What was life like in Stavanger in the Middle Ages?

There is much that is yet to be explored about medieval Stavanger. That is something researchers at the Museum of Archaeology hope to do something about.

Photo of human skeletons as they were found during the 1960s excavation. Photo of human skeletons as they were found during the 1960s excavation. Photo: The Museum of Archaeology, UiS

We actually know very little about life in medieval Stavanger, despite the fact that Stavanger has the best preserved medieval cathedral in the country. Less well known is that there is also a medieval burial site, with well-preserved skeletons, under the ground directly beneath and around the cathedral. We can learn much about life in the Middle Ages by examining them. Where did they come from? What kind of work did they do? Were they often sick? What did they eat? How old were they? Did many mothers and infants die during childbirth? Skeletons and other traces we can find in the ground constitute a valuable historical archive that different specialists and researchers can read on the basis of existing knowledge and technical analysis methods. Thus far, this is a source of information in Stavanger that has been little used. That is something researchers at the Museum of Archaeology hope to do something about. Preliminary work is under way, where samples to be used for dating will be taken from the soil that is exposed in the crawl space under the floor of the church nave. This will be able to tell us something about the extent of the early medieval graveyard. The museum plans to apply for funding for a major research project that will involve new excavations in and around the cathedral, as well as various analyses and investigations of skeletons and anything else we may find, in addition to what the museum already has in its collection. Project plans will also have to be approved by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage as it will involve interventions at a protected cultural heritage site.

Why do we want to study how people lived in the past?

There are few historical sources that describe Stavanger in the Middle Ages. The archaeological material in storage at the museum and underground in the city centre therefore presents a unique opportunity to understand how Stavanger developed as a city and society from the early Middle Ages to today. Being able to study a population through time, about 1000 years, provides more depth to research into people, the environment and society. This is valuable for studying such topics today, and not least, helps us to anticipate future developments. During this period, major religious and political upheavals took place in Norway, towns and cities emerged and the population was exposed to periods of plague and famine. What kind of effect did this have on people, on population growth, on migration to and from cities, on health? One example is the relevance this can have for medical research today, as we hope to be able to say something about the occurrence of various diseases and health problems in different periods. Research is necessary if we are to safeguard this archive. We know little about the state of the cultural layer and the skeletons today, after many years of intensified activity in the city centre. The project will aim to investigate these things, and consider measures to secure the material for the future. Not least, such traces of the past have the potential to play a role and in today’s Stavanger to create identity, a sense of belonging and new cultural and social meeting places. Cultural heritage has not only cultural value but social and economic value as well. The results of this research can help give the city of Stavanger a boost that will benefit local businesses, tourism, residents and visitors. As we try to find a role for Stavanger after oil, the Museum of Archaeology is committed to promoting and visualising the city’s medieval history.

How can we conduct research on medieval Stavanger?

In this project, the focus will be on people in their environment. How have living conditions and way of life changed in step with the change from an agrarian society to an urban community and with changes in climate, landscape and vegetation? In addition, part of the project will examine the state of the cultural layer and the material that is found, to assess measures for the best possible future conservation. In order to do all this, studying the skeletons will be key, but analyses of environmental data such as soil, seeds and pollen will also be important.

The skeletons will be studied by a specialist who will be able to determine their gender, age and height, and find wear and tear on the body, injuries and diseases that leave traces in the skeleton. Sometimes, we can even determine the cause of death. Furthermore, samples will be taken from the skeletons for different types of chemical and biomolecular analyses, including radio carbon dating, which is important for determining the date of various events. On important question, for example, is how far back in time this Christian graveyard extends. Previous results have been pointed to Christian graves as early as the Viking times, which will be among the earliest Christians so far found in Norway. More data is required to confirm this for certain. DNA analysis has recently become an important method within archaeology and will be able to tell us something about migration, family relationships and diseases. Another relatively new method of analysis is what is know as a stable isotopic analysis, where we measure chemical signals in the bone which can reveal both a person’s diet and if they moved from one area to another during their life. Finally, the condition of the bone material will also be assessed through microscopic and chemical analysis methods. What information can we still find in the material and how much is damaged or lost due to decomposition or pollution? Soil samples will also be taken from the graves to search for pollen and seeds, insects and parasites, and to conduct soil chemistry analyses. The goal is to find remains of the person’s last meal and gain knowledge of burial practices, for example, if they placed flowers in the graves. In order to acquire knowledge about the environment, vegetation and landscape, we also plan to perform geological analyses by examining material from drilling cores in Breiavatnet and other nearby areas. This will give us information about how the landscape developed over a long period of time, about changes in the climate and the vegetation.