Port Arthur

The world heritage listed Port Arthur settlement in Tasmania was part of Australia’s extensive convict network. It was established in 1830 as a timber camp that used convict labour and in 1833 it began to be used as a punishment place for repeat offenders. It was an incredibly harsh environment with the land itself serving as a secondary prison layer. This post is going to explore the physical world of Port Arthur, as well as the story of the site over the years beyond its life a prison camp. I want to begin by acknowledging that when the colonisers moved in to establish Port Arthur, it was not unoccupied land and was the home of the Paredarerme indigenous Australians.

As you can see from the map above the Tasman Peninsula, which Port Arthur sits on, is a natural defence. As well as having to traverse a heavily forested unfamiliar landscape, without supplies, it is connected to the main land by two very thin isthmuses which were guarded. Eaglehawk Neck (the second isthmus) was guarded not only by human guards but by a line of dogs. A military barracks was established there in 1831 and and in 1832 the dog line was installed, and the number of dogs was increased after probation stations opened on the peninsula in 1840. The dogs were set up at intervals along the land with a shelter, a chain, and a lamp. The ground they stood on was shells so it would reflect the light of the lamp. The aim was that any convict that tried to sneak past would alert the dogs who would then start barking and alert the guards. They were also installed on platforms on the water. In 1837 the dogs were described by Harden S. Melville as “every four footed black fanged individual among them would have taken first prize in his own class for ugliness and ferocity at any show” . You can see a statue of what the dogs might have looked like, and a picture of Eaglehawk Neck below.

Port Arthur is not the only convict site on the Tasman Peninsula and it was part of a broader system throughout Van Dieman’s Land (now called Tasmania). Most convicts were sent to work for free settlers or the government to start off with. By 1840s a probation system was established where groups of roughly 200 men were stationed at government sites around the state to work. There were a number of these sites on the Tasman Peninsula, as well as Port Arthur. Female convicts coming into Hobart were processed at the Cascade Female Factory and usually sent out to work for free settlers. I will write in more detail about the Female Factory later, but you can see some photos of the remains below. For now it’s enough to say that the conditions were horrendous.

Port Arthur was used for convicts that had committed other offences in the colony, but the other site I wanted to talk about briefly is where the convicts who offended at Port Arthur were sometimes sent. The coal mines. They are on the Tasman Peninsula, but further north than Port Arthur.

They were operated between 1833 and 1877 (though they were in private hands from 1848) and deserve a post in their own right, something I hope to do at some point. At its peak in 1845 there with 576 convicts, 27 military personnel, 125 civilians (this included 14 women and 90 children) living at the station. 11 375 tons of coal were produced. The coal was sold but was said to be bad quality. You can see photos of the buildings that housed the convicts at the mines below.

The quality of the stonework is remarkable, but it was a hard life where punishment involved isolation cells, which you can see the passageway for on the bottom left. Convicts did try to escape from the mines, but most were recaptured or died in the hostile bush. Like the convicts at Port Arthur, the men who worked in the coal mines were mainly not, despite often popular myth, transported for what we would now consider trifles and they had reoffended. This is not to say that they necessarily deserved the often extremely harsh punishment meted out, but it is worth noting despite the harshness of the punishment the crimes committed were still serious. Which brings us nicely back to Port Arthur itself.

Ironically enough, Port Arthur is in a truly beautiful location (though I did have very good weather for my visit)

The natural harbour, which you can see above, was the major draw for setting up a logging camp. The site was named Port Arthur after Governor Arthur in 1828. From 1833 it became the repeat offender site and by 1840 it housed more than 2000 convicts, soldiers and civilian staff. They made everything from furniture, to ships. You can see the ship building area below.

Convict transportation to Van Dieman’s land ended in 1853, but there were still convicts at Port Arthur and it became an institution for the elderly and mentally and physically ill convicts. The site was closed in 1877 and a lot of the buildings were destroyed by two bushfires. It eventually became a small town, renamed Carnarvon, but it evolved to an open air museum by the 1920s with hotels and shops and the name returned to Port Arthur. It was listed as a world heritage site as part of the greater convict network in 2010 and occupies roughly 40 hectares. It is run by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.

Before I continue on to explore Port Arthur itself, I wanted to briefly discuss the Port Arthur Massacre. I don’t think the story of Port Arthur can be told without it, but I will not be naming the perpetrator as they should not be remembered. But the event can’t be forgotten as to do so denigrates the lives lost. In 1996 on the 28th of April a young man began firing on the crowds at Port Arthur. 35 people were killed and 21 injured. There is a truly beautiful memorial garden on the site of the Black Arrow Cafe, where most of the killings took place. It is still the worst mass shooting in Australian history and resulted in significantly stricter gun laws.

There is not way to elegantly move on from the above paragraph so I’m not going to try. It was a horrific event, but one that is woven into the past of Port Arthur, a past that has never been easy. So I thought I’d continue the story of Port Arthur by looking at some of the individual buildings and places. This is not going to be an exhaustive examination of every building and place in Port Arthur, but it will be a representative selection.

The building you can see above is the one most commonly brought to mind when most people think of Port Arthur. The penitentiary was capable of housing 657 men in seperate cells and dormitories. It also housed a bakehouse and cook house on the right which fed the men held in the penitentiary. It was originally constructed as a flour mill and granary in 1845, by 1857 it had been converted into accommodation for convicts. There were 136 seperate cells, a dining hall and a library with some 13000 volumes. When Port Arthur closed in 1877, the building was left. It was gutted by fire in 1897 and not long after many of the bricks were repurposed.

The guard tower was constructed in 1836 on the word of the Commandant Captain Charles O’Hara Booth. It was part of a much larger military complex but the remainder has been demolished. It survived the fires of the late 1800s because it has a lead roof.

Above you can see a replica of the semaphore tower. The original would have been much taller and was part of a line of sight semaphore system that stretch back to Hobart. The system ran from about 1811 to 1880 and in good weather a message, for example about an escaped convict, could reach Hobart in about twenty minutes.

The building above is the hospital. It was built in 1842, though there had been an earlier hospital on the site. It also housed the morgue.

There was also a pauper’s complex, but there aren’t any photos because after 1877 the mess hall was set aside for a school and the 1895 bushfire destroyed the rest of the buildings. It is worth mentioning, because it was part of the later use of Port Arthur. From the 1860s Port Arthur housed the men who had been in the convict system for years who has no chance of employment. In 1870 Marcus Clarke described these men as “poor scarecrows in cast off clothing”. The complex was closed in 1874 and remaining men shipped to Hobart. Part of this system was the insane asylum which is still standing in part.

The insane asylum was built in the late 1860s. The treatment was rudimentary at best, with ‘soothing’ activities like gardening. It was during the period of time when most of the prisoners in Port Arthur were becoming aged and infirm and industry at Port Arthur slowed significantly. The building was partly destroyed in the 1895 bushfires, and has been repurposed a number of times.

The seperate prison was opened in 1849 as part of a new method of punishment. It was a new style of prison system that kept prisoners completely seperate from each other. There were 50 cells measuring 6 ft by 9 ft by 11 ft as well as the truly horrifying isolation cells. By 1850 it was being used for the worst of the prisoners to bring their minds ‘to a more healthy condition’ . By 1884, after Port Arthur closed, it was purchased to be converted into a hotel, but it was gutted by fire in 1895 and ownership went back to the government in 1916. The aim of the seperate prison was the keep the men totally isolated, they were not allowed to speak unless they were addressed by an official, guards even used sign language amongst themselves. You can see the remarkable (and horrible) chapel in the photos below. The men were brought in hooded so they couldn’t see the other prisoners and the stalls were deliberately constructed so, once they were in, they could only see the priest.

