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Finds of coffins and teeth under Stavanger Cathedral

Archaeologists from the Museum of Archaeology have been looking under Stavanger Cathedral in search of traces of those who lived here before us. A tooth, a piece of a coffin and a small piece of cloth with some hair on it, should give the archaeologists some answers – and maybe more questions.

  • Archaeologist under the Stavanger Cathedral.
    Sean D. Denham and Theo Bell Gil have conducted surveys under Stavanger Cathedral. Photo: Terje Tveit, Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger.
  • Tooth found under the  Stavanger Cathedral.
    This tooth may help us find the age of the old burial site under the cathedral. Photo: NettOp, University of Stavanger.
  • Doing measurments
    Theo Bell Gil makes precise measurements of the area being investigated, which is important for documentation and further research. Photo: Terje Tveit, Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger.
  • Part of a coffin from an early burial site.
    Part of a coffin from an early burial site. Photo: NettOp, University of Stavanger.
  • One of the skeletons that was excavated during the archaeological investigations in 1967/68
    One of the skeletons that was excavated during the archaeological investigations in 1967/68. Photo: Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger.
  • Floorplan from 1967. Illustration: Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger.
    Floorplan from 1967. Illustration: Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger.

Last week, archaeologists Sean D. Denham and Theo Bell Gil from the Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger, examined a cross-section of soil that is open and visible at the foundations of the cathedral, directly under the nave of the church. They were able to see remains of people, coffins and clothes, and the archaeologists are keen to find out how old these remains are.

Already in the late 1960s, archaeologists made finds of a Christian graveyard on the site before the cathedral was built in the early 1100s. The archaeologists are curious as to the extent of this burial site, as well as how long it may have been used.

There are also traces of a building that is older than the cathedral and stood where the cathedral stands now, which archaeologists would like to know more about.

Read more about the project on medieval life in Stavanger.

A tooth, clothes and coffins

Over the course of a week, Denham and Gil have made various measurements, taken samples from the coffins, found a tooth and some partial skeletons, in addition to textiles that may have been used by the people who lived in Stavanger more than 1,000 years ago. These samples have now been sent to a laboratory that can determine their age.

“It will take a couple of months before we have any answers from the samples,” said Denham, who thinks it was exciting to have the opportunity to conduct this survey under Stavanger Cathedral.

Using the skeletal samples, Sean D. Denham, an osteoarchaeologist and bone expert, will be able to find out what illnesses people suffered from in Stavanger in the Middle Ages, what they ate and how long they lived. Because what was life really like in Stavanger in the Middle Ages? There is still much that is unexplored regarding this period in Stavanger, and that is something that researchers at the Museum of Archaeology hope to do something about.

A more extensive project

The background for this survey is that the Museum of Archaeology has received permission from the Directorate for Cultural Heritage to conduct a small-scale survey under Stavanger Cathedral. There are already some existing shafts under the cathedral, which were dug to make room for electrical installations. Along the edges of these shafts, or crawlspaces if you will, it is possible to see clear traces of both coffins and people.

Normally, we conduct archaeological excavations because someone plans to build a road or houses or utilise a new area for commercial purposes, for example. However, sometimes archaeologists are permitted to perform excavations for the sake of research, to find information about the people of the past. The purpose of the survey conducted under Stavanger Cathedral is to obtain information that may be able to support an application for a more extensive archaeological research excavation – where the archaeologists want to open up the floor in a small part of the cathedral to see if they can find traces [JM1] of untouched skeletons and other material. The aim is to make this project part of the cathedral’s 900th anniversary celebrations in 2025.

Excavation in the 1960s

Archaeologists first found traces of a Christian burial site under Stavanger Cathedral during excavations conducted back in 1967 and 1968.

The remains of a total of 31 people were found. And analyses of ten of these skeletons show that they date from as far back as the 800s and until the first part of the 1100s AD.  However, due to the way the skeletons were treated about fifty years ago, it is difficult to rely entirely on these analyses.

The skeletons were transported back and forth between Stavanger and the Institute of Anatomy in Oslo, and possibly even mixed up with skeletal parts from other Norwegian excavations. The skeletons have been kept at the museum in Stavanger since the 1970s, and other studies have previously been performed on this material. Now, the museum plans to conduct further research based on the previous studies. 

Although the skeletons that were dated from 800 to 1100 AD are most likely those that were excavated from under the cathedral in the late 1960s, archaeologists now want to conduct new analyses to provide certain answers.

“Now, to be absolutely sure of the age of the burial site under Stavanger Cathedral, we are taking samples of the material under the cathedral. Then we will know with certainty where it is from and that we can trust the results,” said Denham.

The excavation that was conducted in the late 1960s was under the eastern part of the choir in the cathedral. The new samples are from under the nave itself. Hopefully, then, this survey will also give us an indication as to the extent of the old burial site.

Perhaps it will also provide good hints and new questions, which will pave the way for a more extensive project in a year or two.

Text: Ragnhild Nordahl Næss