Lessons from the Viking Age - part 2
Presentation vs Re-creation?:

Even with the most ideal of document and archaeological sources available, the problem of just how the available information will be interpreted remains. Every museum presentation is effected to some degree by 'point of view', at the hands of everyone involved in the production. Ideally, every attempt to minimise the impact of external biases should always be made. In reality, the effects of editorialising raw information range from the subtle to the blatant, the accidental to outright propaganda. In the very worst of cases, presentations are specifically designed to vindicate current political opinions - regardless of what the 'pure' history might really be. (We are all aware, of course, that all forms of human endeavour suffer from this problem, the raw research on which other museum work is based is not immune itself.) Even with the problem of accidental (or deliberate) distortion to reinforce institutional or personal bias aside, there remains the question how to provide for the personal attitudes of the museum visitor themselves.

For the Viking Encampment program, the first of these filters can be seen in the defining mission statement. The objective of the program is to "...represent aspects of daily life as it would have been carried out at the Vinland outpost and to provide insights into the larger framework in Norse culture in general." This is somewhat different that the less precisely defined objective of the L 'Anse aux Meadows NHS, which centres on the specific history of the site itself. This living history presentation attempts to do much more than just portray the lives of the original Norse inhabitants. It also is designed to illustrate the broad outlines of Norse culture in general. The historic reality of the Vinland outpost is used as a spotlight that shines back towards Greenland, Iceland and the Scandinavian homelands. As might be expected, some of the shadows cast are distorted, with fine details obscured the distance.

A special problem encountered in designing the overall program for L 'Anse aux Meadows is that the time period is so remote, and the culture of the Norse so shrouded in legend, that little could be expected by way of even basic background knowledge on the part of many visitors. For most adults, the world of the Vikings is one of bloodthirsty raiders in horned helmets, drinking, raping and burning churches. It is an image born of bad movies, Robert E Howard and football team logos. The recent generation of Canadian school children at least have some idea who the Vikings are, and where Vinland is. Most other living history programs are not faced with the situation of having so many of their visitors knowing so little when they walk through the gates (and most of that being wrong!). Curiously, a certain portion of the public is extremely well informed, and have made a very major travel commitment to visit the museum. Every year a significant number of Scandinavians, academics and serious amateur students of the Viking Age make the 800 km round trip from Corner Brooke up to L'anse aux Meadows specifically to visit the site.

From the initial concept of creating a historical presentation centred on the Norse exploration of Vinland in 1992, there was no doubt that using the framework of living history would be the best method. The underlying objective of any living history program is not to illustrate the latest scholarly research in detail. Rather, the purpose is to provide the general public with a basic understanding of 'what it was like'. The impact of even the simplest living history presentation can be enormous. The creation of an entire environment based on the historical model allows for full utilisation of all of the senses. What started as dry research on paper is now transformed into a living reality with elements that can be accessed, at least in part, by anyone. Language is transcended by sight, educational barriers by physical demonstration, physical restrictions by touch. Often obscure information becomes clear through context. The greatest achievement of any living history museum is when it provides the spark of interest that leads a visitor to further studies on their own. Despite the special challenges that producing a creditable re-creation of the Viking Age presented, there were in fact several advantages that quickly became apparent.

Posed figure in the static display at L' Anse aux Meadows Visitor Centre.
'Bera' at her mending by the fire in the turf house - 1996.

Constructing the Past:

First, all of the individual objects used in the presentation would be modern reproductions, rather than actual artifacts. Living history museums are especially dependent on the use of physical objects to create the illusion of the past. Virtually everything within the 'historic area' contributes to the effectiveness of the presentation, from buildings to type of garden plants - even to such intangibles as the perfume used by the staff. (The atmosphere of Black Creek Village in Toronto as a Victorian crossroads town is shattered by the fact it now lies directly under the flight path of the busiest airport in Canada.) Within individual institutions, the practices centred around the collections can vary considerably, with a mixture of both period artifacts and modern reproductions being most common. Staff treat artifacts in a manor differently than reproductions, and certainly not the way the same objects would have been handled when they were new. Ideally, at least all the 'working' objects at any museum should be reproductions, if for no other reason than to preserve original artifacts for the future.

At L 'Anse aux Meadows, the physical setting is close to the same one that Leif Eiriksson would have seen centuries before. The compound that makes up the reconstruction has been positioned very close to the remains of the original structures, just another 50 meters or so along the same marine terrace. The main museum building sits on the top edge of the bluff that forms a natural boundary along one edge of the site, thus placing it a good 500 m from the reconstruction. The small cluster of houses that makes up the modern day settlement of L 'Anse aux Meadows is visible in the far distance, but are basically too far off to provide much distraction. Certainly the landscape is dominated by the shore and the ocean, which remain much the same as they always have been.

