Today was a really exciting day in which a great deal was accomplished. Another one of my lifetime destinations has been reached.
But it wasn’t quite like that at the start. I awoke, just for a change, at 05:00 and couldn’t go back off to sleep. But that’s not to say that I was up and about very lively. I did manage to beat the third alarm but only just, and staggered into an early breakfast looking something like the Death of Nelson. I’m not feeling myself these days which is just as well, because it’s a disgusting habit.
After breakfast I went back to my room and relaxed for a very short while before we were called to the boats, and then we set off for Hvalso.
Hvalso is better-known by its Norse name – Hvalsey – and is internationally famous as having probably the best-preserved Norse ruins in North America. It’s long-been my ambition to come here and this is probably one of the main reasons why I’m here on this voyage.
There are the remains of a magnificent stone house with all of the outbuildings and other offices. No-one can really tell the date of when it was first constructed but it was expanded over a period of several centuries culminating in some work as late as the very early 15th Century, towards the very end of the Norse settlement in Greenland.
Not only that, there are the remains of a magnificent Norse church from maybe the 13th Century and which are quite intact considering that it has been abandoned for 6 centuries or so. Highlight of the church though is an incredible arched window of a type that I have never seen before in Norse architecture. I had no idea that they knew the principle of arches and keystones. And what is more, it is still intact and that is even more of a surprise.
Another claim to fame is that the last written event in Norse Greenland took place here. The Norse here were never very into writing so written records are … errr … scant. But in 1408 here is a record of a wedding that took place in the church between a local girl and an Icelandic man. And after that, there is no written word that ever came out of Greenland until the 18th Century and a new breed of settlers.
The fate of the Norse is unknown and any suggestion is mere speculation. However we can rule out that they returned to Iceland or Norway despite what some people suggest. While it’s certainly true that some did – the husband at the wedding was recorded as being in Iceland a couple of years later – they would not have sent out search parties to Greenland during the next few centuries to look for any Norse survivors had they all returned to Iceland or Norway.
And suggestions that they returned because of land inheritances in the rest of Norse Europe becoming more available after the Black Death is quite clearly absurd when you consider that the Black Death took place 70 years (or three generations) previously.
And even if that were the case, it’s by no means certain that every last man or woman would leave. We’ve seen for ourselves that when the Inuit at Grise Fiord were offered the chance to return to their homeland after just 20 or so years and leave the desperately inhospitable environment of Ellesmere island, a great many of them chose to cling on.
The church here at Hvalsey was built on the site of an earlier, smaller church and one of the walls was built over part of the old graveyard. Consequently as the bodies rotted away and the graves caved in, the wall on that side sagged dangerously but has now been stabilised.
While I was there I took the opportunity to go for a wander around with the geologist. I’d been attracted to the fact that in the walls of the church were several blocks of pink granite, quite unlike the main stone in the area, that has been so well-cut that there was not a single tool mark upon them. The general opinion, from our archaeologist that they had been cut by hand seemed most unlikely to me.
However, we soon found what we had been looking for. Not too far away, a bed of granite had at some time infiltrated the metamorphic rock and at one point there was a twin-fault line that passed right through it. The granite had been cleaved by Nature on both sides to absolute perfection and there was clear evidence that some of this rock had been removed.
So that answered my question far more easily than I had imagined. My opinion of this archaeologist is going downhill quite rapidly, as regular readers of this rubbish will recall.
We also had a kind-of stone corral for horses, several foundations that looked as if they might have base of medieval tithe-barns and warehouses, and a load of stone walls, clearly man-made but using some of the heaviest stones that you could imagine.
There was also something that looked very much like an Inuit grave or cache but this was disputed, and Nature had provided the site with all kinds of wild herbs that would have been a boon to any Norse chef.
One thing that Yours Truly uncovered that had been missed by the excavators of the site was some writing chiseled into the lintel over the doorway into the church. Anyone who knows anything about European architecture of the middle period of the Second Millennium will know that builders had a habit of carving the date into the lintel. That was what I had been looking for.
But as for what the writing might be, It seemed to be something like …CLL … and the rest was covered in a heavy growth of lichen that was clearly the original growth. Obviously it’s against the Law to scrape away any of the lichen so I shall have to leave that to the experts. But it doesn’t seem to suggest any kind of Roman numeral that I might be able to identify
While all of this was going on, we were overflown by an eagle. And there was a fisherman out there catching the cod that were leaping about all over the place. It was all quite lively. What wasn’t lively though was the farm further down the valley. Greenland has 37 farms, of which 35 are working. However this one is one of the two that isn’t. It ceased operation in 2006 when the owner retired and it was bought by people who use it just as a weekend retreat.
Back on the ship and lunch, by which time we had sailed to the town of Qaqortoq. This is the largest town in south Greenland, with about 3,000 inhabitants and our stop for this afternoon.
A guide took us around the town on a guided tour and showed us the sights. We were walking around for about 90 minutes and saw plenty of things, but nothing that I would call “startling”, except for the only public fountain in Greenland.
Somewhere round by the river we fell in with a couple of little girls aged about 7 or 8 or something. They were proudly displaying a bottle in which were several tiny little fish about an inch or so long. Obviously following in the Inuit traditions There were some young teenage boys leaping off a high cliff into a freezing cold lake. Rather them than me.
We finished up in the modern church, built in 1973, and had a tour around the local supermarket to see the prices in there. Not quite as outrageous as I was expecting compared to Northern Greenland.
The museums were interesting, especially the Norse museum where there were remarks that seem to confirm some of my ideas, and then we went for a coffee at the local hotel.
A little later, I took Strawberry Moose for a walk around the town and for a few photo opportunities, which he enjoyed immensely.
Tea tonight was a vegetable biryani which was probably among the best that I have ever eaten. It was totally delicious although I would have liked it to be more spicy, as you might expect. I can’t be doing with this North American idea of spicy food.
In the evening, while everyone was watching a film, I was typing my notes when Ben the Chef came over for a chat. A huge mountain of a man he was born in Brisbane but came to the UK when he was 3 and lived in Liphook and then in Wiltshire. We chatted about quite a few things for quite some time.
He told me that one day soon we are to have a banquet of local delicacies. He had been ashore today and bought a load of whale meat and things like that for us to try. And when I say “us”, I don’t mean that I will be participating. It all sounds pretty revolting to me and anyway I’m a vegan, as regular readers of this rubbish will recall.
So I’m now off to bed. No chance of an early night with so much going on, but I’d be happy if I could just sleep through until when the alarm goes off. One of these days I might just manage it, but I’m not holding my breath.