Test Pit and Pitfall Archaeology II

17 September, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have Øivin Bakke’s annotated edition of Wilhlem Friman Koren’s (WFK’s) description of his tour on Hardangervidda in 1840.

On this tour WFK visited a number of sites among others Holsbu at the lake Nordmannslågen and Sumtangen at lake Finnsbergvatn (1). They were both characterized by pit houses with stone-built walls surrounded by middens full of reindeer bones. WFK was the first to survey these sites with an explicit antiquarian hypothesis and an archaeological commitment.

Bakke, Øivin. 1985. W. F. Korens innberetning fra Hardangervidda i 1840. Hardanger Årg. 1985:55-116.

In order to put Indrelid and Hufthammar’s (I&H’s) description of the reindeer drive at Sumtangen into perspective, I have translated a number of relevant texts mostly based on  Øivin Bakke (1985) (ØB).

The first written sources related to Sumtangen are the texts that were lost there during the Middle Ages. They are four inscriptions on reindeer bones, neatly published by I&H, who refer to James Knirk’s analyses.

Probably, most of these objects are tags. One is, beyond doubt (No 1), and two are optional (Nos 3 & 4). In No 3 the ‘me’ could refer to the bone knife, but also to a bundle of something if the knife sat in it. Artefact No 4, a flat bone with a name on it, may also signify the owner of a package belonging to Aslak. One inscription (No 2) is a common phrase when someone with a strong monotheistic belief wants to express the feeling that God’s power is present in a worldly situation – God is almighty similar to Allahu akbar. Ownership is in other words prominent in the texts and the reference to God as befitting as those to individual names and the wise Ottar. When God’s almightiness is felt there’s often some self-proclaimed human wisdom close at hand.

The texts befit a season of communal drives, a situation in which providence sends in the reindeer and a wisely guided well-composed team takes care of the prey – i.e. the situation we expect at Sumtangen. Primarily, the names and the tags signify ownership related to companions and shareholders in an enterprise – not wage labour – not a pair of hunters. Similar to fishing in a fjord, hunting in the mountains may thus be organized along the same principles – Norway being a land between sea and mountain into which Norwegians venture. If anything, the texts point to a traditional and locally organized communal hunt.

Between these medieval texts and WFK’s travelogue from July-August 1840 we hear nothing of the Sumtangen site. But already in 1838 farmers from Eidfjord found reindeer bones around ruined stone cottages on Hardangervidda (Christie 1842). To the farmers the antlers they found testified to the bones being the remains of slaughtered reindeer. One of the sites, Holsbu in the lake Nordmannslågen, was a well-known place where horses would graze when they, like the cattle, were driven over the mountains to South Easternmost Norway, e.g. Kongsberg, and sold (Bakke 1984; Nicolaysen 1861). Here the cottage had been visited in recent times. The farmers dug up the bones because they thought they could export them from Bergen selling them as a fertilizer and make a profit. Owing to transpotations costs, the plan wasn’t successful.

Unclear how, the reindeer bone middens in the mountains became known to Wilhlem Friman Koren Christie (Christie), one of the founding fathers of modern Norway.

A pillar of society, Christie had withdrawn from politics because of his health and in the late 1830s, among other engagements, he supervised the customs in Bergen (We may speculate that it was in this capacity he learned about the export of reindeer bone). A man of influence, he was also the founder of Bergens Museum. One of his central ideas concerning the earliest times in Norway was his conviction that the Sámi were its original inhabitants, and he immediately understood that Sumtangen could be the archaeological proof of this quite widespread idea. He intended to survey the sites himself, but his health preventing him he sent his nephew to do the job. As a stand-in, WFK was aware of and shared his uncle’s views. He knew beforehand that his tour would in all probability support them.

For a long time WFK was a student of theology, but eventually, 35 years old, he got his degree in 1838. He continued to live at home on the family farm Helleland with his parents, waiting for something to do. When he began his tour July 30 1840 he was accompanied by Lieutenant Herzberg and the farmer Amund Knudsen Oppedal. Amund knew the way to Nordmannslågen in his part of Hardangervidda, and brought a packhorse, which was eventually loaded with bones. Off they went into the mountains visiting shealings and mountain dairy farms and their pleasant dairy maids.

WFK is enthusiastic about the maids and takes pain to describe his sleeping quarters, over-obviously pointing out the way he made his bed and slept alone. Nevertheless, WFK is diligent and well-organized telling us about his rational undertakings in a long report. He sends his find material and the report to Bergen with Amund Oppedal in Novembre 1840. In his short article 1842, Christie acknowledges WFK’s survey and research on Hardangervidda. Just after his successful tour WFK became the ordinary raher than acting director of the roads in his home district (Odda and Røldal).

We find the very first piece of folklore concerning reindeer hunting in a short passage from WFK’s report. It is a parenthesis in the end of his description of the site at Holsbu, a spit with a mound in the lake Nordmannslågen. WFK last stop before Holsbu was the dairy farm Hadlaskard (or ‘Vægerdalen’) by the river Veig to which he returned after his two-day survey and test digging in the middens. On their way back to Hadlaskard they made a detour to Frisete where AKO had his fiancé. The trip was pleasant. In Hadlaskard, after excavating some hut remains without reindeer bone, he parted with AKO who went back with the finds to Helleland and continued, eventually to Sumtangen:

W F Koren 1840:21-22

‘/21/ Any legends /22/ or anything to tell about these last two mound[s] (at Holsbu) nobody knows, as far as I have been told, on the other hand, about the mound in which we excavated, I was told what during my last visit to them  they themselves told me, (i.e. after the dig, before the girls at Hadlaskard told him nothing, although they knew what he was looking for) namely that the reindeer were caught, by spanned strings/lines etc, when from the other side of the lake they wanted to swim to the opposite side where the mound lay. I gather that the lake was at its narrowest from the mound and across, but I believe 3 to 4 gun shots wide.’

Although this is a short note we understand that the reindeer wanted, i.e. were used to cross the lake at this point, their wishes being their habits. The strings etc. work like a coral, keeping the animals together. WFK doesn’t mention the hunting, because it is already taken for granted. There is, however, no reason for wild reindeer (nor indeed for horses and cattle) to cross the lake Nordmannslågen because grazing their way around lakes is what they do on their way south. But if we imagine that the tale has elements related to herding tame reindeer, stings, lines etc. as well as the forced and guided crossing of a lake or even more likely a river, is not wholly unreasonable.

WFK supplied the hunting scenario and he didn’t know that the distance was important when he was at the site. Actually, he calculates the swimming distance from what he recalls. Somehow when WFK asked, he was given information that he or his informants fitted into an already established frame story about successful reindeer drives. The information he gets echoes reindeer herding arranged to fit WFK’s narrative about hunting. The arrangement of the lines, strings etc and the way they worked is not very obvious to WFK.

During the rest of his tour, which ended August 10, WFK obviously didn’t offer ‘lines, strings etc’ much thought and afterwards, because he was busy writing his report, he also forgot to include what he found out about reindeer hunting when he arrived in Eidfjord before he went back to Helleland by boat. Since went on an eight week road inspection immediately after his return August 10, he started to write his report in Octobre and finished it Novembre 11. A week after sending in his report he remembers what he has forgotten and sends his uncle a letter as an addition to his report.

‘Helleland the 20th day Novb

Dear Uncle
The haste in which I penned the report submitted by me with the letter, in order to have it send with Knud Oppedal, caused me to forget to tell You a legend that I succeeded inquiring about in Eidfjord concerning the bone heaps in Findsedalen
(i.e. the valley at Finnsbergvatn/Sumtangen), this hereby I report. In addition to the fact that the legend to which I pointed in the report submitted, concerning the bone heap at Nordmannalougen (Nordmannslågen), accounts also for the bone [h]eaps at Findsedalen, I was also told about the latter place one, which said that the last ones to have dwelled by these heaps were two brothers. For those, the legend says, no animal had for a very long time showed itself seeking to pass the commonly used ford or crossed it, and when one evening they were troubled by this, one of them eventually said that tomorrow so many animals would come that nobody would be able to remember having seen more, /new page/ the other derided this, but when the morning came, what was predicted to happen came to pass and thus a great many animals were killed. Now the kill was to be shared between the two brothers, but during the division and concerning it, there occurred some disagreement in which one brother killed the other; after that the survivor fled from the place.’

The situation when WFK came down to Eidfjord was the following: WFK started by checking what he already knew about reindeer hunting. Holdbu and Sumtangen are both situated on spits in lakes and it stands to reason that his questions led the informants to answer in the affirmative and, similar to what happened in the mountain dairy farm, the informants offered additional information. This time, when there was no need for technical enhancement, except perhaps for calling the passage the ‘commonly used ford’, the addition was cognitive in scoop, indirectly commenting upon the (bad) morals and mentality of hunters. This is a point of view we expect from farmers living down at the fjord far from mountain hunters. Since WFK and others before him had found large numbers of bones the story explains this apparent waste by referring to a situation that negates the moral maxim ‘Nothing must be wasted’ inasmuch as everything was wasted.

Pointing out the stressed situation that may well occur when people are hunting reindeer in the mountains is not in itself a bad idea, and the runic inscriptions from Sumtangen can be seen as ways of controlling such a situation. Of course the tale doesn’t say how many animals there were. It just implies that they were too many. And what is ‘many’ to two hunters?

ØB’s note to WFK’s page 22 describes how Christie had already told WFK about the way reindeer were hunted in drives and killed in water. Later, in the autumn 1840, after WFK had returned and send in his report, and probably after his letter of Nov 20, Christie writes a note about reindeer hunting and the Finn’s (i.e. the Sámi’s) communal drives, with Sumtangen and Holsbu in mind. In this note where WFK’s information is crucial, he says that reindeer are catched by lines in the water and refers to Leem 1767 and his descriptions of the reindeer drives of the Sámi in Finnmarka in Scandinavia. Leem, however, says nothing about using lines when driving or killing reindeer. It is obvious that Christie tries to come up with a rational way of explaining the lines and strings, because in some way he believed they existed although they were absent from all his other sources. In fact if he could incorporate them it would be his contribution to the discussion of ancient hunting techniques, since nobody had heard about lines, strings etc.

To inform us about the common antiquarian knowledge about reindeer drives the following quotation from Cranz 1767:71  is telling. Having noticed, page 70, that the reindeer had become very few during the last years, i.e. noticed the population cycle at work, Cranz continues: ‘and the Greenlanders caught them by a kind of clapper-hunt; that is the women and children surrounded a certain space of land, and where people were wanting, they set up logs of wood covered with turf on the top to look like men, and thus marching forward frightened them, till they drove them into a narrow defile or pass, where the hunters killed them with their darts; or the women drove them down to the side of a some bay, and then hunted them into the water, where the men killed them with harpoons and darts.

This passage describes (1) the small dryland hunt where logs may parade as clappers and the family members marched the herd into the ambush where some will die and others escape, and (2) the communal hunt where the animals were forced into the water where several hunters lay in wait for them. The latter is the hunt that to Christie and WFK fitted Holsbu and especially the sloping Sumtangen landscape.

Twenty years after WFK, the archaeologist Nicolay Nicolaysen (NN) walks up to Sumtangen (which he calls Sundtangen, ‘the spit by the sound’) and his purpose is to confirm his archaeological opinion that the ruined cottages or huts, and the archaeological material around them, are (much) less than 2000 years old and thus not related to the first Norwegians or Finns. NN follows the traditional route, marked with small cairns, from the farm Maursæt northeast towards Finsedal. NN listens to stories about Sumtangen before he leaves the farm Garen. At Maursæt he meets the guide that accompanied WFK. This man tells NN about the artefacts found in 1840. Cleverly, he points out what NN wants to hear, namely about the iron artefacts, but adds that owing to extensive digging, there is probably nothing left. First this perfect informant supports. Then he hints that NN is lucky if he finds anything and if he finds nothing, he can blame the irresponsible robbers. Whatever happens, the archaeologist NN will be as confirmed as once upon a time the antiquarian WFK – their guides will guide them.

NN adds an ethno-archaeological component to Sumtangen, focusing on the small units, the two or three men that hunted or lived in the mountains in recent times. Seemingly NN doesn’t know the prejudiced tale that WFK told Christie in his letter, and probably the people at Garen or Maursæt wouldn’t have supplied it because they or their people were the obvious paragons. NN sees these units as model – staying in the mountains during the summer and perhaps sometimes all year round or hunting with guns in the autumn. This notion of ‘two or three men’ in the past is obviously inspired by his three informants, who presently are just that kind of men.

Nicolaysen 1861:21-22

Especially the night I stayed at Garen I had a good opportunity to discuss these matters (i.e. his own: the chronology of Sumtangen and the identity of those who lived there). To begin with, except for some other people, there was the owner of the farm, a clever man and a leader in the parish, a stout fellow, tall, muscle-strong, blonde and with a markedly Germanic profile. His complete opposite was a Finn from Jämtland (Sweden), and in-between the two my guide, of short growth, dark-skinned with a somewhat flat face. The first and the last were precisely the two, who in 1847, when a number of people in the valley had made a consortium, were sent to Jämtland where they bought a herd of tame reindeer which they brought along to Eidfjord (there were tame reindeer in Eidfjord already in 1840). In their company then they had the Finn, who was later married to the sister of the first. Owing to the question which in recent times has been on the agenda, about the mixing of different kinds of human beings, I would have liked to have had a look at the Finn’s children, but unfortunately he had none. These three men all spent several years in the mountain above Maursæt and herded the reindeer, but today none of these are left, since most of them were destroyed by wolves and avalanches, of which one took 170 animals, and the rest became wild again.

Having heard this, NN asks these his three model mountaineers, who they thought had once lived at Sumtangen. To NN it is worth pointing points out that the Finn had little to say, although he did speak Norwegian. The two other men nevertheless suggested the Finns, and thus ultimately the first Norwegians (although they themselves were not Finns). Bullying them a little NN demonstrates that ‘Finns’ is the wrong answer and indicates that they are themselves model Sumtangen dwellers – his ethno-archaeological proof so to speak. Now that NN had proved that the Garen and Maursæt people were the disciples of Christie and WFK, the subject changed and they told NN ‘a strange local legend’, i.e. strange to those present, about Sumtangen and the lines: ‘the people up there had set up lines between the two afore-mentioned points (the Sundtangerne—Sound Spits;we have only heard about one spit), and in that way caught the reindeer, when they came swimming over the water’ ( NN 1861:23). Without understanding that this tale too is an echo of WFK, his Hadlaskard tale, NN believes it as far as it may support his own archaeological observations (NN 1861:25f.).

The next day at Sumtangen, when NN’s guide starts to excavate NN is most pleased, since every time this guide from Garen and Maursæt cries out, he has found something that fits NN’s understanding of the site. What a coincidence!

In the early 1880s, Thrond Sjursen Haukenæs advertised in the press announcing his intension to collect folklore. He got a good response and not surprisingly among the informants from Eidfjord to whom he extended his thanks there was an Asbjørn Maursæt (2). Haukenæs compiles everything he is told and mistakes the trapping pits that one passes on the way to Sumtangen for the site itself – compiling and pooling secondary sources being his method. As ØB remarks Haukenæs cannot have visited Sumtangen.

Haukenæs 1884:188-191

In the Findset Valley at that place, which is called the Grave Glen (the glen with the trapping pits) and situated at the narrow sound, which the lake forms (i.e. the Finset Lake), there were built several such trapping pits, and here the hunters had the best success. In order to lead the animals to the trapping pits one had erected two rows of small cairns that are still to be seen and on top of them one had stretched strong lines. These paths became narrow at the pits, but had a considerable width outwards towards the mountains. In the end of the strings there were small bells which rang when the strings were touched. When the animals came into these paths they were fenced on both sides and packed more and more together towards the pits. If they touched the strings the bells rang and frightened them into a wild escape towards their own destruction. Those who did not fall into the trapping pits ran into the water in order to swim across the narrow sound; here however, the hunters had built a wall, which is still visible – which sealed off one side, and on the other side a man lay concealed in a boat with large iron hooks, which he chopped into the animals, dragged them ashore and killed them. Two men were always together in these hunts – one in the mountain driving the animals in the right direction, the other at the water looking after the graves and the boat.

The only thing Haukenæs didn’t manage to fit in, was the prejudiced story about the brothers. From Maursæt informants, he wasn’t likely to hear about them and in Haukenæs (1884) only the brutality of the kill echoes the uncivilized. Otherwise everything folkloristic is crammed into the description from the strings and lines anchored at Hadlaskard to NN’s hunting men paragoned at Garen.

It is easy to follow the development of this piece of folklore from 1838 to 1860, into Haukenæs’ fabrication of the seemingly factual. Since Koren, Nicolaysen and Haukenæs weren’t up to anthropological standards when it comes to interviewing informants, the legend contains elements brought in by chance or misunderstanding, as answers to leading questions, for good measure, or as moral gossip. As folklore, the legend is based on an interaction between farmers and researchers, the latter asking the questions of each their generation, the second criticizing the first, with little concern for source criticism. Apparently it falls to NN to be the first in a series.

There are no indications in the tales of any communal hunt. All the hunting techniques are used by a few men only. Except for what Christie and Koren and perhaps Nicolaysen knew about communal reindeer drives there is nothing to support the notion of mass kill in what the farmers and dairy maids told anyone. All the supposed facts are related to two or three men hunting what they themselves and perhaps their horse could carry. Perhaps they buried some of the catch under stones coming back for it later. NN was shown five such fastingar (fasting: a pit where one buries and protects a butchered animal under large stones later to recover it, Nicolaysen 1860:24). These pits were next to the hut from the Roman Iron Age.

