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22 September 2013 @ 02:22 am
Touching the Past - Day 3 of Iceland Adventures  
I had not trouble whatsoever getting out of bed at 7:30AM, despite having woken up repeatedly over the night, anxious I would sleep through my alarm. I had a very important meeting first thing in the morning and I definitely wanted to arrive on time. I had managed to leverage my association with the UW and my knowledge of illuminated manuscripts to get in to see the reading room at the Arni Magnusson Institute on the University of Iceland campus. I was supposed to be meeting with one of the librarians and getting a short tour from the curator and I was just thrilled out of my skin to be able to see some of the saga manuscripts in the flesh, as it were.

Well, I got up and out in good time and was at the door of the Institute five minutes to nine. The door was still locked, so I was waiting patiently when a thin middle-aged fellow poked his nose out and began peering about. I introduced myself and he said he was Hersteinn, the conservator I was to meet, and would I please follow him. I did so and he took me down into the basement to his office where he works on the collection. He seemed a little unsure of being saddled with this odd American chick, but we chatted for a bit and then he said he would take me into the vault, emphasizing what an honor it was to be able to see it. I heartily assured him that I was cognizant of that honor and most eager to see it... So we DID. Eeep. I almost fainted with nerdy glee. The vault is a small room with a door like a bank vault (fireproof too, I would expect) and a few banks of bookshelves where every volume was a treasure. Hersteinn pulled down a few volumes for us to look at and then we returned to his workshop. All the while we were chatting and I was trying to not be a snot, but at the same time demonstrate that no, really, I do know what I am talking about. :P Apparently, I was successful, because when we returned, he said I might be able to HANDLE some of the manuscripts, at which point I whipped out my white gloves and asked whether they were a cotton glove facility or a handwashing facility. He seemed surprised but pleased and said they were a handwashing facility. Once I was properly scrubbed down, he started to let me look at the manuscripts we had pulled, first with direct supervision, but gradually leaving me more and more to my own devices. Initially, he had told me that he only had about an hour for me, which I heartily thanked him for, but after awhile he said I could take whatever time I needed and I ended up spending about three hours there, happily paging through the five volumes he had pulled, carefully noting construction details and other little points of interest in the volumes.

I was immediately drawn to a little volume, just about 6cm x 8cm, and began to examine it at length and in great detail. This turned out to be an excellent choice, both because it was an interesting little volume and because it was a book that Herstein had done a reproduction of earlier that year and so he had an attachment to it as well. It turned out to be a volume of St Margaret's Saga - while I've long been out of the Catholic fold, Margaret is my mother's name and St Margaret was an early Queen of Scotland, so I feel a strong affinity for her. I asked and was granted permission to take some non-flash photographs, so happily I can share bits of this and some of the other volumes with you.

The back of St Margaret's Saga, showing the interesting rune(?) engraved on the back cover and the little plates affixed to repair the cover when it split.

I have relatively small hands, so you can see how small the book really is.



I'd spent a lot of time on St Margaret's Saga and relatively little on the other volumes, but I would rather have one really quality experience than a bunch of crappy ones, so that's how it goes. In the end, I was happy for it, though, since it was such a dear little tome. The others were law texts, but had some interesting features

AM 132 - Armed fellows in a historiated initial

AM 344 - a crucifixion scene

AM 148 - poor quality skins were used, but no bit was wasted - tears were sewn shut and written around...

...and holes were circled in red and simply made "decorative" within the text.

AM 529 - even more extreme examples of using every bit - several pages were nowhere near standard size. Text was not broken off, so clearly it had been originally written and bound this way.

While it was mostly plain text, the occasional initial with elaborate penwork was interesting to see.

Finally, I felt I needed to take my leave of Hersteinn - I'd taken up a lot more of his time than he'd promised me and I was exceedingly grateful. Indeed, I was high off manuscripts for days. :) He mentioned a few times what an unusual thing I was being allowed and I hope I adequately expressed my gratitude. I plan to spend some time and make him a pretty little bookmark based on one of the illuminations I photographed and send it to him - I really should prioritize that over the next week or so.

Anyway, following that awesome experience, I floated down the street to the Settlement Exhibit, also called the Reykjavik 871+/-2 exhibit - a museum devoted to an archaeological dig that uncovered one of the very first buildings in Reykjavik (dated to 871 +/-2 CE). They had left the building in situ and built the exhibit (and the hotel above) around it. It was pretty cool, but there were not a lot of finds from the site. Probably the most exciting for me was the remains of a doll or household idol - I tend to think it was a doll, since if it were an idol it would not have been left behind when the home was abandoned.

The doll

The oldest wall in Reykjavik - parts of it are older than the volcanic eruption of 871 +/-2

Happily, I was just finishing up when a loud, rowdy school group came in, so I retreated before they could annoy me too badly. Since the only other museum I was itching to see was a Saga Museum and I had another full day in Reykjavik planned, I stopped by the tourist bureau to see if they had any recommendations for the next day. Specifically, I asked what was amazing that no one ever did, and they recommended a tour of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, which suited me well, since that was a place I'd been interested in anyway. The tour (as everything in Iceland) was pretty pricey, but I booked it anyway. I also booked a Northern Lights-watching cruise for the evening and then headed on my way.

I popped over to the Saga Museum which was interesting in a way, but not really informative in the way I want museums to be. It was essentially a lot of dioramas of bits of Icelandic history. I suppose if I was unaware of Icelandic history, it might have been worthwhile, but the $15 admission was pretty steep for modern dioramas of things I already knew about. Definitely something that hard core history nerds could take a pass on. The highlight of the museum was actually the view from the Pearl (the building the Saga Museum is in) and the $8 bread-and-soup (with a free refill!) - a tasty and rare commodity in the oh-so-pricey Rekjavik.

Then I headed back to the guest house for a nap before being picked up for the Norther Lights Cruise. It was fun and we did see a little bit of Northern Lights - a light colored band in the sky was not terribly impressive, but persistent and there was one little region of dancing green almost immediately after we left the port. The night was frigid but clear, so once we got well out to see, the stars were amazing and the Milky Way was clear to see. We even had some guys on board with sky apps and an amateur astronomer, so those who were interested got a nice tour of the night sky. It was sort of disappointing not to get a really extensive Northern Lights display, but it was a good thing I went that night - the entire rest of my trip, the night sky was covered by dense clouds and/or rain. The bus dropped me off a bit after midnight and I was quickly to bed since I was being picked up again early the next morning for the Snaefellsnes tour!
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