Project description


Immigration and mobility in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway

When examining the skeletal remains of previous populations, anthropologists often wonder whether the buried individuals were indigenous to the area or had migrated there from elsewhere. This is particularly interesting when seen in relation to the discussion surrounding immigration and the multicultural society which has been at the heart of Norwegian political debate for the last decades, and continues to be so. In this debate, it seems generally accepted that immigration to Norway was something that started in the 1970s and Norwegian society prior to that was homogeneous, composed of “ethnically” Norwegian people. This view is part of what resulted in the disastrous events on June 22nd and is exploited by several fractions of society. This is also a view which is supported by academic works dealing with Norwegian history. Although it is not stated directly that pre-modern immigration did not exist, the argument is indirectly supported by leaving pre-modern immigration out of the discussion. For example, in reading Karsten Alnæs’ five volume history of Norway (Alnæs, 2003a: vol. 1-5) there is little to suggest that Norwegian society exhibited any multiculturality prior to the 1960s. It is stated that “Ă…ret 1967 kan sies ĂĄ være et skjellsettende ĂĄr i norsk innvandringshistorie. I det ĂĄret var det for første gang flere som kom flyttende til Norge enn de som brøt opp og forlot landet.” (Alnæs, 2003b: vol. 5:445) (The year 1967 was a defining year in the history of Norwegian immigration. For the first time there were more people immigrating to Norway than people moving out of Norway.) Very little space is given to the topic of immigration in the centuries and millennia prior to this. The only suggestions that Norwegian society may have consisted of people from different cultures and geographical areas are through snippets like this: “Ved bryggene lĂĄ skip fra fremmede land, og en hørte tungemĂĄl en ikke forsto.” (Alnæs, 2003a: vol. 1:244) (At the harbour there were ships from foreign countries and one could hear languages one could not understand.). The first major work dealing with the history of immigration to Norway came in 2003 (Kjelstadli, 2003) and presents a picture of a country in which immigration has played a large part in the formation of the nation we see today. Throughout the history of Norway, immigration has taken place in the form of slaves, tradespeople, craftspeople, mercenaries and clerics. These were people who may have come as visitors for only a short period or people who would settle down and spend their life in their new country. No matter the reason and time frame for people coming into Norway, these people made an addition to the existing population and are likely to have made contributions to the gene pool comprising the population which is generally referred to as “ethnically” Norwegian. There is also other evidence suggesting that people moved to northern Europe over long distances. Leach et al. (2010) presents the evidence of a lady in York, England, who probably originated in Northern Africa or Mediterranean Europe and Ebeneserdottir et al. (2010) presents evidence suggesting a Native American influence in the Icelandic gene pool which they argue may stem back to the early voyages between Iceland and America in the 11th century. Evidence from craniometric analyses of skeletons from four different graveyards in mediaeval Norway also suggest that the population consisted of people from different areas of Europe and possibly further afield (Hamre, 2011). What is less known, however, is to what degree the population consisted of immigrants and from where those immigrants originated; and it is also poorly understood who the immigrants were with regard to age and sex. Was there a bias towards a particular sex among the immigrants? Were there biases with regard to the age of the immigrants? Were most immigrants of working age, were children also involved in the immigration process, or did people migrate late in life? These are some of the questions this project will attempt to elucidate. Another feature this study will attempt to shed some light on is what position the immigrants held in society. Do the immigrants differ from the rest of the population in ways which could indicate how they lived their lives, what they had access to and social status? Through a detailed examination and analysis of a sample of the skeletal material exhumed from four different graveyards in Trondheim, the proposed research questions (see below) will be investigated. A combination of information from archaeological, osteological, molecular and historical sources will provide the most extensive, multidisciplinary, investigation into these questions to date.

So, what is the importance of this kind of knowledge of previous populations have with regard to modern society? The most basic purpose it fulfils is the importance for any population to have good knowledge of its past on which it can build its future. A broader knowledge of the population from which we all descend will have the potential for clarifying questions regarding what it means to be Norwegian. This knowledge is also, in many ways, a prerequisite for understanding the development of modern Norwegian society and could possibly change peoples’ view of human mobility and multiculturality. This is as important as ever before as modern conflicts and debates about immigration to Norway are often rooted in inadequate knowledge of the past. A greater understanding of one’s own past and an understanding that we are all the product of the integration of people from different areas of the world, both culturally and genetically, could open up more constructive discussion and a greater acceptance of a continuously changing society. This is why it is just as important to get the results of this research disseminated to the general public as to the academic community, which is an important aim of this project.


