In connection with the restoration of the stave church in Kaupanger (1959-65), archaeological investigations were carried out in 1964 in the ground beneath the stave church, led by Kristian Bjerknes and Hans Emil Lidén. The excavations show a complex picture, with the discovery of two older churches before today’s stave church. All are probably built as stave churches, but with differences, both in size and construction technique. All buildings are also oriented east-west. This means that, together with the location and orientation of contemporary burials connected to the building, they are interpreted as churches.
The present stave church has been altered several times, both early in the 13th century, in the 17th century, the 1860s and most recently in 1959-65, which has left its mark on the stave church as it stands today.
The first church in Kaupanger
The first church in Kaupanger was quite small. If we compare it with, for example, the first church in Urnes, it is significantly smaller. While the nave in Urnes measured 6.5 x 5 meters (32.5 m2), the nave in the church in Kaupanger measured 4.2 x 5.5 meters (23 m2). Burials were also discovered in connection with the church. In contrast to the oldest stave church at Urnes, which had a pair of corner posts, a pair of wall posts and four internal posts that supported the walls and roof, only six pairs of wall posts were uncovered here. This also shows local variations in building customs, and that the construction of the stave churches may have been a time of much building technical experimentation. The excavation also shows that the posts were probably pulled up and have not rooted in the ground. This is interpreted to mean that the first church in Kaupanger was demolished while it was still in use.
It is not possible to date the church building directly, but a C-14 dating of a skeleton, linked to the church, indicates that the building must have been in use in the first half of the 11th century. Such a dating is indirectly supported by another C-14 dating of a prehistoric cultivation layer dated to 886-1013 AD possibly. The dating shows that farming may have ended in the transition to the 11th century, something which in that case is natural to link to the establishment of the churchyard and the first stave church.
Who built the first church in Kaupanger?
There have previously been evidence of a farmstead settlement in the area around the stave church. Later, several archaeological records were made which confirm and elaborate this picture. The oldest finds may be traces of cultivation dated to the transition to the Bronze Age. These dating rings are from the area that is now the new churchyard directly west of the stave church. Later, possible cultural layers, hearths and postholes were registered in this area. There are also indications that in the past there were several burial mounds on the farm. Among other things, as early as 1834 a remnants was handed in which probably originates from a plowed-up grave. The stray – discovery is in itself evidence of activities connected to a farmstead settlement in the Younger Iron Age in the infield of Kaupanger Hovedgård. The archaeological traces thus indicate that there has been a well-established farm settlement in the area in the Bronze and Iron Ages. The first church should therefore probably be interpreted as a high church belonging to the owner of the farm.
A new stave church is built in Kaupanger
Nor was this church allowed to stand for very long. Extensive coal and ash layers show that the church was hit by a devastating fire. This, together with later activities such as burials in naves and choirs, mean that the archaeological traces for this church building are sparse.
Based on the discovery of the wall construction, with the remains of six postholes, it is still possible to reconstruct the size of the church. In some places it was also possible to demonstrate that the area must have been cleared before the new church was built, which also gives an indication of the size of the church. These traces show that the ship probably measured 8.3 x 5.2 metres, in other words the size of the ship increased by 20 m2 from the former stave church. The design with posts dug into the ground means that the church still seems related to the former church. Both in the nave and in the chancel, rows of stones were uncovered that stretched from post to post. This was interpreted as the walls having a form of frame construction, where a sill may have rested on a stone foundation that has been attached to the staves. On top of the staves, the wall itself has been attached, but the archaeological traces did not allow us to say anything about how the roof was designed.
Otherwise, it was not possible to find traces of the altar in the choir, but traces of the foundation of a possible side altar on the east side of the church were uncovered, something that was quite common in medieval churches. Traces of such side altars can be found, for example, both in Hopperstad and Torpo stave church.
Dating of the church rests on the discovery of two coins, dated to 1065-80 and 1130-50. Interestingly, the oldest coin is from the same time period as the church at Urnes from which the Urnesportalen originates. Whether this is a coincidence or indicates a new wave of church building in Sogn, it is difficult to say anything for certain from the archaeological source material. The oldest coin may indicate that the church has stood in the years around 1065, while the youngest coin indicates that the church burned down in the 1130s at the earliest.
Who built the new church?
According to Kristian Bjerknes, there were signs that burials that were part of the first church were split in two when they laid the foundation for the new church building. He also said that there was nothing to indicate that the skeleton had been moved ahead of the construction of the new church. Basically, this can be interpreted as that the first church must have stood for a long time before it was demolished, since they did not bother to bury the skeleton again. At the same time, it rhymes poorly with the dating of the first stave church to the first half of the 11th century. Another alternative is that the new stave church has been built by a new owner, with no family connection to the old one. Perhaps a new owner wanted to mark ownership by building a new church, and that this is the reason why the previous church was demolished, while it was apparently still in use? The family may be the same as we are familiar with in Sverresoga. Here the sons of Arngeir the priest, Gaut and Karlshoved, are singled out as among the main men behind the murder of Ivar Dape in 1183 in Kaupanger. This family may perhaps be the same or related to a family that we can link to Kaupanger in the 14th century through the male name Karlshovud.