The church at Port Arthur was opened in the 1830s and was capable of accommodating the majority of the prisoners. The 8 chime bells of the church were cast by an artisan- probably a convict- who has never been identified. When Port Arthur closed in 1877 the bells were stored at the New Norfolk Asylum, in 1897 seven of the bells when to the New Norfolk Municipal Council and they were hung in the tower of St Mathew’s Church, the 8th bell vanished. Over time seven bells have come back to Port Arthur, but the 8th is still missing.

Government Gardens and Government Cottage. The cottage was built in 1853 to house government officials who were visiting Port Arthur, from the beginning the cottage was surrounded by English style gardens that the officers’ wives and children used to walk in. The garden you can see today is a faithful reconstruction of the garden that would have originally existed.

The Governor’s House is a TARDIS like building with a really remarkable view.

It was the home of successive governors. It was built under Charles O’Hara Booth in the 1830s, but expanded extensively under successive governors. From the 1880s the building was repurposed as the Carnarvon Hotel and you can see one of the hotel murals in the photos above as well as the governor’s study and one of the bedrooms.

Point Puer was where the underage boys were housed. The first 60 boys were sent there in 1833. The aim was to train them in a useful trade and reform them so they would become useful citizens. It was not a hospitable place and it ended up being older convicts who were sent to the peninsula to teach the boys, which is just opposite the Port Arthur settlement itself, as they couldn’t get non convicts to undertake the job. By 1843 only boys under 15 were being sent there and in 1849 the remaining 162 boys were removed and sent to other stations. The buildings were cheaply built and subsequently crumbled.

I want to finish this post, I hope appropriately, with the Isle of the Dead. This was the cemetery for Port Arthur and is just off the tip of Point Puer.

The Isle of the Dead was originally called Opossum Island after the ship commanded by Captain Welsh who sheltered there in 1827. The first burial was in 1833 and it was of a 64 year old convict names John Hancock. Originally convicts didn’t get headstones, only a mound, but free settlers had headstones. This policy changed by the 1850s as there are some convict headstones from the later period. More than 10 000 convicts were buried on the Isle of the Dead between 1833 and 1877. For an island that has such a macabre purpose, it is actually very beautiful.

The Isle of the Dead seems to be a good spot to end this post. My next one will explore some of the people, convicts and soldiers, at Port Arthur. Like any site, the stories of Port Arthur is about more than the buildings.

References:

Site visit August 2019

https://portarthur.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Port-Arthur-World-Heritage-Factsheet1.pdf

http://tlf.dlr.det.nsw.edu.au/learningobjects/Content/R10815/object/r7529.html

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia

http://ontheconvicttrail.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-hospital-port-arthur.html

Margaret Peacock’s Isle of the Dead 958948909

The Isle of the Dead: Port Arthur’s unique island cemetery

Port Arthur’s Convict Days: An historic and pictorial review / Coultman Smith

Port Arthur: An historical survey

Prison Boys of Port Arthur / F.C Hooper

Penal Peninsula / Ian Brand 0909640084

The Media and The Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 / Sonya Voumard 9780994395719

The Seperate Prison or Model Prison Port Arthur / Ian Brand

The Port Arthur Coal Mines 1833-1877 / Ian Brand

All the images are mine apart from the two maps which come from Google Maps.

Easy to Evil Medieval History Quiz.

This month’s post is going to be a quiz, I haven’t done one for a while so I thought it’d be a nice change. The rules are straight forward: Read the question, look at the picture (it will be some type of extra information) and scroll down below the picture for the answer. Keep track of your score-including bonus points- and find out how you did at the end. There are four sections: Easy, Medium, Hard, Evil. Five questions to a section. All of the answers can be found somewhere on this blog, or in posts that will be written soon.

Enjoy.

Easy

Question 1: Which King of England was known as the Coeur de Lion?

Answer: Richard I: The photo is of his effigy in Fontevraud Abbey

Question 2: What was sealed in Runnymede in June 1215?

Answer: The Magna Carta. The photo is Runnymede

Question 3: What city is home to the medieval cathedral in the photo below? (sadly it doesn’t look like this now)

Answer: Paris: The Cathedral is Notre Dame (taken in 2012 so well before the fire)

Question 4: What is the name of the medieval illuminated manuscript written by monks in a small town in Ireland in the 9th century and now housed in Trinity College Dublin?

Answer: The Book of Kells.

Question 5: What abbey are a significant number of the Kings and Queens of England buried in?

Answer: Westminster Abbey.

Medium

Question 1: Where was Richard III buried? (the name of the town but you get a bonus point for being more specfic)

Answer: Leicester. Bonus point if you said either under a car park, Leicester Cathedral or Greyfriars)

Question 2: Which English queen (arguably) was known as an Empress and bonus point for why?

Answer: Matilda or Maud and because she had been married to Henry the Holy Roman Emperor. The photo is her burial plaque in Rouen Cathedral.

Question 3: Which Irish saint baptised the grandsons of the King at the Rock of Cashel?

Answer: Saint Patrick

Question 4: What embroidery depicts the events leading up the Battle of Hastings in 1066 as well as the battle itself?

Answer: The Bayeux Tapestry.

Question 5: Which Granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled France as the regent for her son Louis IX

Blanche of Castile. The picture is Angers castle which she was instrumental in building.

Hard

Question 1: Which Irish King was responsible for bringing the English to Ireland in the 1170s?

King Diarmuid MacMurrough of Leinster. The photo is his grave in Ferns Ireland.

Question 2: Which welshman wrote The Topography of Ireland and The Conquest of Ireland in the 1180s?

Answer: Gerald of Wales (also acceptable Giraldus Cambrensis). The photo is his birthplace Manorbier Castle.

Question 3: Which Icelandic Lawman and writer from the 13th century is responsible for much of what we know about Norse Mythology- as he was one of the first to write down the sagas?

Answer: Snorri Sturlson. The photo is of his hot spring at his home in Reykholt in Iceland.

Question 4: What former capital of Norway is home to the castle known as Haakon’s Hall?

Answer: Bergen.

Question 5: Where was Iceland’s Alpingi (a sort of early parliament) held?

 Answer: Þingvellir

Evil

Question 1: What is the name of the oldest stave church in Norway? Bonus point for the decade it was built in.

Answer: Urnes. It was built in 1150. The photo is of some of the remarkable carvings.

Question 2: Which French king built Sainte Chapel and for what purpose? You need both to get the point.

Answer: Louis IX and to house his holy relics- including the crown of thorns.

Question 3: What date did William the Conqueror die? And where is he buried?

Answer: 1087 and Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen.

Question 4: Where is the lighthouse built under William Marshal’s direction?

Answer: Hook Head in Ireland.

Question 5: What castle Henry I imprison his cousin Robert Curthoes in?

Answer: Cardiff Castle

So that’s it. How did you do?

1-5: Ok you know some medieval stuff

6-10: Impressive ish, nearly half way there

11-15: Excellent well done, you might actually have read a lot of this blog.

16-20: Stupendous, well done. Long time follower of Historical Ragbag- or a really impressive knowledge of random medieval history.

