Archaeologists uncover early Christian community in Norway

The cathedral in Stavanger was built in the year 1125, and is one of the earliest pieces of evidence for permanent settlement in the Norwegian town. However, new analyses of medieval skeletons found beneath the cathedral suggest that Christians lived in Stavanger for several generations prior to this.

Over 15,000 human bone fragments lay helter-skelter in a wooden crate. This mess did not discourage the researchers at the Archaeological Museum in Stavanger, who are now resurrecting the dead.

“We are reassembling and analyzing individual skeletons in order to form a picture of Stavanger’s population before and around 1000,” associate professor Paula Utigard Sandvik and osteoarchaeologist Sean Denham said.

They are working on a taxing puzzle that sheds new light on Stavanger’s history.

It has bothered some locals that Stavanger has no exact date of birth. When did Stavanger become a town? When can the modern and rich oil city celebrate its one thousandth anniversary?

So far archaeologists have not found any structural remains that might extend the city’s age. The Cathedral was built around 1125 and is its oldest building. The Cathedral is also central to the pioneering bone studies conducted under the auspices of the Archaeological Museum at the University of Stavanger.

In 1968 archaeologists found a number of skeletons in the ground beneath the chancel of the Cathedral. The graves provided immediate and interesting results and recent analysis of the skeletons suggest that several generations of Christians lived in Stavanger before the cathedral was built.

“The compact moraine layer has functioned almost as an hermetic seal for the skeletons, which were all in exceptional condition. The skeletons were not placed parallel to the longitudinal axis of the Cathedral, but with their heads towards the west so that their eyes faced the east, symbolising resurrection and eternal life. There were also no grave goods, jewellery or tools in the burials, as had been the earlier pagan practice. Finally, the discovery of iron rivets suggests that the bodies had been placed in coffins. This clearly indicates that these were Christian graves from a cemetery in use before the cathedral was built,” Paula Utigard Sandvik says.

The skeletons lay in graves which were dug through a layer of charcoal, into a lower lying sand layer. This charcoal suggests that there may have been a building on site prior to the construction of the Cathedral. More than thirty skeletons were collected in ten boxes and sent to the Anatomical Institute in Oslo, which, at the end of the 1960s, was responsible for such finds.

The Institute retained some skulls and a few other skeletal elements, and collected the rest in one large wooden crate for their return to Stavanger. At some point during this process, the various skeletons became fragmented and commingled (i.e. mixed together). The bones remained in the crate for many years.

In 2005, Paula Utigard Sandvik checked sediment and charcoal samples from the 1968 excavations located in the museum’s store rooms to find material suitable for radiocarbon dating. Two samples were also taken from the skeletons remains at the Anatomical Institute. The results showed that the skeletons are older than the church. This was later confirmed by further radiocarbon dates.

In 2010, skeletal studies became part of the Scientific Archaeological Laboratory Studies project, one of 25 Research Programmes at University of Stavanger. Dr. Sean Denham, an osteoarchaeologist, immediately saw the potential of the bone crate.

“For me it was a great challenge to identify the remains and reconstruct individuals bone by bone,” Denham says.

He understood right away that the box had to be treated as a common grave.

“They were individual skeletons when sent to Oslo, but they came back as a mass grave. We have had to use osteometric methods designed to distinguish between individuals in mass graves. This should not have happened. Human remains should not have been treated in this way, Denham underlines.

A few months ago, work began to reassemble the individuals. Preliminary investigation showed that the remains stem individuals of all ages. Researchers find it fascinating and exciting to create people, destinies and lives. A thigh bone here, a cheek bone there, a row of teeth, two arm bones that fit together – they turn into a woman of about forty, a man of fifty, or a teenager.

“Every day at the museum, I pass by an old rune stone found in the foundations of Mariakirken, an old medieval church from Stavanger. The runes read ‘Ketil raised this stone for Jorunn, his wife, daughter of Utyrme’. Sometimes I wonder if Jorunn isn’t one of the skeletons we’re working with,” says Sandvik.

The researchers are working together with doctoral and Master’s students in Amsterdam on stable isotopic analysis of the bones. Isotopic research will provide some answers to questions about the food these people lived on. DNA studies are also planned.

“This is an exchange of knowledge with an individual who lived a thousand years ago. It’s very exciting to get a glimpse into the life of a person who walked here on the rich, fertile land of the southwest fifty generations ago,” Paula Utigard Sandvik says.

The analyses of the skeletons are currently underway, and the researchers get more and more answers every day. But when new information is obtained, more questions pop up. Thankfully, the same raw material can continue yield answers as technologies and methodologies develop over the years and decades. The researchers therefore insist that the material be handled gently and preserved. Furthermore, they wish to unite the skeletons with the remaining material still kept in Oslo.

The first obstacle was to identify the bones and put together individuals.

“We started with right thighbones and looked for other leg bones which could be matched with them. This process is all about size, shape and other measurable data. We exclude some bones, while others fit; and we build on. Sometimes we have to start all over again, but we are always delighted to see the puzzle come together,” Denham added.

Denham is surrounded by bones: bones in boxes, bags, on cupboards and in crates. He identifies the individual’s age, sex, size and possible diseases. As the work progresses, Denham can tell a lot about the people buried under the cathedral.

“Some of them lived to over fifty, which certainly is not bad in the harsh medieval times. They were surprisingly tall. The men could be 175-180 centimetres, much larger than we see in medieval populations elsewhere in Europe. But we have also identified a rather short woman, who stood around 150 centimetres,” Denham says.

On one particular shelf, the real goodies are stored: jaws with teeth. Denham can read a lot from the teeth. He showed us a jaw with a tooth which has grown in at a completely wrong angle. Did this person endured great pain?

A woman’s jaw shows that she only had her front teeth. Did she suffer from a disease? Was she pregnant, losing her teeth as the little nutrition form her poor diet went to the foetus?

Some teeth are strong and well preserved while others have been ground down. This may suggest different diets. Sean Denham shows a coarse grinding stone which, when used, would leave small stone grit in the flour. This would wear the teeth greatly. Some people had the means to acquire millstones that ground finer and did not leave so much grit in the food. Their teeth were less worn down.

“Chewing food makes microscopic grooves in the teeth. We can investigate this and find out what kind of food they lived on. We hope to have the time and the means to do this work too,” Sean Denham says.

In this way can Stavanger’s history be extended. People from the Middle Ages tell their story and modern people gain more knowledge. But when did the town become a town? No exact answer emerges.

“Gradual steps give us a better overview. Comparable material allows us to draw several conclusions. But we cannot write a final history of Stavanger. We find no physical traces of urban development before the cathedral. Even when there are no physical traces in the city, we can get new answers, like the ones obtained from our skeletal analyses,” Paula Utigard Sandvik says.

Source: University of Stavanger

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine