I still remember the moment before we left, when I was looking into my storage, thinking, “Oh, look all those sheepskins — well, I probably won’t need those. It isn’t that cold. ” Little did I know I was in for one of the coldest 48 hours of my life, and certainly the least luxurious. Viking life just isn’t for everyone.
We were visiting the island of Jøa, off the coast of Mid-Norway, where a local enthusiast has built a long house amidst a gorgeous landscape studded with graves and other traces of Viking-age settlements. The island is famous amongst the historically inclined for the mysterious sitting graves (dated between 650 – 1000 AD), that no one really knows the meaning of. While other graves on the island are traditional mounds, a small group of people was buried in a sitting position, surrounded by expensive artifacts like knives (though not for combat), jewelry and bone combs. Most of them were women, and they were generally older (at the time of death) and taller than the average Viking. Nothing like it has been found anywhere else in Norway, and there’s speculations that the inhabitants of the sitting graves belonged to some sort of priesthood.
I was appropriately intrigued then, when I first set my foot on the island — and the long house was absolutely stunning, with lots of beautiful details and located by the beach.
But then it was the cold.
One would think that with the sun blazing from a clear sky, it would be warm enough, but no. It was very, very cold. Too cold to change your clothes, too cold to do much of anything. All my skin care products froze, and no matter how much fuel we fed the fire, the house just never warmed up. My more Viking savvy friends told me that it would have been different back in the days, because the stones that make up the lower part of the building would have heated up and remained warm as long as there was a fire going, but that didn’t really help me. I was still cold. These were the very same friends, by the way, who told me before we left that I could get a bed if I wanted. Because there were actually some beds.
Well, this was my bed:
But at least I wasn’t the unfortunate soul who had brought an air mattress. Air mattresses should not be put directly onto a stone floor — not even when it’s not October. I had a bed, and that was something… I remember lying up there trying to sleep — despite the cold — while the air grew ever thicker with smoke, thinking “I might actually die of carbon monoxide poisoning,” then turning my head to the wall and feeling an icy draft through the cracks, realizing I might die of cold first. And then I thought: How did people back then survive at all? No wonder communal sleeping was popular for so long. We, at least — because this is still now — had a generator so we could make coffee and a decent meal, and even a heater for when it got too much. Those poor Vikings had nothing like that. No wonder they took to the sea.
That said, it’s hard not to appreciate a place as beautiful as Jøa — no matter how cold — and the landscape with all its mysteries is an adventure no matter the weather. I’m not immune to the novelty of it either: it’s something to tick off the bucket list.
So would I do it again?
With a bearskin coat.