The Secret of Otter’s Ransom:
An Electronic, Interactive, Interdisciplinary
Introduction to the Medieval North Atlantic

 

A Panoramic View from the Point near Reykir (Image Credit: Fee and Rutkowski 2006)
 

 

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Otter's Ransom Project Overview & Navigation:

 

Imagine a portal through which one could all but splash about in the hot-spring in which Grettir Asmundarson revived himself after his icy swim from Drangey Isle in Grettir’s Saga; imagine that the same portal allowed one to look down upon the site of the Thorsness Thing from the lofty heights of Helgafell described in Eyrbyggja Saga. Moreover, envision utilizing such a portal to visit Maes Howe, an ancient chambered cairn on Orkney vandalized by grave-robbing Vikings, or the Ring of Brodgar, one of the great stone circles of Britain, which likewise sports graffiti in the form of Norse runes. Consider what one might see if one could visit Lindisfarne, site of the first great Viking raid upon a British monastery, on a bright and windswept day.

Such a portal lies at your fingertips: Simply click one of the links above to begin exploring the world of the Medieval North Atlantic. When the interactive map and pull-down menus load, choose a site listed on the left-hand side of the screen: A visitor may organize sites by name, type, or geographical region. Most simply of all, the savvy traveler may just click on the map itself. To learn about life at home amongst the Vikings in Britain, for example, one could visit Jarlshof, one of the most important Norse settlement sites in the Northern Isles of Scotland.

To get there, choose “Shetland” from the Country menu or “Settlement Site” from the Object menu; if you have some sense of where Jarlshof is, however, just click on the general area on the map. Once there, you may dip into a detailed textual report on the site, access a bibliography for further information, watch any of ten instructive videos, view panoramic scenes from six vantage points, play an Interactive Fiction game based at Jarlshof, and take an online quiz to test your knowledge of this site and of Norse domestic life in the Viking Age.

Utilizing hundreds of QTVR panoramas, documentary-style digital video clips, and interactive digital images, this project allows visitors to navigate oceans of time and space; armed with scholarly guidebooks, interactive maps, runic transcription guides, and related travel aids, cyber-tourists may visit some of the most significant sites of the Medieval North Atlantic. The participants in this adventure concurrently will gain intimate knowledge of the past in a vibrant, active-learning environment.

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The Burning of Njal Objectives:

 

The Burning of Njal iteration represents a reorganization of the Medieval North Atlantic course and the associated Otter’s Ransom multimedia project concerned with the Viking world; the new course will be built around the people, places, and events of Njal’s Saga, a key example of its genre as well as an enduringly popular, wide-ranging testament to life in early Iceland. The Burning of Njal will combine student research projects and student-designed interactive fiction games with student-edited film clips, panoramas, and static images of key sites from the saga. Freely available online, this project will be of use to anyone interested in the Viking Age, and thus might serve a very useful function in any number of medieval literature or history courses, as well as being of general interest to the public at large. Moreover, the aspect of this project most clearly applicable to a range of projects in many disciplines is the nexus between collections of digital objects with student needs and use: This project models a self-conscious development of the points of contact between student scholarship and creative assignments, instructor digital asset management, and the shared pedagogical goal of student engagement.

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Project Key Personnel and Institution:

Christopher Fee, Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities (Primary Contact and Principal Investigator)
Department of English
Gettysburg College
300 North Washington Street
Gettysburg, PA 17325
717.337.6762 (phone)
717.337.6666 (fax)
cfee@gettysburg.edu

 

Gettysburg College serves as Host Institution and Fiscal Agent

James Rutkowski, Director Technical Support, Wimba (Primary Technical Consultant, Layout Designer, & Software Engineer)

Todd Neller, Associate Professor and Chair of Computer Science, Gettysburg College (Interactive Fiction Consultant)

Pierre Hecker, Assistant Professor of English, Carleton College (Pedagogical Consultant)

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Existing Project Components:

 

This project is designed to be modular, so that new materials may be added easily; the following is a list of the materials already compiled and currently undergoing editing and formatting:

Stone Age and Prehistoric Sites:

