The race to save western Europe’s ‘rarest historic buildings’

Historians in Norway are working to save the country’s stave churches — architectural masterpieces that shed light on Scandinavia's Viking heritage. David Keys reports

Dating from as far back as the 12th century, they are claimed to be the rarest historic buildings in western Europe and offer vital insights into Scandinavia’s Viking past. But now, with only 30 stave churches remaining and their condition deteriorating, experts are working to preserve the structures for future generations.

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The spectacular churches vary from small buildings, barely four metres wide and six metres tall, to much larger structures that soar up to 40 metres into the cold Nordic air. Most consist of timber frames that rest on stone footings, meaning that they have no foundations. The most striking include the 26-metre-tall Heddal stave church in south-east Norway and a 17-metre-tall structure in Urnes, also in the south of the country.

Although many of the churches appear from the outside to be complex structures, they normally feature a single storey but numerous different roof levels.

Staff from the Norwegian government’s Directorate for Cultural Heritage have carried out conservation work on 10 stave churches over the past two years, most of which date from between the 12th and 14th centuries. Other churches were conserved in previous years, and so far specialists have worked to add preservative materials to the churches’ exteriors, replace rotting roofs and halt subsidence.

In two cases, huge jacks have been used to lift the buildings up to 30 centimetres into the air so that the team could examine and repair the churches’ original medieval stone footings. The team plans to return to around a dozen of the buildings in 2015 to assess progress and consider further remedial action.

The oldest archaeological evidence for stave churches was found near the old Danish royal capital of Jelling and dates from c965 AD. This featured earth-fast posts and lacked the stone footings that would later become common.

The earliest free-standing stave church was probably built in Norway in around 1080 but is only known from archaeological evidence, while the very largest stave churches were built from the 1130s onwards. This period was one of inter- elite rivalry in which aristocrats sought to increase their influence by funding the building of churches and monasteries.

The decision to construct the buildings from wood is likely to have been influenced by the fact that ideally proportioned straight and slender timber was available in large quantities in Scandinavia’s vast coniferous forests. As timber was so plentiful, it was cheaper to use than the stone employed in the buildings of other European cultures.

The area’s ship-building tradition, partly established by the Vikings, also meant that sophisticated carpentry was a major aspect of the local culture. Erla Bergendahl Hohler, professor of medieval art at Oslo University, said: “The complex curvilinear [based on curved lines] style of the medieval stave church carvings, and the skills used to make them, almost certainly derive from the pre-Christian Viking tradition.” This heritage may also be the origin of the protruding dragon-shaped gable ends on the roofs of some stave churches in Norway.

Sjur Mehlum, senior conservator at Norway’s Directorate for Cultural Heritage, said: “As a unique type of medieval building, it’s crucially important that we save Norway’s stave churches for future generations. Without this programme, many of these architectural masterpieces would begin to disintegrate within the next 10 years.”

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View a gallery of images of stave churches on this site early next week