The major 'artifacts' on the site are the three reconstructed turf houses built by Parks Canada in 1980. These have been built with considerable attention to detail, and virtually all of the modern elements are structural, and thus hidden inside the walls. The use of essentially the same construction techniques as were employed by the original Norse inhabitants, along with utilisation of the same local materials, has produced a localised environment virtually identical to that which existed 1000 years ago. The immediate area around these structures is bounded by a withy fence that further serves to contains the action of the re-creation - and to focus the attention. (This fence was not actually present in the Viking Age, but is an addition based on types seen at other Norse farm sites.)

View of the reconstructed buildings enclosed by the withy fence.

In the creation of the Viking Encampment, there was no question but that all the objects used in the presentation would be modern reproductions. All together, about 175 individual objects were produced. Many of these were detailed reproductions of specific artifact prototypes, others were consistent with type, with details derived from a number of sources. A number where more speculative in origin because there are no clear period samples to provide prototypes, for example the costumes worn by the interpretive staff. Generally, the objects used in the presentation can be considered to be fulfilling an intermediate level of experimental archaeology, where both form and function of the originals has been duplicated, but were raw materials and some forming processes employed were modern ones. (6) One of the huge advantages of utilising all reproductions is that they are not precious, in the way original artifacts can often be. This allows the interpreters to interact with the objects in a manor consistent with that used by the original owners. (A 'new' water bucket can be shoved aside with a foot, instead of being carefully lifted with both hands as an artifact would have to be.) Even more important, this also gave the visitor the freedom to physically handle the items, allowing for them to directly experience each piece for themselves. Over the first season only one object has suffered any significant damage from mishandling by the public, and one item was lost due to theft. This is a small price to pay for the incredible potential for interactive learning allowed through the use of these reproductions.

What remains of the bronze ring pin found at L' Anse aux Meadows.
The reproduction of the pin as used in the Norse Encampment, with an antler comb.
(Pin by D. Roberston, comb by S. Strang.)

When it came down to the actual manufacture of the objects, the real world of cost, availability and skills exerted its influence. The raw materials that were utilised, and how these were worked into each individual item, where determined by a web of what could be found, how it could be worked and how the final object was to be used. In the forming of the 'iron' objects, modern mild and carbon steels were substituted for the wrought iron used for the originals. True wrought iron is no longer commercially produced, so modern industrial steel bars were pre-profiled by hand to 'dress' them. All the forming work for the 'iron' work was done using traditional blacksmithing techniques, but employing what was essentially Victorian technology of large anvils and coal fires. (As opposed to the small block anvils and charcoal fires of the Viking Age.) The wooden objects were made of similar species as the original prototypes were ever possible, although of North American origin. Rough cut planks from a commercial sawmill were surface dressed to produce the required boards (rather than the Norse method of quarter split from logs). Modern commercial fabrics were used for the costumes, with care was taken in their selection to conform to period types. These were machine sewn not just for cost considerations, but also to better withstand the constant washing they would be subjected to. Other objects specially created with extensive use of hand fabrication techniques included: boots and other leather work, jewellery, and the water buckets and pails.

Who are you talking to?:

One of the great issues surrounding the use of living history museums has been the question of whether they are in fact able to accurately portray the past at all. The argument from the academic community has often been that such museums actually do more to distort the past than they do to re-create it. The quality of individual living history museums ranges widely, as does the size, scope and resources available to each. Poorly trained staff, sloppy workmanship, poor attention to details, (usually corners cut because of tight budgets) - all are used as proof of why living history is a questionable technique at best. Generally much of this disdain amongst academics is the result of a lack of understanding on their parts of just what the goals of living history programs really are. (7)

A large number of terms are used, often interchangeably, when referring to the various types of history based presentations seen at various museums. One often hears of "animators" being used, particularly by institutions in the United States of America. I define an animator as being a professional actor, hired to give a previously written and clearly defined performance. Generally the script will be delivered exactly as written, with very little modification between performances or possibility of interaction with the audience. It is quite possible that the content of the performance content and supporting props (such as costuming) may be extremely accurate. The animator may in fact have had considerable training, or has done personal research into details of period mannerisms and modes of speech, enabling them to do a very creditable job at re-creating the past. Based on personal skills, they may in fact be able to deviate from the prepared text to allow for interactions with the audience. Generally, however, this is in fact not the case, with staff being chosen for their acting ability, rather than for any historical knowledge that would allow flexibility. The presentations themselves tend to be theatrical, with bold drama emphasised more that what is likely a more boring reality.

