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Norway’s Viking History, Stave Churches, and Remote Farmsteads


We learn about Vikings from their boats and artifacts preserved at burial sites. After the advent of Christianity, Norwegians built distinctive, wood stave churches; a few remain — the best is Borgund. The ghost village of Otternes shows us how a farmstead functioned.

Complete Video Script

While breath-taking scenery is everywhere you look, the history is harder to see. For most of its past, Norway was extremely humble. While wealthier parts of Europe were building grand churches and castles of stone, most of Norway's architecture was made of wood. Fires were almost routine, and little survives from centuries past.

This is the wet and wild homeland of the Vikings — whose culture lasted about three centuries from roughly 800 to 1100. Setting sail from here, in their tough boats, they settled Iceland, Greenland, and even made it to America. And Viking raiders terrorized much of Europe for generations.

This mound marks the grave of one of those Viking rulers. Like the Egyptians, the Vikings believed in a life after death. And they believed you could take it with you. That's why when graves are excavated, archeologists find everything from jewelry and weapons to cooking pots and even boats.

The end of the Viking age with its pagan Norse gods is marked by the coming of Christianity to Norway in the 12th century. Those medieval Norwegians, now tamed, took their boat-building skills and rather than sleek ships to raid in, they built fine wooden churches to pray in.

These traditional Norwegian churches are called stave churches. While there were over a thousand such churches in Norway back in the 1300s, today, only a couple dozen survive. The Borgund Stave Church is one of the best.

Stave churches were supported by stout pine poles — or "staves" — and slathered with a protective coat of black tar. Wood was plentiful and cheap. While the basic design reflects the simple technology of the age, more elaborate examples like this one stand as proud testaments to the culture.

Remarkable carvings survive — evoking the pagan roots of these early Norwegian Christians. Stylized dragons — reminiscent of those that once adorned Viking ships — probably functioned like gargoyles — to keep evil spirits at bay.

This building has changed little since it was built in 1180. Interiors were stark and dark with tiny windows and simple X-shaped crosses of St. Andrew. The architecture guides your gaze upwards, towards heaven. The people who filled these churches often walked hours to worship.

Many hiked from tiny hamlets formed by several farms joining together. Otternes is one such farm village perched high above a fjord.

Today, Otternes welcomes visitors with a rare look at Norway of old. It's an evocative huddle of a couple dozen weathered farm buildings — many of which date from the 1700s. The farmstead's population dwindled a century ago, when — like so many Norwegians — its residents emigrated to America in hopes of a better life. Still, a handful of farmers remained, eking out a living here until just a generation ago.

Laila Kvellestad works hard to make the story of Otternes a living history.

Rick: So I’m curious about how this community was organized.
Laila: Yeah and this was four farms, four families, who lived here.
Rick: So why not one family here and one family there? Why four families together:
Laila: You know to live in this area it was very hard life. So they learned to work together and learned to share the reserves so they could survive.

Rick: So this was an active farm actually until the last generation.
Laila: Yes and Eilert he lived here till 1980.
Rick: So there was a man named Eilert?
Laila: Yeah. He was the last one.
Rick: Now this looks like he left it yesterday.
Laila: Yes. And his last wish was we should try to take care of this house almost like it was when he died.
Rick: And you’re doing exactly that.
Laila: We try to do it yes.