The 800-year-old body found in a Norwegian well supports accuracy of Sverris Saga
Over seven decades ago, an ancient skeleton was found in a well in Sverresborg, a medieval fortification located in Bergen, Norway. But World War II put an end to the excavations and the body was reburied and largely forgotten. Seventy years later, archaeologists rediscovered the remains and dated them to the 12 th century AD, a period when the Sverris Saga was written, which tells the tale of a dead man thrown in a well in Sverresborg. Could it be that the recovered remains belong to that very man?
According to the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), an analysis of the human remains, which were found in the well at Sverresborg Castle by archaeologist Gerhard Fischer in the late 1930s, revealed that the bones belonged to a middle aged man who lived around 800 years ago.
Skeletal remains found in Sverresborg, Norway. Credit: NIKU
It was during this period, in the late 12 th century, that the Sverris Saga was written. The Sagas refer to stories about ancient Scandinavian and Germanic history. They talk of early Viking voyages, the battles that took place during the voyages, about migration to Iceland and of feuds between families. They were written in the Old Norse language, mainly in Iceland, between 1100 and 1300 AD and describe the life of certain characters. The tales are usually realistic, with some exceptions, and are sometimes romanticised and fantastic, but always dealing with human beings one can understand. Nevertheless, many historians have questioned the accuracy of the tales.
The Sverris Saga provides a detailed and rich biography about the Norwegian king Sverre Sigurdsson, along with a large cast of characters, elaborate scenes, and dialogue. King Sverre led the Birkebeiners (“birch legs”), a party of rebels that were so poor they made their shoes of birch bark, in a fight for the throne of Norway against the church-supported Baglers. The saga tells of a battle in Sverresborg (“Sverre's Castle”) in Trondheim in 1197, where the Baglers won.
Artist’s impression of Sverresborg (“Sverre’s Castle”). Credit: Sverresborg Trondelag Folk Museum
The Sverre Saga says that after the battle: "the Baglers took all the goods that were in the castle, then they burned down every house that was there. They threw a dead man in the well, since they carried stone, and filled it."
Since Sverre's saga was largely written at the time the events occurred, and was centred around the Battle at Sverresborg, of which there is substantial archaeological evidence, it is not inconceivable that this event actually occurred.
King Sverre in battle. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Wikipedia).
“We are more than reasonably sure that the skeleton in the well can be attributed to the dramatic tales in the saga when Sverre castle was destroyed,” wrote the NIKU on their blog.
The exciting discovery brings to life the ancient tales of the sagas and supports the theory that the sagas were indeed based on real and dramatic events in the history of Scandinavia.
Featured image: 800-year-old body found in a well at Sverresborg Castle, Norway. Credit: Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU)