Written by Philip Wood, Kristoffer Brink, Anna Petersèn, Ingeborg Sæhle and Nina Valstrand
The excavation at Søndre gate in Trondheim city centre have revealed a complex sequence of archaeology; late Viking-Age urban development, which was replaced by a unique series of medieval church buildings.
Five incarnations of St Clement’s Church were found, each constructed on the demolished or burnt remains of its predecessor. All were built of timber, and the sequence of church buildings occupied the site from the early 11th to the 14th centuries. A total of 289 graves were also excavated from its cemetery.
The first church was dated by dendrochronology to AD c.1010-1020, after the site had been cleared of existing houses and workshops. The church is believed to be the oldest excavated urban church in Norway and one of the earliest churches in Scandinavia.
The Cult of St. Olaf
This date identifies it as most probably St. Clement’s (Klemenskirke), the only known church in the town at this time. Icelandic sagas state it was built by king Olaf Haraldsson (AD c.1015-28), and was where his body was first venerated as St. Olaf.
The focus of the cult soon became the cathedral, Nidarosdomen. However, St. Clement’s Church was built on the orders of the saint himself and was the place where his cult began. The repeated use of timber indicates it was remembered as special in his story, and deliberately rebuilt in this distinctive fashion, even in the 13th and 14th centuries, when new urban churches were of stone.
A Copy of Itself
This is not a curious survival in the middle ages of an urban, timber church. The choice of timber each time it was rebuilt was deliberate. Each church building also consciously retained features of its predecessor, for example chancel width or a square altar shape, but the most important of these was its wooden construction.
Each new timber church was a copy of its predecessor, and therefore of the original St. Clement’s Church. The primary factor was that each was the church built by St. Olaf and where his body was first honoured. The exact method of construction, such as stave church or posthole church, was of secondary importance. The authenticity was achieved by using the material of the first church.
Church A – Early 11th century
The church was a posthole church (stolpekirke), using corner posts with horizontal sill beams resting on a line of stones. The western-most post may have been a mid-post, making the church 13½m long.
Church B – 12th century
The second phase was probably built in the 12th century. It was a true stave church, the whole wooden structure resting on large foundation stones. This second building burnt down, but the burnt debris was cleared away and the foundations were covered in layers of sand.
Church C – built in the 1220s
The timbers of this church were dendro-dated to AD 1220-1221. It appeared to be another posthole church, but with a very great number of posts in the nave.
The larger posts lie along the outer walls and the centreline. These were the main supports for the structure and the smaller posts between them supported the floor. This arrangement is known from contemporary excavated buildings in Trondheim.
Church D – late 13th or early 14th century
The fourth church was another stave church. Its predecessor appears to have been deliberately dismantled in order to construct this new, larger building.
Little walling survived, but the chancel appears to have been extended in length, which is seen in stone churches at this time. Church D also burnt down.
Church E – 14th century
The final church was a small, chapel-like structure, only c.4m square in size. This building was in use probably until the mid-14th century after which the site became a rubbish dump.
Baptismal font from AD c.1000
Fragments of a soapstone baptismal font were used as packing around the posts of Church A, indicating another, even earlier church in the town. The font predates other known fonts in Scandinavia by at least a century. The objects had all been burnt. Some fragments showed that the font had been broken up before it was burnt suggesting deliberate desecration.
Read more about the St Clement-project here