Was Stavanger Cathedral Built on a Viking Settlement?

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Archaeologists may have solved the question of what used to exist on the site of Stavanger cathedral.

Underneath the northern part of Stavanger cathedral, archaeologists have found animal bones and settlement traces they believe may be from the Viking Age. This may finally give an answer to what was on the site before the church was built.

The crawl space in Stavanger Cathedral is being examined before a new floor is laid in the church.
The crawl space in Stavanger Cathedral is being examined before a new floor is laid in the church. Photo: Kristine Ødeby / NIKU

Stavanger cathedral is the country's best-preserved medieval cathedral. It has been in continuous use ever since it was built in the 11th century.

During spring of 2021, archaeologists are examining the crawl space in Stavanger cathedral. The work is being done in connection with the restoration of the cathedral in time for the city's anniversary celebrations in 2025.

Archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) and the Archaeological Museum of the University of Stavanger (UiS) have worked on the project. Their findings should help us understand more about the fascinating history of Stavanger.

Pig bones and settlement traces

“In the northern chambers of the church we have found thin, dark soil layers with a completely different character than in the rest of the areas we have investigated so far,” said excavation leader Kristine Ødeby.

Pig bones from before the cathedral was built. Photo: NIKU.
Pig bones from before the cathedral was built. Photo: NIKU.

Animal bones were found within the soil layers, most notably skeletal remains of a pig. Archaeologists believe they date the find to the first half of the 11th century, or older. This is before the cathedral was built.

“What we have found is the bones of a pig, which were clearly placed with meat and skin intact. They have been lying there until now,” said UIS's Sean Denham.

Helps to prove a Viking settlement

The construction of the church started in the second half of the 11th century. Archaeologists believe it would have been very unlikely that the pig bone was placed in the church after this.

Listen: Researching the Viking Age

Denham explained that there is no tradition of placing relics into Norwegian medieval churches: “Everything indicates that the bones must have ended up exactly where we found them before the  present church was built.”

Stavanger Cathedral east side
Stavanger cathedral today

Consistent with earlier findings

NIKU's Halldis Hobæk said the theory of a Viking Age settlement at the site corresponds well previous findings. During the 1960s, UiS conducted archaeological research under the church.

“In 1968, they found a layer of burnt wood under the altar area. This was dated to Viking times, and is interpreted as a remnant of a burnt down building,” she said.

The finding confirms that the cathedral was not built in an uninhabited and desolate place, but rather a place where there was already human activity.

More graves than expected

Archaeologists have also found far more graves than expected. There's also evidence that much archaeological material was removed in the 19th century.

Medieval graves underneath Stavanger cathedral

Kristine Ødeby said that the preliminary results are very exciting: “We knew that we would find graves under the floor in the cathedral, but the number and extent of them is currently greater than we imagined.”

There were graves in all chambers examined so far. The graves have not yet been formally dated but the team already has a good idea of when they are from.

“The tombs we assume are both from the Middle Ages and from the 16th to 18th centuries. Some may be older than this,” said Ødeby.

Other items discovered

The grave finds go well beyond skeletons. In addition to bones, the graves include fragments of wooden coffins, iron nails assumed to be from coffins and some objects including remnants of jewellery and bronze needles.

Pearls from a Middle Ages rosary. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid.
Archaeologists wonder if these pearls may have originated from a rosary from the Middle Ages. Photo: Kjartan Hauglid / NTNU

“A particularly interesting find is several blue, white and black pearls. We wonder if these came from a rosary, and if so it is reasonably certain that it is from the period when the church was still Catholic, ie before the Reformation in 1537,” said Ødeby.

In the six chambers examined so far in the study, the so-called “cultural layers” are  not particularly deep. Cultural layers refer to areas in which remains of human activity are found.

The cultural layers discovered so far are no more than 15cm deep, which leads archaeologists to believe a lot of material was dug away in the Middle Ages.

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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