21-22 (remember those bonus point): Inconceivable!

23: Sure you didn’t write the quiz?

Wil-im-ee Moor-ring Indigenous Stone Quarry

The Wil-im-ee Moor-ring Indigenous Stone Quarry (also known as Mount William) is just out of Lancefield in Victoria. It’s an area of green stone that was quarried by Indigenous Australians for more than a 1000 years. The name means place of the axe.

I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring as part of the Australian Heritage Festival this year. It is land administered by the Wurundjeri Tribe Council. Last year I visited the Wurundjeri Earth Rings just out of Sunbury and wrote about them on this blog. You can see the post here:

https://historicalragbag.com/2018/05/21/wurundjeri-rings/

I want to reiterate what I said in that post about the Indigenous history of Australia and my place in writing about it. Firstly Indigenous history is something that all Australians should know more about, it’s arguably the oldest continuous culture in the world and over the years it has been (often deliberately) relegated to a footnote. This is slowly changing and I’m certainly trying to learn more and to share what I find. It’s also just fascinating.

I’d like to pause here to say that I am aware that as a non Indigenous person writing Indigenous history can be problematic. This post is intended to encapsulate the possible history of the site as was explained by a Wurundjeri Elder on the tour and laid out in the National Trust Heritage List report, and I claim no more than that. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is just so interesting and important that I want to make sure people know about it and to help ensure that Indigenous history is a part of the history of Victoria, if only in my small way.

So to begin. I wanted to start with an analogy, it’s the best description I’ve heard of what’s known of Indigenous history in Victoria. Bill Nicholson, the Elder who took the group I was part of the round Wil-im-ee Moor-ring, described it as a 100 page book, with maybe 30 pages left that are in the wrong order. When Victoria was colonised not only were a lot of Indigenous people killed, through disease like small pox but also through massacres, but culture and language was often banned and they were rounded up, removed from Country and installed in missions. At Coranderk (one of the main missions just out of Melbourne) Woiwurrung, the language group that the Wurundjeri are part of, was banned in 1863. Knowledge was simply lost. Breaking up a culture that is rooted in oral history, is tantamount to burning libraries and archives in Western culture. Efforts are being made to reclaim Indigenous history and new information is being found in archives all the time, but by the time a lot of it was being written down, usually by the colonisers like William Thomas who was an Assistant Protector of Aborigines, what they were seeing was only the tip of the iceberg of what had existed. This is why sites like Wil-im-ee Moor-ing are so essential. Apart from being spiritually important, they are physical manifestation of Indigenous culture and history. There’s a lot more around than most Victorians know about too, and again I include myself in this. There’s scar trees, possible smoking trees, burials, other quarries and more.

Possible smoking tree. Would have been used for smoking meat to preserve it.

There’s been stone formations found in the Western District that are as old or older than Stone Henge and have possible astronomical alignments. Budj Bim, also in the Western District, with its sophisticated eel and fish trap systems and remains of housing is under consideration for World Heritage Status. Petroglyphs are being un-earthed all over Victoria and then you’ve got the earth rings like the ones near Sunbury. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is part of a large system of sophisticated land management, language, law, ceremony, trade routes, Country and family that stretched across Victoria and Australia.

To return to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring itself. It’s roughly forty acres (though the original quarry would have covered more land), and has been fenced off since the 80s. It’s been a tourist attraction of sorts since the 1800s, visited on day trips along with the near by Hanging Rock. So it has been thoroughly picked over and much of the land was cleared. That being said, since the 1800s it has been acknowledged as a site of an Indigenous quarry pre dating European colonisation, which is very unusual in Australia (it’s much earlier than any Indigenous activity pre colonisation was usually acknowledged). The first European reference to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring comes from William Buckley, who was an escaped convict living in the bush from 1803 to 1833, he describes a hard black stone from a place called Kar-keen which was shaped into stone heads. William Barak, a prominent Wurundjeri Elder in the mid 1800s, witnessed the final operation of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring as a quarry and described it to an anthropologist called Howitt as one of the places that “a group of people claimed for some special reason, and in which the whole tribe had an interest.” This clear recorded history of Indigenous custodial rights and processes is very unusual.

To return to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring physically. The rock in is class five diorite. Simply put, it’s very hard.

Above you can see one of the rocks from which the stone was split. It was done by heating the rock up with fire and then pouring water on it to cause the cracking. The axe heads themselves were shaped on a flaking floor, one of which you can see below. You can also see what might be broken rejects.

Wattle branches were probably split to make a loop for the handles of the axes and Xanthorrhoea sap was boiled to make glue to hold it all together and it was bound with kangaroo sinew. These weren’t axes that were used for fighting, they were used whilst hunting and for things like stripping bark off trees. These specific axes have been found as far as South Australia and Southern Queensland. They were immensely valued, not only for their utility but probably for the spiritual significance of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring itself. Part of the Indigenous belief system of the area is that the ancestral spirits formed themselves into the landscape, and Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is one of these landscape features. There is also records of axes being physically traded in the 1830s when William Bradley observed one polished axe head being traded for two possum skin cloaks, and a rough head for a large number of spears. To understand the value of possum cloaks you only have to think about how small a possum is, and how many you would need and how long it would take to construct one full cloak, let alone two. The axe heads were valued.

While there is more known about Wil-im-ee Moor-ring that a lot of other Indigenous sites there is still a lot to learn and hopefully be discovered and reconstructed where it can be. It’s a beautiful place, part of a broader landscape, that more people should know more about.

References:

Site visit and tour 2019, information provided by Wurundjeri Tribe Council https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/

National Trust Heritage List Report of Mount William.

The photos are all mine.

The 800th Anniversary of William Marshal’s Death

Today 800 years ago, one of the greatest knights of his age died. William Marshal was in his early 70s when he died on the 14th of May 1219 (his birthdate was probably 1147 but it is not known for certain). This was a remarkable age for his era and in his lifetime he had ten children, was a knight errant, a commander, an Earl, went to the Holy Land, served five kings and rose from the fourth son of a non hierarchically important baron to be Regent of England at his death. He is remembered because of a remarkable contemporary biography commissioned by his son after his death. The History of William Marshal is the earliest non classical biography of a lay person, and it is a fascinating window into the 12th century.

I wrote my thesis on William Marshal in 2011, and I have written about him, and his equally remarkable wife Isabel de Clare, on this blog before so I am not going to recap his life story. There are lot of celebrations of Marshal’s life happening in the UK and Ireland at the various castles he was involved in the construction of. Sadly as I’m Australian I can’t attend any of them, so I thought I’d write this post as a recap of everything I’ve written about Marshal in the nearly five years since I began this blog.

Marshal’s effigy (probably) in the Temple Church in London

You can read about Marshal in more detail here

https://historicalragbag.com/william-marshal-and-isabel-de-clare/

Tintern Abbey in Wales where Isabel de Clare was probably buried.

And about Isabel de Clare here

https://historicalragbag.com/2014/11/27/marriage-alliances-1180-1250-part-4-isabel-de-clare/

I have also written about several structures that he was involved in building:

Tintern Parva in Ireland

https://historicalragbag.com/2017/12/11/advent-calendar-of-medieval-religious-institutions-december-11th-tintern-parva/

Hook Lighthouse in Ireland

https://historicalragbag.com/2015/08/16/hook-lighthouse/

Ferns Castle in Ireland

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/12/20/advent-calendar-of-castles-december-20th-ferns-castle/

Chepstow Castle in Wales

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/12/18/advent-calendar-of-castles-december-18th-chepstow-castle/

Pembroke Castle in Wales

https://historicalragbag.com/2015/11/15/pembroke-castle/

And you’ll find many Marshal sites discussed in my post From Page to Place about places I’ve visited because of books I’ve read. This post specifically features the book that introduced me to Marshal in the first place: Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight

https://historicalragbag.com/2017/09/29/from-page-to-place/

Finally you’ll also find Marshal and Isabel as the key figures in the only fictional part of Historical Ragbag.

https://historicalragbag.com/accidental-love-a-medieval-love-story/

You’ll find Marshal scattered through all of Historical Ragbag, not just in the posts actually about him. In many ways Marshal is the heart of this blog. He certainly encapsulates his time, which happens to be the 70 odd years that I’m most interested in.

Marshal’s effigy in the Temple Church in London

Seeing as this is the 800th anniversary of his death I thought it was appropriate to conclude with the archbishop’s words as Marshal’s body was interred in the Temple Church, as recorded by History of William Marshal.

Temple Church in London

All the writings in the History have to have taken with a lot of grains of salt, because it is a biography commissioned by his son, and it is perfectly possible these words were not actually said, but the sentiment most likely holds true.

See my lord, how it is with this life: when each and everyone of us comes to his end, there is no sense be found in us, for we are nothing but so much earth. Look there, see the best knight to be found in the world in our times. And, in God’s name what will you say then? All of us must come to this, it is an inescapable fact that each of us must die when his day comes. Just look at this exemplar here, ours as well as yours. Let each man say the Lord’s prayer, entreating God to receive this Christian soul into his realm in heaven, to sit in glory beside his own, for we believe this man to have been a good man.

For me the final line says it all, Marshal was good man.

References: History of William Marshal, Volume II, p. 457

The photos are all mine.

Østerlars Church

Østerlars Church is on Bornholm, an island I have already discussed in a previous post on Hammerhus Castle which you can read here. Østerlars is truly remarkable. It is only one of four round churches on Bornholm, but it’s the biggest and the oldest.

Østerlars was constructed c. 1150 and is dedicated to Saint Lawrence. The name comes from a contraction of Laurentii Kirke which became Larsker and eventually Østerlars (øster meaning east) to distinguish it from another nearby church dedicated to St Nicholas.

As you can see Østerlars is round, apart from the little belfry built off to the side (which holds two bells dating from the 1640s and the 1680). As to why it was built round? There are a number of opinions, but no one knows for certain. It is possible that Østerlars and the other round churches on Bornholm were either inspired by or built by the Knights Templar. The Templars certainly built round churches (you can see two below from London and Cambridge), they were modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There is also a connection between Eskil the Archbishop of Lund and Bernard of Clairvaux who played a role in the foundation of the Knights Templar, so it isn’t impossible.

Templar Church London
Round Church Cambridge

Another, possibly more likely, answer is that the churches were built as fortifications, and the round shape was part of making the church more impenetrable. Østerlars was certainly built with many features that made it work as a fortification, originally the church wouldn’t have had a roof, and would have had a lower outer wall so it was possible to move around the outer passage that is now under the roof.

The walls are more than 2 m thick and the church sits on a site that commands a view of the country side.

There are also holes for a large bar on either-side of the main door, which argues that the church was probably built to ward off attack. If Østerlars was a fortification, it was probably never attacked as there’s no archaeological evidence of any battles on the site. It was most likely intended to be a place of protection and retreat for the congregation as well as a place of worship. Bornholm is in an important spot on the trade routes in the Baltic and was subject to attack by pirates as well as being a place of contention between several countries. The other possible theory is that Østerlars was built partly as an observatory. It’s also not impossible that Østerlars is circular for a combination of all three reasons.

Regardless of why Østerlars is round, it is beautiful. The conical roof isn’t original, the current version dates to 1744 and every single tile is wooden, but there are drawings from the late 17th century that show a very similar roof. The shingles on the roof are made from split Bornholm oak, they are regularly tarred to keep the weather out and are remarkably durable. These days modern equipment is used when the tiles need to be re-tarred, but in the past a chair was hung from the roof to administer the tar. You can see both the interior of the roof and the chair in the photos below.

It is also an extremely solid building, with 2m thick walls built in the double wall structure, with a cavity filled with soil and gravel. All the material was sourced locally. The walls are thick enough to have a stair running up to the second floor, as well as a substantial passage around the top of the church.

The interior of the church itself is no less impressive with an altar with the original stones. An organ, the font and the curved pews were added in later with successive renovations.

By far the most impressive part of the interior of Østerlars is the frescos. They were originally painted in the early 14th century, covered with limewash around 1600 as part of the Reformation and not rediscovered until 1889. They circle around the nave’s load bearing pillar and tell the story of the life of Jesus, beginning with the annunciation to Mary and ending with a very impressive depiction of judgement day.

You can see the story narrative unfold in the photos below.

As you can see, not all of the frescoes have survived. Also, there would originally have been more in other parts of the church. For contemporaries they would have been illustrative of the priest’s sermon which would have been in latin which was unlikely to have been understood by the locals. They are a truly incredible insight into the medieval world, in their depiction of clothing and garments and dreams and fears. Frescos from this era are not common, and these are a remarkable survival.

The landscape Østerlars stands in is an ancient one as well, with Iron Age, Roman and Viking settlements and artefacts. The Viking artefacts are particularly prominent with more than 40 runestones found on Bornholm. Three such stones were built into the fabric of Østerlars. The one you can see in the photo below was built into the belfrey before being removed. It reads: Broder and Edmund had this stone raised in memory of their father Sigmund. Christ and Saint Mikkel and Saint Mary help his soul. It dates to the mid to late 11th century.

Østerlars is still an active church, as well as being a building of national importance. It is very much central to its landscape and the history of Bornholm as well as being a truly beautiful and unique building.

References

Site visit 2018

Østerlars Church Booklet.

All the photos are mine.

Book Preview: Cartography and how it shapes the world. Part Two

The first part of this post covered cartography more generally and my more general books. You can read it here. This post is going to look at three of my more specific books on cartography and what they show us about the story of maps.

In the last post I looked at Theatre of the World, History of the World Map by Map, Visions of the World and The Map Book. In this post, I’m going to examine The Writer’s Map, Metropolis: Mapping the city and The Art of Cartographics, each of which have a different perspective on the world of cartography. I’m going to begin with The Art of Cartographics, because it is the most general and leads on well from the books discussed in the last post.

The Art of Cartographics is a fascinating look at modern mapping and the many different ways that are used to make maps, not just of place and landscape. This isn’t a book that looks at Google Maps (see my previous post of that discussion). This book includes maps of everything from literary London, transport systems in Russia, world maps, a map of the global market for cacao. These are by and large physical maps, created in everything from a concrete wall, pins and stress balls. There’s folded maps, maps that unfold to make shapes, maps shaped from tree branches and maps that come together to make a person’s face. These maps are made from paper, lights, stamps, stone and even honeycomb. The book explores the multiplicity of ways we express our world and our knowledge through cartography. Basically it’s a fascinating book, that is well worth having a copy of.

