Interview with Ragnar L. Børsheim

Making reconstructions is a way to how to understand the past.

ragnarRagnar L. Børsheim is Norwegian archaeologist and artist. After doing his thesis in 1995, he participated several excavations and started to make illustrated reconstructions as a hobby. In those days, he was also learning himself digital and 3D illustrations. After 12 years, in 2007, Ragnar launched his company Arkikon that makes archaeological reconstructions in the form of illustrations and animations, mainly set in Prehistory, Viking Age and Middle Ages. His reconstructions became quite famous among Scandinavian academia and reenactors, mostly because plenty of them are online.

Interior of the Old Norse hall. Made by Arkikon.

Welcome, Ragnar, and thank you for your time. Let me ask you how many reconstructions have you done? Where can people see your works?

I do not know how many reconstructions I have done, it’s been quite a few. Usually, the illustrations are either for use in books, information signs at heritage sites or for exhibitions at museums. Most of our customers are museums, or other heritage departments, institutions and publishers. On the other hand, many of the illustrations can be seen at Arkikon, at my Vimeo channel or on Youtube. For instance, a short movie we made about the medieval town hall in Bergen, Norway, and the chieftain manor from Tissø, Denmark. In 2009, we made the documentary of the Viking burial in Myklebust.

Reconstruction needs a deep knowledge. What are your sources and to what extent you can use your own fantasy?

Our reconstruction is always based on archaeological finds. Archaological traces are frequently fragmented and sparse, and then we have to rely on general knowledge of the period, analogies, style and technical levels of the period. A reconstruction usually is an interpretation that hopefully is as close to the original as possible, but we can never be sure. However, the main goal is to be true to the archaology and time period.

One example is the design Arkikon did for the great hall at Borre (designs are available here). There were georadar oulines of the hall which gave us the ground dimensions. The design of the building is a combination of traditional trestle built longhouse and elements from the oldest stave churches. The designs should be belieavalbe and in accordance with known Viking/Early Medieval buildings techniques and materials, and also show the grandour and wealth of the chieftain/local king who built it.

The great hall at Borre. Made by Arkikon.

From your point of view, what are the most interesting aspects of past periods, including the Viking Age?

All periods have their thing. As an archaologist that is focused on Iron Age, I find this period (including the Viking period) maybe the most fascinating, because of the richness of the material culture. I am fascinated by the impressive craftmanship, their worldview, and that the prehistory is in many ways a completely different world to ours. Most people lived hard short lives, death was always around the corner, but they found time to make beautiful art, develop top skill metalwork, and trade over huge distances. At the same time, they were also societies with slaves, high death-rate, much violence and warfare. Trying to uncover the past is fascinating, thats why I became an archaologist in the first place.

The mound of Oseberg, Norway. Made by Arkikon.

What a reconstruction means to you?

Making reconstructions is a way how to understand the people of the past. Especially in archaeology, visual reconstructions are an excellent way of how to make interpretations understandable, since the actual remains found in excavations often are fragmented and poorly preserved and the actual iconography from prehistoric times in Northern Europe is poor. By good visual reconstruction, you can easily deliver the meaning across both age and language barriers. With increased knowledge, the reconstructions of tomorrow will probably be somewhat different from those of today.

Every period has their own understanding and reconstructions of the past. Our knowledge is changing after new finds are unearthed, and new interpretations arise as new tools are developed. For example, our understanding of the Iron Age farm structure and its houses has changes drastically in last 20-30 years in Scandinavia, after the introduction of a new excavation method (topsoil stripping) in 1980’s. Today, the advancing geo-radar technology gives archaeology new knowledge that was unavailable earlier.

Thank you very much for your answers, Ragnar. The Forlǫg Project wishes you good luck and fruitful moments in the future.

Reconstruction of the burial chamber from Myklebust, Norway. Made by Arkikon.