Thursday, January 05, 2006

Wooden church found at Old Uppsala

In the 11th century, German cleric Adam of Bremen wrote in horrified detail about the main pagan temple of the Swedes at Uppsala and the gory cult of Odin, Thor and Frey that took place there. He used the word templum, "temple", to denote this structure, but on one occasion also triclinium, "dining hall". Most scholars today agree that what Adam was describing (at second or third hand) was in fact nothing like the Greek or Roman temples of the Mediterranean. Instead, the royal pagan cult at Old Uppsala took place in great single-story wooden long houses. Two massive foundation platforms of such feasting halls are still visible near the great barrows. The “temple" of Old Uppsala thus had much more in common with the mead hall of king Hrothgar in the Beowulf poem than with the Parthenon or Pantheon.

Pagan cult at Old Uppsala ended in the late 11th century, and we don't know how long the great halls were left standing. But in the 1130s Old Uppsala became an Episcopal see, and a Romanesque cathedral was built there, the chancel of which is still standing as a rural parish church. Choosing this particular site for the cathedral meant to appropriate, ostentatiously, the deep roots and legitimacy of the main cult centre of ancient Sweden.

What happened at Old Uppsala during the half century or so between the end of the pagan cult and the building of the cathedral? We have had very little data to judge from, until archaeologists Magnus Alkarp and Neil Price began working at the site. They present their results in a paper in Fornvännen 2005:4 that reached Swedish subscribers last Monday. Using non-intrusive ground penetrating radar, Magnus and Neil have documented a number of subterranean features in the cathedral area, for instance something that looks like the foundations of a previously hypothetic third feasting hall, located with one end under the cathedral on a perpendicular orientation (N4, N5).

But the most exciting result is that we now know what the Swedes did at the site after pulling down the feasting halls. They built a small wooden church, measuring 22 by 8-9 metres (N3), typical for the newly Christianised elite of the 11th century. These people had not yet established firm contact with the monastic orders and ecclesiastic hierarchy of the Continent, and so they did not build stone churches as was the rule farther south.

Thanks to Magnus and Neil, the sequence at Old Uppsala is now complete:
1) pagan cult in feasting halls up to the late 11th century,
2) a small wooden church in the decades around 1100,
3) from the 1130s on a Romanesque stone cathedral, and
4) after the arch-see was moved to present-day Uppsala in 1273 (taking the name with it), a small stone parish church.

The illustration is taken from Alkarp & Price's Fornvännen paper with the authors' permission.

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Blogger Arkeologen said...

Very intresting. I've always been facinated about Old Uppsala and the temple there.

05 January, 2006 10:36  

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