The results paint a more precise picture of what Stavanger looked like in the Viking Age - before the Cathedral was built, in the 12th century.

The report summarizing the 2021 excavation findings was published in early September. Some of the most interesting findings from the excavation that took place at the Stavanger Cathedral are linked to the period before the construction of the building.

Experts find the discoveries of two pit houses, small houses where the floor is buried below ground level, from the late Viking Age to be quite interesting.

In the rest of Scandinavia, pit houses are linked to specialized crafts, especially textile and metal work. In connection with the pit houses in the Cathedral, archaeologists found remains of comb-making and bronze casting activities. 

Bronze was used to make finer objects such as suit buckles, jewelry, fittings, and the like.

The Viking Herald reached out to archaeologist Halldis Hobæk, who led the NIKU's and the Archaeological Museum (UiS) work related to the excavation in Stavanger Cathedral in 2021, to find out the key details of the analysis.

Archaeologist Halldis Hobæk led the excavation work at Stavanger Cathedral in 2021. Photo: NIKU

TVH: To sum it up, what was Stavanger like in the Viking Age?

HH: One must bear in mind that Stavanger is less well known archaeologically than other medieval towns in Norway due to relatively few excavations and extensive removal of the urban deposits before the era of systematic archaeological investigations. So, a description of Stavanger in the Viking Age, as well as the Medieval period, must build largely on fragmentary evidence. 

Earlier investigations have found evidence for agriculture in the area in the late Iron Age and earlier, and a (relatively) recent review of the archaeological material then known from Stavanger suggested that the site was a center for specialized craft production and trade/exchange in the Viking Age. 

The investigations we undertook in the nave of Stavanger Cathedral in 2021 substantiate and add to the picture known from earlier research: We found the physical remains of agriculture (i.e., traces of the fields, with cultivation layers and ard marks) and activity/habitation from the period c. 570-1000 AD. 

We also found traces of a different type of activity/structures from c. 900 AD and on to the building of the cathedral, most notably two structures interpreted as pit houses and traces of specialized craft production – here, bronze casting and production of combs and other items in bone/horn. These types of craft, together with the occurrence of pit houses, are associated with central places of regional importance in southern Scandinavian sites.

So, to sum up: At the beginning of the Viking Age, there was a farm settlement in Stavanger. As the period progressed, another type of activity was established, and Stavanger grew into a center for craft and trade/exchange – a center that may have been of regional importance in the Viking Age.

TVH: In your expert opinion, what are the most interesting findings from the excavation?

HH: To me, the most interesting finds are the two pit houses and traces of craft production, and new information about the Cathedral itself (see below). 

The pit houses and the traces of crafts add substantial information to our picture of Stavanger in the centuries preceding the Cathedral. They are a reminder of why it is so important to conduct archaeological investigations – even if the material is fragmented and limited in the number of finds, as here, it can give us valuable insights.

One of the two pit houses from the Viking Age. Photo: NIKU

TVH: What are the key findings related to the Cathedral that emerged from the excavation?

HH: We found deep, long foundations connecting the pillars of the nave, as well as a smaller foundation of unknown function and a stone-built grave from the earliest phase of the church. These features were previously unknown. 

The investigations in 2021 also concluded a long debate on whether or not the Romanesque cathedral had a crypt: According to the investigations in 2021, it did not. 

I also have to mention a large body of material that we collected but did not investigate further, e.g., pieces of grave slabs, medieval building stones, some of which have well-preserved layers of mortar, and on some, there are possible traces of murals. 

This material is stored in the collections at the Museum of Archaeology in Stavanger and has great potential for future research on the Cathedral.

TVH: Are there any plans for further research in relation to the Stavanger Cathedral?

HH: The investigations in 2021 were initiated by the restoration works on the Cathedral before the 950-year jubilee in 2025, and these works are not planned to entail more excavations inside the Cathedral. 

However, the research project Future Pasts at the Museum of Archaeology in Stavanger plans to carry out a small excavation outside the Cathedral for research purposes. More information is available here.

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