Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iceland's Westman Islanders Dig It

From time to time we like to check in with the hardy Westman Islanders off the southern coast of Iceland – hardy because the only way to reach the island is to fly in small planes that are often cancelled due to weather, or journey on a three-hour ferry with large stacks of innocent looking Chinese take-out boxes in their passenger lounges – only they’re not for Chinese food. Spend some time on board during a rough day and you’ll know what we mean. As the saying goes, once afflicted by seasickness you become afraid you’re going to die; then as the feeling gets worse, you worry that you won’t. Hardy is right.

Within sight of the sheer, towering walls that millions of puffins call home, volunteers and researchers are continuing to uncover the remains of some of the 417 properties destroyed when Heimaey (current pop. 4,100) experienced a volcanic eruption in 1973 that covered one-third of the town in up to 20 meters of lava and ash. In fact, as you drive around, the streetlights are marked 12 to 15 feet high to show the depth of the ash over three decades ago.

This summer, Kristin Johannsdottir (pictured) is leading a modern-day archaeological dig to uncover a section of town – now protected by black netting – where the homes were merely boiled in steam from hot ash; other homes, totally engulfed in molten lava, are beyond rescue. Johannsdottir’s team is targeting about 10 homes which, although their top floors are crushed, are thought to have well-preserved basements. Clothes probably still hang in closets, pictures still on the walls.

While backhoes do the heavy work, volunteers are needed to shovel close to the buildings as homeowners, long-ago compensated by the government for their property, hope to seek return of their family heirlooms and keepsakes. Like the Pompeii of old, it promises to be a trip back in time, or at least back to the Seventies. (For more information: www.pompeinordursins.is).

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