Several years ago, scientists were reasonably sure that they discovered the place where Olav Haraldsson built his famous church, which was to become an important part of Norwegian history. 

However, in a recent piece in the newspaper Adresseavisa, the heads of the NIKU and the NTNU Science Museum stated that new knowledge indicates that was not the case.

The story of St. Olaf

Olav Haraldsson, or St. Olaf, played a significant role in the unification of Norway. He also paved the way for its Christianization.

The battle of Stiklestad that took place on July 29, 1030, is when Olav Haraldsson is supposed to have died.

According to saga sources, his remains were transported to the mouth of the Nidelven and buried where Nidaros Cathedral was later built. The following year he was excavated and moved to his own church, Klemenskirken.

According to legends, he looked surprisingly good at the time, and his hair and nails had grown. The king looked like he was asleep.

According to tradition, that is how the cult of St. Olaf was created. When his coffin was placed on the altar in Klemenskirken, where it supposedly stood for a few years, many already regarded him as Olaf the Holy.

The location of Klemenskirken

However, where exactly was this Klemenskirken church located? The question has baffled archaeologists and historians for a long time. In 2016, many thought that the answer had finally been found.

When a new commercial building was to be built in Søndre gate in Trondheim, the NIKU carried out archaeological excavations. 

The result of the excavations exceeded every expectation. The NIKU found not just one church but traces of several wooden churches built on top of each other throughout history. The oldest of these was named "Church A." 

The first dating indicated that Church A was from the early 1000s. As Klemenskirken is the only church in Trondheim that is mentioned in the saga from that period, and as the location was also a good fit, it was therefore established that these were, in all probability, the remains of the old Klemenskirken, the two experts pointed out in the Adresseavisa article.

Olaf II Haraldson (also traditionally named Saint Olaf / Olave) was traditionally seen as the leading figure in the Christianization of Norway, posthumously crowned Rex Perpetuus Norvegiaee (Eternal King of Norway). Photo: Robin Mikalsen / Unsplash

Major exhibition

A big exhibition was set up by the National Heritage Board in close collaboration with various professional organizations and contributors.

The hypothesis that this was the original Klemenskirken was the basis for the exhibition plan in 2017. The exhibition was opened in May of 2019 by Norway's Crown Prince Haakon Magnus. NTNU Science Museum agreed to take over operational responsibility for the exhibition in 2021.

However, after the excavation was completed in 2019, experts at the NIKU and the NTNU Science Museum started asking whether the basis for the exhibition – the discovery of the Klemenskirken – was solid enough.

Not the church of legend after all

It turned out that those posing questions had a point. When the NIKU published its comprehensive final report on the excavation in the summer of 2021, the archaeologists presented a thorough review of all finds. In it, newer dating was presented that clearly goes against the notion of Church A being Klemenskirken.

Although the materials in Church A were from the period when Olaf lived, the buildings under the church are now dated to 1060. 

It is, therefore, not possible to say that Church A was the Klemenskirken church mentioned in the saga. It remains unknown who built Church A or when it was built. 

"The NTNU University Museum and the NIKU have concluded that 'Church A' in Søndre gate in Trondheim most likely is not St Olav's 'Klemenskirken.' There are several reasons for this, as discussed in the NIKU's report from 2021. 

"For instance, wood material found beneath the church is found not to be older than 1060 AD. The Church A itself must therefore be even younger, i.e., from a time period after the death of Olav Haraldsson," Stenøien told The Viking Herald in an e-mail.

Exhibition to be revised?

In other words, the exhibition must likely be revised.

"It is too early to conclude what will happen with the exhibitions. The NTNU University Museum has the operational responsibility for the exhibitions. However, the Directorate for Cultural Heritage ("Riksantikvaren") is responsible for the content of the exhibition. In my opinion, the exhibition needs to be revised according to what we know today," Stenøien added.

Thus, it seems that the location of St. Olav's "Klemenskirken" will remain a mystery for some time to come. 

"Researchers at the NTNU University Museum have no other hypotheses regarding the actual location of the 'Klemenskirken' at this point. More research is clearly needed," Stenøien concluded.

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