Sadly though, I can’t write about every map in the book. So I am going to focus on three. One is a world map made entirely of honeycomb, two is a literary map of London and three is the map of the NASA jet propulsion laboratory. Between the three of them they represent a good cross section of the types of maps included in the book. A non geographically accurate (but recognisable) map rendered in a non conventional material, a conventional material map of a concept over-laid geographically, and map that is a useful navigational aid, but also tells a completely seperate story.

I’ll start with the honeycomb map. As you can see above, it is a world map created by honeycomb. It is the work of artist Ren Ri, in a collaboration with bees. It is an artwork in its own right, much like many of the earlier maps, which were created as visual masterpieces as much as they were intended to be useful. This map is very recognisable as a world map, though it is a slightly different perspective to the Mercator projection that most people are familiar with. What I love about it, is how much of a collaboration the work is. Ren Ri created his work by carefully clearing part of the beehive and placing relief maps in. The bees then moved back in and laid their honeycomb over the top. The work of the bees makes the map almost appear topographical, to me it looks incredibly tactile as well.

The second map from Art of Cartographics I want to discuss is the literary London map

This map represents central London with characters from the pages of books that are set there. London is such an old city, with such a strong literary tradition that 250 novels were drawn from to create this map. Each character has been plotted into the approximate area they lived or worked within their fictional world. As well as being a mine of fascinating literary information, this map also succeeds in being roughly geographically accurate. It is a wonderful representation of the many different concepts that can be expressed in map form. It also harks back to older forms of mapping such as the medieval mappa mundi, which aimed to present a view of the world rather than one of geographical accuracy. Like past maps it draws on tradition, in this case literary rather than cartographical.

The third map I wanted to consider, is firmly rooted in the present. You can’t get much more forward looking that the Nasa Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

This double sided map was given to all employees at the 76th birthday party and is still given to all new employees and interns at orientation. JPL is so large that even employees need GPS to find their way around sometimes, and the buildings are not blessed with sequential numbering. This map is intended not only to be a useful navigation guide, but it also tells the story of JPL and provide several different walking tours depending on what you want to see, and which part of the story you want to discover. So it serves as both a navigational aide and as a depiction of JPL’s narrative, as well as being an art work in its own right. In many ways it is a combination of all the characteristics of the first two maps discussed. Additionally, despite being so modern, it still holds to many traditions of cartography, especially the pictorial depiction of creatures that inhabit the physical space, or mythological space of JPL. There is a real sense of ‘here be dragons’ (a concept used for unknown territory) and in the tradition of peopling maps with fantastical creatures.

These three maps are only a taste of The Art of Cartographics, there’s many truly incredible and fantastical maps in its pages. It illustrates the many fascinating ways maps can be used to express the human experience and gives hope that cartography is not lost in the past.

Continuing with maps in the real world is Metropolis: Mapping the city by Jeremy Black. Black covers a lot of ground chronologically, starting with incredibly early civilisations like the city of Nippur in Mesopotamia. In c.1250BCE it was depicted on a stone tablet when irrigation canals were built. The writing on the map is cuneiform.

What is truly incredible about this map, is how recognisable it is as a map of a city, even though it is only a fragment and is thousands of years old. This is a map that was clearly intended to be useful. Nippur was found on the Euphrates in what is now Iraq and it was a religious centre for most of its existence. Originally it was dedicated to Enlil, by the time it was abandonded in around 800CE it was a Christian city. The map is depicting the Euphrates on the far left, emerging from it up the very top is a canal that continues into the city. You can also see the city walls and a moat. It is truly remarkable how readable the map is even after all this time.

Black continues on through other very early city maps, through medieval maps of major cities like Jerusalem, London and Cathay (most of which tend to be very pictorial), on to grand Renaissance cities, with appropriately grand maps. He then examines, new world maps as the Europeans began to spread out across the world, through the epic imperial maps of the 1700s to the 1800s, the maps of innovation in the 1800s to 1900s, the global maps of 1900s and 2000s and concludes with the future possibilities of mapping cities.

What is clear in Black’s depiction of millennia of city mapping is how much a city’s identity can be caught up in its maps. This is never more true than in some of the, arguably, most powerful cities; the Renaissance city states. An example is the Carta Della Catena, a map of Florence from the 15th century. Unfortunately the image you can see below is a 19th century copy because the original was lost in a Berlin museum in World War II.

What this map illustrates is not only Florence at the height of its powers, but a period of transition in cartography. The map is still pictorial and in a sense representative rather than geographically realistic (that’s the artist in the bottom right) as you would expect from a medieval map. However, there is the real beginnings of realism as we’d understand it in a modern sense. It also illustrates the layout of Florence very recognisably and shows quite clearly just how important the city was.

Black’s book is a really interesting exploration of mapping cities, and much like Art of Cartographics, it is not too Western focussed. It draws on city maps from all over the world. It’s certainly worth reading.

I wanted to finish off my exploration of mapping and the books on mapping that I own, with something a little different. While all the previous books have been very much rooted in real world cartography, The Writer’s Map edited by Huw Lewis-Jones is a look at maps of fictional worlds. Lewis-Jones edits a book of chapters both by writers who have had maps of their worlds created and by those who created the maps. What is most fascinating about this book is how grounded in real world cartographic history these fictional maps are. I received this book for Christmas and spent two days sitting on the deck doing not much else but reading it. It is truly absorbing. I’d love to be able to explore every map discussed with such genuine enthusiasm, but that would defeat the purpose of this post (just buy the book). So I’ll focus on three very different but classic fictional maps. Middle Earth, Hundred Acre Wood and The Marauder’s Map.

Most people these days are probably most familiar with the maps created for the movies, but I wanted to use the map from 1970 by Pauline Baynes. I chose this map because Tolkien gave her detailed instructions, including the colour and size of the different ships and where different creatures should appear. It is also, arguably, the progenitor of fantasy mapping. The maps of Middle Earth are very much steeped in the history of mapping and they are not dis-similar to many of the epic world maps discussed in part one. In The Writer’s Map the Middle Earth chapter is written by Daniel Reeve who was one of the map makers from the films. He drew on Baynes’ original map as well as mapping traditions and created maps that appear in the movies, but also as the background for the publicity materials. Reeves discusses the processes in making the maps, as well as sneaking the outline of Wellington harbour and his home town as the Gulf of Lune into a Fellowship of the Ring map. He also looks a at why we make maps and what they show us. The maps in Lord of the Rings have become the visual mainstays for the immensely complex fantasy world Tolkien created.

On a much less epic scale, but of equal importance, is Winnie The Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, as drawn by Christopher Robin with help by Ernest Shepard in the 1920s. It was inspired by the real Ashdown Forest and, while simple, perfectly encapsulates Pooh’s world and the world of a child. It gives the world of the book a physical presence. You can see all the important geographical features of the story including: Pooh’s trap for Heffalumps, big stones and rox, Eeyore’s Gloomy Place (which is rather boggy and sad) and of course the directions for the North Pole. The map is in some ways like the city maps I discussed earlier, it depicts the totality of a world, not necessarily with geographical accuracy, but showing what is important to the creator and those it is created for. From the perspective of the Winnie the Pooh stories this map shows its heart. Shepard also did the maps for the Wind in the Willows and along with Hundred Acre Wood, they went on to create a tradition that can be found in many Western children’s books.

The Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter is a tricky one to show, as part of its appeal is the way in which it depicts people moving around Hogwarts, but it is such a crucial part of the books that I couldn’t leave it out. The Writer’s Map also has a fascinating chapter by Miraphora Mina, one of the creators of the Marauder’s Map in the films. She’s one of the creative team who worked on the Potter films and is now working on Fantastic Beasts. Mina knew that the Marauder’s Map had to be special; logical and bewildering at the same time. They made it from scratch, everything hand cut and folded, glued and written. In many senses it was like the early maps, only for a school inhabited by wizards. She made more than twenty maps to be used in the film, and their physicality blurred the line between fantasy and the real. Although these props can’t really show people moving around on them, in creating a map it made a world physical, there in ink and paper. This is true for all fictional maps. They bring their fantastical world into the real. You can trace the Lonely Mountains with a finger, follow the borders of Tortall, understand how the Island of Berk fits with its surrounding geography or see the route taken by the Swallows and Amazons. Fictional cartography gives real world substance to the fantastical, partly because of the long and understood history of cartography.

Maps, whether fictional or real, make a mark on how we see our world. Daniel Reeve sums it up beautifully right at the end of his chapter on Middle Earth. Maps are “inevitable” because “we feel a need to make a mark where we are, where we’ve been and where we imagine ourselves going.”

References:

Honey Map Image: https://www.boredpanda.com/bees-honeycomb-beeswax-sculptures-ri-ren/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

https://www.pearllam.com/exhibition/ren-ri-yuansu-projects/

Literary London Image: https://literarylondonartprints.co.uk/Literary-Central-London-Map

JPL image: https://www.lukedjohnson.com/nasa

Nippur Map: https://www.bookofjoe.com/2008/04/nippur-babyloni.html

Florence Image: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/la-veduta-della-catena-florence-and-its-monuments/JAIiVU6eaWEIJQ

https://www.facarospauls.com/apps/florence-art-and-culture/4215/pianta-della-catena

Middle Earth image: https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/files/2016/10/LOTRMapBaynes0000.jpg

Hundred Acre Wood image: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-44306069

Marauder’s Map image: https://harrypotter.fandom.com/wiki/Marauder%27s_Map

Books: The Writer’s Map: An atlas of imaginary lands edited by Huw Lewis-Jones ISBN: 978055519509

Metropolis: Mapping the city by Jeremy Black ISBN:9781844862207

The Art of Cartographics: Designing the modern map ISBN:9781741175615

Book Preview: Cartography and how it shapes the world. Part One.

Maps show a lot about the way we view the world, whether it is a modern map (even Google Maps) or a 14th century mappa mundi. Maps are not always intended to be accurate geographical depictions of landscape, to be used only for navigation. Of course that is the purpose of some maps, but some are symbolic and all maps illuminate (through what they include and what they don’t, how they are made and who commissioned them) the society in which they were created.

This is not going to be a typical post from me, covering a building, person, area or place. This post is going to examine (briefly) maps and what they can show us about the world, beyond geographical features. It is based around several books on cartography that I already owned as well as some new books on maps and mapping that were released at the end of last year, which I was lucky to be given for Christmas. With these additions my collection of books on maps and mapping is large enough to have a section in my library. In this post I’m going to focus on the general cartography books and part 2 will examine the more specific volumes.

So what sorts of books am I talking about? I currently own a variety and I have written about one before when I first started this blog. The Map Book was my first acquisition on cartography and helped to introduce me to the sheer beauty of maps.

You can see my book selection (including The Map Book) below.

Each of these books outlines something slightly different about cartography. Theatre of the World is the most comprehensive from a western perspective, though it is the least visual.

It is written by Thomas Reinerstsen Berg in Norwegian and I read the translated English copy. In fascinating detail it traces the very beginnings of map making (maps carved in stone) through to digital map making and Google Maps.

In this epic journey Reinerstsen Berg takes you through the classical cartography including the work of Aristotle and Plato and Claudius Ptolemy. Around the year 150 CE Ptolemy was working in the Library of Alexandria, drawing on older sources (Roman and Greek) and as many recent observations as he could to create a depiction of the world. He was drawing on sources that have long since been lost – many in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. His work survived the destruction, mainly through copies, and was rediscovered in the 14th century and helped to shape later ideas about maps and mapping.

Reinerstsen Berg continues through medieval cartography some of which was less focussed on geographical depictions and more on the holy view of the world. An excellent example is the Hereford Mappa Mundi from 1300.

It depicts Jerusalem as the centre of the world, which for medieval christians it was, along with hundreds of towns, figures, animals and mythological sites. It is an illustration of the view of the world, rather than the world itself. It is also really lovely.

Reinerstsen Berg continues through time, highlighting the importance of the first atlas created in 1570 by Abraham Ortelius of Antwerp- it was called Theatre of the World. It was the conclusion of decades of work collecting the best maps he could find from geographers and cartographers across the known world. He redrew the maps himself for consistency and put them together in an atlas declaiming the importance of cartography for history and, in Reinerstsen Berg’s words, “for the first time, those who could afford it were now able to purchase the whole world, bound within a book” (127).

Reinerstsen Berg concludes with digital mapping and Google Maps and Google earth, which for the first time in the history of mapping have the capacity to create maps that show our world down to the tiniest detail. The problem with Google Maps is the same problem that has haunted all cartography; who controls the information included. Google Maps has the 70% market share of digital mapping and it fundamentally shapes how many people physically view the world in which we live. It is a free service, because businesses can pay to have their businesses displayed and it can collect information about users. The monetary nature of mapping and information provision goes right back to the early cartographers, maps are created (usually) at least partly to make money. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is one worth keeping in mind. Reinerstsen Berg’s book is extensive and really interesting. I only had two complaints. The first is that it is extremely Western civilisation focussed. He makes very clear at the start that he is writing about mapping from the point of view of his part of the world; Scandinavia. It does mean that there is lot more about Scandinavia that you would normally find in a general mapping history, which is actually really interesting. So as he is upfront about it, I have less of an issue. My main concern is the images. There are many beautiful and illuminating images of maps, but most are not in the section in which they are discussed, I found this quite dislocating.

Problems aside, Theatre of the World is an eye opening book.

The other two most general books are The Map Book (which I have written about before) and Visions of the World. Both are beautiful books which take an overall and very visual look at maps. The both make a chronological and thematic examination of maps throughout time. They both take a much more worldwide and less euro-centric look than Theatre of the World and they are both much more focussed on the beauty of the maps themselves. They cover everything from Indian mapping to mapping in mosaic in Jordan in 565 CE. The map below was created during the reign of Emperor Justinian.

In 1884 a mosaic map was discovered on the floor of the old church in Madaba. It is somewhat fragmented (the largest surviving portion is 10.5m by 5m) but originally it would have covered the entire width of the nave and depicted the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan river and Syria and parts of Egypt. The fragment you can see above is Jerusalem. The detail is incredible showing trees, fish, towns, animals and even the ferry to Jordan. It illustrates how the christians in Byzantium would have seen the Holy Land as it began to develop.

The Madaba Map is just one of treasures throughout both books. They also cover the detail of maps, looking not just at broad geographic maps, but maps of specific towns and areas. Both books make clear how political map making can be- often depending on who was doing the mapping and who was paying them to map. They are visual delights, with an immense amount of detail.