I&H summarize their understanding of the above texts in the following way:

According to a local legend, written down for the first time c.1840 by W. F. K. Christie, the founder of Bergens Museum (referred in Bakke, 1985), a mass kill of reindeer took place in the sound in ancient times. Herds of migrating reindeer were diverted towards the northern lake shore by means of drift fences made of long rows of human-like, closely spaced stone cairns or wooden sticks or poles creating funnel-shaped systems. Floating lines were stretched out in the water, preventing the animals from swimming to the sides and escaping. Hunters in boats killed the animals in the water and dragged them ashore at Sumtangen where they were butchered. The stone huts and the middens are believed to be traces of this mass hunt (Haukenæs, 1884; Bøe, 1942; Blehr, 1973, 1982; Bakke, 1985).I&H:46.

Nevertheless! the legend wasn’t local it was essentially created in response to WFK’s and NN’s leading questions in order to confirm they hypotheses. In the legend there are no mass killings or migrating reindeer; just reindeer, many or few, belonging to the landscape being hunted by two or three men. WFK (and Chtistie) is the origin of the communal hunt. There’s a lot of presence in the legends and no specific ancient times. The enigmatic lines, strings etc. are used in no less than four different ways: as floating fences by the maids and people at Hadlaskard, killing reindeer for Christie, catching reindeer for Nicolaysen (unknowingly echoing Hadlaskard and Koren) and connecting cairns for Haukenæs. Haukenæs’ description of Sumtangen refers to a place that doesn’t exist and consists of an uncritical mixture of biased and misunderstood information. There is common agreement that stone huts or pit houses with stone walls on Hardangervidda are huts, perhaps hunting cottages, not specific signs of mass hunt.

As usual, the primary texts, the four runic inscriptions, are the most reliable. They indicate communal hunts with several hunters, who weren’t close friends – some wise, some God-fearing. When it comes to understanding the Middle Ages, one would have thought that a hundred years ago source criticism would have made it impossible ever to give scientific credit to legends such as the ones concerning Sumtangen. Cnce again, now that credit has been given we can confirm that new and precise scientific descriptions, this time in osteology rather than DNA (cf. OtRR 28 May 2012), have prompted poor quality historical analysis.



(1)  In the late 1830s the settlement discussed in Test Pit and Pitfall Archaeology I had no name. It was a site at Findsevattnet today’s Finnsbergvatn below the Finn mountain. If Sumtangen had been an original name it would have been interesting because it is a compound combining the words Sum + tangen. As it happens it is a creation from the 19th c. created to fit the legend about the site. The imperfect of the verb symja – sym’ – sumde – sumt,which means to swim, but also, in its transitive form, to make someone swim across something, e.g. Symje Hesten over Elv’a– ‘to swim the horse across the river’. The second link is the noun ‘tange’ a spit. As it stands today it is a purposeful construction, giving undeserved credit to 19th c. folklore.

(2) Asbjørn Maursæt of whom there is a modern legend, in the Hardanger dialect, telling us that this great hunter and mountaineer and a boy from Kvamme managed to shoot no less than six reindeer when they ambushed a herd of hundred.


Bakke, Ø, 1985. W.F. Korens innberetning fra Hardangervidda i 1840. Hardanger, Årgang 1985: 54-116.
Crantz, David. 1767. The history of Greenland containing a description of the country, and its inhabitants. Translated from the High-Dutch. Vol I. London : printed for the Brethren’s Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel among the Heathen: and sold by J. Dodsley; T. Becket and P. A. de Hondt; and T. Cadell, successor to A. Millar; W. Sandby; S. Bladon; E. and C. Dilly; and at all the Brethren’s chapels.
Christie, W.F.K. 1842. Spoer af finske eller lappiske Folks Ophold i Oldtiden paa Høifjeldene i Bergens Stift. Urda 2:4:408-409.
Haukenæs, Th. S. 1884. Natur, Folkeliv og Folketro i Hardanger. Part one. Eidfjord.
Leem, Knud. 1767. Knud Leems Beskrivelse over Finmarkens lapper. Deres tungemaal, levemaade og forrige afgudsdyrkelse, med J.E. Gunneri Anmærkninger. Kiøbenhavn. Trykt udi det Kongel. Wäysenhuses Bogtrykkerie af G.G. Salikath..
Nicolaysen, N.1861. Reiseberetning, indsendt til det akademiskeKollegium. Foreningen til Norske Fortidsmindesmerkers Bevaring, Kristiania. Aarsberetning 1860:5-36.


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