Yet, in the following years, it appears that the team behind the excavations jumped the gun: the ruins were not of Klemenskirken. 

The preceding scandal has rocked academics, local governments, and the City of Trondheim. How and why could this have happened? How could a church not be a church, and who benefitted from this wrongful analysis of history?

The most important archaeological find in recent Norwegian history?

Trondheim today is a bustling and youthful city thanks to its huge student population and its status as a popular tourist destination. However, this city in central Norway has a history that dates back over a millennium, to its founding in 997 CE. When a new commercial building was to be constructed on Søndre Gate, a careful archaeological excavation first needed to be carried out before any construction began. 

The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), led by project manager Anna Petersén had high hopes for what they could uncover buried deep under one of the central streets of Trondheim.

After a painstaking and precise excavation, news broke that the archaeological team had made a sensational discovery: they had uncovered several graves in a cemetery and a church that they dated to the beginning of the 11th century. They had, they believed, found the remains of the Klemenskirken – the long-lost church where the cult of St. Olaf had begun. 

Jørn Holme, from the National Archives, was beyond ecstatic. He did not hide his excitement when telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the discovery was, "the most important archaeological find in Norway since the Second World War."

What was Klemenskirken, and why the fuss?

Klemenskirken (The Church of St. Clement) is intertwined with the history, and foundation, of Trondheim. The church was said to have been one of the few buildings constructed by the first King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, when creating a new national capital in Nidaros (the medieval name for Trondheim) in approximately 997 CE. The church was burnt down in 1015 CE and rebuilt by another king, Olaf II Haraldsson, whose fame would see this church reach new heights.

Haraldsson was, of course, famous for not only being the King of Norway for 13 years (1015 – 1028 CE) but was also seen as a major driving force behind the Christianization of Norway from the 11th century onwards. Following his death at the Battle of Stiklestad, his body was secretly buried on the banks of the River Nidelva, just south of Trondheim today. 

However, a year after the battle, his body was dug up, and his grave was disturbed. Upon opening the coffin, according to Snorri Sturluson, (13th-century Icelandic man of letters and the father of Norse sagas) his body was incorrupt, with hairs and nails growing since his death. It looked, according to Sturluson, like he was sleeping. 

The coffin was moved to St. Clement's Church (Klemenskirke) – the same church that NIKU believed they had found on Søndre Gate. A cult of personality soon grew, and his body was then moved to Nidaros Cathedral to become an important medieval pilgrimage site up until the Protestant Reformation in 1537.

Haraldsson was granted the title of Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae (Eternal King of Norway) and canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1164 CE to become "Saint Olaf the Holy." He is now Norway's Patron Saint, and his legend and lore (he is the central character in his own saga, The Saga of Olaf Haraldsson) became a key component of a new national identity for the newly formed medieval Kingdom of Norway.

The original wooden church burnt down just as Haraldsson ascended to the throne in 1015 CE, and he ordered its reconstruction – this time in stone. However, the second fire in 1344 CE spelled the end of this church, and there is no mention of it after this event… until almost eight centuries later.

Archaeologists at work during the excavation in Søndre gate in Trondheim. Photo: NIKU

Events since the discovery

Trondheim, and the broader historical and archaeological communities nationwide, had been abuzz since the assumed discovery of the ruins of Klemenskirken. It is not every day that you find the ruins of a church that has a link not only to the foundation of a city, and indeed nation, but also to that nation's patron saint and ruler of great significance.

Since the discovery, a whole new industry (not unlike a new pilgrim route) has seemingly popped up around the discovery of Klemenskirken. Trondheim is already an important historical and tourist destination due to Nidaros Cathedral (where all Norwegian monarchs have been christened since the 11th century), and the discovery of Klemenskirken only increased the city's historical and cultural vibrancy. On the ground floor of the building, where the original construction of a commercial building sparked the whole find, a permanent exhibition has been in place since 2019.

Petersen and the NIKU team continued their excavations after the initial news of their discovery. By June 2017, they had documented four churches, which, in part, led to an additional grant of NOK 8 million by the National Antiquities Authority. By the end of 2017, the team had finished their excavations, and all that was left to do was a sober and serious analysis of what they found.

A summer of discontent?

A bombshell was waiting to explode in June 2021. A report, complete with scientific findings and analysis of the ruins excavated by Petersen and the NIKU team, was finally published. In an email response to The Viking Herald, Kristin Bakken, CEO of NIKU, had this to say about what evidence gave credence to the hypothesis that these ruins, under Søndre Gate, were that of Klemenskirken. Bakken said that,

"All the dating analyses that we took in the active phase of the excavation supported our hypothesis that this probably is the Klemens church mentioned in the sagas. A group of experts appointed as consultants throughout the dig agreed with us. On this basis, the character of the finds, the five consecutive churches built on top of the other, and the results we got dating the first material (wooden corner posts) on dendrochronological grounds – the find was labeled the 'Klemens church.'"

Yet there had been speculation, especially since Crown Prince Haakon officially opened the exhibition on Klemenskirke in May 2019, that the ruins of Klemenskirke were not, in fact, the ruins of Klemenskirke

Bakken noted, "any excavation as large as this has a long tail of analyses, cataloging, and writing of reports. During this phase, new analyses were ordered that dated material under the oldest church remains. And to our great surprise - and I must say bewilderment – some of that material was dated by C14-methods to be younger than the material on top of it - thus undermining the Klemens church hypothesis."

In other words, though some materials found could be dated from when Olaf Haraldsson lived, the majority of the material was dated to 1060 CE. – after the death of Haraldsson. It appears that the NIKU team, of which Petersén held ultimate responsibility as project manager, had jumped the gun when it came to announcing that they had found what appeared to be the ruins of St. Olaf's Klemenskirke.

The church ruins and the excavation area in early March 2017. Photo: NIKU

Another church scandal?

The authenticity of the ruins of Klemenskirke is, perhaps, one of the biggest scandals to rock the historical and archaeological communities in Norway. Some have asked why the team was so quick to jump the gun and announce that they (more or less) had found the ruins of the fabled Klemenskirke

Others asked how a permanent exhibition – opened by royalty – could have been allowed to be constructed before the final report of the archaeological excavations had been published. Bakken noted to The Viking Herald that the exhibition was under the auspices of Riksantikvaren and NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, but one assumes that it must be changed to reflect the new paradigm.

Petersén, however, remained bullish and hit back at critics in her recent article. She said that she had been open and transparent throughout the entire process and had been in constant contact with the media when new information surfaced. 

Ultimately, she said, it is the very nature of scientific research that hypotheses can change and be found ultimately lacking.

So where is Klemenskirken?

There is now a serious debate about whether the now seemingly premature announcement of the ruins of a medieval church found in central Trondheim were that of the Klemenskirke was a responsible course of action. Despite this, however, there is still the nagging mystery of where the ruins of Klemenskirke may be.

Upon the new findings, Bakken was asked whether NIKU had any other indications as to the actual location of St. Olaf's Klemenskirke, to which she replied, 

"The location that we now have, is actually a very good match with the saga's Klemens church, and no other medieval church is named in the saga texts as an alternative candidate. Trondheim medieval town is a comparatively small area, and some of it has over the years been excavated whenever a building project is initiated. But most of the medieval ground is not yet examined; it is covered by the modern town's streets and buildings. So any other hypothesis of location is difficult to have tested against actual finds."

It seems the mystery of the location of St. Olaf's Klemenskirke, like the recent scandal, is bound to continue for some time yet.

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