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An X-ray examination of the copper plate shows a church building with a tower and roof, columns, and windows.
An X-ray examination of the copper plate shows a church building with a tower and roof, columns, and windows.

Cathedral's lost treasures uncovered

For 500 years, it was believed that everything was sent to Denmark and melted down during the Reformation. Now, it appears that the reliquary of Stavanger's patron saint never left the cathedral.

On 2 July 1517, St. Swithun’s Day, Stavanger's last Catholic bishop, Hoskuld, entered the cathedral's north sacristy with four trusted men.

He wished to create a list of all the cathedral's relics in the presence of witnesses. Most notably, the reliquary containing a fragment of an arm bone of the city's patron saint, St. Swithun of Winchester. 

507 years later, archaeologists from the University of Stavanger's Museum of Archaeology may have found the remains of the reliquary hidden in the cellar at the base of the Stavanger Cathedral’s north tower. 

The archaeologists link these findings to St. Swithun's reliquary.
The archaeologists link these findings to St. Swithun's reliquary.

X-ray examinations

The find consists of a gilded copper panel measuring five by ten centimetres. It has small nail holes along the edges which indicate that it has been attached to a larger, wooden object.

Associated with this panel, archaeologists also recovered a gilded silver medallion, decorated with an animal motif and bearing similar nail holes, and several decorative glass ornaments. 

"We were very surprised when we carried out an X-ray examination of the copper plate. The image clearly reveals a church building with a tower and roof, columns and windows," conservator Bettina Ebert says.

According to the archaeologists, all these finds may have belonged to the reliquary of St. Swithun. 

A sensational find 

The excavation was carried out by a research team from the Musuem of Archaeology, led by Sean Denham. He was accompanied by researchers Margareth Hana Buer and Bettina Ebert. 

"For the church and the city, this find is a sensation," Denham says.

According to historical sources, Stavanger's first bishop, an Englishman named Reinald, brought the arm bone of St. Swithun with him, perhaps as early as the year 1112. The cathedral was dedicated to St. Swithun when it was completed around the year 1125.

The relic was then placed on the high altar. 

"The arm bone of St. Swithun was valuable and would have been carefully wrapped in beautiful cloth and then placed in a gold casket with precious stones in beautiful colours. There were several such reliquary boxes, shaped like houses, in Norway in the Middle Ages, but few have been preserved," senior researcher Buer explains. 

The items were found by a research team during an excavation in Stavanger Cathedral.

The Reformation sought to eradicate all Catholic 'superstition'. This included the removal and destruction of all treasures in the cathedral.

The results of this most recent excavation suggest to researchers that a number of these treasures were hidden in the cellar in order to save them from destruction. 

Found by chance 

It was the chance discovery of a 700-year-old ivory figurine of Melchior, one of the three wise men, in the cellar last year that led to the research excavation. This has resulted in a number of unique discoveries that excite the researchers. 

"In terms of quantity and significance, the finds in the basement have exceeded all expectations and reflect more than 1,000 years of Stavanger's history. They demonstrate the cathedral and city’s clerical wealth and contact with Rome in a way not previously seen in the archaeological material," Denham says.

Visitors will be able to see these treasures and more in the museum’s 2025 exhibition celebrating the cathedral’s 900th anniversary.  

More finds from the bishop's treasure chest:

In addition to the ivory figurine representing Melchior, an ivory figurine representing the Virgin Mary was found. The two figures belonged to two different altarpieces. The carvings are of very high quality, with traces of paint and gilding. They date to the 14th century and were likely created in France or England. In addition to these, archaeologists found a carving of Jesus' foot from a crucifix.
The north tower was the bishop's office. Some of the finds point more towards daily life in the Middle Ages. Among other things, two spoons were found: a tablespoon and an ear spoon. The latter is a personal hygiene product, a medieval Q-tip.
160 coins and bracteates, and 60 fragments of such, were recovered. Based on their size and shape, archaeologists believe that most date from the Middle Ages, making this by far the largest assemblage of medieval coins ever found in Stavanger.
The official seal of Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303). Pope Boniface VIII's name can still be seen on one side of the seal, while the other side bore the faces of saints Peter and Paul. The seal would have been attached to a papal bull, a letter from the Pope, which in this case was probably addressed to Bishop Arne.
A tablet-woven gold band that probably belonged to a larger, ornate garment, such as a bishop's robe.
The remains of a burial chamber were discovered in a corner of the cellar. The location and and construction style indicate that the burial chamber belonged to a person of high status, most likely a bishop. Unfortunately, the grave was disturbed at some point, making it difficult to identify how much of the original burial, if anything, has survived.
Hundreds of pieces from the cathedral’s Medieval and Post-Reformation stained-glass windows were recovered. These make it easier for archaeologists to reconstruct how the windows looked several hundred years ago.
Several fragments of gilded bronze were found in the cellar. These fragments would have decorated larger religious objects, such as monstrances or processional crosses, used during the mass.
A beautiful, enameled fitting with a detailed geometric pattern. The style is typical of Late Viking Period metalwork from the British Isles and shows that Stavanger had well developed trade networks even then.
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