Katharina Lorvik, archaeologist/osteoarchaeologist, NIKU

In 14th century Bergen, there were over 20 churches and monasteries with burial rights. Where one was buried, would depend on which parish one belonged to. The monasteries, for example, accepted both members of the monastic order and outsiders who were in their care, or who had the money for a burial spot. Burials at the parish churches probably represented a cross section of the population, but there might have been some rules for where the graves were placed in the graveyard, depending on one’s social status, gender or family ties. One of the best-examined churchyard from the medieval city is found by the church of St. Mary’s, built in the first half of the 12th century, at Bryggen. The church of St. Mary’s was one of the largest churches in the city, and it was situated on a small rise directly behind the settled area along the bay. In the earliest period, the church was only a few dozen metres away from the shoreline. It must have been an imposing sight, looming over the low, wooden houses of the city. Its location may be an indication that the church yard was mainly used by people living and working in the central areas of the city.

Single grave from the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Bergen. Photo: University Musem Bergen, Cultural History Collections, Medieval Collections.

The Southernmost part of the churchyard has been examined by archaeologists, and almost 200 skeletons have been excavated. Almost 80 of these have been dated to the period between the first half of the 12th century and about 1250. They are thus the remains of people that lived in the city before the arrival of the Hanseatic League and the German influence at the Bryggen area.

Very few traces of coffins have been found, although some wooden parts and coffin nails have been registered. The dead were probably buried in their own clothes or in tightly wrapped shrouds, which may indicate the body’s position in the grave. All the graves have an East-West orientation, with the heads in the Western end, as is the standard for Christian graves. Both men, women and youngsters have been found among the burials. Child mortality is assumed to have been high during the medieval period, but this is not reflected in the skeletal material from St. Mary’s, where no children under the age of 7 have been found. The complete absence of very young children might be due to these being buried in their own part of the churchyard. Similar arrangements are known from other medieval churchyards in Scandinavia. This has been seen as an indication that the age of 7 represented a new phase in a person’s life, when the child became a more independent member of society. One interesting observation is that, during the period between the fires of 1170/71 and 1198, there seems to have been a large majority of women among the burials in this part of the churchyard. The reason is unclear, but it might be because conditions in the rest of the churchyard are unknown, and they might have been able to shed light on any gender division in the churchyard in this period. In Norway, the late 12th century was a period marked by civil wars. Some of the fighting took place in Bergen, and the city was also ravaged by several great fires. Perhaps the men of the city were engaged in these activities, while the women in the same area were more vulnerable to the catastrophic city fires and attacks within the city itself. Men who fell in battle may have been buried elsewhere. Whatever the case, there is no easy explanation for this distribution. Osteoarchaeological studies aim to survey the health and living conditions of a population. In this case, the examined area is too small to give a representation of the city population as a whole, but the unusually short period it represents, still gives a certain impression about one segment of the population. The majority of the burials in the material are people aged 40 and above. Marks on the skeletons indicate, for the most part, wear and tear of the joints and degenerative changes, especially on the spinal column, changes that are often due to natural ageing processes. These changes are concurrent with other signs of ageing, such as heavy tooth wear or loss of teeth. There are many indications that the people buried in this part of the churchyard were a segment of the urban population who had had a long working life, with physical strains that left traces of wear and tear on the skeletons. Any signs of other illnesses often associated the individual’s general heath, such as signs of infectious diseases or stunted growth indicated by damages to the dental enamel, are almost completely absent from the material. There are nevertheless some signs of these conditions among the younger subjects, which indicate some health problems among this age group. Traces of violence or injuries are present, but not to the extent that might, perhaps, be expected in a population touched by civil war. This might also be because the men who took part the fighting, are not found among this group of burials. The skeletal material from St. Mary’s date from a historical period which in Bergen was characterised by rapid growth. The material therefore touches upon a number of questions regarding demography, health, social organization and mobility in the early history of the city.

Common grave at the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Bergen. Photo: University Museum of Bergen, Cultural History Collections, Medieval Collections.

Further reading:

Helle, K. 1982. Bergen Bys Historie. Kongssete og Kjøpstad, fra Opphavet til 1536, Bergen, Universitetsforlaget.

Herteig, A. E. 1990a. The Buildings at Bryggen. Their Topographical and Chronological Development, Bergen, Norwegian University Press.

Øye, I. (ed.) Osteoarchaeological Analyses From Medieval Bergen. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.

Lynnerup, N., Bennike, P. og Iregren, E. 2008. Biologisk antrolopogi med human osteologi. Oslo: Gyldendal.