Stavanger Cathedral Built Over Viking Settlement, New Evidence Suggests
Archaeologists digging below the floors of the spectacular Stavanger Cathedral on Norway’s southwestern coast unearthed new evidence revealing more about the church site’s complex past. While excavating in crawl spaces below the church’s northern section, they found an assortment of animal bones, buried in a layer of darkened earth that showed other signs of human use and occupation. Based on this discovery plus previous finds, the archaeologists believe they’ve proven that the magnificent church was constructed on top of an abandoned Viking settlement .
“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 , an archaeologist affiliated with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU).
One of the skeletons found in the basement level of Stavanger Cathedral, above the layer that looks to be an ancient Viking settlement. (Jani Causevic / NIKU)
Viking Settlement Evidence And More Found Beneath Cathedral
“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 Sean Denham, a researcher from the Archaeological Museum of the University of Stavanger (UiS).
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Denham explained that there is no tradition of people leaving offerings or relics inside medieval churches .
“Everything indicates that the bones must have ended up exactly where we found them before the present church was built,” he declared.
While no one is sure exactly when the Stavanger Cathedral was completed, it is known that construction of the original church began sometime in the late 11 th or early 12 th century.
Viking culture was predominant in Scandinavia until right around the time the church was built, so anything that came before would have dated to the very end of the famous and long-celebrated Viking Age .
This is not the first evidence suggesting a Viking Age settlement once existed at the church site. The UiS conducted an extensive survey of the site back in the 1960s and found indications that people had lived there before the cathedral was constructed.
“In 1968, they found a layer of burnt wood under the altar area,” said NIKU archaeologist Halldis Hobæk. “This was dated to Viking times, and is interpreted as a remnant of a burnt down building.”
The ongoing dig beneath Norway’s most celebrated medieval cathedral is a joint project sponsored by the NIKU and the UiS. The underground explorations were launched in coordination with the installation of a new church floor, which is one of many upgrades the church is undergoing in anticipation of the city of Stavanger’s 900th anniversary celebration in 2025.
Some of the beads, likely rosary beads, found in the lower levels of Stavanger Cathedral, above the ancient Viking settlement layer. (Kjartan Hauglid / NIKU)
Many Medieval and Older Burials Found in Church Basement
The apparent remains of the Viking settlement were not the only significant discovery to emerge from this excavation project.
In the crawlspaces beneath the church, the Norwegian archaeologists found a sprawling centuries-old burial ground. It contained the skeletal remains of former church members, who chose to be interred beneath the floor of the most sacred space they knew.
“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,” Ødeby marveled.
The custom of requesting burial beneath the floor of the cathedral is believed to have started in the medieval era.
“The tombs we assume are both from the Middle Ages and from the 16th to 18th centuries,” said Ødeby. She acknowledged, however, that “some may be older than this.”
By the 12 th century when the church was built, the people of Norway had largely abandoned the old Norse burial practices in favor of Christian customs. Consequently, it would be hard to distinguish between burials that occurred before and after the church was built, without radiocarbon testing being performed.
Inside the burials, the archaeologists found many intriguing artifacts. The finds included pieces of jewelry, bronze needles, and other valued personal items. They also found traces of degraded coffins in the form of iron nails and pieces of splintered wood.
One discovery was especially fascinating and revealing of the church’s complex religious history: valuable beads .
“A particularly interesting find is several blue, white and black pearls,” said Ødeby. “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, before the [Protestant] Reformation in 1537.”
The excavation of the basement levels of Stavanger Cathedral, where the ancient skeleton was found, along with many other interesting artifacts. (Jani Causevic / NIKU)
Stavanger Cathedral: A Spiritual Monument for the Ages
Late Viking Age farming and fishing villages had started to abandon their traditional mythological concepts in favor of Christianity as early as the 10 th century AD. The decision to build the new church on top of an older settlement likely met with the approval of the entire community, which would have seen the awe-inspiring structure as a fitting tribute to their newly embraced spiritual belief system.
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Throughout its existence, the cathedral has been critically important to the people of Stavanger. When the original wooden church was completely destroyed by fire in 1272, they rebuilt it with stone to make sure the new edifice would last for millennia. The Stavanger Cathedral has been in continuous use for nine centuries, and instead of being torn down it was repurposed from a Catholic to a Protestant house of worship when the city experienced the changes of the Reformation .
The city of Stavanger dates its founding to 1125, choosing that year to represent the time when the church was completed. Their determination to renovate the church to keep it functional is an impressive testament to the cathedral’s ongoing importance to the community.
Top image: Archaeological excavations in the basement levels of Stavanger Cathedral that yielded evidence of an older Viking settlement below the church cellars. Source: Kristine Ødeby / NIKU
By Nathan Falde