Following a fire in 1955, archaeological excavations took place over 13 years in a part of the historic district of Bergen – Bryggen. They revealed astounding finds from the medieval trading centre from the early 12th century onwards. The staggering quality of finds was matched by their careful and systematic recording and analysis. The cold and waterlogged conditions meant that the dig not only found well-preserved ceramics and metalwork, but also wood, leather and textile finds. Bryggen’s archaeology remains central to archaeological narratives of medieval urbanism and commerce.
As a member of the Hanseatic League, medieval Bergen was part of a far-reaching trade network, and the archaeological excavations shed light on this commercial activity and its attendant activities of ship-building and repairs. A host of craft activities and a myriad of dimensions of everyday life were also identified from the excavated finds. Perhaps most fascinating and famous of these are the dimensions of ‘runacy’ (the use of runes in daily life) evidenced by the fabulous collection of rune-sticks. Aspects of religious faith, ritual and magical practices can also be discerned among the finds and rune-sticks.
The finds were displayed in the Bryggens Museum, opened in 1976. On my first two visits to Bergen I failed to visit, so on my recent expedition to the Norwegian city I made it my priority to explore. An added bonus was that the timing of my visit was perfect: the museum has been subject to a major overhaul and the new display not only is packed full of the finds of the excavations, but other discoveries from elsewhere in the region.
‘Under jorden’ (below ground) isn’t fully completed, and many cases lack texts. Still, the staff provided a hand-out with English text. Meanwhile, the main interpretation texts are established in Norwegian and English, informally and evocatively fostering a sense of immersion in a medieval world long gone, yet startlingly and tantalisingly presenced by the panoply of material cultures unearthed. Here are but a flavour of the artefacts on display, from bone- and antler-working debris and finished products, to leather shoes and hats, as well as maritime and craft implements.
Artefacts are (necessarily) dimly yet well lit, and the fabulous display cases afford multiple perspectives and angles with which to view objects. There are further items hidden behind little doors one can open, creating an interactive engagement, and a particular focus, upon selected well-preserved artefacts.
I loved the circular display of the rune-sticks with drawers one can pull out to reveal the translations of the runes. The sticks are arranged in terms of the themes of their messages, including ownership marks, declarations of love, magical inscriptions, poetry, religious and nonsensical inscriptions.
There is a wonderful back-lit map showing the trade routes linking Bergen with the rest of medieval Europe and beyond.
I was struck by the projection showing the evolution of the town.
A further projection onto the wall shows the medieval ship designs that facilitated the maritime connections of Bryggen, juxtaposed with those parts of the ships found during excavation.
As well as the text foregrounding the makers and users of the items displayed, sketches of figures of different ages and genders help visitors to imagine the complex population of medieval Bergen who lived and died in the town.
The new museum does so much fabulous work to display its finds, and once the final captions are in place, I think it does a great job in a small space of revealing the medieval world of Bryggen. Favourite objects? I loved the blades, combs and the shoes, naturally.
Yet perhaps my mostest favouritest of items are the carved walrus skulls, one incised with runes!
I left amazed and astounded by the medieval artefacts and the stories they tell. It is also credit to generations of archaeologists who have worked hard to tell this story. See my post regarding the bust of Asbjørn Herteig located close by.