornado until it petered out, we made our way to the accommodation that we booked (reykjavik4you) and were blown away by how nice it is! I’m not kidding, this place it as good as it’s website says it is. Here’s a picture of the lounge area of our room.
Spa bath, DVD player with free movies, flat screen TV, hi speed internet, kitchen plus a great bakery just across the road and it’s located in the middle of town!
As soon as we dumped our bags we went for a stroll downtown. With a population of about 120,000, Reykjavík is not a huge city, but it has tremendous heart. The town is just abuzz with an energy that I haven’t seen anywhere else that I’ve been to in Europe. For me there is a real sense of Reykjavík being a “happening place”, and in the short time I’ve been here, I’m already kicking myself we spent so much time in Finland and we didn’t spend it here instead!
So far, so good (he says, tempting the gods).
Much of the sightseeing in Gotland involves looking at things to do with burials. Anything from gigantic bronze age cairns (rojr) to iron age stone ship burial (skeppssättningar) sites onto medieval and later graveyards with inscribed memorials.
Whenever I look at graveyards of any kind I’m reminded of a quatrain from the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two–is gone.
Of late I’ve been thinking about the transitory nature of memorials. In most relatively modern graveyards the gravestones have lost their inscriptions within 350 years. Even deeply inscribed medieval grave markers are usually are an unreadable mess if they’re left out to the elements for more than a measly 500 or 600 years. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the more modern the tombstone, the shorter the time it will last.
Sandstone and marble are crap when it comes to withstanding the rigours of time and many headstones made of these materials only remain legible for about 150 years. Inscriptions hardly last any longer on granite unless they are on polished stones. I’ve noticed that roughly hewn granite breaks down faster than the polished version. Perhaps it has something to do with the mosses and lichens getting a foothold in the rougher textured stone and this helps the stone erode faster. Most of the cast iron memorials that were popular in the mid 19th century usually lie broken and rusted, as though in mocking mute witness to the fleeting nature of what we think of as the better design brought about by modern technology.
To my mind if you want to construct a memorial that will last a long time it would be expedient to start thinking like a bronze age chieftain. Make an arrangement with your people to bring some really big rocks along to your funeral and pile them up into a huge cairn like the one at Uggare in Gotland.
Uggarde rojr was made anywhere between 1500BC to 500BC and it is 45 metres across (about 150 feet) by 8 meters high (about 25 feet) and was constructed by piling rocks that are a heavy load for just about any man and many would’ve a needed a few people to lift them. The really amazing thing is that Uggarde rojr is still here. It’s just so big and the stones are so heavy no one has bothered to mess with it.
Now I know that most of us don’t have so many friends or the power to compel others to erect such large and lasting memorials to us, so another kind of enduring memorial might be of some use to those of us with more modest means.
The skeppssättningar or stone ship burial is another type of memorial that has withstood the test of time. Made during the iron age (from about 500BC to 400AD in northern Europe) in the outline of a boat with large stones that would need many people to move, stone ship burials range in size from a few metres long right up to a very egotistical 170 metres (about 500 feet) in length.
I think that a smaller skeppssättningar would be within the means of most of us. A few grand spent at a landscape supply, the rental of a small crane, an afternoon’s work of some capable friends and I think that most of us could get a durable memorial made to remind people in the future of the great person interred below. A few long lasting grave goods (pottery is always good) should also be added with the corpse so as to give the grave some interest to archaeologists in the future.
The only thing that remains is some sort of inscription.
This would be the tricky and expensive part, but I think a deeply laser etched account of the life of the person interred, on a thick sheet (5mm or about 1/4 “) of stainless steel that has been hammered around the biggest stone (don’t bolt it into the stone because the expansion and contraction of bolts will eventually help break down the stone) at the “bow” should do the trick.
Although today was windy and a bit wet we went for a short hike (about 7kms) and this is where it ended up.
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