Urnes Church in Norway. Source: Wikipedia/Concierge2C

Norwegian Stave Churches older than expected

Norway is known for its 28 magnificent stave churches from the 12th – 13th century. New technique provides new and earlier dating of these precious medieval monuments

The Portal from Urnes Church in Norway. Source: Flickr/Guttorm Flatabø
The Portal from Urnes Church in Norway. Source: Flickr/Guttorm Flatabø

Dendrochronology is carried out by measuring and comparing the growth profiles of the trees, from which given samples of wood have been sourced. As three-rings vary according to temperature and humidity such profiles help to date when a tree might be felled; especially, if the tree bark has been preserved indicating the year when the three was felled.

Previously, dendrochronology involved boring a hole and extracting a core sample. Next step would be to measure the annual growth of the tree from which the wood had been sourced and compare the growth-profile to other trees. Based on this archaeologists have published numerous series of trees by counting backwards. Currently, the maximum span for a fully anchored chronology is a little over 11,000 years BC.

The new technique, however, bypasses the drilling by assembling photos on the spot. The method has the advantage of avoiding the invasive techniques of yesteryear. Also, archaeologists can now assemble numerous photos, thus being able to date a larger artefact or building more precisely. One major result is the ability to distinguish between the original fabric and later reparations.

For the last decade, archaeologists and antiquarians have worked to restore, preserve and document these marvellous buildings. As part of this project, a thorough photo-dendrochronology on some of these churches has been carried out since 2016.

Thus, the Stave Church in Kaupanger, which was assumed to have been built ca. 1170-1200, has now been precisely dated to the period 1137-1138. Also, the Stave Church at Gol has been dated to 1204- 05. In the same manner, the churches at Hoppestad and Borgund have been dated to respectively 1131-32 and 1180-1181.

Particular interest has focused on Urnes Stave Church, long considered to be the oldest. It now appears that this particular church – long thought to be dated to 1129-1130 – has now was built between 1069-1070; with repairs carried out between 1129-30.

Obviously, this has a major impact on our understanding of the adoption of Christianity in Norway in the 11th century. Earlier excavations have revealed the remains of two or three churches or buildings prior to the current building. With a nearly square nave and a square choir, the first diminutive church was later expanded, probably reusing some of the carvings from the first church. Three coins found in connection with these excavations have been dated to the reigns of Hardecnutr, 1035 -45 and Harald Hardrada 1046-1066.

Undoubtedly, the new dates will also provide valuable new information about the art style named after the decorations in the church, commonly known as Urnes Style. Hence, it is sure to shed new light on the art history of Norway in the late Viking period. The centrepiece of this ornamentation is the portal. Either depicting a stylized lion biting a curling snake or just stylized animals, the decoration points back to both pagan and Christian mythological and symbolical motives.

Exactly what the new date will mean for our understanding of the motives depicted in the famous portal and in the church, will surely be debated by the archaeologists and art historians.

The work has been carried out by Terje Thun and Helene Løvstrand Svarva


Urnes Church in Norway. Source: Wikipedia/Concierge2C


Stavkirker i Norge er eldre  enn antatt
By Nina Tveter and Kjersti Lunden Nilsen
Gemini.no 31.10.2019