Status of knowledge

In relation to Norway, the research into pre-modern immigration has mainly been carried out by historians and has largely been based on historical sources (e.g. Kjelstadli, 2003, Opsahl, 2007). Skeletal material and other archaeological sources have rarely been looked upon to shed light on immigration and the composition of the population during the mediaeval period of Norwegian history. The historical sources present a picture of a country with immigration being an integral part of its development but studies of the actual people of the time have the potential for developing a much more detailed picture. The possibilities can be seen by looking at research carried out elsewhere. Several studies have identified immigrants in Roman Britain through analysis of isotopes gathered from human skeletal material (Leach et al., 2009, Eckhardt et al., 2009, Evans et al., 2006, Budd et al., 2004), others have demonstrated age related immigration to Imperial Rome (Prowse et al., 2007) and migration in Bronze Age England (Evans and Chenery, 2006). Leach et al. (2010) showed evidence of long distance migration from Northern Africa or Mediterranean Europe to York in England and Rudbeck et al. (2005) presented evidence of a heterogeneous population based on mtDNA data from skeletons from an early Christian cemetery in Denmark. They also found evidence suggesting some of the examined individuals had descended from regions far from Denmark through the find of the haplogroup U7 which is most common in India and Western Siberian tribes. Ebeneserdottir et al. (2010) presents a similar story when finding evidence of a possible Native American influence in the Icelandic gene pool. These studies, and many more, show the usefulness of utilising skeletal material to acquire knowledge about people movement and the composition of populations. Most studies use either DNA analysis or isotope analysis to investigate these questions. The proposed research will, however, utilise the best of both these techniques to draw as much detailed information as possible from these human remains.



The human skeletal material on which this research will be based comes from several previously excavated sites in Trondheim, Norway. The reason for choosing material from Trondheim is relatively simple as there is no other city in Norway with a better selection of human skeletal material, representing different areas of the town and also covering a wide time span. The excavations are also fairly well documented archaeologically which allows for recovering information about the placement and nature of the graves and buried bodies. Most of this material has, however, not been subjected to a thorough osteological examination and is thus a largely untapped source of information. The mediaeval material will come from the excavation in Søndregate 4 (excavataed between 1972-1976) and The Public Library site (excavated during 1984-1985). The post-mediaeval material will come from the excavations at the Nidaros cathedral (Vestfrontplassen excavated in 1996 and the Servicebygget excavation carried out in 2004.) The excavations at Vår Frue Kirke in 1973 yielded both mediaeval and post-mediaeval skeletons and a sample from this site will be used as well.


Research questions

The following questions will be investigated through archaeological, osteological, molecular and historical sources:

  • What was the composition of the population?
    • What proportion of the population grew up locally?
    • Did people move into the town from surrounding areas?
    • Were there many immigrants from abroad?
  • What was the nature of the immigration?
    • Were the immigrants mainly represented by one particular sex or is there an even distribution?
    • Were children among the immigrants?
    • Is there evidence of immigration of elderly individuals?
  • Where did the immigrants come from?
    • Can the geographic origin of the immigrants be determined?
    • Can the immigrants be associated with specific groups of people?
  • Does the immigrant population differ from the local population with regard to pathology, trauma, burial etc.?
    • Can this say something about how the immigrant population was treated or what place they had in society?
  • Is it possible to observe temporal changes?




To investigate the questions outlined above, this study will include information from several different sources which will complement each other in an attempt to provide a picture of the composition of the population in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway and how this population interacted with the rest of the world. The different sources of information and their relevance will be discussed separately in the below.


Archaeological information

With the exception of the skeletons themselves, the archaeological information which will be utilised in this study are the archaeological reports, plan drawings, excavation diaries etc. for the archaeological excavations from which the skeletal material came. These sources will be consulted with regard to collecting information about the individual burials. This will be information concerning how the individuals were buried (e.g. coffin or no coffin, type of coffin, artefacts in the grave, body position) and where in the graveyard the individuals were buried. This kind of information could potentially say something about the position an individual had in society.



In an attempt to get a skeletal sample which is as representative as possible of the population in Trondheim, the following sampling strategy will be employed.

1. Material from the above mentioned sites will be used. This material comes from different areas of the town and dates to different times and will thus take into account differences between graveyards as well as temporal differences.

2. Every precaution will be taken to sample skeletons from different areas in the graveyards. This is important as there is evidence that an individual’s placement within the graveyard was determined by social factors (Hamre, 2011) and thus, this makes it more likely to cover a larger social range.

3. It will be attempted to make the sexual distribution of the samples as equal as possible.

4. For the purpose of the molecular analyses, it is crucial that certain skeletal elements are present. The samples for isotope analyses will be taken from the enamel on one first molar and one third molar from each individual, as well as one bone sample. The sample for DNA analysis will be taken from the dentine in one of the teeth already sampled for isotope analysis. Therefore, only individuals with well preserved first and third molars will be included.

Following the above criteria as strictly as possible, it will be attempted to create a sample of 100 individuals, evenly distributed between the sites. The reasoning behind limiting the sample in this way is twofold. Firstly, although every precaution will be taken to cause minimal destruction to the material, some of the methodology is destructive and every effort is therefore made to sample in a way which will give as much reliable information as possible from a limited sample. The second reason for limiting the sample is that some of the analyses are relatively costly and it therefore makes sense to be as cost effective as possible without compromising the quality of the research.