Fire and construction of the last stave church
The discovery of an extensive layer of fire and molten bronze shows that there was a powerful fire, which must have been a dramatic experience for the people of Kaupanger. For a long time it was believed that the fire was to be linked to the burning of the purchase that we know of from Sverresoga. In 1184, King Sverre traveled to Sogn to punish those who the year before had taken part in the murder of m.a. the governor (norwegian: syslemann) Ivar Dape in Kaupanger. The saga tells that King Sverre sent six ships to Kaupanger and that the crew burned down the entire kaupang. Dating by dendrochronology would eventually show that the church was probably built around 1138, and that the fire that destroyed the previous church must be linked to completely different events than the penal journey of King Sverre.
There are several things that separate the new church from its predecessor. While the earlier churches had posts dug into the ground, the posts were now attached to foundations which were laid on a stone foundation. Unlike the two earlier stave churches, we now find staves in the central space of the nave in addition to pairs of corner and wall posts. This is a big break with the old construction technique. With the construction of the last stave church in Kaupanger, an over 1,000-year-old building custom has in many ways reached its most extreme expression.
Originally, the church was built with 6 staves on each long side, in other words it was somewhat shorter than today’s church, which has eight staves on each long side. The ship was probably extended in 1204 to the west with two staves. The planks that were inserted into the walls correspond to an extension of approximately 3.45 m. Bjerknes concluded that the ship originally had an internal length of 10.20 metres. After the extension, the stave church measures approximately 7.6 x 13.7 meters (104 m2). If we compare these dimensions with the earlier churches in Kaupanger, we see that the size has increased significantly. I will return to why this was necessary later in the article.
Today, this is a long church with a raised central space with 22 staves, with eight staves on each long side and three on each short side, as well as two in the choir. The corners of the nave and chancel also have staves in the outer walls. Of the 28 remaining stake churches in Norway, Kaupanger is the one with the largest number of stakes. This contributes to the fact that the stave church is sometimes called the cathedral among the stave churches. Marks of fixings in the outer wall show that there was originally a corridor that encircled the entire stave church. When it was removed is uncertain. Kristian Bjerknes considers it most likely that it disappeared between the Black Death and the 17th century.
Who was connected to the church?
As previously mentioned, we have written sources from the 12th and 14th centuries which may indicate that the same family lived in Kaupanger for a long time and had strong ties to the church. The fact that, among other things, Arngeir is mentioned as a priest may indicate that the farm was a rectory in the 12th century. Based on the archaeological and written sources, it is not possible to say that this is the same farm that we see in archaeological traces from e.g. the Iron Age or whether it was at some point separated as its own vicarage. The family connected to this farm is known in written sources both in Sverre Soga from the 12th century and probably beyond the 14th century.
In the transition to the 16th century and beyond, sources show that there was sometimes only one user, while the land tax from 1536 operates with three users in Kaupanger. To what extent later owners in the 15th/16th centuries had a responsibility for the stave church, it is not possible to say anything about, but common church law in the Middle Ages was that the parishioners themselves were responsible for construction and maintenance.
The stave church in Kaupanger as a townchurch
While the first two stave churches were originally built as high-rise churches, the size and change of church organization beyond the 12th century means that the last stave church was probably a parish church for the growing market town we know about in Kaupanger. This makes the stave church in Kaupanger the only stave-built townchurch in Norway still in existence. It may also look as if there was a reorganization of the yard around the stave church in the 12th century. The yard was then probably moved down to today’s yard at Kaupanger Hovedgård. This may explain why the church was expanded early in the 13th century. This is a period where we see the purchase price growing, and who believe that there are still good times for the people in the market town. In addition, the guards at Kaupangerskogen probably visited the church in Kaupanger.
How the purchase was established and by whom, it is difficult to determine from the written and archaeological source material we have. But the purchase was probably established as a seasonal market place in the transition from the Viking Age to the Middle Ages. The initiator is perhaps the same person who erected the first stave church in Kaupanger, possibly. in combination with several big men in Sogn. That there are no traces of royal and church power, forces and the theory that local magnates have had great influence over the purchase.
Part of the inventory in the church can also shed light on various social groups that have played a role, both in the purchase, but also in the form of gifts to the church. Medieval researcher Margrete C. Stang has previously analyzed the old altarpiece that stood in the Kaupanger stave church, dated to around 1250. The main motif is King Olav the saint who dies during the battle of Stiklestad. What is particularly interesting in this context is the sidebar which shows saints for fishermen, boat builders, sailors/ferrymen and travellers. Based on the choice of saints, it is reasonable to believe that these groups gave the altar as a gift to the stave church. This also tells a little about the position these groups had in the purchase and that the town was still developing, 70 years after the battle at Fimreite, which wiped out parts of the local noble families in Sogn.
As previously mentioned, no coins were found linked to the first church in Kaupanger and only two coins linked to the next stave church. Now there is almost an explosion of coin finds; In fact, the coin finds from Kaupanger are among the most numerous church finds in Norway. The majority of the finds are from the choir, which is interpreted as a form of offering, that someone has dragged the coins through the floor on purpose. In addition, the findings support the theory that the church has gone from being a high church to becoming a parish church. If it had been common to sacrifice coins in the past (or lose them), one would probably have found more coins connected to the earlier churches. Almost without exception, the coins from the Middle Ages are minted in Norway. This may be an indication that the majority of those who used the church came from Norwegian territory.