Buried below a parking lot: 1,500-year-old Norwegian village revealed

Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum Ingrid Ystgaard holds a shard of a glass beaker imported from the Rhine area.

Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum
Ingrid Ystgaard holds a shard of a glass beaker imported from the Rhine area.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

A friend sent me an article about the discovery of a 1,500-year-old Norwegian village that was found by fluke when workers were expanding a parking lot in Norway’s Ørland Airport. It was a great story, so I did what most 21st-century people would do—I googled it. There were about six articles on the unearthing, all with mostly the same info. I saw a “Viking village” mentioned, which confused me as the Viking era is said to have begun in 793 with the first of the Norse raids into England.

I wanted to provide a little more depth and insight as the early articles tended to be brief when the discovery was so new. Since the story broke several months ago, I hoped more information would be available to the public now. So I went to the source—the Norwegian University of Science and Technology—the institution responsible for the archaeological dig at the site. I was able to interview Ingrid Ystgaard, project manager and archaeologist at the NTNU University Museum.

Victoria Hofmo: Articles written about this dig have identified it as a Viking find. I thought that the Viking era began in 793 with the invasion of England. So is identifying this find as a Viking-era village incorrect or are scientists broadening the parameters of when the Viking era began?

Ingrid Ystgaard: This is not a Viking site, you are quite right. The references to the Viking age are the work of eager journalists, not scientists. The occupation (a layer of remains left by a single culture, from which the culture can be dated or identified on the site) is mainly from the Pre-Roman and Roman Iron Age and the Migration Period (c. 500 B.C. – AD 500 A.D.).

VH: How do we get people as interested in pre-Viking times as they are in the Viking era?

IY: Good question. A good start would be through presentations of crafts, communications, and the complexity of the general lifestyle in the pre-Viking era, which are all very impressive.

VH: Why was this location so important to people of that time?

IY: Because of its strategic location at the meeting of two large routes of communication: the sea route along the Norwegian coast (the North Way) and the route to the internal parts of the landscape via the Trondheim fjord. A safe harbor was important because of weather and sea conditions.

VH: How many buildings were uncovered at this location and what were their purposes?

IY: In this season we uncovered 19 buildings. We are still interpreting their purposes, but we at least have a large house used for feasts and gatherings. There are also several storehouses and possibly houses for livestock as well as combined houses for people and livestock.

VH: Can you speak about the artifacts you uncovered and their significance?

IY: The artifacts give a very good image of daily life on the site with everything from lost ornaments such as glass and amber beads to equipment for daily life such as strike-a-lights, knives, and fish hooks to remains from meals.

Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum This blue glass bead was found during the Ørland Main Air Station dig.

Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum
This blue glass bead was found during the Ørland Main Air Station dig.

VH: What has been the most thrilling discovery from the site?

IY: The large house for feasts and gatherings that is 41-meters long and has several fireplaces along its central aisle.

VH: What has been the most perplexing discovery?

IY: The fact that people prepared seashells for food back in the Roman Iron Age.

VH: How will this site expand the knowledge of Norwegian people?

IY: Its most important contribution to the existing knowledge will be its information on the relation between settlement and harbor, as well as the insight it will give in terms of daily life with fisheries, livestock breeding, and farming.

Luckily, “Norwegian law requires a preliminary archaeological study of any construction site and additional follow-up if anything of significance is turned up,” writes Gemini, the magazine of NTNU. To date, NOK 41 million has been allocated for the dig. Twenty field workers have been assigned to the project and the construction project has been postponed for 40 weeks. Still, Ingrid and crew have their work cut out for them with such a large site to excavate within 40 weeks.

For a long time, archaeologists believed this area could yield historical treasures of past inhabitants because of its geography, which provided fertile soil and a protected bay (today it lies 1.7 kilometers from the water). What they didn’t expect was the well-preserved middens (garbage heaps). But because the soil is comprised of shell, which is unusual and also less acidic, less material disintegration has occurred.

The well-preserved middens hold many animal bones, which teach scientists about the diet of those who resided there as well as their domestication of animals. Also pleasant surprises were less practical finds such as a dark blue bead, amber beads, and one more exotic and precious artifact: a green drinking glass that is believed to have hailed from the Rhine Valley.

A drinking glass produced in the Rhine may not be so surprising when we put this place into its strategic importance in terms of trade. As explained by Ystgaard earlier, it is on the Trondheim fjord, which connected to the interior of the country as well as to Sweden. These objects also tell us that a complex society lived here.

So how unique is this find to Norway? As Ystgaard stated in Gemini, “Nothing like this has been examined anywhere in Norway before.”

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