Arne Larsen, arkeolog

When I arrived in Bergen in the summer of 1957, I was a green student of archaeology from Oslo set to take part in the Bryggen excavations. I had so far only read about these excavations, although I had met the head, Asbjørn E. Herteig, at the University Museum of Antiquities in Oslo. That summer, the excavations were concentrated around Bugården, and the digging took place 5–6 meters below the street level. As a student of archaeology, I was expected to be able to draw profiles (which I was not), and this became my first task. Luckily, I was aided by a very experienced field archaeologist, who guided me through the use of cords, measuring tape and drawing paper. I was also allowed to catalogue some of the finds – I was familiar with much of the pottery, but many of the materials, especially leather and wood, were both new and exciting to me. This was the beginning of a lengthy excavation, and until 1968, I divided my archaeological time between my studies and excavations at Bryggen and other places.

Archaeological documentation of a profile, Bryggen, Bergen. Photo: University Museum of Bergen, Cultural History Collections, Medieval Collections.

Continuous and accurate documentation was essential for the field work progress. The photographs were principally taken by Herteig, while the drawings were done by the architect Egill Reimers. To obtain satisfactory results, it was often necessary to think outside the box. Reimers, for example, fashioned himself a drawing tent out of wood and plastic sheets, which he was able to wear while working. In this way, neither sleet nor rain could hinder his work.

In order to get a bird’s eye view, a photography pole was borrowed for one season from the University Museum of Antiquities in Oslo. The tripod pole was made of metal, and could be elevated to a height of about 7 to 8 metres. The camera was attached to the top of the pole, and it was triggered by pulling on a long release cord. It was hard work putting the tripod legs in place among the skeletons, floorboards and sundry construction parts, and when at last everything was ready, the photographer admitted that he had forgotten to put film in the camera! Herteig exploded in a fit of rage, and demanded that the photography pole be removed from the dig: Just throw it into the sea!

At one point, a building crane with a 15 meter long jib was erected, a very efficient way of removing the earth. The spoil could now be loaded into an iron crate, which was placed in the excavation area when needed. Herteig also used the crane as a photography pole. After one of his photo sessions, he wanted to come down again, but the national service worker who operated the crane claimed that he was unable to lower the crate. Herteig was left high and dry for a long time, and clearly voiced his discomfort. I still harbour a suspicion that the crane malfunction was an act of sabotage.

During removal of spoil, both by crane and by hand, using heavy cast iron wheelbarrows on narrow plankways, accidents would occur, but luckily neither people nor the heritage site suffered any serious consequences.

 Archaeological work could be both heavy and hazardous. Photo: University Museum of Bergen, Cultural History Collections, Medieval Collections.

The Bryggen excavations were, in many ways, one continuous field school, where we not only encountered practical challenges, such as spoil removal, overhead photography and water management, but also great academic challenges. The Bryggen excavations represented a completely new chapter in Norwegian archaeology, both with regards to time period, scope and materials. In the mind of most archaeologists of the time, the medieval period was not an archaeological period, that is, not a period to be studied through archaeological finds, and there was a palpable lack of interest in the project: During archaeological meetings, I was asked sarcastically how many soles we had found so far. The method for localisation of finds had long been left to the individual archaeologist, but Herteig was a pioneer when it came to the use of computers in archaeology, and there were plans for electronic processing of the finds data. This is why a uniform system of find localisation was needed. There were many heated debates about what such a code should look like, but there is no doubt that these excavations set a new standard for urban archaeology.

The last time we were in the field, was in Bugården in 1979. One afternoon, after a whole day spent in a deep hole filled with water, Herteig and I was standing in the basement of Bryggens Museum. We were pulling off our dirty rainwear, and Herteig asked me: Arne, what is it that makes us keep doing this?

Further reading:

Asbjørn Herteig: Kongers havn og handelens sete.