• Nynorsk
  • English

Universitetet i bergen logoUniversity of Bergen

Search form

The newly mown hay on the farms at Vangdalsberget tell of the landscape of the scythe

The newly mown hay on the farms at Vangdalsberget tell of the landscape of the scythe, it takes us a couple of thousand years backward in time, to the prehistoric farmer. But the rock inscriptions on the rocks in the background bear witness to an even older agricultural landscape. (Svein Nord).

From 4,500 to 5,000 years ago most of Hordaland was a landscape of forest, right out to the coast and the islands. With our inner eye we can see old oak trees putting their stamp on the heat-loving deciduous forest. Here red deer, elk and wild boar dominated, but there was also bear and other predators. Here and there, especially in outer districts were clearings and open areas of grass on the beaches. Here there are herds of cattle and sheep and goats. Inside simple enclosures and frail fences of branches and poles are small patches of tilled ground. Lean spikes of barley flash yellow between stones and stubble. The large fields, cleared of stones still belong to the future, but people have begun to transform nature and take command over the land. A new style of living and a new culture is in preparation.

The first farmers

Knowledge of cultivation of corn and animal husbandry came from the south-east and spread from Asia Minor to the whole of Europe. Some finds are thought to show that an alien group of folk settled on Oslo Fjord about 5,000 years ago. They sowed corn and they kept animals. They cleared the forest with big sharpened axes made of flint and they had cooking vessels and other vessels made of burnt clay. Such things had up until then been unknown to us.

At Skipshelleren in Dale bones from cattle and sheep and goats have been found which are more than 4,500 years old. At several places in Hordaland, deep in the bogs, lie pollen from corn from the same period, as at Straume in Rådøy. Sometimes there are impressions of corn in burnt clay vessels. Even the corn itself can be preserved in depressions of ashes in the settlements.

Were these alien folk the first “farmers” in Hordaland? Or were they coastal folk themselves who had found a new means of livelihood?  Several things point to the latter.

Some people think that a sizeable population increase took place in parts of southern Norway 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. The old styles of living could produce a large haul or catch during certain seasons, but there were leaner times in between. With more mouths to feed it was natural to look around for alternatives which gave a better supply of food all year round. Tame animals give people a more certain supply of meat. If hunting and fishing failed then they could live from their herds. And meal filled stomachs and kept hunger and famine at a distance.

The settlements change

The hunting and fishing settlements from the older Stone Age are usually found in the outer reaches of the county, from the archipelago of islands and in to the outer districts of the fjords. Further inland in the fjords and in the interior, settlements are few with the exception of the Hardanger plateau where reindeer and trout enticed folk.

From the times when the eldest agriculture developed we see a change in settlement patterns. More discoveries have been made inland and up the fjords. There are still many traces of settlement in the outer districts of the county, but now they are often situated in places other than where they were before, often further from the sea, on sheltered slopes with light and well-drained soils. Here are to be found axes, both of flint and local materials such as green stone and diabase - there are flint daggers and flint sickles - tools which were used to cut the corn 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

There are still settlements on the beaches and the sea. Now and then we find traces which indicate that the ”farmers” also lived here. But in most cases these were old hunting or fishing settlements where folk had lived for hundreds of years and which had been left derelict since the end of the Stone Age. 

Much indicates that the style of living of the first farmers was nomadic. Farms and hamlets did not exist. Settlements were built, fields and grazing grounds were cleared with fire, poles and digging staff. But when, after a few years the soil was exhausted and the harvest was reduced, they looked around for other settlements so that agriculture, animal rearing, hunting and fishing could be combined.

The bronze age field at Sørheim     

In the summer of 1969 two large grave mounds from the Bronze Age were excavated at Sørheim in Etne. Charcoal dating indicate that the mounds were constructed between 1,200 and 1,400 years before Christ.

When the mounds were fully excavated it appeared that the grave monument had concealed more than anyone could believe. Under the base of the mounds lay a thin layer of ploughed earth. There had been a ploughed field here at the time the mounds were built. The archaeologists found several proofs of this. When the ploughed earth was scraped off, long, dark strips filled with earth from the action of a plough could be seen in the light brown gravel. In this case one could really speak of walking in old plough tracks.

More was found. Under the ploughed earth and the plough strips lay a hearth from 2,100 to 2,300 years before Christ. In this way it was possible to get close to the age of the ploughed field. It must be younger than the hearth, but older than the graves. There was much to indicate they were plough tracks of a Bronze Age farmer which had come to light under the old grave mounds at Sørheim.

A chieftain's Society

With the great Bronze Age mounds it seems that cultural development had come a great step further, from the first hesitant attempts at cultivating corn and keeping animals on the coast.

The great grave mounds and heaps represent all in all several hundred days work. What sort of society was it that could afford such an “unproductive” centre as building towering monuments to a few select individuals?  

We refer to a “chieftain’s society” in the Bronze Age with much power and wealth concentrated in a few hands. A few individuals had taken control over others and had built up a great financial surplus. These could afford to surround themselves with expensive high status articles of bronze and gold. Even after death were they guaranteed that their power and authority could be demonstrated by a fine grave memorial on a rise or a high point where people could see it - and recall their exploits.

It is usually in the best agricultural areas that we find big grave mounds and rich finds from that time. Everything indicates that it was agriculture and the keeping of animals which gave surpluses. It is tempting to speak of a “farming aristocracy”.

The power holders in South West Norway in the older Bronze Age was an economic, social and cultural elite who, as far as we can see, had family and friendship alliances over a wide distance around. Parts of Sunnhordland and Hardanger belonged to such a cultural alliance. We see this particularly clearly in finds from Sveio, Ølen, Etne, Stord, Fitjar, Kvinnherad and Kvam. And further inland in Hardanger Fjord and Sørfjorden graves, individual finds and rock inscriptions bear witness to influences from the south. To its greatest extent this took in the whole of southern Scandinavia and had links further south and east with the rich Bronze Age cultures of central and southern Europe.

Exchange of gifts, goods and trade were central elements in this system of social intercourse. An important prerequisite for such activity was shipping. Finds from Jæren, Lista and north Jutland show such great likenesses in burial customs and in material culture, especially in the period from 1800 to 1000 years before Christ that this alone goes a long way to proving a direct link across the Skagerrak. We can find bronze articles of exactly the same type with exactly the same decoration in both areas. The many rock inscriptions from that period where the ship with the large crew is the principal motif  show us that the a sea scene which was portrayed was no real hindrance. We can still see such figures of ships, carved out in the rock in Sunnhordland and Hardanger.

Livelihoods outside agriculture in the bronze age

At the same time as the Bronze Age farmer ploughed up his field at Sørheim, and a chieftain was laid to rest in a great burial mound at Hystadmarka on Stord, there lived a people under Ruskeneshelleren at Nordåsvatnet in Fana. They fished in the rivers, they caught birds in the forest and on the seashores, and they hunted red deer, bears, seal and wildlife for their skins. They gathered mussels, oysters and sea snails and had tools and weapons made from bone and stone.

What sort of people was this? Were they completely out of step with their contemporaries?  Had cultural development stopped for a couple of thousand years here in this secluded rock wall at Ruskeneset?

If we look more closely at what was dug out of the rubbish dump, we will anyway find something that provides evidence of communication between the “farmers” - a flint dagger, a pair of tiny pieces of bronze, remains of clay pots. In one piece of pot there was still an impression of corn which had come with the pottery. Amongst the remains of meals were to be found cow, sheep and pig bones. It may not be that the Ruskenes folk were so “abnormal” as they seemed to be at first glance. Perhaps it was the reverse so that it was these folk who represented the norm, whilst the great graves and the high status finds were the exceptions?

The finds at Ruskenes have been interpreted in many ways, from “forgotten” hunter folk to hunting farmers. The finds are by no means unique. Gradually we have come to know of many finds of a similar type usually from ridges and slopes, on the coast in the fjords and in the mountains. In Skipshelleren there is a cultural layer from that time with finds of much the same type.

In Valldalen over 700 metres above sea level, lies Ullshelleren, before it was dammed up. In Ullshelleren bones from both wildlife and Bronze Age domestic cattle were found. Pollen from the nearby bogs show that they even tried cultivating corn up here about 3,000 years ago and they had domestic cattle grazing here.

Much indicates that the Bronze Age culture we see reaching its apotheosis in the great burial monuments, the fine metal ornaments and the secretive rock art was a result of a very homogeneous and complex social and cultural network, in which livelihood outside agriculture such as hunting, fishing, gathering and rough grazing in the forests and the mountains were just as necessary and important foundations as the ploughed field and the herd of cattle in the lowlands. Here the characteristic features of ancient life forms are interwoven with the new. Everything points forward towards new forms of organisation which would become farms and hamlets.

We can be fairly sure that that the original farms, the “source farms” were already present in many places in the Bronze Age.

The iron age farm and the extended family

It is mainly in the rough grazing outside agricultural areas where new cultivation in later times has not reached, that we can trace disused house sites, farmyards and farms from the Iron Age.

In Hordaland we have so far made few finds of this nature from the centuries just before and just after the birth of Christ. On the other hand there are plenty of these in Rogaland County. In particular many finds have been made in the period between 200 AD and 600 AD. Much of what we think we have concluded for Rogaland can also be valid for our county (Hordaland).

The houses were usually large, in some cases up to 60 or 70 metres long. Each house was divided up into several rooms. The archaeologists have been able in certain areas to find out what the functions of individual rooms were.  Some houses have had a dwelling area and a cattle area. Human beings and animals were housed under the same roof. Otherwise everything was here that was needed on a farm in the way of storage space, supplies of fodder, harvested crops and tools.

The house was usually built around a courtyard. From the cowshed a gate led out into the grazing to the stone fence which enclosed the home fields of arable land and the courtyard. The word “farm” has precisely that basic meaning - a place that is fenced in. This can indicate that it was the ploughed fields and the cultivation of corn which were the most important activities for the earliest prehistoric farmsteads and not keeping animals.

The fields were cleared of stone that were heaped up in piles. The oldest fields have been characterised by such spread heaps of stones and by rock knolls, which stuck up here and there. The Iron Age farmer had no combine harvester to bale his hay with. Piles of stones and rock were not in the way of cattle and ploughs and brought warmth to the soil and so were left to lie. The ploughed land was not insubstantial. Several of the Iron Age farms in Rogaland County had more than 100 decares of enclosed land.

In the home fields usually beside the farm courtyard itself lay the grave mounds, but rarely many. Very few of those who lived on the farm were buried in such mounds. The great majority of them - as is the case today - were buried in simple graves and forgotten as soon as their closest relatives died.

The grazing land and most of the mowed land which could otherwise not have been up to much, lay in the outer areas of the farm - outside the enclosed land. It was also here that the deciduous woods and woods for firewood lay. Leaves were an important item of fodder, especially for sheep and goats, and discoveries of leaf knives - sickles - from the graves show that leaves have been used far back in the Iron Age. 

These oldest Iron Age farms, with the big buildings and their many rooms, have often been interpreted as ancestral farms for large families. It was the family which owned  and ran the farm together, under the leadership of the headman and his wife. Together with them lived the married sons with their wives and children. Besides them there were servants and slaves.  This is the classic image of the extended family such as it is presented by many researchers. Finds from South West Norway in the period 200 AD to 600 AD have contributed to this image, which can very well be true, but which cannot be said to be wholly proven.

Even though few house sites from the older Iron Age have been found in Hordaland, it can very well be that they are there anyway. On the deserted farm of Volme in Etne house sites and grave mounds have been found which can date from that period, but they have not been investigated. Some large boathouse sites, like the one that lay at Bjelland on Stord, or which are still found on Stend in Fana have been dated as between 200 AD and 500 AD. A major farm must have been situated close by. Rich grave finds from the same period, in Sunnhordland, Hardanger, Voss and Nordhordland bear witness to fixed settlements with solid financial surpluses. The villages were beginning to grow up all over the County.

Population increase and clearing of the land

The last four centuries of prehistoric time from 600 AD to 1000 AD are distinct in many ways from the society we have just described. Much indicates that the extended family structure dissolved and that many of the big source farms were divided up into many, independent farms, used by lesser families.  Place names, site finds and grave finds bear witness to this.

Some of the reasons, both for the sub-division of farms and for the new construction in outer districts are thought to lie in the increasing populations in the later Iron Age. It was particularly in the Viking times that it seems that many new farms were established and clearance of new land continued through into the Middle Ages, up until the Black Death Plague and the depressed times in the middle of the 14th century broke up the settlement structure. Deserted farms such as Høybøen on Sotra, Lurekalven in Lindås, Hellug in Etne and Kikedalen in Fusa belong to this category.

Many farms with a person’s name as the first part of the name are thought to have their origins in the period between 600 AD and 1000 AD. The latter part of the name belongs to a later class of name such as – stad (village), -tveit (hollow), or – set. This was a new tradition of naming farms where the individual person asserted himself more forcibly and the individual came more clearly into the picture.  

The time of the petty kings and the viking times

Some people asserted themselves very strongly and the first half of this period was also the time when some families thrust themselves up to be an aristocracy where petty kings had control over several hamlets and entire districts. The title “the time of the petty kings” has been used to describe these two centuries just prior to the Viking times.

By way of a fertile tradition of legend whose remains are to found in ancient tales in the Icelandic medieval sagas, we gain a glimpse of the society which existed in the 7th and 8th centuries, before the formation of the national literary heritage and before the time of the Sagas. Much of this tradition is associated with Hordaland. These heroic lays as they were usually known, portray events, preferably of a romantic or a dramatic nature where marriage, murder and bloody revenge are central elements, and where named petty kings embark on voyages of conquest and subjugate other parts of the country. 

Even although much of this had the character of a legend even in Viking times, the archaeological material shows that the centres of power and wealth grew up in several places in Hordaland in the centuries just before the formation of the nation. Centres of this type grew up in the circle around the great old farms such as Fitjar, Seim and Lygra up until the Viking times.

It was probably from such centres that voyages of trade and devastation towards the west were organised. It was these families and their chieftains that Harald Hårfagre had as opponents at the battle of Hafrsfjord, and it was such farms that he took possession of, as royal farms, after the old families had been driven off.

The archaeological finds portray a skewed picture of the social situation in prehistoric times. The finds which tell us most - as in graves with many finds - are by no means an expression of the normal state of welfare in the farming society. It is usually the upper levels of society that we encounter in this way.

The Edda poem “Rigstula” perhaps gives a more representative portrayal of Viking society in its thought-provoking descriptions of the three pillars of society: the slave – the farmer - the chieftain.

The slave lives in a miserable hut, is ugly and filthy, bowed and wrinkled. He ties up bast rope, he binds up loads, he carries brushwood, he makes rustic fences, he spreads muck, he takes care of pigs, he tends goats and he digs up turf.  His food is heavy chunks of bread and bowls of meat broth.

Here the farmer is better off. He sits in his hall with shorn hair and beard, and tight-fitting shirt and has brought before him roast veal on the table and full dishes. He domesticates bulls, he makes wooden ploughs, he builds houses, He stacks things up, he forges carts and drives the plough. 

Highest in the social ranking is the chieftain in his halls with his roast fowl and his wine. He makes himself a bow and forges arrows, he owns many farms, exchanges gifts and distributes gold. The son of the chieftain practises suitable sports, mostly of a warlike type because he is going into the army and will conquer land.

Here we get a curious glimpse into the division of labour and the class distinctions within Norwegian farming society at the end of the heathen times. The slaves bore the heaviest burdens and performed the work that was not fit or proper for free farmers. With Christianity slavery was forbidden. The farmer and his servants had to do everything themselves after this.

The farming society we meet throughout the Middle Ages demonstrates many changes from what it was before. The population increase led to division of properties into smaller ownerships and users. The free, hereditary farmers became fewer. And an increasing number became tenants under new large property owners, that is the king, the Church, the monastery and the nobility.

The grave mound at Vikingnes

The grave mound at Vikingnes bears witness to the ancient power of the chieftain in outer Hardanger (Svein Nord).

Figures of ships are a common motif for rock inscriptions

Figures of ships are a common motif for rock inscriptions from the Bronze Age farming cultures. From Hammarhaug, Kvinnherad (Svein Nord).

Long boathouses

The long boathouse sites tell of the building style in the older Iron Age. This is how an artist sees the long ships boathouse at Bjelland on Stord (drawing: Frithjof Sælen, owner: University Museum in Bergen).

The leaf knife (sickle)

The leaf knife (sickle) is an old tool for harvesting which has not changed from the Viking times until today (Egil Korsnes, owner: Osterøy Museum).

Cattle and sheep and goats have shaped the landscape from the younger Stone Age until today

Cattle and sheep and goats have shaped the landscape from the younger Stone Age until today (rekonstruction: Stella East, 1993).

Burning the heath

Burning the heaths to provide green fodder in winter for browsing for sheep which go outdoors in winter has been a part of farming patterns in coastal agriculture for several thousand years (Peter Emil Kaland, 1971).

An Anglo-Saxon piece of jewellery

A memento from a Viking raid? An Anglo-Saxon piece of jewellery, found in Hardanger (Ann-Mari Olsen,owner: University Museum in Bergen (B 2017)).

Expedition to the wes

During the Viking times many farmers from Hordaland sought out new settlements on the North Sea islands. This is how the artist sees an expedition to the west from a Norwegian fjord towards the end of the 9th century. ; an attempt at a reconstruction based on archaeological finds and contemporary chronicles. A family takes their animals and tools on to the ship which in three week’ s time will bring them to a new home in Iceland, an island out in the great ocean (drawing (section): Åke Gustavsson, from: Almgren, B. et al. (1975) Vikingene. Oslo, Cappelen, s. 103.)

The ancient cultural landscape at Hellaug in Etne

The ancient cultural landscape at Hellaug in Etne with thousand year old house sites and piles of cleared stones (Svein Nord).

  • Hagen, A. (1990) Helleristningar i Noreg. Norsk kulturarv, nr. 23. Oslo, Samlaget.
  • Shetelig, H. (1930) Fra oldtiden til omkring 1000 e.Kr. Det Norske folks liv og historie gjennem tidene, bind 1. Oslo, Aschehoug.