The final book I’m going to discuss in this post is History of the World by Map. This book is quite different to my other general sources. History of the World covers a general history of world through the rise and fall of civilisations across the world, but while it uses maps to do it, the book creates its own maps to explain the movement of civilisations. In its existence it shows just how useful maps can be and what they can illustrate beyond general geography. History of the World is also very impressive in its scope: covering indigenous Australians, imperial china, Africa, Polynesians, Mansa Musa and much more besides. it provide a fascinating window in which to compare what was happening in the same time in totally different parts of the world, both when they affected each-other and when they didn’t. Western centric histories tend to give the impression that the centre of the world was Europe and not much else was happening anywhere else. History of World gives an easily accessible depiction of how interconnected and vast the world has always been, as well as how much was happening beyond the narrow confines of Europe.

Part 2 will continue the story of cartography and my cartography collection, by considering the remainder of the books which all focus on more specific elements of cartography.

References:

The Map Book: edited by Peter Barber ISBN: 9780297843726

Theatre of the World: The maps that made history. By Thomas Reinertsen Berg ISBN: 9781473688629

Visions of the World: A history of maps by Jeremy Black. ISBN: 1840008342

https://archive.org/details/theatrumorbister00orte/page/n4

https://www.themappamundi.co.uk/index.php

Photos:

The pictures of the books are mine.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi is creative commons licensed.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Hereford_Mappa_Mundi#/media/File:Hereford-Karte.jpg

as is the Madaba Map

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Madaba_Jerusalem_Mosaic.jpg

Hammershus

Hammershus is the largest castle in Northern Europe and stands on a cliff 74 metres above sea level on Bornholm, a small but important island in the Baltic Sea.

Bornholm (you can see it and some of the common landscapes above) is off the coast of Sweden, but belongs to Denmark. It stands on important trade routes and there have been Iron Age, Roman, early Christian and Viking artefacts found on the island. It was a Viking centre, but it remained independent until the 10th century when it was controlled by Sweden. It then went back and forth between a few different powers (including Denmark) over the following centuries. It ultimately came to Denmark permanently in 1660. It’s a popular summer destination for Copenhageners and has significant medieval remains, including some astounding round churches and the topic of today’s post; Hammershus Castle.

While there were other structures on the site before, the Hammershus you see today was finished in the late 13th century and has been a site of domination and strife almost since its beginning. It commands an almost unassailable position, standing on a 74 metre high escarpment facing directly into the sea. The land route is steep and winding, making attack very difficult. The inner castle was also protected by a ring wall and three walled defence areas. Two more towers were added in the 16th century and north and south of the castle two lakes were damned to create even more defences.

Hammershus was most likely built by Jens Grand who was Archbishop of Lund. In the late 13th century there was a power struggle between Danish Royalty and The Church and it was probably as a statement of Church power that Jens Grand built Hammershus. The castle went back and forward between the Church and the nobility, mainly being used to impose authority on the island and its people and protect the control of the trade routes. The castle came into the hands of Hanseatic League- a powerful alliance of market towns- in the early 16th century. They expanded Hammershus, using local forced labor and financing it with high taxes, leading to ultimately unsuccessful rebellion. Hammershus remained an active fortress until the end of the 17th century, when most of the island’s defences were moved to Ronne (the capital). The castle was abandoned in 1743 and the locals were allowed to claim stone from it for their own uses, until Hammershus was put on the National Historic register in 1882.

The castle itself has some really interesting features as well. My favourite is probably the bridge

The bridge spans a 6 metre ravine and is supported by two stone piers. It is one of the best preserved medieval fortified bridges in Denmark, certainly one of the best I’ve seen anywhere. In the 15th century there would have been a wooden drawbridge spanning the final section of the ravine, which would have been guarded from the bridge guard house.

Another interesting feature is the main castle gate. This provided entry into the grounds of the castle. Originally it would have been a square tower, but a rampart wall was added in the 17th century

Just through the main gate is the remains of the storage house. It would have been used to hold the material collected as tax. This wouldn’t usually have been money, it was two stories so that grain and the like could be stored in the upper levels and the underneath could be used for live tribute, like oxen.

The key component of the oldest section of the castle is the Manteltarnet (Martel Tower), what in an English castle would have been known as the keep. When it was built Hammershus would have consisted of this keep and a ring wall. The gate to the entrance of the keep would originally have had a portcullis and the tower would have had three stories. You can see where the floors would have been from the holes in the walls. You can also see what is most likely some of the original ring wall in the photos. The keep was eventually replaced with a private residence for the lord of the castle.

It was also in this keep that Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark, was imprisoned in 1660 with her husband Corfitz Ulfeldt for his collaboration with Sweden. They attempted to escape in the middle of the night by tying bed sheets together, or using a rope depending on what account you believe, and climbing down the tower, Ulfeldt was so unwell that he had to lowered. Unfortunately the escape was short lived as they were recaptured almost immediately. The eventually ransomed themselves by handing over most of their property, but were later changed with treason again. Ulfeldt managed to evade capture but Leonora Christina was captured in Dover when she was seeking help from Charles II. She was held without charge in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen castle for 22 years. While she was imprisoned she wrote her autobiography which was published posthumously.

Escapes aside, Hammershus is very much an amalgam, it was added to extensively in the 16th century, and you can see the marks of the years on the stone, the oldest parts are built of granite and the newer of the smaller style tile bricks.

Hammershus is a fascinating castle with a chequered past. This post was not intended to cover all of its complex history, but to underscore the highlights and give some insight into the largest castle in Northern Europe. It stands as a brutal testament to the extent of church authority in its heyday and the importance of Bornholm as an essential point in the Baltic trade routes. It is certainly worth visiting, as is Bornholm: I hope to cover Bornholm’s other magnificent medieval feature the round churches in a later post.

References:

Site visit 2018

https://www.britannica.com/place/Bornholm

https://bornholm.info/en/hammershus/

https://nordicwomensliterature.net/writers/leonora-christina-ulfeldt/

The photos are all mine.

Reykholt

IMG_0934

Built heritage in Iceland of any serious age is few and far between. Despite it being a very old country.  Reykholt is an unassuming site, but it was the home of Snorri Sturlson arguably one of the most important Icelanders to have ever lived. The real history of Iceland, Iceland’s castle’s and cathedrals so to speak, is the sagas. Snorri was the man who wrote many of them down (among other accomplishments). His home has rightly been preserved.

Snorri was born in 1179, he was an aristocrat in a time before Iceland had a king and before changes to law were written down. Between 1262 and 1264 Iceland handed itself over to Norway following a period of extreme unrest. After this law was codified, but during Snorri’s time- he was killed at Reykholt on the 23rd of September 1241- a law speaker recited all  changes to the laws at the law rock at Þingvellir. This recitation occurred during the meeting of the parliament known as the Alpingi each summer. The law speaker also interpreted the law. The Alpingi was a meeting of all the different chieftains to come to agreements on a wide variety of issues. You can see Þingvellir and an approximation of where the law rock was in the images below.

Þingvellir  itself is absolutely fascinating and I will be writing a post about it at a later date.

But to return to Snorri. He was the law speaker at Þingvellir from 1215-1218 and 1222-1231. He was  an immensely influential chieftain in Iceland, spending time in Norway with King Hakon Hakonson and becoming embroiled in affairs there as well.  He also owned a lot of land in Iceland, collecting the revenues from over 100 farms and holding 11 chieftainships, covering roughly a quarter of Iceland . While he was undoubtedly influential in his own time, what has made Snorri important to the history of Iceland is his role in the sagas. He recorded many of the sagas, not just the mythic ones but the stories of the life of Icelanders. Much of what we know about this period descends from his work. It is arguable whether he wrote them all himself, but if he didn’t they were probably written at Reykholt under his direction. One of the most important is the Edda, which is the source of most knowledge about Norse mythology. Snorri wrote down the pagan tales of Nordic poetry and culture, possibly in part to save them as new types of romantic and ‘courtly’ verse was making their way in from the rest of Europe. While Snorri’s writing may not have been incredibly influential in his own time, there is no doubt that it has come to be the main source for this period and much of what the history of early Iceland is based on.