  • Maes Howe (Linked QTVR Panoramas)
  • Ring of Brodgar (QTVR Panorama)
  • The Stones of Stenness (QTVR Panorama)
  • Skara Brae (Linked QTVR Panoramas)
Roman Sites:
  • Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh (QTVR Panorama; Interactive Object)
  • Hadrian’s Wall (Paired QTVR Panoramas)
  • Chesters Roman Fort (Linked QTVR Panoramas)
Iron Age and Celtic Sites:
  • Broch of Gurness (Linked QTVR Panoramas)
  • Mousa Broch (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Tap o Noth Hill Fort (Linked QTVR Panoramas)
Anglo-Saxon Sites:
  • Brussels Cross (Interactive Object; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Durham Cathedral (Linked QTVR Panoramas)
  • Lindisfarne Priory (Linked QTVR Panoramas)
  • Ruthwell Cross (Interactive Object; Documentary Video Footage)
British Viking Sites:
  • Andreas Cross-slabs (Interactive Object; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Balladoole Ship Burial (Documentary Video Footage)
  • Braaid Farmstead (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Brough of Birsay (Linked QTVR Panoramas)
  • Cronk ny Merriu Longhouse and Promontory Fortlet (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Cunningsburgh Soapstone Workshop (Documentary Video Footage)
  • Jarlshof Settlement (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Knockadoone Ship Burial (Documentary Video Footage)
  • Maughold Cross-slabs (Interactive Object; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Sullom Voe Portage (Documentary Video Footage)
  • Ting Wall Holm Assembly Island (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Tynwald Assembly Place (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Yell Settlement (Documentary Video Footage)
Icelandic Saga Sites:
  • Þingvellir (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Mosfell Valley (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Brakar's Sound at Borgarnes (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Borg á Myrum (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Snorralaug at Reykholt (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Helgafell (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Berserkjagata (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Hvamm (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Hjardarholt (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Laugar (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Grettislaug at Reykir (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Hegraness Thing (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)

Saint Magnus Sites from Orkneyingasaga:

  • Ting Wall on Mainland in Orkney, where Magnus and Hakon compacted a truce (Documentary Video Footage)
  • Kirk of Saint Magnus on the island of Egilsay, where Magnus was martyred (Documentary Video Footage)
  • Christ Church at Birsay, where Magnus was first interred (Documentary Video Footage)
  • Kirk of Saint Olaf in Kirkwall, where Magnus was later translated (Documentary Video Footage)
  • Cathedral of Saint Magnus in Kirkwall, where Magnus was finally laid to rest (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)
  • Orphir Round Church, built by Earl Hakon in penance for the slaying of Magnus (Linked QTVR Panoramas; Documentary Video Footage)

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The Burning of Njal Rationale:

 

Drawing upon the pedagogical strengths of the heretofore successful implementation of the Otter’s Ransom multimedia project into the previous iterations of the Medieval North Atlantic Scandinavian Studies course, my proposed course of research on the manuscript tradition and saga sites of the Njal’s Saga tradition will materially improve the existing course by re-developing the focus of our explorations of Icelandic language, literature, law, history, and geography within the context of what many Icelanders consider their national epic. By enhancing my intimacy with the specific people, places, and events central to the story of Njal—both within the Icelandic manuscript tradition and within the landscape of Iceland itself—I intend to rework this course utilizing those specific details as the touchstones for a broader exploration of Medieval Iceland. Njal’s Saga is a perfect vehicle, for example, through which to examine the workings of early Icelandic law and politics at the Althing, or to note the importance of family relationships and blood feud within these larger social structures. Moreover, the literary tradition of this saga gives voice to the otherwise silent Law Rock at Thingvellir, or the spectacular mountains overlooking Gunnar’s farm at Hlíðarendi.

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Project Pedagogical Concerns:

 

Overview of Pedagogical Goals:

The pedagogical goal of this project that would seem to be most clearly applicable to a wide range of projects in very different disciplines involves the nexus between collections of digital objects with student needs and use: In other words, what we are developing that may be of the most use to other instructors involves a self-conscious development of the nexus between student writing assignments, instructor digital asset management, and the shared pedagogical goal (and avenue) of student engagement.

