Map of the Surrounding Area
Utgravingsområde: Excavation Site Area
Artist: Kari Støren Binns.
In 2011, a heathen hof (Gude Hovet) was
discovered by chance within a housing construction site at Ranheim
in Sør-Trøndelag, about 10 km north of Trondheim. The discovery
is the first ever made in these latitudes. Pre-Christian
cult sites in Scandinavia, often consisting of settlements with
a large central hall and a smaller attached building have
been discovered in eastern Denmark, Central and Southern Sweden
(Skåne), but not in Norway.
The Hof may have been built sometime around the year 400 AD, and
thus been in use for hundreds of years. The site was
disassembled and buried under a thick layer of peat moss, around
the time Christianity became the dominant religion in the area.
The pagan sanctuary survived because the people who used it more
than 1000 years ago, hid the entire complex under an unusually
thick layer of soil, so thick that a plow could never reach deep
enough to destroy it. Earlier, drainage ditches had been dug
through the area, but without detecting what lay to the right
and left of the trenchs. Thanks to the quality of the soil, the
temple was preserved remarkably well.
excavated Hof in the form of the circular stone setting
with an opening.
The earthen wall to the rear shows how
thick layers of soil were once placed
over the temple to conceal it.
(Photo: Preben Rønne)
When archaeologists began the excavation, they
initially thought it was a flat burial mound with a main pit and
one or more secondary graves. But as they went, a rough heap
emerged. Near the center of the site, they acknowledged that it
was not a burial mound, but a sacrificial altar, called a
hörg, in Old Norse sources. According to
Preben Rønne of the Science Museum/NTNU in Trondheim, who led
the excavations, the find was also easy to interpret as a pagan
temple from Norse sources.
The Hof site consists of a stone "altar", traces of a pole
building which probably housed idols in the form of poles with
carved faces, and a procession route. The youngest dating of the
site is from the years 895 and 990 AD, precisely the time
Christianity was introduced by heavy-handed means in Norway.
Around this time, many people migrated to Iceland or other North
Atlantic islands. The largest exodus of people who would retain
their freedom and not allow themselves to be coverted to
the new religion occurred from the Trøndelag area. Between AD
870 and 930, the largest part of them migrated to Iceland. In
all, 40 people are specifically mentioned
as hailing from Norway in the Norse sources. In Iceland, their
descendants later wrote a large number of these sources. That
the stakes of the pole building were removed, and the "altar"
carefully covered with peat and clay, during the transition to
Christianity, suggests that the site was intentionally
dismantled and buried, perhaps to avoid desecration.
Conceptual Drawing of the Ancient Site
Artist: Kari Støren Binns, 2011
The "altar" consisted of a flat circular stone about 15
feet in diameter and almost a meter high. A pole building a few
meters away was rectangular, 5.3 x 4.5 meters in the ground
floor and carried by 12 pillars, each with a heavy stone
foundation, indicating that it may have been tall. The building
was not used as a dwelling. Among other things, it had no
fireplace. Inside the house, traces of four posts, may be
evidence of a high seat.
Occupied from the 5th or 6th until the 10th centuries AD, the
site shows signs of animal sacrifice.
Under the altar, a fire pit lays a directly on the
prehistoric plow layer. The charcoal from this pit was dated to
400-500 AD. The site thus may have been regarded as sacred or at
least had a special status long before the stone altar was
built. In the prehistoric plow layer under the fire pit, traces
of furrows made with an ard, the precursor to the plow, could
clearly be seen.
(Photo: Preben Rønne)
Atop the sacrificial altar, two glass beads were
found during the excavation. Also discovered were some
burnt bones and traces of a wooden box that had been filled with
reddish gravel and broken boiling stones. Among the bones, a
human skull and several human teeth were identified.
The Procession Road west of the temple, headed straight to the
pole building, was marked with two parallel rows of large stones,
the longest run at least 25 feet long.
