Archaeological monuments

Published by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage Lag rapport Les på norsk

Archaeological monuments are the oldest traces of human activity. The oldest find in Norway is dating from about 12 000 years ago. Norway's archaeological sites include prehistoric rock art localities. Scandinavian rock art is an important part of the world's cultural heritage. Norway's aim today is to minimize the loss of archaeological monuments. However, reports on the state of our monuments and sites and calculations show that losses are currently running at about 1 per cent per year.

More than 200 000 registered monuments and sites

Archaeological monuments have been automatically protected by law since 1905. The legal basis for this has been revised over the years in keeping with changes in society and as our knowledge of various types of monuments and sites has improved. Today all archaeological and architectural monuments and sites that predate 1537 are automatically protected by the Cultural Heritage Act. Buildings predating 1649 are also protected by this Act.

The Cultural Heritage Act distinguishes between objects and monuments and sites. Objects include anything processed, produced and used by people, for example a stone axe, a brooch or flint waste from the production of tools. According to the Act, these all belong to the state.

Some archaeological monuments and sites are easily visible, for example burial mounds, pitfall traps and drift fences, charcoal pits and hill forts. Others are more difficult to find because they are hidden under peat, earth and rock: for example, Stone Age dwelling sites, iron working sites and some rock art sites. Whether or not they are visible on the surface, archaeological monuments and sites are automatically protected under the Cultural Heritage Act.

Many of the visible archaeological monuments and sites have been registered in connection with the production of Norway's economic map sheets, which was started in the 1960s. The register of monuments and sites lists about 250 000 archaeological monuments and objects. However, there are large uncultivated and mountain areas that have not yet been investigated. Spot checks have shown that there may be as many as 20 unknown archaeological monuments or objects for every one that has been registered.

Sami monuments and sites

Under the Cultural Heritage Act, all Sami monuments and sites that are more than 100 years old are automatically protected. The registration of Sami monuments and sites on economic map sheets is incomplete, so that we know quite little about this part of our cultural heritage.

Cultural monuments and sites on Svalbard

Separate regulations apply to the cultural heritage on Svalbard. All cultural remains from before 1946 are automatically protected (these are mainly from whaling, hunting and trapping, and mining activities).

Huge underwater potential

Along the coast and in rivers and lakes, there are large numbers of many different types of cultural monuments and sites below the water surface. There are huge underwater areas where there may be many undiscovered relics from practically all periods of Norway's history.

Agriculture is an important cause of damage

We are receiving more and more reports of a rise in the rate at which archaeological monuments and sites are being lost or destroyed. In general, agriculture is the most important cause of damage to and destruction of archaeological monuments and sites. One reason for this is that the best modern farmland is usually in exactly the same areas as those our ancestors found to be best for farming and settlement. Farmland is therefore rich in archaeological sites and objects.

Other activities with a major impact on land use, such as building and road construction, also damage and destroy cultural monuments and sites, as well as insufficient information and deliberate vandalism.

Strong legal protection is not enough

The Cultural Heritage Act provides strong protection for cultural monuments. It prohibits people from doing anything "which is liable to damage, destroy, dig up, move, change, cover, conceal or in any other way unduly disfigure any monument or site that is automatically protected by law or to create a risk of this happening" (from § 3). But this is not enough to give cultural monuments the protection they need. Monuments and sites are illegally damaged or destroyed both deliberately and accidentally.

Increase of grants for expenses

Grants for expenses related to archaeological excavations in smaller, private development projects will to a larger extent be given either entirely or partly.  The public in general has not been very much aware of this grant scheme, but it is considered to be an important tool for the preservation of archaeological heritage.  The grant scheme is primarily aimed at smaller, private developers who have been given permission to build a house, garage etc. for themselves on a property where an archaeological site or object has been found.  The grant is meant to cover the expenses related to necessary archaeological excavations in development projects of this kind. 

Better registers as a land-use planning tool

To make protection of the archaeological heritage more effective, we must ensure that it is taken into consideration whenever activities or developments will have an effect on land use. Perhaps the most important tool in this respect is up-to-date registers of various types of cultural monuments and sites. In Norway various registers that contain information on the cultural heritage and the environment have been integrated into one database, Askeladden.

Improving management with more information

It is also important to give everyone who comes into contact with archaeological monuments and sites sufficient information. For example, the Directorate for Cultural Heritage and the Norwegian Farmers' Union have produced information for the agricultural sector. The aim is to:

  • make people aware of the valuable cultural heritage of agricultural areas
  • improve management of these areas
  • provide information on ways of combining farming and access for the general public