We arrived in Qaqortoq, Greenland, shortly after I last posted. It’s the most exciting town you’ve never heard of, especially if you are into Viking era history. And I shall tell you why.
Our cruise ship had to anchor offshore, but once in town we found a boat captain who would take us further inland to visit the Hvalsey Church ruins.
The Hvalsey Church is an active archaeological site at the remains of a Viking-era structure built in the 1300s on the remains of a pre-existing church. There also are Viking-era farm buildings on the site. The church building may have belonged to the cousin of Eirik the Red, one Thorkell Farserk – at that time, it was common for wealthy landowners to own their own churches. The last official record we have of the Norse settlement in Greenland is of a wedding that took place at the Hvalsey Church in September of 1408. Sometime after that, the settlement disappeared. The reasons for this are a lively topic of debate among academics.
The Hvalsey church ruins near Qaqortoq, Greenland, looking out over the fjord. The church is an active archaeological site.
I knew I would want to visit the church from the time we began to plan our trip, since these are the best-preserved Norse ruins in Greenland. Getting there is not easy: there are no roads connecting towns in Greenland (much less roads to remote sites like Hvalsey), and the Greenlandic Inuit mostly use small boats to get around, just as the Norse probably did a thousand years ago. Qaqortoq is the largest town in southern Greenland with 3,000 residents, but it did not look even that big to us. Nevertheless, they entertain the passengers of three small cruise ships annually, so we were able to find a captain to take us where we wanted to go.
On the trip out to the church, we saw many icebergs in the water, some quite large, and I was glad we had chosen to come in mid-summer. No doubt those waters freeze over completely in winter. Our captain tried first to get us to a nearby archaeological site called the Hvalsey Fjord Farm, but a large industrial ship was monopolizing the dock there, so we couldn’t go ashore. With our hopes up, we proceeded to the church, which we were glad to see was mostly deserted save for a few archaeologists camping and working there.
The church itself is a stunningly well-preserved structure. It is roughly 50 by 25 feet, with several windows and doors, as well as a west-facing window with an arch. Researchers believe it had a sod roof, as did most other buildings in Norse Greenland, but of course it is now long gone.
The writer at the Hvalsey Church ruins near Qaqortoq, Greenland.
We trudged up the hill from the dock to the ruins, fighting the black flies that were interested in our presence. It was a glorious day with a bright blue sky and I was aware that this adventure might be the highlight not only of our trip, but of the last five years of research I’ve done for my novel.
The small structure seemed surprisingly large inside. We took a few pictures and walked through and around the building. I knew from my research that the ground we walked on also included a small cemetery. I felt as if I were finally meeting some of the people I am writing about, or people who knew them, or perhaps their descendants. For someone who is writing about such a distant and remote place, that was quite something. Exhilarating, even.
After a short while, we made our way back to the boat, where our captain, Karl, awaited. Out of the boat’s cabin, he brought a special bag, offering us a glass of the local Greenlandic wine, and a single Tuborg beer. He did not speak much English, but everyone’s good mood was evident. As we drove away, I took one last look back, feeling as if I were looking back in time to a very, very different age, but one that was no longer as distant.