Evidence indicates that the people who deliberately covered the
temple at Ranheim, took the stakes from the house with them —
perhaps to the place where they
settled in order to raise a new heathen temple.
In the Eyrbyggja saga, ch. 2-4,
we find a similar scene:
"Bjorn boarded a skiff he owned, taking his household and
goods with him, and sailed south along the coast of Norway.
...He sailed until he came to the island of Moster, which
lies off of southern Hordaland, and there was received by a
man named Hrolf.
"..Hrolf was a prominent chieftain and a man of great
largesse. He maintained a temple to Thor on the island and
was a great friend of Thor's. It was because of this that he
was known as Thorolf. He was a big man and handsome and
strong and he sported a huge beard, which led to him being
"...Thorolf Moster-beard held a great sacrifical feast
during which he consulted his dear friend Thor about whether
he should reconcile himself with the king or leave the
country and seek another fate. The oracle directed Thorolf
to Iceland. He got himself an ocean-going ship and prepared
it for the journey to Iceland, taking with him his household
and all his goods. Many of his friends decided to go on the
journey with him. He dismantled the temple and transported
most of its timbers, together with earth from underneath the
pedestal on which Thor had been placed.
"...Thorolf then sailed out to sea with a fair wind and came
within sight of land sailing then west along the southern
coast and around cape Reykjanes. The wind dropped and they
could see on the shore where broad fjords cut into the land.
Thorolf cast overboard the high-seat pillars which had been
in his temple, one of which had Thor carved on it. Thorolf
declared that he would settle in Iceland in whatever place
Thor directed the pillars to land. As soon as the pillars
were thrown overboard, they were swept towards the more
westerly of the fjords and seemed to travel faster than
might be expected.
"...He put in to land halfway along the southern shore of
the fjord and anchored his ship in a cove there, which has
since been named Hofsvog. After that they explored the area
and found that Thor and the pillars were already ashore at
the tip of the headland north of the cove. The headland has
been called Thorsnes ever since.
"..Then Thorolf carried fire around his land-claim, from the
Stafa river as far as the river he named Thorsa (Thor's
river). He established settlements for his crew and set up a
large farm by the cove, Hofsvog, which he called Hofstadir.
There he had a temple built and it was a sizeable building,
with a door on the side-wall near the gable. The high-seat
pillars were placed inside the door, and nails, that were
called holy nails were driven into them. Beyond that point,
the temple was a sanctuary. At the inner end there was a
structure similar to the choir in churches nowadays and
there was a raised platform in the middle of the floor like
an altar, where a ring weighing twenty ounces and fashioned
without a join was placed, and all oaths had to be sworn on
this ring. It also had to be worn by the temple priest at
all public gatherings. A sacrificial bowl was placed on the
platform and in it a sacrificial twig — like a priest's
aspergillum — which was used to sprinkle blood from the
bowl. This blood, which was called sacrificial blood, was
the blood of live animals offered to the gods. The gods were
placed around the platform in the choir-like structure
within the temple. All the farmers had to pay a toll to the
temple and they were obliged to supoport the temple goði in
all his campaigns, just as thingmen are now obliged to do
for their chieftain. The temple goði was responsible for the
upkeep of the temple and ensuring it was maintained
properly, as well as for holding sacrificial feasts in it."
(Translated by Judy Quinn, The Complete Sagas of the
Icelanders, Vol. V. )
Because the findings fit so well together with the Norse
sources, the sources are likely more reliable than many
scientists now believe.
Aerial photo over
Ranheim-utgravingen Summer 2010.
Photo: NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet.
The Ranheim sanctuary was permanently removed to make way for
The Ranheim Site
2 December 2011
Aftenposten, 23 December 2011: "Fant
hedensk helligdom uten sidestykke"
FreeThought Nation, 16 March 2012: "Archaeologists
unearth 'unparalleled' pre-Christian temple in Norway"