A Historic Interpreter, on the other hand, is an individual who is trained in history rather than oratory. The interpreter will attempt to speak as a 'voice from the past' and carry on a direct conversation with the visitor. The precise amount of historic detailing engaged in is dependent on the interpretive level chosen, modified by a range of other factors. As might be expected, the depth of historic detail, of 'reality' in the eyes of the visitor, depends on a huge and complex web of facts must be instantly available to the interpreter. It is true that extremely good interpersonal skills, and a sense of creative drama, are also called for. There is no doubt that effective living history staff, especially those utilising higher levels of interpretation, absolutely demand the support of extensive training programs on the part of the institution.

'Thora of Meath' cooking flat cakes, a popular way to provide the public with a taste of the Viking Age - 1997.
'Astrid' gives direct hands on experience with a reproduction drop spindle based on the stone whorl found on site - 1997

As has already be stated, the Encampment project was always considered as an exercise in living history. That being said, the next thing to be considered was which level of interpretation would prove the most effective in presenting the Viking Age to the general public? As is so often the case, even the best laid plans seldom survive implementation without modification.

As it was originally conceived and structured in 1993, the original Norse Encampment was designed to make use of full role playing on the part of the interpretive staff. (Where the interpreters referred to the past as if it was current, with no references to the modern day, and with detailed characterisations.)(8) Although the staff involved in this initial program were certainly skilled and knowledgeable enough to maintain this approach, it quickly became obvious the public was not. As discussed above, the Viking Age is too distant and unknown, too much distorted by popular culture, to allow the general public much by way of points of reference to the period. As the presentation was modified in use to suit the demands of the visitors it was found that a kind of 'sliding scale' of interpretive levels was in fact called for. In practice this consisted of using a series of what were essentially short vignettes as role playing. Although the rough outline of each of these set pieces were understood by the interpreters involved, the actual content was not scripted, allowing for a more spontaneous (and realistic) delivery. These exchanges were seldom more that a couple of minutes in length, and would be followed by commentary given from the third person stance ('they did', with modern references). The general flow of the interaction with the public ranged between first person ('I did', given as a character type) and commentary. These methods were further refined during the 1994 presentation. As might be expected, this technique demands a great deal of both skill and flexibility on the part of the interpreter.

The Encampment program as was demonstrated in 1996, and as it continues at L' Anse aux Meadows, continues to make use of this system of varied interpretive levels. During the initial design and training phase of the project, a series of character sketches were written. These represent character types - rather than specific historic individuals, purposely designed to be 'larger than life' (almost caricatures) to make it easier to illustrate specific elements of the culture. Elements of the characters were determined by considering the personalities of the staff themselves. Once the characters were assigned, the staff have been allowed to flesh out many of the small details that breathe life into these persona. All this serves two purposes - making it easier for them to interact as 'real' people, and also giving them a sense of ownership in the characters. Because all of the main outlines are agreed upon, and many of the fine details are not, the public is often presented with several versions of the same story - creating a sense of inclusion into the personal relationships of this Norse crew.

'Thora' gives her slave girl 'Astrid' a questioning look - 1997.

An example of this in action is the complex web of relationships that exist between ship's captain 'Bjorn', his strong willed wife 'Thora', and her personal slave 'Astrid'. Thora has become fed up with Bjorn's endless quest for status and empty promises. His favouring of the young Astrid is the last straw, and she intends to divorce him - as soon as she gets back to civilised lands. Astrid sees her chance to become a free woman, but has to avoid the sharp tongue (and hand) of her mistress. Bjorn is blissfully unaware of it all. A visitor may hear from Astrid how hard her life is, from Thora how fed up she is, and from Bjorn about his next great venture. Along the way, it becomes possible to introduce the topics of slavery, status, trade, women's rights and law. In using this technique, there is no doubt that the 'true' image of the Norse at L 'Anse aux Meadows has been distorted. Remember, however, that the stated mission of the Viking Encampment is to illustrate the wider outlines of Norse culture.

