Janicke Larsen, archaeologist and head of exhibitions and public outreach, Bergen City Museum

The listed buildings at Bryggen were rebuilt following the great fire of 1702. Several of these houses were later replaced by brick buildings at the decree of the city council in 1899. The debate over the future of Bryggen had therefore been going on for a while, when, on the 4th of July 1955, a fire broke out in the tenement Søstergården at the Northern end of Bryggen. About half of the remaining buildings were destroyed, an area covering about 7000 square metres. But this was only the beginning of Bryggen’s troubles – by now, demonstrators were demanding that it be torn down, and several suggestions were made as to what could replace the wooden houses – high-rise buildings or a bus terminal? The fact that Bryggen was already listed according to the cultural heritage act of 1927, does not seem to have calmed tempers. Still, in the end it was precisely this fire that eventually led to changes in attitudes among the inhabitants of Bergen. Only two days after the fire, the Director General for Cultural Heritage, Arne Nygård-Nielsen, came to Bergen to assess the state of both the buildings and the archaeological deposits beneath them. According to the Historical Monuments Act of 1951, archaeological excavations would have to be carried out before any new structures could be built, and work began in October of the same year. It was not unknown that the ground beneath Bryggen contained artefacts dating back to the Middle Ages, but the excavations of the cultural deposits beneath the site of the fire turned out to be ground-breaking, and before long, attitudes were changing, and a demand for preservation began to emerge. Before the fire, the main proponents of preservation were representatives of the cultural heritage authorities, but now, an increasing proportion of ordinary citizens began to realise that Bryggen was a cultural treasure about to be lost forever. When Bryggen was struck by a lesser fire, in 1958, the changes in attitudes were even more apparent. In March 1960, the national newspaper Dagbladet carried the headline “What are they waiting for? For it to burn down a second time?”. The pressure to find a viable solution for the surviving buildings was increasing. In 1962, the organizations Friends of Bryggen and The Bryggen Foundation were founded, and in 1963, a development plan for the preservation and restoration of Bryggen was approved by a unanimous city council.

Initially, it was believed that the excavations following the fire of 1955 were to last until the end of 1956, but that estimate turned out to be completely wrong! The excavations went on continuously for 13 years, and additional excavations were carried out intermittently until 1979! The excavations were the most extensive that had ever been carried out in Northern Europe. Even though the scope of the excavations was unusual for their time, there are two other reasons why the Bryggen excavations are still famous in archaeological circles. One is the methods that were used, and the other reason is the hundreds of thousands of finds that were collected. Starting with the latter: Before these excavations, the collection of archaeological finds from the medieval period was based on the archaeologist’s own estimate of how representative and valuable the find was, and only the finest and rarest artefacts were kept. Under the direction of Asbjørn Herteig, the entire material was deemed interesting and kept, down to the last piece of ceramics, leather, food waste and building material. The method for excavating and documenting the finds took inspiration from prehistoric archaeology, and Herteig made sure to document all artefacts and structures, both in two and three dimensions (using x, y and partly also z coordinates). As the excavations progressed, it also became clear that the traces of the many recorded city fires was particularly well suited for dating the finds, and this was referred to as “fire layer chronology”. Taken together, the careful documentation and the hundreds of thousands of finds, both in the form of artefacts and building structures, constitute a unique basis for research into medieval Bergen. Bryggens Museum opened in 1976 with the aim of storing and exhibiting this unique material.

 Excerpt from recordings by Halfdan Waaler, donated to the Bergen City Museum by his grandson Erik Brenna.


Further reading:

Randi Andersen and Per Solberg 1985: Bryggen i brennpunktet – før og etter 1955. Exhibition catalogue, Bryggens Museum.

Hansen, Gitte 2005: Bryggebrannen 1955 – et vendepunkt. Middelalderarkeologi i Bergensmiljøet før og etter 1955. Exhibition catalogue, Bryggens Museum.

Øye, Ingvild (red.) 1999: Medieval fires in Bergen – Revisited. The Bryggen Papers – Supplementary Series no 6. Fagbokforlaget.