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More Reliable Dates for the Ages of Valdres Medieval Churches

by Jahn Børe Jahnsen, reprinted from the Budstikken, May 2005

 

  As a church historian I am asked over and over again about the age of the medieval churches of Valdres, both the stave and the stone churches.  Tourists and local inhabitants want a most accurate year of when the churches are built, and they often want their church to be as old as possible.  Earlier most experts in art and church history were reasonably vague with their suggestions, judging from the building or the ornamental portals, etc.  The oldest written sources are in most cases much younger than the church building itself.  There have been several archeological excavations where medieval coins were found under the church floor, and experts believe that the church would not be much younger than the oldest coin.  Coins are dated by the portrait of the king and his name inscriptions.  But we might not always have found the oldest coin.

   Now during the later years a new method has been used also in the Valdres Churches, the so-called "dendrochronological dating" of wooden materials, in short "wood dating."

    With a drill you take samples of the wood from the bark to the pith and read yearly circles.  These circles will vary in thickness from year to year due to climatic changes, which affect the pattern of growth of the tree.  Trees growing in the same region and under the same climatic circumstances will have the same pattern of yearly circle thickness.  By comparing old living trees and also pieces of trees from archaeological excavations, experts have managed to put together a base or "ground curve" for the growth pattern of trees 2000 years back in history.  By comparing the pattern from specific trees with the base or "ground curve" you will see when the patterns are the same.  In this way you can see when your tree is cut, as long as a piece of bark is still there.  When the bark is missing, which is often the case when logs are prepared for building, you will not have the youngest yearly circle telling the year when the tree was but.  But in most churches you will find some old tree logs with the bark still intact.

    The results of "dendrochronological dating" (or wood dating) of the medieval churches in Valdres are now published.  They are taken from the wooden roof constructions, also to be found in medieval stone churches, and naturally the last part of the church to be built.  Here the results are compared with expert's opinions, written sources and oldest found coins.  The wood dating is definitely most accurate.

 

Hedalen Stave Church, South Aurdal

Oldest written source, 1327; expert's opinion, 1200; 800 year anniversary celebrated in 1960; baptismal font, 1150-1200; oldest coins, 1177-1202; wood dating, 1163.

 

Reinli Stave Church, South Aurdal

Oldest written source, 1327; oldest coins 1217-1263; wood dating 1326.  But some logs possibly from an older church say 1271 and 1310.

 

Ulnes Stone Church, North Aurdal

Oldest written source, 1307; expert's opinion, 1250; 750 years anniversary celebrated 1995; wood dating, 1266. So we could celebrate another anniversary in 10 years.

 

Mo Stone Church ruin, West Slidre

Oldest written source, 1368; expert's opinion, 1215; oldest coin, 1177-1202; wheel cross grave stone 1200.  No wood dating since there are no old roof constructions existing.

 

Slidre Stone Church Church, West Slidre

Oldest written source, 1264; expert's opinion, 1170; 800 years anniversary celebrated 1987; wood dating 1268. But the roof constructions must be younger than the building itself.

 

Lomen Stave Church, West Slidre

Oldest written source, 1324; expert's opinion, 1180; oldest coins, 1177-1202; and wood dating 1192.  This church is very much like and possibly built right after the Høre stave church.

 

Hegge Stave Church, East Slidre

Oldest written source, 1327; expert's opinion, 1200 or a little later; baptismal font, 1150-1200; and wood dating 1216.  Another possible anniversary in 10 years.

 

Volbu Stave Church, East Slidre

Parts of the old stave church roof constructions in a small museum by the new church.  Oldest written source, 1316; oldest coin 1217-1263; wood dating, 1148.

 

Høre Stave Church, Vang

Oldest written source, 1327; runic inscription, 1179; oldest coins 1100 and 1177-1202; and wood dating 1179.

 

Øye Stave Church, Vang

Oldest written source, 1327; expert's opinion, 1150-1300; ornamental portal after 1100.  No coins since the church was not rebuilt at the original site and no wood dating since new logs and planks were used for rebuilding of the roof construction.

 

These are the existing medieval churches in Valdres, except Volbu, where the wood dating is done on old logs in the little church museum.  There is no wood dating of the Vang Stave Church, now in Poland.  That would have been very interesting.  I regret to say that all other churches in Valdres are much younger and not medieval, like in Etnedal.

 

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