Discovering Who's Buried in Halvdan's Tomb


  • By WALTER GIBBS

    OLE, Norway -- Something is moving inside a Viking burial mound said to be the ninth-century tomb of King Halvdan the Black. But some archeologists are loath to enter, warning that whatever is in there could dissolve the spell of enchantment that helped make Norway a nation.

    A recent subsidence in the large, man-made hillock 30 miles northwest of Oslo has set off a debate over the urgency and propriety of excavating the site to save what could be the richest archeological cache in Scandinavia. Ground-penetrating radar and core samples indicate the likely presence of a 75-foot-long, rapierlike wooden Viking ship and other treasures that could tell Norwegians much about the period when they terrorized the hemisphere.

    Viking ships have been exhumed before, but a local historian calls this one "Norway's Noah's Ark" because of Halvdan the Black's pivotal role in the ancient sagas and skaldic poems that form the basis of Norwegian historical identity. Schoolchildren learn that Halvdan was a powerful regional king who drowned in 860 when his horse-drawn sleigh plunged through the ice of Rands Fjord. They learn that he, or at least his head, was buried in a mound in Ringerike (modern-day Hole), and that his charismatic son, Harald Fairhair, became the first ruler of a unified Norway before the turn of the century.

    The county's official archeologist urges an immediate excavation, saying a four-inch sinkage that she detected over five years could reflect the decomposition of large artifacts in the mound. Local political leaders are bursting with curiosity and eager to attract tourists with a new Viking ship museum. By contrast, most archeologists senior enough to conduct such a dig have shown restraint.

    "I want to save it for the future," said Dr. Arne Emil Christensen, 63, Norway's top authority on Viking ships.

    "We are not the last generation of archeologists. The people succeeding us should also have some fun."

    He downplayed the tomb's apparent slow-motion collapse and said Norway lacked the money, expertise and facilities to excavate in a style worthy of the site. But there is more to the issue. In interviews, several scholars said they feared that a sensational dig could traumatize some Norwegians by "puncturing" their founding lore.

    "The mythological starting point of a nation is dangerous ground to enter," said Christian Keller, an archeologist at the Center for Viking and Nordic Medieval Studies at the University of Oslo, who opposes excavation. "This is not just science. It is national psychology."

    Halvdan the Black, named for his dark hair, is best known through "Heimskringla," the colorful and bloody sagas of the Norse kings as recorded by the wandering Icelandic sage Snorri Sturluson in the early 1200's. Today Snorri's work stands beside the Bible on many Norwegian bookshelves and is the primary historical record of Norway through the year 1177.

    Snorri's account of 26 Norse rulers predating Halvdan is clearly fanciful, starting as it does with the god Odin. But the narrative turns abruptly concrete with "The Saga of Halvdan the Black" and grows in detail and believability with his son Harald's conquests and the treachery of his grandson, Erik Blood-Axe. Snorri describes the evolution of Norway as a European state and sheds light on Viking raids and excursions as far afield as "Vinland," which many historians believe is the coast of Newfoundland.

    Only in the 1990's have literary historians somewhat sacrilegiously begun to speculate that Halvdan the Black and other figures of his age were invented or embellished by medieval court poets before Snorri's time. The motive: to strengthen the rule of Harald and his descendants by extending the royal lineage backward.

    Excavating the mound that bears Halvdan's name could prove he existed and that his contemporaries revered him. But Norwegians must also brace themselves for the possibility that archeologists will find instead the remains of a woman, or a runic inscription wishing happy journey to an Otto or Torleif. One expert predicts that the mound's contents will predate Halvdan by hundreds of years, while others worry that the site will be an archeological dud, plundered centuries ago.

    Eighteen feet high and 177 feet in diameter, the mound remains the symbol of power that its builders intended. With a crown of birch trees it looms over the barley and rapeseed fields of Stein farm, whose owner, Jan Fredrik Hornemann, is a recent convert to the pro-excavation forces. "At first, I felt protective of the old stories," Hornemann said. "But now, with all the talk, I'm curious."

    Last year's core samples turned up bits of leather, feathers and down in addition to crafted wood. If the shiplike form revealed by radar is a vessel, it could be in good condition because the mound is made of bluish clay that keeps moisture in and oxygen out. The effect of several badger tunnels, however, is of some concern.

    Norwegian archeologists have not excavated a ship since 1904, but they often cooperate with Danish colleagues who have superior expertise in wood conservation technology and in dendrochronology, the science of analyzing tree growth rings to date wooden objects. Since 1962, Danish experts have recovered more than a dozen sunken medieval vessels.

    Archeologists excavating a ship must work feverishly to transfer newly exposed wood to a special solution in a tank before it can dry and shrink. All items have to bathe in warm, waxy polyethylene glycol for two years, then, ideally, undergo freeze drying for up to six months in a vacuum chamber. Reassembling the vessel for display can take two more years.

    Eventually an expert must saw out cross sections of the preserved wood to determine its age. Given a chance, a dendro-chronologist could knock Halvdan the Black off his timeline or even relegate him to the fiction shelf.

    Dr. Niels Bonde, head of dendrochronology at Denmark's National Museum, can tell the exact year an ancient tree was felled. If he gets a sample with the outermost ring intact, he can even specify the season. He does so by comparing the ring pattern of his sample with master ring chronologies dating back four millenniums and covering all of northern Europe. "It is similar to having a key and looking for the right hole," Bonde said.

    Computer search programs and steadily expanding databases are helping scientists to pin down the dates with even greater certainty. Dr. Bonde once used dendrochronology to dash Norwegian expectations. Norwegian archeologists had believed that the remains of a woman from a spectacular Viking ship grave excavated in 1904 could be those of Queen Aase, supposedly Halvdan the Black's mother. But in 1992, when Bonde examined a tree trunk from the woman's midship burial chamber, he easily pegged her death to the summer of 834 -- about 15 years too early for Queen Aase.

    Because Snorri wrote his history long after Halvdan's purported lifetime, the burial date of 860 may not be exact. But if Halvdan was Harald Fairhair's father and the mound in Hole was built upon his death, wood samples from the burial chamber must come from within a generation of certain well-documented battles that Harald fought.

    Today, the region surrounding Hole is filled with Halvdan devotees like Gudmund Hvattum, a school psychologist turned Viking skald. His latest Halvdan the Black musical will soon be performed atop Halvdan's Mound by the local theater troupe and a choir of 60 Valkyries, maidens who conduct the souls of heroes killed in battle to Valhalla.

    "It is fascinating to have such a mound in our midst," Hvattum said. "It fires the imagination."

    Inger Liv Goytil Lund, the archeologist for Buskerud County and a passionate proponent of excavating, said her colleagues have been too timid in response to the subsidence of Halvdan's Mound. But even she had to pause and ask, "What if we ruin the myth? Will we ever be forgiven by our descendants?"