Research Article: Three individuals, three stories, three burials from medieval Trondheim, Norway

Date Published: July 3, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Stian Suppersberger Hamre, Geir Atle Ersland, Valérie Daux, Walther Parson, Caroline Wilkinson, Peter F. Biehl.


This article presents the life stories of three individuals who lived in Trondheim, Norway, during the 13th century. Based on skeletal examinations, facial reconstructions, genetic analyses, and stable oxygen isotope analyses, the birthplace, mobility, ancestry, pathology, and physical appearance of these people are presented. The stories are discussed within the relevant historical context. These three people would have been ordinary citizens, without any privileges out of the ordinary, which makes them quite rare in the academic literature. Through the study of individuals one gets a unique look into the Norwegian medieval society.

Partial Text

This article will tell the stories of three individuals who ended their lives in medieval Trondheim, Norway. They may have been contemporaries, they may have known each other, or they may have been completely oblivious to each other’s existence. What is for certain is that these three people were buried in the same graveyard in Trondheim [called Nidaros at the time but will only be referred to as Trondheim throughout this paper) during the period between 1175 and 1275 [1]. However, according to analyses of their skeletal remains, their life stories were rather different. Not only will this article present the stories of three people who died around 800 years ago, but these individuals’ stories will also provide new information about medieval society in Trondheim as well as society outside this town and further afield.

The remains of these people were recovered from the Library site in Trondheim which was excavated during 1984 and 1985 [7]. There is some uncertainty with regard to which church the Library site graveyard belonged to. It was believed that the church at this site was the St. Olav’s church, but this has been challenged [8, 9] and at present there is no agreement as to the name of this church. What is known, however, is that this church dates to the early 12th century and that it became part of a Franciscan monastery in the late 13th century [8]. From this, it can be assumed that this was not a monastic church before this point, and that at the time the individuals in question were buried it is likely to have been a parish church. The Library site church was centrally located within the densely-built area of medieval Trondheim and was one of 14 contemporary churches within the borders of the town’s jurisdiction.

All three individuals have been subjected to stable oxygen isotope analysis (δ18O) of the enamel on the first and the third molars as well as ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis. The skeletal remains of these people have also been examined anthropologically to determine sex, to estimate age at death and living stature, and to establish their accessible history of disease and trauma. Radiographs were taken of the tibiae to look for Harris lines to assess possible episodes of stunted growth (for a discussion of Harris lines, see: e.g. [10–13]), and the cranium of one of the individuals was also radiographed due to suspected porotic hyperostosis (for discussion of porotic hyperostosis, see: e.g. [11, 14, 15]).

The three life stories outlined above give an insight into the diversity of Norwegian medieval society. The three individuals were all of average social status and, although they were not chosen completely at random, they represent normal members of society and their stories will not have been unique. As shown by Hamre and Daux [5], the medieval population in Trondheim was a mobile one and consisted of people of varied geographic origins. The three individuals presented in this article represent this population and give an insight into individual lives in one of the major towns in medieval Norway. They are representatives of a rather heterogeneous population. This is not surprising as it is well known that these towns were urban environments. As the seat of an archdiocese, Trondheim was one of the metropoles of the papal church and was a nodal point on long distant routes. People travelled along these routes for a variety of reasons, some for shorter distances, others through larger stretches of Europe. The town would have attracted people from surrounding areas seeking work, as well as tradespeople and skilled craftsmen. Trondheim was also a popular destination for pilgrims coming to visit the shrine of St. Olav. From early on, the medieval towns in Norway became places where people with different cultural backgrounds, different customs and different languages lived together. The heterogeneity seen in modern Norwegian cities can be traced back to the early medieval towns; urban environments which have developed into present-day societies.




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