Urban Origins: Archaeologies of urbanisation and urban life in early medieval Norway

What can archaeology tell us about Norway’s earliest towns and how urban life developed?

Since the 1970s, major archaeological excavations in Norway’s medieval towns – most notably Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo and Tønsberg – have produced a large volume and variety of well-preserved material remains of medieval urban life, ranging from buildings and streets to all manner of objects used in daily life. This material can provide fresh perspectives on the reasons why these unique forms of human cohabitation emerged where they did, and how the people that congregated in these new social environments lived their lives.

Researching urbanisation processes

The project adopts both a long-term perspective, examining the roots of early urbanisation in the use of the landscape by pre-existing Iron Age communities, and a selective focus on particular early urban practices. Did the processes and material outcomes of urbanisation constitute a significant break with existing social networks and practices, or can we trace continuities between the Iron Age agrarian settlement and the towns? What can particular materialities of practice, such as those associated with building in timber, human burial, and interdependent networks of power, for example, tell us about the emergence and development of a distinctively urban way of life?

Using material from Trondheim and Bergen, the project’s main aim is to generate new knowledge about the social processes, networks and practices involved in early urbanisation, and, by using new material, analytical methods and theoretical approaches, to offer new insights into this global phenomenon from a Norwegian perspective.

Work packages

Work package 1:

From farm to town: Materialities of social practice during the rural-urban transition

The work package will explore the reasons behind early urbanisation in Trondheim and Bergen in a long-term perspective by examining the nature of settlement in these places during the Iron Age. What were these places before the towns, and what activities took place here? Did urbanisation constitute a significant break with older social networks and practices, or can we trace continuities between the rural communities and the oldest urban centres? Archaeological and toponymic sources and approaches will be used to take a closer look at the content and organisation of the physical and social landscape during the transition from the Iron Age to the early medieval period. This long-term perspective is important for our understanding of the change from a “pre-urban” to an “urban” way of life.

Emphasis is placed on the relationship between the new urban centres and older nearby central places; specifically, Nidaros/Lade and Bergen/Årstad. The aim is to bridge the traditional distinction between research into the central places of the Iron Age and the medieval towns, as well as to produce new knowledge about the places in question.

Work package 2:

Building practices in early Trondheim: Secular timber architecture and the urban economy

A new architectural form – the cross-timber building – is closely linked to the establishment and growth of urban environments in northern Scandinavia from the end of the 10th century. This new building tradition required access to large quantities of timber and skilled craftsmen.

The work package aims to examine timber buildings and their use of resources as indicators of the extent of socioeconomic investments in early Trondheim’s buildings and the prosperity of the city’s inhabitants.

What did this new “urban” building practice require in the form of investment in natural and human resources? Archaeologically documented building remains will be used to explore technical and socio-economic aspects of the introduction and development of this new construction technique. The aim is to develop a model of the values – both human and economic – that are represented in the urban built-up area. This will be undertaken by estimating the quantities of buildings, their sizes, technical standards and spatial organisation, as well as examining the amount of labour, proficiency of craftsmanship and types and volume of timber used.

Work package 3:

Burials, beliefs and social practice in early medieval Trondheim and Bergen

Graves and burial customs are important sources of information about ritual practices and social organisation, as well as aspects of identity, mobility, demographics, and social and economic status. Following Christianity’s introduction into Norway, burial practices became more homogeneous, with less elaborate and differentiated material expressions of social rank. However, variations occur which can provide insight into broader social, cultural and religious changes.

The work package will explore societal changes in the transition to the new faith and the new urban way of life in early Bergen and Trondheim. Can we discern new and distinctive “urban” social practices in burials found in early Christian cemeteries in these towns?

Excavated archaeological and human osteological material will be combined to identify spatial, material and bodily manifestations of social practices. The material will be examined on several contextual levels; namely, the cemetery, the grave and the body. This is done to highlight the complexity of practices related to death and burial, and their entanglement with belief systems and social practices in a new social environment. The study thus emphasises the importance of relating burials closely to their social, spatial, and chronological contexts in order to identify the small variations in burial practices that may be linked to new «urban» practices.

Work package 4:

Materialities of power and authority in Trondheim’s early urban landscape

The emergence of the Norwegian medieval towns is usually attributed to a “top-down” centralisation carried out by the monarchy and the church. The spatial organisation of the towns from the 11th century on can be interpreted as a ‘territorialisation’ or ‘materialisation’ of the discourses, ideologies and practices of secular and religious authorities, and a transition from personal to formalised networks of power. What power-related networks and practices existed in early Trondheim until about 1150, and how did they contribute to the organisation of urban topography and collective urban life? To answer this, spatial organisation, structural remains and material culture will be investigated in two different urban environments.

One of these is the segregated power centre that emerged to the south of the urban built-up area where Nidaros Cathedral stands today. Here, an area that was originally part of a Viking Age farm was taken over and occupied by royal and ecclesiastical institutions; namely, Harald Hardråde’s royal estate, the bishop’s palace, and the subsequent archbishop’s palace.

In addition, the spatial organisation of the oldest part of the town will be examined. There seems to be a strong correlation between deliberate land reclamation and existing urban plots here from early on, and questions about why land was reclaimed and who reclaimed it will be central to the research. To what extent can we perceive land reclamation as an urban development strategy closely related to new power networks in the emerging urban community?

Chris McLees


Want to know more? Contact project leader Chris McLees


Project participants