A blue glass bead at least 1,500 years old is among the finds archaeologists have made at the Ørland Main Air Station dig.

Pre-Viking Iron Age settlement will give a glimpse of life in Norway 1,500 years ago

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Archaeologists have discovered a pre-Viking Iron Age settlement dating back around 1,500 years ago on the Trondheim Fjord on Norway’s coast as they excavated the area prior to expanding an airport for jet fighters.

The strategically located site includes three large longhouses arranged in a U shape, one of which had several fire pits possibly used for cooking, keeping warm and for handwork, says a press release from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The longhouses may have been used for community gatherings, to honor the chief of the settlement and possibly to store food.

“This was a very strategic place,” Ingrid Ystgaard, project manager at the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History at NTNU University Museum, said in the press release. “It was a sheltered area along the Norwegian coastal route from southern Norway to the northern coasts. And it was at the mouth of Trondheim Fjord, which was a vital link to Sweden and the inner regions of mid-Norway.”

Ystgaard says the site is unique in Norway because many bones of animals, birds and fish are preserved in the site’s garbage heaps or middens. The soil in the areas is composed of seashells and so is not acidic, unlike much of the soil in Norway. The acid in the soil at other sites breaks down bone and other organic matter so that it is unusual to find bones from before the medieval era. Usually at such old sites archaeologists only find ceramics, beads and metal.

Synne H. Rostad operates a standing sieve to sift out smaller bones and objects from the dirt.

Synne H. Rostad operates a standing sieve to sift out smaller bones and objects from the dirt. (Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum)

“Nothing like this has been examined anywhere in Norway before,” Ystgaard said.

The bones are plentiful enough that researchers can compare wild and domestic varieties of that time with those of today.

“The middens have also provided others surprises,” the press release states. “One was a delicate blue glass bead and several amber beads, too, suggesting the former residents liked their bling. Another was the remains of a green drinking glass that was characteristic of imports from the Rhine Valley in Germany. This last is also a testament to how well off the former residents of this area were, Ystgaard said. “’It says something that people had enough wealth to trade for glass.’”

Ystgaard said she and her team expect outside the site are graves and a harbor with boathouses.

“There was a lot of activity here,” Ystgaard said of the site. “Now our job is to find out what happened here, how people lived. We discover new things every day we are out in the field. It’s amazing.”

About 2,000 years ago the Ørland peninsula was recovering from the last Ice Age, and the land was depressed by the weight of the ice. A bay resulted, but the land has since risen and formed dry land today.

The area in yellow on the Trondheim Fjord is under excavation and was the site of a settlement 1,500 years ago. The area in green was dry land then.

The area in yellow on the Trondheim Fjord is under excavation and was the site of a settlement 1,500 years ago. The area in green was dry land then. (Map by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

The sheltered bay and fertile fields were a great place for the settlement, says the press release. Archaeologists had suspected Ørland would be a rich archaeological site, but they found the excuse to dig there when the Norwegian Air Force decided to purchase 52 F-35 jets and expand the airport.

Before construction begins on Norwegian soil, the law requires a preliminary archaeological examination of the site and further study if any significant finds are made.

More than 20 archaeologists and workers will dig and study at the site for 40 weeks. The budget for the project is Norwegian Krone 41 million ($4.6 million), but that doesn’t include excavating machines and room and board for workers.

The operators of the big earth-moving machines will remove the top layer of soil and can be very precise. “The excavator operators are incredibly skilled,” Ystgaard said. “You can ask them to remove 2 centimeters of soil and they can do it.”

Featured image: A blue glass bead at least 1,500 years old is among the finds archaeologists have made at the Ørland Main Air Station dig. This bead was found in a garbage layer and was probably lost by its owner. (Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum )

By: Mark Miller

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