Skeletal analysis

The skeletons will be subjected to a standard anthropological examination including determination of sex, estimation of age at death and living stature, as well as recording evidence of pathology and trauma. The information from these examinations will be used to compliment the results from the molecular analyses (described below) and could provide evidence of sexual biases to the immigration and other differences between immigrants and locals. Pathological information could also provide information about individuals’ social position (Hamre, 2011).


Isotopic analysis

The isotope analyses will be one of two sources of information used to determine the presence of immigrants and is the only direct evidence of an individual’s movement from one geographic area to another.


The relationship between δ18O content in skeletons and geographical origin

The ratio 18O/16O (represented by the δ18O notation) in meteoric precipitation varies regionally depending on average temperature, distance from the source of water vapour and elevation (Gat, 1996). Thus, the δ18O signatures differ between different geographic regions and these differences are reflected in the isotopic composition of the people living in any particular region. Oxygen enters the body in three ways, through drinking water, water in food and through inhalation when breathing. It exits the body as urine, sweat and respired CO2, so the water in the body is reflective of the isotopic balance between the oxygen that enters and leaves the body. The δ18O of body water, which reflects the δ18O in meteoric precipitation, is preserved in bone and teeth when they are formed and is, therefore, useful for determining where an individual was situated during the formation of these skeletal elements. As the δ18O in a skeletal element is representative of the time when that particular element was developed, an analysis of different skeletal elements from an individual will present information about different stages in that person’s life. The crown development of the first molar begins at around birth and is completed by the time an individual reaches 2.5-3 years. The third molar is the last tooth to be developed and the crown starts to develop between 7 and 10 years and is normally completed between the age of 12 and 16 (Schour and Massler, 1940a, Schour and Massler, 1940b). Thus, the δ18O levels from these teeth represent a record of the water sources available during infancy (M1) and late childhood/adolescence (M3), respectively. The δ18O of bone, on the other hand, represents the other end of an individual’s life. Contrary to the tooth enamel, bone is constantly being remodelled during life and the isotope signal from a bone sample will represent the last 5-10 years of that individual’s life.


Comparative δ18O data for meteoric precipitation over Norway

The oxygen isotope distribution in meteoric water has been mapped for many areas of the world (e.g. Longinelli and Selmo, 2003, Lykoudis and Argiriou, 2007, Darling and Talbot, 2003), but the δ18O content in meteoric precipitation over Norway is poorly documented at present. Some isotope data have been collected from ground water as part of a project at NGU (Norges Geologiske Undersøkelser) and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) have made some modulations for the δ18O variation for Norway. When comparing the data from NGU with the IEAE model there are large deviations and neither data is appropriate to use for this project. The background data for this study will, therefore, be collected as part of this project. An agreement has been made with Bjørn Frengstad at the NGU in Trondheim about collecting water samples once a month for the first year of this project. These water samples will be analysed for δ18O content to make an appropriate data set to compare with the samples taken from the skeletal material. The reason for taking samples each month throughout the year is to get a yearly average for the area. This is necessary as the δ18O is temperature dependant and does vary during the year.


DNA analysis

In contrast to the isotopic analysis, an analysis of the individuals’ DNA will provide information about an individual’s biological origin rather than the connection to a geographical area. There is, of course, often a correspondence between a group of people and a geographical area but there are several reasons why this will provide vital information for the research questions and provide the perfect complement to the isotope data. Firstly, the DNA analysis can detect 2nd, 3rd, etc. generation immigrants. While the isotope study will detect the people who actually immigrated to the area, the DNA can detect the descendants of earlier immigrants. Secondly, the DNA analysis can detect movement through generations. In cases where an immigrant has been detected and the geographical origin of this individual has been determined by the isotope study, the DNA data could provide additional information. If the DNA study suggests a connection to a group of people which is not likely to be native to the geographical region determined by the isotopes, it could be suggested that the descendants of an immigrant to a different area, migrated to Trondheim. In this way, it may be possible to track generations of immigrating families. Thirdly, the DNA study will, on its own, present a very interesting picture of the genetic influences which acted on the population.

The DNA analyses will be carried out at the Institute of Legal Medicine at Innsbruck Medical University (GMI), in Austria. In consultation with professor Walther Parson at the GMI, it has been decided that mtDNA and Y-chromosomal analyses are required for this research. An agreement has been made with professor Parson whereby he agrees to carry out the analyses at a highly reduced price in return for joint publications based on this material.


Historical sources

Information drawn from historical sources will be used as comparative material for the results of the other analyses. Written sources are representative of the author and the contemporary society while the skeletons represent the people themselves and not how they were viewed by others. Due to this significant difference between the two sources of information, very interesting and rewarding comparisons can be made. If the sources agree it is likely that the written sources present an accurate view of the situation. If, however, the information from the two sources do not correspond it can be argued that the historical sources present the view or opinion of the author and/or contemporary society instead of describing the actual situation. Such comparisons can say something about peoples’ attitude towards the immigrant population and possibly make suggestions as to how realistic these attitudes were. It is well known in modern society that views and attitudes toward foreigners often are based on false truths and an inaccurate picture of reality.



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Immigration and mobility in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway
Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen

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