Saturday, December 10, 2016

Norwegian Archaeologists Have Found the Shrine of a Miracle-Making Viking King

Ancient Origins

Archaeologists think they have found a shrine dedicated to the Viking king Olaf Haraldsson in the ruins of a church in Trondheim, Norway. The team of archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) have discovered the foundations of the church where King Olaf II is believed to have been buried after he was canonized.

The foundations of a church where Viking King Olaf Haraldsson’s body may have been enshrined after he was declared a saint. (Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU))

The King that Became a Saint
Olaf II Haraldsson, also called "the Fat" or "the Stout" during his lifetime, was born in 995 (the year in which Olaf Tryggvessön arrived in Norway.) After fighting the Danes in England, Olaf Haraldsson returned to Norway in 1015 and declared himself king. He obtained the support of the five petty kings of the Uplands. He was the King of Norway from 1016-1029.

The king was posthumously given the title Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae (Eternal King of Norway) and was canonized in Trondheim by Bishop Grimkell one year after his death in the Battle of Stiklestad on July 29, 1030. He is also a canonized as a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church and is one of the very few famous Western saints before the Great Schism between the Eastern Church and the Western Church in 1054. The pope confirmed St. Olaf's canonization as a saint in 1164.

However, many contemporary historians consider that King Olaf II was inclined to violence and brutality, and they accuse earlier scholars of neglecting this side of his character. Especially during the period of Romantic Nationalism, Olaf was a symbol of national independence and pride. Regardless of the controversy between scholars and historians about Olaf’s personality, the fact remains that he was the last Western saint accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church and an important figure in Norwegian history.

Statue of St. Olaf (Olav) in Austevoll Church. (Nina Aldin Thune/CC BY SA 2.5)

The Church Where Olaf Haraldsson was Enshrined as a Saint Olaf Haraldsson was buried in Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) and very quickly stories sprang up of miraculous occurrences at his grave site. For this reason, his body was transferred to a location of honor above the high altar of St. Clement’s church - a wood stave church which Olaf had built a few years before his death.

However, his body was returned to Nidaros some decades later, this time in a bigger and more glamorous site that could accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims dedicated to the cult of Saint Olaf. With the passage of time, St. Clement’s was destroyed and its location forgotten.

The death of King Olaf. (Public Domain)

Fast forward to 2016, when NIKU announced on November 11 that its team of researchers had discovered the foundations of a wooden church where the body of the Viking king may have been enshrined after he was declared a saint. The discovery was made during an excavation on Søndre Gate Street in Trondheim. Preliminary dating indicates the structure was built in the 11th century.

During the excavation, the archaeologists uncovered a small rectangular stone-built platform at the building’s east end. This is probably the foundation for an altar, and it may be the very same site where St. Olaf’s coffin was placed in 1031. A small well was also found which researchers believe could be a holy well associated with the saint.

The excavation’s director Anna Petersén concluded, “This is a unique site in Norwegian history in terms of religion, culture and politics. Much of the Norwegian national identity has been established on the cult of sainthood surrounding St. Olaf, and it was here it all began!”

The slab which archaeologists believe may have been the base of the altar where King Olaf Haraldsson’s coffin was laid. (NIKU)

 Top Image: A depiction of King Olaf Haraldsson from the Trondheim cathedral. Source: Public Domain

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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