Obviously, the success of such a method is highly dependent on the skills and knowledge of a well trained and professional interpretive staff. In the initial stages of the Encampment program, staff were drawn from the ranks of 'serious amateurs'. Many of them had some direct museum experience at various Ontario living history sites. All had undertaken long years, in some cases decades, of personal studies into the Viking Age, including the development of extensive craft skills. All had built up considerable experience in recreating historic characters as historic re-enactors. In this way, during the development stage of the program, stress could be placed on training for interpretive techniques and specific presentation methods, rather than for broad historical knowledge.

This situation entirely changed in 1997, with the implementation of the regular seasonal program at L 'Anse aux Meadows. The six staff required as interpreters would be hired locally, and could not be expected to have any previous education in history at all. As it turned out, none of them had even ever seen a living history presentation. Most had no more than a secondary school level of education, with an average of less than one year of an applied college program. There was a total of four weeks allocated for the staff training, three weeks in the class room and one week of direct supervision in front of the public. This is actually quite generous in comparison to many living history museums, where training is commonly measured in days rather than weeks. (It is similar to the six weeks training provided at the "Viking Adventure" in Dublin, Ireland, which re-creates the same period in history - and is the closest location of another presentation of the Viking Age.) Still, the demands placed on the staff were considerable, they were expected to soak up the equivalent of a university level Norse history course, plus the necessary hand skills, plus acquire the required interpretive skills. The training manual alone had over 200 pages!

It is to the personal credit of the staff members selected that they were able to achieve such a high level of historical knowledge and interpretive ability in such a short time. Like any significant museum site, the range of understanding within the visitor population ranges enormously. L Anse aux Meadows may exhibit an wider range than most, due to its strange mixture of remote location and World Heritage designation. The greatest number of the visiting public are 'local' - which in the case of rural Newfoundlanders means that the average educational level is fairly low. Most adults possess no more than a secondary school education, and the quality of even that is generally poorer than the Canadian average. On the other hand, the balance of the remainder have traveled well over 200 km (one way) specifically to come to this site - more for those who have made the 12 hour drive up the entire length of Newfoundland to visit the museum. About 3% have made the trip all the way from Europe, many Scandinavians consider the Vinland site of 'Leif's Houses' as much part of their history is it is Canada's. What this all means is that a large number of the public are knowledgeable on at least the outlines of Norse history.

Dawn Taylor (as Astrid) pulls a couple into her confidence - and into the World of the Norse - 1997
Mike Sexton (as Bjorn) "educates with a smile" as he spins a warrior's tale for visitors - 1997.
Mike Simons (as Kole) illuminates the techniques of Norse navigation with a direct demonstration - 1997.

There is no doubt that the remoteness of the Viking Age made the techniques of living history the most effective choice for presenting the broad outlines of Norse culture to the public. The creation of a new interpretive program for L 'Anse aux Meadows NHS was the result of a long development phase working towards an effective museum presentation. The Viking Encampment program faced many of the same research and production problems seen in the development of any new living history program. In the case of this re-creation of daily life in Vinland, many of these effects were greatly magnified due to the marginal nature of the original site and its extreme remoteness from modern times. These same factors illustrated the separation between the theoretical and the practical, creating a situation that results in the Encampment program often becoming an exercise in experimental archaeology. As with all living history programs, the final success of the presentation rests on the shoulders of the interpretive staff. Although the reproductions are of high quality, the design of the overall content sound, and the physical environment ideal, in the end it is the individual historic interpreters who breathe life into the Viking Age.


(1) "Mission Statement for the Norse Encampment"
Darrell Markewitz
Internal document for the Viking Trails Tourism Association and Parks Canada, 1996

(2) "The Discovery of the Norse Settlement in America", vol. 1
Anne Ingstad

(3) "L' Anse aux Meadows, Gateway to Vinland"
Birgitta Wallace
Acta Archaeologica (Vol?) pg 185 (year?)

(4) "Metallurgy and Metalworking in Ancient Russia"
B.A. Kolchin
Original 1953 (in Russian), translation 1967

(5) "The Viking"
Bertil Almgren, editor - with illustrations by Ake Gustavsson
Crescent Books, 1975

(6) & (8)"Working in the Middle Ages, Historic Interpretation and Experimental Archaeology in the Society for Creative Anachronism"
Darrell Markewitz
Paper delivered at "the Middle Ages in Popular Culture" at McMaster University, 1996

(7) "Recreating the Viking Age, the Viking Encampment at L' Anse aux Meadows"
Darrell Markewitz
Paper delivered at "the 33rd International Medieval Congress", at Michigan State University, 1998

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Darrell Markewitz
Interpretive Program Designer

The Wareham Forge
The Hamlet of Wareham, R.R. #2
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Text and photography © Darrell Markewitz