Monday, July 29, 2013

The Masada Criterion

Iceland: what really happened?
It's enjoyable to tour a good museum alone; in fact solitude on such occasions is usually preferable. Museum-goers of my acquaintance seem to divide into those who need to see each and every exhibit, and read every piece of information provided; and those who are content with the merest breeze-through, finding nothing absorbing.

But if you can find someone who tours museums at just your pace, the experience, like hiking, is enhanced. If this companion also shares an interest in the odd, the peculiar, and the curious question of historical accuracy, a joint tour can be a thing of joy.

As an example: my own museum-buddy called me excitedly - "you have to see this!" It wasn't an artifact from Icelandic Settlement times, or a Viking hoard of Dane geld, but a comment by the curators of the Reykjavik Icelandic National Museum that in the pagan religion of Iceland, the people had believed in an afterlife, "but it is not known where the women went." Men who died in battle went to Valhalla; men who died in their beds went to somewhere called 'Hel'. But it is not known where the women went - though they were buried with their domestic utensils, so presumably the afterlife provided them with plenty of chores.

In addition to the pleasure of vivacious discussion of such curiosities, there is also 'The Masada Criterion' to be applied. This Criterion is an invention of my museum-buddy and I, formulated upon the rock of Masada a few years ago, when considering the likely efficacy of the Masada story as reported by Josephus seventy years after the putative events. 'The Masada Criterion' is now our short-hand for a healthy skepticism about the claims made by historians and archaeologists for the often unprepossessing detritus they excitedly retrieve from the middens, latrines and the garbage dumps of the ancients.

Iceland's National Museum's star exhibit - for example - is a tiny bronze statue, estimated to be from about 1000 AD, "based on a stylistic assessment." It is "thought" to be Thor with his axe; or it "could be" Christ with a cross (albeit a stumpy one with ornate finials). This exhibit is a lovely little thing, a small voice from a dim past, replete with unanswered and probably unanswerable questions. It is worth a trip to the museum alone. But the information about it comes perilously close to failing The Masada Criterion. The provenance of the piece and its significance is pure, if intelligent, guesswork.

A discovery in another glass case was a definite failure of The Criterion. A charred piece of ancient wood about 10 cm long was proclaimed - without any doubt or qualification - to be a figurine, "possibly an idol or toy." The Museum has even printed a depiction of this one on its shop carrier bag.

Over at the Settlement Museum, a wonderful historical site which preserves in situ the interesting remains of a turf long-hall, you'll find repeated references to Ingólfur Arnarson, and you'd be forgiven for assuming (without close reading of the information) that he was the first Viking to set foot on Iceland and, moreover, that he lived in this long-house. But if you spend long enough in the Museum you'll see that it includes the remains of another small dwelling which was built before the 'tephla flow' of a volcanic eruption in 871 (+/- 2, as they are careful to say); and the long hall dates from about 930, and Ingólfur never lived in it.

Wiki has some sketchy and somewhat confusing information about the first settlement of Iceland. Since most of it is drawn from Sagas which are part historical record and part folklore, most of it originally from oral traditions, none of this tentativeness about facts is surprising.

By the way, the tephla flow method of dating things in Iceland receives The Masada Criterion tick of approval. The date of the flow is ascertained from lava trapped in the icecap, which in turn can be dated by counting 'ice layers'.

The Masada Criterion aside, the Icelanders' museums are well-curated and presented. They manage to do a lot with very little.

We don't understand what really causes events to happen. History is the fiction we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction. That's why events are always reinterpreted when values change. We need new versions of history to allow for our current prejudices. ('Calvin & Hobbes' goes Revisionist)
Doing a lot with a little (source)

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