Ruins-in-the-making: Viðey in the bay of Reykjavík, Iceland

by Gavin Lucas

This June, Gavin Lucas with Elín Hreiðarsdóttir and Gísli Pálsson conducted a short fieldwork season at the abandoned industrial village on the island of Viðey in the bay of Reykjavík, Iceland. The aim of the fieldwork was to map the ruins and recover small samples of material assemblages associated with the settlement. Preliminary coring identified middens where 5 trenches were subsequently excavated to retrieve material.

The village was founded in 1907 and lasted less than half a century; begun as a business enterprise to establish a harbour for ships and industrial scale processing of fish, the settlement went through two bankruptcies and periods of economic boom and bust, before ending its life through subsistence farming for the last inhabitants who finally abandoned the island in 1943. The financial speculation and economic collapse behind the initial enterprise is almost a mirror image of the more recent meltdown from 2008, albeit on a smaller scale and is a classic case of ruination in the wake of modernity.

The story we want to tell is about how things come together, but also about how they fall apart. Standing amidst the ruins on Viðey, one asks oneself: where did everything go? We want to trace the process of dispersal, of ruination in terms of following the things that made up this once lively community. So far, this has taken us in two directions. First, we looked at the houses themselves. These were mostly timber built houses, and the wood for their construction came from various sources – an old boat, houses from the northwest of Iceland, even deconstructed warehouses from Norway.  Upon abandonment, the wood was used to re-build new houses elsewhere, either as building material or moulds for concrete houses or simply sold as raw materials. With one house we have followed its trajectory through multiple incarnations. From such a perspective, the houses are less solid objects and more like fluid assemblages, whose elements combine and disperse to join other assemblages at other sites. Such an approach leads us toward a multi-sited archaeology.

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The second direction is about smaller objects, the material culture associated with this village. Over last winter, Elín Hreiðarsdóttir conducted several interviews with former residents of the village, children at the time but now in their 80s and 90s. Many aspects were covered in these interviews but one concerned objects present at the village. Very few objects which existed in the village still remain with these people today. A few retained some special items, like a carved wooden box, but most objects had dispersed elsewhere; but where? Many of those interviewed claimed nothing was ever thrown out, there were no rubbish dumps. But one informant was very vocal on remembering hillsides strewn with garbage amongst which she used to play as child. Based on her information and our coring, we located the rubbish dump associated with her house. From that trench and the other four, located at other middens, we unearthed masses of material culture, all of it linked to specific households. Forgotten to memory, physically buried and invisible from the surface, the ruinous nature of the site now acquired another dimension beyond its crumbling architecture.

Looking at the ruins and middens as residues of assemblages, we want to explore ruination as a process of dispersal; is not just about fixating on what is left behind, the ruin, but also about what moves on. This is to see ruination as part of a continual and fluid process of materiality-in-the-making. In this way, the site can be connected to multiple other sites and times and linked, laterally to a wider set of processes. It also about the memory of these processes, locked into the things themselves, and how these material memories intersect with other mnemonic forms – personal memories in the case of former inhabitants or written memories in the case of documentary sources. The objects themselves act as the catalyst for this process, opening up new connections and new stories which we might otherwise be blind to. In particular, such stories can help us contest and re-think the concepts of modernity and modernization in the case of Iceland – and beyond.

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