After discovering a stone structure over the remains of the Elgeseter Priory, NIKU archeologists decided to examine it to determine if it could be the final resting place of the famous Viking king Harald Hardrada, as written sources mention that Hardrade was buried in the priory church. 

As the NIKU points out, he died in the Battle of Stamford Bridge at York in 1066, he was initially buried in St Mary's Church in Trondheim, but later his remains were transferred to Elgeseter Priory, which burned in 1564. Today, there are no visible ruins of the buildings.

In 2019, archeologist and project manager Chris McLees led the Trondheim excavations. The Viking Herald reached out to him to see whether further research was able to reveal more details on the mysterious stone structure.

TVH: In 2019, it was announced that archeologists located what appeared to be a burial chamber underneath the pavement in a residential area of Trondheim, Norway. Has any new information been revealed since?

CM: Excavations revealed the wall foundations of the priory church and a number of graves, both inside the church and in the graveyard to the east. The "burial chamber" – or rather stone-lined grave - was merely a tentative working hypothesis regarding the interpretation of a partly revealed stone structure we encountered in the first phase of the dig. We got permission to investigate this further, and it turned out to be part of a larger stone foundation, probably for a pillar at the chancel-nave crossing.

TVH: One of the hypotheses at the time was that the find could be the last resting place of the Viking king Harald Hardrade. Has further analysis strengthened this hypothesis?

CM: Historical evidence – a reference in Ágrip – suggests that Harald's remains were moved to the priory church from their original resting place in his own church of St. Mary's in the town of Trondheim (Nidaros) when it was demolished at the end of the 12th century. There is no reason to dispute this on the basis of our findings. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to ever prove it by finding his remains, as the priory church ruin has been severely damaged and depleted by plundering for stone in post-medieval times. If his remains were reinterred in one of the chancel walls, as was the custom for royal burials, it is unlikely that they survived the ruin's demolition.   

TVH: Have any other interesting details been uncovered about the stone structure? 

CM: As stated, the "chamber" turned out to be a possible pillar foundation. Burials were found inside the church, but none could be equated with a royal burial. The project ended in 2019. 

A report on the project set forward several findings.

Project findings

According to the report, the 2019 investigation was carried out in connection with the upgrading of Klostergata and the replacement of technical infrastructure. This impinged on the protected site of Elgeseter Priory and required archaeological monitoring of machine digging of a number of deep holes. Archaeological traces that can be divided into 5 "periods" were documented. 

During the 1st century AD, the area was buried under a thick body of landslide clay. Only scattered Iron Age settlement traces were recorded above this. The most extensive remains belong to the "monastic period," dating from the 12th century to the Reformation, including traces of the priory church and graveyard, and deposits and small structures to the west of the monastic enclosure associated with various activities (cultivation, animal husbandry, waste disposal, and stonemasonry). 

Parts of the church's stone foundations were revealed under demolition layers left by plundering for building material in post-Reformation times. At least two building phases were identified, suggesting that a smaller older church was replaced by a larger church building with a different ground plan for which a tentative reconstruction has been advanced, i.e., a broad nave and narrower chancel with side buildings/chapels and a possible tower at the transition between chancel and nave. This plan has little in common with that recorded by Gerhard Schøning in 1773. 

In addition, 20 graves were documented inside the church and in the graveyard to the east. Small finds consisted mainly of fragmentary masonry and architectural profiles, bricks, and floor tiles. Botanical analyses suggest that cereals, vegetables, and other plants were cultivated near the medieval priory.

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