“This is truly astonishing. As far as I know there is no known example of the discovery of an individual historically connected with an act of war as far back as the year 1197. And the fact that this actually corroborates an event described in Sverre’s saga is simply amazing“ – Anna Petersén, head archaeologist at the Trondheim Excavation in Norway
TRONDHEIM, NORWAY – The discovery of a skeleton at the base of an ancient well confirms the truth of Norway’s Sagas.
Sverris Saga is one of the ancient Kings’ Sagas. It’s about King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway, written around 1185, and it’s the main source for this particular period of Norwegian history. Famous poet Snorri Sturluson wrote the Heimskringla in the 1220s, and ends his account right where Sverris Saga begins. It’s a detailed biography with a rich cast of characters, well-developed scenes, and elaborate dialogue. It details the battles Sverre led to win and hold the rule of Norway, and chronicles his speeches, battles, and military strategy. It’s an invaluable work of Norwegian literature.
The work is contemporary with other documents like the Magna Carta in England, military orders like the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, and the time of the Crusades in Europe. Norway’s influence was extending as far as Greenland and the Isle of Man. The nation had been recently Christianized, resulting in the end of Viking raids on Europe.
According to Sverris Saga, in 1197, King Sverre Sigurdsson and his mercenaries were attacked and defeated in Sverresborg by his rivals, the Baglers. The account is especially detailed about the resulting sack of King Sverre’s castle, saying that the Baglers burned down the buildings and, in one final, crippling blow, destroyed the city’s water supply by throwing one of King Sverre’s men into the well and filling it to the brim with rocks.
Scholars have, for some time, questioned the reliability of Sverre’s Saga as a source of Norway’s history, but now archaeologists can confirm that at least this one part of the story holds water.
In 2014, a trial excavation was dug in the well of Sverresborg Castle by Norwegian archaeologists. They did find a bone fragment in the mess, and when they used radiocarbon dating to determine the origins of the bone, it confirmed that the owner of the skeleton lived and died at the end of the 12th century – the exact same time as the man thrown into Sverresborg’s well in the famous saga.
Well, this year, the team of archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage have revisited the site and are working on a full excavation of the well. They want to remove the layers of stone and, eventually, exhume the entire skeleton. The archaeologists were joined by a forensic specialist from the Trondheim police, and have been excavating down to the very first stone that hit the man’s body in 1197. It’s given invaluable insight into the events of that battle, exposing the timber posts and lining of the castle. It’s slow going. They don’t want to miss anything, but their careful work has proved fruitful after all. The body at the bottom of the well is clearly visible, including a ribcage, femur bones, and a skull.
According to textual research, if the account of King Sverre’s defeat as told in Sverris Saga is correct, then it’s likely that the account is correct on many other points, too. In the coming years, perhaps more archaeology will prove the rest events in Sverris Saga to be true. This is an enormous find for Norwegian historians, one that has opened a window into the nation’s tumultuous past.
“This is a unique glimpse of an important historical event. You can almost feel it. Its almost as if you were there“ – Anna Petersén