The following is an excerpt from Eat Smart in Norway, by Joan Peterson, published by Ginkgo Press, Inc. To purchase Eat Smart in Norway, click here. ⓒ 2011 Ginkgo Press, Inc.
Practically all of the ice cap covering Norway in the last Ice Age had melted by 7000 BCE. Tundra-like vegetation emerged, providing favorable grazing for herds of reindeer that later would tempt arctic hunters.
The first migrations of people into Norway came mainly from the south. Southern Sweden at that time was connected to Denmark, and hence to the European Continent, by a land bridge that existed because sea levels were low and most of the North Sea was dry. Small, scattered groups of people from the continent presumably made their way north along this bridge to Sweden and then into southern Norway. Evidence of human habitation in Norway from these first migrations has been found along the southeastern coast, east of the Oslofjord, and along the western coast as far north as central Norway. The implements found in the settlements indicate that this culture (Fosna) hunted and fished in the coastal regions and hunted reindeer in the mountains.
Traces of human life were also found at Komsa in Finnmark on the northern coast of Norway. The Komsa culture of hunters and fishermen apparently was entirely coastal, and may have entered northeastern Norway from Finland or Russia in the vicinity of the Varanger Peninsula. According to some archaeologists, the indigenous arctic culture in northern Norway known as the Sámi or Lapps may be descended from the Komsa culture.
The first farming society, the Early Funnel Beaker Culture, appeared in the vicinity of the Oslofjord in southeastern Norway in the Early Neolithic Period, 4000–3300 BCE. The vegetation of this area and the specific crops that the early agriculturalists grew have been deduced from an analysis of pollen found in bogs and in lake-bottom sediment. The land was covered with dense forests of oak, elm, lime, and ash, which were cleared with axes and by fire to provide land for planting barley and growing pastoral crops of plantain, nettle, and wormwood (fat hen). Goats and sheep were domesticated. Agriculture and animal husbandry were also in evidence at this time in a few areas along the southern and western coasts.
There have been conflicting views concerning the origin of the first Norwegian farmers. Archeologists initially determined that they migrated from continental Europe. Current consensus holds that hunter-gatherer cultures already in Norway began to adopt agriculture as a result of a dramatic climate change that caused drier and warmer conditions more favorable for farming. Foraging, hunting, and fishing remained important.
The pottery vessels crafted by the first farmers had flared tops and round bottoms, decorated with vertical impressions made by imprinting wet clay with cording, or by scraping it with a comb. This pottery style was called funnel beaker, and it served to identify the culture.
Agriculturists known as the Battle-Axe / Corded Ware Culture date from the Middle Neolithic Period B, 2800–2400 BCE. Their culture was named for its polished stone battle-axe, which had a characteristic hole for shafting, and for its pottery, which was decorated by imprinting wet clay with twisted cording. This elaboration of the Funnel Beaker Culture’s style of decorating pottery indicates close contact between the two cultures, which also employed similar agricultural practices. The Battle-Axe / Corded Ware Culture had settlements along the southern coast and as far north as central Norway on the western coast.
By the Late Neolithic Period, 2400–1700 BCE, agriculture and animal husbandry became the dominant economy. Agriculture spread farther inland, into the high mountain plateaus and into northern Norway. Fields were cultivated with a primitive plow (ard), a horizontal wooden frame with a hoe-like vertical blade attached to one end, which simply loosened the soil. Rock art paintings show that the ard was drawn by oxen. Carts were drawn by horses.
The earliest fossilized grains have been found in coastal settlements as far north as central Norway. They include naked barley (without hulls) and the earliest cultivated forms of wheat: emmer, einkorn, and spelt. Bones from sheep, goats, and a smaller number of cattle have also been found at these settlements.
The archaeological record indicates that at this time agrarian farmsteads began to have dwellings large enough for several households. These habitations, known as longhouses, were up to 75 feet long, and each may have provided shelter for as many as 30 people. Longhouses were constructed with one or two lengthwise rows of posts down the middle to support the roof, effectively dividing the houses into three longitudinal aisles. The walls typically consisted of a woven lattice of wooden strips (wattle) spread with a sticky plaster (daub), a mixture of wet dirt, manure, and straw.
Trading with other cultures was evident at this time. Late Neolithic peoples built boats sturdy enough to cross the Strait of Skagerrak to the southwestern coast of Sweden and to the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Danish flintsmiths made remarkable and technologically complex parallel-flaked flint daggers and tools. Their crescent-shaped sickle blades were strapped to wooden handles and used to harvest grain. Secondary products from domestic and wild animals—milk, hides, horns, bones, wool, fur, and manure—became valuable commodities that Norwegians could exchange for flint and amber. Thus trade became important to the economic welfare of Norwegian settlements.
During the Bronze Age, 1700–500 BCE, tools and weapons were made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Although these metals were not found in Norway, local metalsmiths became proficient at smelting and casting bronze pieces from imported ores. Their products augmented the assortment of coveted bronze articles that trickled into Norway through trade.
The number of agrarian farmsteads increased significantly in this period, with corresponding deforestation in regions where farmsteads were densely concentrated. Farmers understood that soil enriched with manure yielded healthier crops. Hulled barley, which thrives in enriched soil, became more important than naked barley in the Late Bronze Age, and flax, a new crop, was grown for its seeds and fibers. Little emmer or spelt wheat was cultivated at the time. Although the technology to make bronze tools was now available, sickles with flint blades were still used to harvest grain. Only a single bronze sickle dating to this period has been found.
Bone deposits from the Bronze Age indicate that domestic pigs were being raised in addition to sheep, goats, and cattle. Cattle barns came into existence. Longhouses were constructed with a barn and living quarters at opposite ends, separated by an entryway in the middle. The barns were used for storing fodder. The smaller longhouses of the time suggest single-family dwellings, and that the livestock within was privately owned. In some instances, stone fences enclosed cultivated fields, a sign of developing individual property rights.
Exceptional rock carvings from this period depict many scenes connected with farming, fishing, and boating. Early artists painted their carvings with red ochre, a pigmented clay.
Bronze Age rock art carving depicting a two-wheeled cart drawn by two horses, with a human figure riding on the cart. The carving is located at Unneset V, Askvoll, Sogn og Fjordane county in western Norway. Tracing provided by Trond Lødøen, University of Bergen.
The transition to the Iron Age took place around 500 BCE. The gradual deterioration of the climate that occurred at the beginning of the Pre-Roman phase of the Iron Age (500 BCE – 1) was a challenging time for agriculture. The weather became colder and wetter, conditions that favored the growth of certain grains over others. Hulled barley did well, as did oats and rye, which were introduced during this time. In the first known written account of Norway by a foreign visitor (330 BCE), Pytheas, a Greek explorer and geographer from present-day Marseilles, recorded that the people he encountered on the western shore of Norway above the Arctic Circle ate oats, vegetables, roots, and wild fruit.
Both the population and the size of settlements increased during the Iron Age. There were villages or hamlets comprised of many farms clustered together, with each farm having its own plot of land outside the village.
Articles of iron—sickles, knives, awls, spears, jewelry, and belt buckles—initially were forged from small amounts of the metal present in some of the copper ores used to make bronze. Later, iron-bearing bogs became the main source of raw material.
Farms in the Roman phase of the Iron Age (1–400) had all the key farm buildings and patterns of land usage that have been retained up to the present: dwellings for people and livestock, fenced fields in close proximity to the buildings, and a path for herding cattle from the barn to fenced pastures in the outlying area. Longhouses sheltered man and beast under one roof, but the barn and house compartments were partitioned into several rooms. Smaller buildings were used for metal work, storage, and crafts.
Oats, barley, and flax continued to play a key role in the diet. Oats were typical fare, usually eaten as porridge. Barley was more common inland and in the north, and was the basis for beer and mead. With the invention of rotating querns, milling flour became more efficient.
The Migration phase (400–600) was a time of upheaval throughout Europe as combat escalated between the Western Roman Empire and various northern Germanic tribes. As the Empire lost strength (finally collapsing in 476), Germanic tribes, driven by population pressure and frequent invasions by the fierce, nomadic Huns, migrated throughout Europe, seeking new land. Some Germanic peoples migrated to the coastal region of western Norway. The Ryger and Horder tribes settled there in the fifth century and contributed their names to modern-day Rogaland and Hordaland counties.
The last phase of the Iron Age (600–800) is called the Merovingian phase because strong influences from Frankish Merovingian culture can be seen in weaponry, dress, ornaments, and household objects found as grave artifacts from this time.
Archeological records indicate that there was little change in the grain diet—cultivated crops consisted of wheat, rye, barley, oats, and flax. Owing to the climate, relatively little barley was grown in arctic Norway. The food consumed there included fish and sea mammals, birds and bird eggs, meat, and milk. Reindeer were the primary source of meat for the indigenous Sámi.