The importance of being Urnes

The Urnes Stave Church, by I. C. Dahl

Dendrodating indicates that part of Urnes Stave Church, which was estimated built before 1100, was constructed using timber from 1069 and 1070. The slightly younger part of Urnes is dated to 1129-1130.

For the sake of clarity: dendrochronology can date the year a tree was felled for the stave churches. The likelihood is that the felling year was also when the construction began.

Recently I’ve given a couple lectures about the conversion of Norway to the Christian faith. In those lectures I argue for a “revisionist” view (based on the arguments of Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli) that questions the traditional narrative, which credits two violent 11th Century missionary kings with the conversion. The view I’ve adopted holds that the conversion was a gradual, centuries-long process, and mostly a peaceful one. Much of the credit for that process arguably belongs to the 10th Century king Haakon the Good, whom the sagas tend to dismiss as a missionary failure.

That view gained a little credibility recently, when results of new research on the famous Norwegian stave churches was released by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. New findings push the dates for some of the oldest stave churches back several decades. As stated above, wood in the Urnes stave church, previously dated to just before 1100, has now been re-dated to about 1069. That’s three years after King Harald Hardrada died – within spitting distance of the Viking era.

As you can see in the drawing above by artist I. C. Dahl, the Urnes church is far from the most beautiful of the stave churches – a fair amount of remodeling has gotten done on it over time, smoothing out some of the distinctive features. But the wall panel you can see has caused the “Urnes” name to be given to a whole era of Viking art – an elegant fusion of Norse and Celtic styles which I consider delightful.

Dendochronology has been an important and invaluable scientific tool for archaeologists for a while now. By identifying patterns in tree rings (a little like fingerprints) they’re able to date ancient wood to the exact year when the tree was cut. But to make dendochronological comparisons, you need to either be able to examine the end of the log, or to do a bore sample – and obviously nobody wants to drill a sample hole in a stave church pillar. The new technology of Photodendrometry allows scientists to examine the rings without destruction to the material – and to do it more accurately.

You can count on me to keep you updated on advances in Viking scholarship – whenever they confirm my own prejudices.

2 thoughts on “The importance of being Urnes”

  1. What is the source text for Bishop Birkeli’s “revisionist” view? Is it available in English? Norwegian civilization, as I have read, was very significantly influenced by those persons who where brought back from the Viking raids and merchantile trading gatherings. This was a long process that is hard to quantify chronologically.

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