Specific Pedagogical Methodology:

Having developed a topic and a working bibliography in consultation with the instructor, each student grounds a discussion of a broad cultural or literary topic in the specific details of a particular site relevant to that larger study; after developing a site report in at least two drafts, the student then turns to a creative revisitation of the site through drafts of an IF game. Each student then develops an online quiz which could assess a visitor’s grasp of the key points concerning that site. In each succeeding iteration, I subsequently both have utilized and tested the efficacy of these tools by integrating them in sophomore-level survey courses. By and large these tools have proven engaging and helpful; The Burning of Njal course project, however, is designed to improve these materials in two major ways: First, by providing an engaging context in which all of the IF games for this project might be more carefully structured around a common text, so that a player might move from one to another far more seamlessly; second, by structuring a whole series of explorations of aspects of Medieval Icelandic life around that single text, thus allowing the smooth integration of the entire project into any subsequent course in which Njal’s Saga is required reading.

Key Pedagogical Points :

  • This project uses emerging technology but privileges student-generated text.
  • This project combines student writing assignments with multimedia collections.
  • This project is designed to engage students on textual as well as visual levels.
  • This project involves what might be termed a “hermeneutics of retrieval of information.”
  • This project is designed around coherent and demonstrable narrative and pedagogical trajectories.
  • This project requires students to gather information, but it also requires them to exercise and/or develop intellectual skills: This project requires a student to make leaps and to quantify one’s own intellectual journey as well as to enact a virtual scavenger hunt through space and time.
  • Central to this project is a reflective component for each student: How did I solve the puzzle? What clues did I unearth? What intellectual tools did I utilize/develop? What did I learn about the Medieval North Atlantic World, of course, but, moreover, what did I learn about how and what I learned?
  • In the long term this project should require the instructors to assess how a writing assignment may take advantage of new technologies at the same time it transcends such media.

Pedagogical Methodology:

Students learn best when they are presenting their work to others, when—in effect—they are utilizing the fruits of their research as teaching tools for their peers. Imagine, then, that these same students were empowered to utilize a multimedia archive in such a way that they could create—in the context of user-friendly documentary clips and linked panoramic images—compelling research documents, game-based presentations of the same material, and associated interactive assessment quizzes which allowed visitors to such a student’s project site to learn about various aspects of life in Medieval Iceland in a fascinating and fun way.

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Burning of Njal Timeline:

 

I plan to spend three months—June, July, and August 2010—researching the most recent and relevant scholarship pertaining to Njal’s Saga; in addition, I would spend a significant portion of that time viewing and studying a number of the most pertinent manuscripts involved, some of which are located at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Rekjavik; there are a large number of manuscripts containing Njal’s Saga, and  I am most interested in gaining some intimacy with the fourteenth century Möðruvallabók (AM 132 fol.13r).

Moreover, I would like to develop a significant portion of the course which draws together in a digital format images of the relevant folia from the manuscript tradition of this saga. I did something of this nature in the fall of 2005 in a senior seminar dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon Cult of the Cross, in which we studied closely high quality interactive digital images of the leaves of the manuscript containing the Old English Dream of the Rood. Any Medievalist will tell you that we prefer to view manuscripts in person, but the growing quality of digital archives is such that electronic resources have become a phenomenal way to introduce students to problems of editing and translation which are often utterly transparent to those who rely upon edited texts, to say nothing of those who only know a medieval text through modern translations.

One simply cannot pretend to mastery of such a text until one is at least conversant with the manuscript tradition involved, and part of the thrust of this project will be to develop tools which allow my students to achieve the skills necessary to begin to study the relevant manuscripts. In the case of Njal’s Saga I plan to draw upon the magisterial digital archive known as the Saganet Project, available at http://sagnanet.is/, which draws together a huge archive of digital images from Icelandic manuscripts housed at the National and University Library of Iceland, The Árni Magnússon Institute, and the Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University. It will take me several weeks to become conversant enough with the various relevant aspects of the Saganet Project to be able to integrate these resources into the Burning of Njal course in a substantive way.

