Art and photos © Preben Rønne
Original text © Aftenposten
Original text © Aftenposten
|How the temple may have originally looked – with sacrificial altar|
on right, pole-building at center and processional road on left
UNMATCHED HEATHEN SHRINE FOUND
Now one of them, in its time deliberately and carefully hidden, is rediscovered – the first of its kind in Norway.
The temple – which last year was identified as a near-complete construction in the city of Ranheim in South Trøndelag, approximately 10 km north of Trondheim – was discovered by accident in connection with plans for construction of homes.
The pagan sanctuary survived because the last people who used it, over 1,000 years ago, did their utmost to hide the entire system with an unusually thick layer of soil – so thick that plows never reached deep enough to destroy it. There were a few drainage ditches originally dug through the area, but it was not known what lay to the right and left of the trenches.
“The discovery is unique in a Norwegian context, the first ever made in our latitudes,” says Preben Rønne of the Science Museum at the University of Trondheim, who led the excavations.
The temple may have been built sometime around or after the year 400 CE and thus been used for hundreds of years, until the people emigrated to avoid Christianity’s straitjacket. It consisted of a stone-set “sacrificial altar” and also traces of a pole-building that probably housed idols in the form of logs with carved faces of Thor, Odin, Frey and Freya. Deceased relatives of high rank were also portrayed in this way and worshiped. Nearby, by the archaeologists also uncovered a procession route.
Thanks to the soil, the temple was very well-preserved. The “altar” where the gods were worshiped – including through animal sacrifice – consisted of a circular stone setting around 15 meters in diameter and nearly a meter high. The pole-building a few meters away was rectangular, had a 5.3-by-4.5 meter floor plan, and was erected with 12 pillars – each having a strong stone foundation. It may have been a tall building, and the findings made very clear that it was not used as a dwelling. Among other things, it had no fireplace. Inside the building were found traces of four pillars that may be evidence of a high seat where the idols stood between ceremonies. A processional road west of the temple – and headed straight towards the pole-building – was marked with two parallel rows of large stones, the longest series at least 25 feet long.
STRANGE BURIAL MOUND
When archaeologists began excavation work last year, the site was thought at first to be a flat burial mound with a main grave and one or more secondary graves.
“But as we dug, the stone cairn appeared more and more peculiar,” says Rønne.
“Approximately in the middle of the excavation, we had to admit that it was not a burial mound, but a sacrificial altar – in the Norse sources called a horg. It was made up of both round domed rocks and stone slabs. During the work, we found two glass beads – and also some burned bones and traces of a wooden box that had been filled with red-brown sand/gravel and a broken cooking stone. Among the bones, we found part of a skull and several human teeth. However, we found no ‘gold old men’ – small human figures of thin gold – which were often used in connection with sacrifices.”
“Probably the people who used the temple were among those who chose to emigrate, either to Iceland or other North Atlantic islands,” said Rønne. “Posts from the pole-building were, in fact, pulled up and removed. The whole ‘altar’ was carefully covered with earth and clay precisely during the transition to Christian times. Therefore, the cult site was completely forgotten.”
UNIQUE IN NORWAY
Large pre-Christian cult sites in Scandinavia – often large settlements with a large central hall and a smaller attached building – have not been found in Norway. However, they have been found in Central and Southern Sweden (Skåne), and also in eastern Denmark.
“Under the sacrificial altar, we found a fire pit that actually lay directly on the prehistoric plow-layer. The charcoal from this tomb is now dated to 500-400 BCE. Thus, the site may have been regarded as sacred – or at least had a special status – long before the stone altar was built. In the prehistoric plow-layer under the fire pit, we could clearly see the traces of plowing with a plow or plow-precursor,” said Rønne.
|The temple site before excavation, in the shape of a circular|
stone setting with an opening in the middle of the cleared area.
Embankments behind show the thick layers of soil that were
once laid over the temple to hide it.
“Indications are that the people who deliberately covered up the temple in Ranheim took the posts from the pole-building – in addition to soil from the altar – to the place where they settled down and raised a new temple. Because our findings and the Norse sources work well together, the sources may be more reliable than many scientists believed,” said Rønne.
Now the unique Ranheim shrine will be removed forever to make way for housing. Not all agree.
“The facility will be a great tourist attraction, if it is simultaneously disclosed what happened on the site. It is unique in Norway, says civil engineer Arvid Ystad, who has – on private initiative – applied to both the Directorate for Cultural Heritage and the Society for the Preservation Norwegian Ancient Monuments for site conservation.
“The location of the homes could easily be adapted to this unique cultural heritage, without anyone losing their residential lots. It could have been an attraction for new residents and tell them much about the history of the site from over 1,000 years ago. Unfortunately, housing construction is now underway,” said Rønne.