Snorri certainly didn’t live a pure and noble life. He brought much of his trouble on himself through his machinations and arrogance. He was also power hungry and helped to contribute to the unrest that resulted in Iceland handing itself over to Norway. He definitely made an impact though.

Snorri died in September 1241 when Gissur Thorvaldsson, an old enemy of Snorri’s who had been married to one of Snorri’s daughters, had a letter from the King of Norway instructing Gissur to return Snorri to Norway (Snorri had left against the King’s orders in 1239) or to kill him. Gissur rode with 70 men to Reykholt. Snorri heard them approaching from where he was asleep and ran to the small house where the priest Arnbjorn was staying. He hid in the cellar. The priest gave him up in fear of his life and the men went down into the cellar. Snorri was alone and unarmed, an old man of 62. Simon, one of Gissur’s lieutenants, gave the order to kill and according to a contemporary account Snorri tried to order them to stop, saying “you will not strike” Simon replied “kill him now” Snorri insisted, drawing on all his authority, “you will not strike”.

It didn’t work. Snorri was struck the death blow by Arni beiskur and several other men continued to stab him. It was a sad end for a man who shaped the past and the future of Iceland for better and for worse.  Snorri’s life is much more complicated and interesting than I could possibly summarise here, see my references at the bottom of this piece if you want to learn more. 

You can see his (non contemporary) statue at Reykholt below.

The site of Reykholt itself is a difficult one in some ways. There are no contemporary buildings left, but the modern and 19th century buildings for the most part pay homage well enough to the original purpose. 

There are original features, but  most are archaeological remains, you can see some below.

The most interesting original feature is Snorralung (Snorri’s pool). The Book of Settlements shows that there was definitely a hot water pool being used on or near the site in the 10th century. When Snorri lived at Reykholt the site had become an active farm and church. The Sturlunga Saga, which was written after Snorri’s death by one of his nephews, depicts Snorri sitting in the pool talking with friends. You can see the pool in the photo below.

The pool is fed from the near by Skrifla hot spring via a conduit. It is built of hewn stones of geyserite slabs, the same that paved some of the surrounding medieval buildings. It is 4m in diameter and nearly a metre deep. The surrounds of the pool are not original, nor is the small roofed door you can see just above the pool. The roofed door and the turf around are in place to protect the remains of a passage that connected the original medieval buildings to the pool. It is in no way meant to replicate what the passage would have looked like, or how it would have been used. The pool was one of the earlier archaeological remains listed in Iceland in 1817. 

Reykholt is not a site that has been isolated and preserved as a ruin, there is a hotel and conference center and it has been an active religious site for much of its history.  It has also had a high school built on it and was a working farm into the 20th century, both of which have sadly destroyed some of the archaeology.

There is, however, an excellent cultural center explaining Snorri’s life and a library (which was sadly closed while I was there). In Snorri’s time it would have been a busy medieval farm very much in keeping with others of its type throughout medieval Europe. There has been extensive archaeological excavation at Reykholt. The farm on the current site was established around 1000 CE. The earliest buildings would  have been long houses. There was another slightly later separate structure  which was probably a church, though it has a sunken section which is very unusual for churches in Iceland. These buildings would have been wooden. 

There were a number of new buildings by the medieval period in which Snorri would have been living in Reykholt. There was most likely a dwelling called a stofa, which is a type of Norwegian timber house set on stone foundations. A stofa in Reykholt is mentioned in the Sturlunga Saga, but the specific building that might have been this structure has never been definitively identified.

The saga lists the source of the wood for the dwellings as a harbour in the north of Iceland. As the only other semi reliable source of wood in Iceland was driftwood, and Reykholt held the driftwood rights only on the western peninsula in the time period, the wood must have come from Norway . Driftwood in Iceland was a much sought after commodity as Iceland was largely deforested and because it was impregnated with saltwater so it withstood Iceland’s weather. Siberian trees like pine, fir and larch are brought to Iceland on the Arctic Ocean currents and more exotic woods like mahogany come on the Gulf Stream. When driftwood rights belonged to a particular person they cut their driftwood mark onto it when it was on the beach. This meant that they retained that right even if the driftwood went back out to sea and  was carried around to another beach. You can see some marked driftwood in the photo below.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1405.jpg

But to return to Reykholt. The stofa was described as having a litlastofa attached to it, which might have been the private room for the master. If this was the layout, it was most likely from litlastofa that the passage to Snorri’s pool ran. The total length of the passageway is more than 30 m and the entrance was possibly behind a hidden door. There was also  a spiral staircase leading down to it (very rare in Iceland). It may have been intended as a secret way in and out of the house,  it may have been a status symbol, or it may have just been a way for the owner of the house (possibly Snorri) to access the pool without having to go out in the weather.

There were a number of dwellings at Reykholt, but the other building of most significance was probably the stave church which was built sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries. It would have stood slightly separate from the other buildings on the site. Stave churches are a fascinating and really beautiful construction. You can see the 12th century Urnes Stave Church from Norway in the photo below and read about its history here

Hot steam as well as water was also channeled through to various points on the site, possibly based on a hypocaust system. This sort of sophisticated design, along with the number, size and specific utility of many of the buildings (most individual buildings in Iceland had multiple utilities) indicate the importance of Reykholt and its high status in Icelandic society. This status is born out by other sources like the sagas. 

Reykholt is still very much part of its landscape too. You can see the remains of the original medieval road and the valley has been re-forested in recent decades. Woods are unusual in Iceland so these are important, as well as being a cultural touchstone for Icelanders.  You can see both the road and the woods in the photo below. 

 

Reykholt also sits on top of a knoll with clear site lines in a very fertile valley. The landscape in Iceland is absolutely key. Many of the nearby sites that feature in the sagas can still be visited. This includes the Deildartunga, which was a nearby region the inheritance of which was much disputed. Ultimately this dispute led to Snorri being fostered by Jon Loftsson who shaped the direction of his life. 

You can see the hot spring at Deildartunga in the photos below. 

The hot springs are Europe’s largest with a flow rate of 180 litres per second. The other pertinent nearby feature is Hraunfossar, an incredible waterfall that flows off the Hallmundarhraun lava field. It is named after Hallmun who, according to the Grettis Saga lived in the area. The author of the Grettis Saga is unknown,  but it was written around the same time that Snorri was writing so it was part of the same tradition. You can see the waterfall in the photos below.

These two natural features illustrate just how epic Snorri’s landscape and Iceland in general was and is. It’s easy to see how people came to believe in trolls, giants and meddlesome gods living in this sort of environment. Thankfully  Snorri and his ilk’s determination has preserved these stories. 

References:

Edda by Snorri Sturlson translated by Anthony Faulkes ISBN: 9780460876162

The Buildings of Medieval Reykholt: The wider context edited by Gudrun Sveinbjarnardottir ISBN:9789935231574

Sagaland by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason ISBN: 9780733338236

Site visit 2018

The photos are all mine