I also would spend a portion of my time in Iceland visiting all of the major sites relevant to Njal’s Saga, at which I would record relevant digital static images, panoramas, and documentary-style clips for the use of the students who will construct the Burning of Njal course research project components. Such sites would total about a dozen, and would include places like Bergþórshvoll, where Njal and his family were burned alive by their enemies, as well as Hlíðarendi, the home of Njal’s ally Gunnar, and the Gunnarssteinn, where Gunnar reputedly stood as he hacked down a number of his enemies in a pitched battle. With the exception of Keldur, a farmstead which includes a section dating back more than a thousand years, most of these sites are evocative of the ethos of the saga rather than illustrative of material culture of the period, but my earlier work in Iceland and throughout Viking Britain has proven time and again that multimedia resources drawn from such places often set afire undergraduate imaginations, and I am confident that the sites of Njal’s Saga will prove this point emphatically.

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Project Outcomes:

 

To date various components of the Otter's Ransom project have led to a number of national and international presentations, one of which hopefully will soon appear as a book chapter; thus the pedagogical and scholarly aspects of this project clearly have had a demonstrable impact upon one another. Although the fundamental goal of the Burning of Njal is pedagogical, and although the associated iteration of the Medieval North Atlantic course will be its primary outcome, I have every reason to believe that the Burning of Njal will extend my research agenda in significant ways. In addition to its functions in various iterations of several of my courses, some recent formal outcomes of the Otter's Ransom project include those listed below; I anticipate demonstrating aspects of the Burning of Njal course and multimedia components in a number of similar venues:

“Magic, Miracles, and Murder: Sifting through Sinners and Saints in the Stories and Sites of Orkneyingasaga.” Old Norse Language and Literature Session: “Magic and the Supernatural in Old Literature,” Modern Language Association Convention, Philadelphia, PA. 29 December 2009.

“Með lögum skal land vort byggja: ‘With Law Shall the Land be Built.’ Law-Speaking and Identity in the Medieval Norse Atlantic.” “The Atlantic in the Middle Ages,” Annual Medieval Studies Conference, the Center for Medieval Studies, the Pennsylvania State University, University Park. 28 March 2009.

“The Secret of Otter’s Ransom: Navigating the Medieval North Atlantic through Interactive Fiction.” National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education Summit, San Francisco, CA. 3-5 April 2008.

“The Ruthwell Cross/Dream of the Rood Digital Project: A Progress Report.” Major contributor of data presented by collaborative group at the 12th Biennial Conference of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. Munich, Germany. 1-6 August 2005.

“Digitally Imagining the Rood: Praxis and Pitfalls in the Development of a Prototype Electronic Ruthwell Cross.” 40th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI. 5-8 May 2005.

“Með lögum skal land vort byggja: ‘With Law Shall the Land be Built.’ Law-Speaking and Identity in the Medieval Norse Atlantic,” in Sailing the Western Sea: The Atlantic Ocean in Medieval Perspective. B. Hudson, ed. Under consideration at Boydell & Brewer.

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Project Assessment:

 

Several unsolicited positive assessments of various aspects of the existing components of this project suggest a generally respectful and interested reception of these materials. For example, the merits of the existing Otter’s Ransom project and its relationship to earlier manifestations of the Medieval North Atlantic course have received some recent accolades, including a substantial interactive discussion on a recent post of Liberal Education Today. In addition, the designers of the IF gaming software employed in this endeavor have followed with interest its implementation as a pedagogical tool.

Such exposure of the project led to an invitation to present my related recent research into Norse assembly sites at a regional conference, an opportunity which has culminated in a forthcoming book chapter as well as an invitation to explore Orkneyingasaga at the Modern Language Association in December. The MLA Old Norse session will be an ideal venue in which to receive feedback concerning the addition to the project of several new saga sites from Orkney, which include numerous new film clips and panoramic images.

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Project Technology and Terminology:

 

