The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) announced last month that its researchers had discovered the foundations of a wooden church where the body of King Olaf Haraldsson was taken immediately after he was declared a saint in 1031. St. Olaf, as he is now known, conquered and consolidated Norway in 1016 but held on to rule for a little more than a decade before his power was threatened by Canute I, king of Denmark and England.
Olaf died in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.
The Battle of Stiklestad is one of the most famous battles in the history of Norway. In this battle, King Olaf II of Norway (Old Norse: Óláfr Haraldsson) was killed. During the pontificate of Roland of Siena, the Roman Catholic Church decided to declare Olaf a saint in 1164.
His younger half-brother, Harald Hardrada, was also present at the battle. He became King of Norway in 1047, only to die in a failed invasion of England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Harald was only fifteen when the battle of Stiklestad took place.
The authenticity of the battle as a historical event is highly questionable. Contemporary sources say the king was simply murdered. According to the Anglosaxon Chronicle of 1043, Olaf II was killed by his own men while he slept. Adam of Bremen wrote in 1070 that Olaf II was killed in a simple ambush, and so did Florence of Worcester in 1100.
Those are the only contemporary sources that mention the death of the king. After the king’s canonization it was felt that the saint could not have died in what was seen as cowardly circumstances. Rather, Olaf II must have fallen in a major battle for Christianity. The mythical story of the Battle of Stiklestad as we know it gradually developed during the two centuries following the death of Olaf II.
Now, archaeologists say they’ve found a key location in the king’s posthumous journey from martyr to Norway’s patron saint.
Archaeologists working in Trondheim in Norway are amazed by the discovery of a human skeleton in the bottom of an abandoned castle well. The skeleton provides evidence that confirms dramatic historical events mentioned in the Sagas.
The location and contents of the well are mentioned in Sverre’s Saga, a chronicle of one of the kings of Norway, and one of very few historical manuscripts describing events in the Norwegian Viking age and medieval period.
Scholars have, as mentioned above, questioned the chronicle’s trustworthiness as a historical document. But now, at least one part of the saga seems to hold truth – down to the tiniest detail.
“This is truly astonishing. As far as I know there is no known example of the discovery of an individual historically connected with an act of war as far back as the year 1197. And the fact that this actually corroborates an event described in Sverre’s saga is simply amazing,” says the project leader at the site, Anna Helena Petersén.
Man left in castle well for 800 years
In 1197 King Sverre Sigurdsson and his Birkebeiner-mercenaries were attacked and defeated in his castle stronghold, Sverresborg, by his rivals, the Baglers. According to the Saga, the Baglers burned down buildings and destroyed the castle’s freshwater supply by throwing one of King Sverre’s dead men into the well, and then filling it with stones.
Now, following a trial excavation in the well, archaeologists can confirm this dramatic story. Archaeologists managed to retrieve part of the skeleton they found in the well in 2014. A fragment of bone produced a radiocarbon date that confirmed that the individual lived and died at the end of the 12th century, the same time as the incident described in the Saga.
Skeleton and well structure
The archaeologists from The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research have returned this year to conduct a full excavation of the well with the goal of removing the layers of dumped stone and ultimately the whole skeleton.
The excavation of the stone debris down to the very first stone that hit the Birkebeiner’s body has given the archaeologists additional insight into the nature of events in 1197. In addition, it exposed the timber posts and lining for the large castle well.
Image (model): A 3D model of the central excavations of the remains of St. Clement’s Church in Trondheim, Norway, as seen on Oct. 18. The stones are the foundation of the church, which has long been in ruins.
“This is a unique glimpse of an important historical event. You can almost feel it. It’s almost as if you were there,” enthuses Petersén.
The archaeologists at Sverresborg are being supported by a forensic specialist from the Trondheim police district, which adds to the feeling that we are witnesses to the result of a brutal crime.
The excavation is funded by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage.
Norwegian Viking Saga Confirmed, compiled by Tor Kjolberg. Source: The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU)