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Tjernagelshaugen – the old sailing landmark along the shipping lane – was removed in 1983. (Svein Indrelid).

For almost three thousand years Tjernagelshaugen (the Tjernagel cairn) has lain as a landmark at the Bømlo fjord. The poet Torarin mentions the cairn in his account of Knut the Mighty, who in the year of 1028 sailed from Denmark to Nidaros: “And in front of the old cairn at Tjernagel sailed soldiers sharp with peace”.

Up until 1983 the Tjernagelshaugen was still standing. It stood where the short wave mast at Tjernagel now stands. As a result of the building plans of the Directorate of Telecommunications the protection was revoked by the Ministry of the Environment, and everything was removed after Bergen Museum of History had excavated the cairn. The cairn, or mound of stones, as is a more correct term, was at its biggest 23 m across and up to 2½m high, built of small boulders. Almost 400m³ of material was heaped together in this burial monument, which was one of the biggest on the coast of Hordaland. The archaeologists found three graves in the Tjernagel mound. Two of them were stone coffins, the third only a collection of burned human and animal bones at the bottom of the mound. Charcoal, found together with the bones show that this grave is from the middle of the Bronze Age, nearly 1000 years BC. The two stone coffins are younger. Charcoal found inside one of them is dated to the time around Christ’s birth . it is thought that the other coffin is somewhat younger.

No old artefacts were found in any of the three graves. Whatever might have been there of burial gifts has long since disintegrated and has disappeared long ago. Of the dead only the burned bones from the bottom grave and two small pieces of bone in the more recent stone coffin. Tjernagelhaugen is a mound of the type that has been very common along the coast. Many of them can be dated to the Bronze Age, but the two stone coffins in Tjernagelshaugen show that such burial monuments also were used in the Iron Age. The mound has been added to several times, at each of the younger burials. The last time a finely built dry stone dyke of flat stones was added on the seaward side, perhaps to give the impressive monument an even more dominant aspect.

For a hundred generations the mound was left in peace as a landmark for the seafarers. But our generation did not find that it could afford to keep it any longer. We were the last ones to see Tjernagelshaugen. At the administrative centre for the shortwave transmitters the bottom layer with the two stone coffins has been reconstructed.


Tjernagel is a name with a historic ring. The first time we hear the name is in the poem Tøgdråpa by the Icelandic poet Torarin Lovtunge. The poem can be found in three history books: Fornmannasogar, Flateyarbok and Soga om Olav den heilage (The History of St. Olav). There Tjernagel is written Hiernagla (genitive) or in similar forms, but in all of them with H in the first sound. The meaning of the word is “sword nail”, here mostly used for a hillock that can be compared with a sword nail. Writing the name with Tj first came into use in the 1600s.

Cairns along the way

Many burial monuments from prehistoric times are associated with the farm, with farmyard, grazing fields, cornfields and hayfields. They are often located beside old cornfields. We have to think that some of these cairns also served a practical function in addition to hiding the dead. It was a practical way of getting rid of clearing stones from the fields.But there is also another group of prehistoric burial monuments with a completely different extension; large cairns situated in outer fields, far removed from people, without apparent connection with farms and cultivated land.We find them both on the coast and in the fjords. The lie on promontories and rocky outcrops, often on bare and high rocks by the sea. We call them “coast cairns”. Popular tradition has often linked the name “monks’ cairns” to them, but they have nothing to do with monks, because the coast cairns are much older than Christianity in our country.


The oldest coast cairns were built in the early Bronze Age between 3500 and 3000 years ago. In some of them there have been object that have been possible to date, but most regularly there is only an empty burial casket left. The rest, both remains of the dead and whatever that person has been buried with, has disappeared. Water and air have been freely available to the burial chamber between the stones in the cairn.Some coast cairns may be large and tall, 15 to 20 metres across or more and several metres high. We may wonder why people chose such out-of-the-way places for burial, especially since the work with the construction had so little practical application. Because here there was no corn to be sown. They were out of the way – for the people looking out from the farm. But for the people travelling along the sea, the cairns were centrally placed. On long stretches of the Hordaland fjord, there are burial cairns on almost every second headland. They lie there as fine sailing guides and mark the direction north. Were they of the same people, those who built the coast cairns and those who buried their dead on the side of the fields? We don’t know, and will perhaps never know. They keep tight hold of their secrets, the cairns along the lane.

  • Ringstad, B. (1985) Tjernagelhaugen. Arkeologiske rapporter, 9, s. 97-145.