The digitized images that make up the pedagogical matter of this project take three forms:  1)  Linked Quick-Time Virtual Reality (QTVR) panoramas which allow the virtual traveler to scan 360 degrees from a series of vantage points at each site;  2)  Static images which allow that traveler to examine more closely details of important aspects of each site;  3)  Video images which capture sounds and activities at each site, and offer the opportunity for the traveler to unearth some explanatory voice-over information about the historical and cultural context of each site.  By combining digitized video footage, QTVR panoramas, static images, and simple maps of sites, one can create compelling virtual tours. “Virtual” simply means that such electronic representations are quite evocative of the actual sites, and that they are to some degree interactive.  These panoramas are “interactive” in that (by clicking and dragging the cursor on the screen with one’s mouse) one may “interact” with the images.  Most simply put, by clicking and dragging the cursor, one can look around 360 degrees from the vantage point the creator chose when recording a panorama.  The visitor chooses the pace and the direction of examination, drawing upon the finite number of images filmed by the creator of that panorama. By “multimedia” I mean that the project is composed of a combination of text, static images, streaming video, and sounds, rather than of text alone.  The inclusion of short documentary-style informative video clips created at many sites, for example, helps both to elucidate points of interest and to draw the visitor more fully into the virtual experience;  further, creating “hotspots”—which allow a visitor to click on various objects in the QTVR panoramas—allows for much richer and more informative tours. The project is interactive on one level in that it is composed utilizing hypertext links that allow a traveler to navigate through a series of related documents according to that traveler’s interests and needs, rather than moving only in a traditional linear fashion. Moreover, the project achieves another level of interaction through its use of Interactive Fiction. “Interactive Fiction” (IF) is a rather traditional genre of computer gaming that recently has seen a resurgence of interest concurrent with a revitalization of gaming software. IF technology allows us to link our multimedia teaching tools into a matrix of narrative text which empowers each participant to reason through a series of clues, to plan and take virtual journeys as a result of puzzling out these clues, and to combine a survey of sites and artifacts with an adventure quest.

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Project Credits:

In its present form, this project was conceived of by Christopher R. Fee and implemented by Fee, James Rutkowski, and their collaborators; substantial collaborators on one or more components of the project include:

Brian J Cipperly, ’06, Video Editing Consultant; Maura Culkin, ’07, Research Consultant on Viking Iceland; Sarah Doherty, ’01, Assistant Professor of English at Prince George's Community College, Research Consultant on Viking Britain; Katherine A. Elkind, '11, Research Consultant on Viking Orkney; Martin Foys, Associate Professor of English at Hood College, Consultant on the Brussels Cross; Oliver Gibbon, Technological Consultant and Imaging Expert on the Brussels Cross; Charles Hannon, Associate Professor and Chair of Information Technology Leadership at Washington and Jefferson College, Technological Consultant on Viking Britain; Michael Howells, ’05, Research Consultant on the Brussels Cross; Kathryn Lowe, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Director of the University of Glasgow Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, Consultant on Viking Britain; Andrew Chase McMullen, '11, Technological Consultant and Imaging Expert on Viking Orkney; Daniel O'Donnell, Associate Professor and Chair of English at the University of Lethbridge and Director of the Digital Medievalist Project, Consultant on the Brussels Cross; Meghan Peck, '08, IF Pedagogical Consultant, Peer Learning Associate, and Illustrator; Joseph Zoller, ’01, Technological Consultant and Imaging Expert on Viking Britain.

Acknowledgement also is due to the students of the Battle for Mythic Britain courses in the Fall of 1999 and the Fall of 2008, and to those of the Viking Studies seminars in the Fall of 1998, the Fall of 2001, and the Fall of 2007; where substantial text was authored by a particular student in such a course, appropriate credit will appear in proximity to that text.

Substantial support has been provided thus far by Gettysburg College through the Office of the Provost, the Faculty Development Committee, the Department of English, and the Department of Instructional Technology. Early iterations of some virtual content were funded through A.W. Mellon funds administered through Gettysburg College and the Central Pennsylvania Consortium.

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Access Medieval North Atlantic Objects

 

The Medieval North Atlantic object viewer can be accessed through the links below. To access the site, you must have the Macromedia Flash 8 plugin installed. Panoramic images are viewed using the Quicktime movie plugin.

View Medieval North Atlantic Objects:

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Copyright:

 

The project as a whole, including all digital video, QTVR panoramas, and digital static images compiled by Fee, Rutkowski, and their collaborators, all textual content, the design, structure and format of the individual pages, and all related work, is copyright 1999-2009 Christopher R. Fee, James Rutkowski, and Gettysburg College. Work credited to a particular student remains the property of that student, although all participants have signed waivers granting permission for such work to be used in perpetuity in this and any subsequent projects. The copyright holders severally reserve the right to display and to modify all work herein in any way for non-profit and educational purposes.

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Last Modified: 

 

All Content Copyright 1999-2010 Gettysburg College, Christopher R. Fee, and James Rutkowski

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