December 10th – My great uncle, Olaf Andreas Digre

Today my calendar will be a bit different and perhaps a bit longer than usual. I will be writing about my mother’s uncle, Olaf Andreas Digre. He is probably the main reason why I am so interested in history, archaeology and cultural heritage. As I grew up, I would always hear stories about this man who did so many amazing things during his life. Let’s start from the beginning.

This is Olaf. Sadly, I don’t know who the photographer is as it isn’t stated.

Olaf was born in 1906 and was the first son of Olaf Bernhard Digre and Beret Johannesdatter Botten. His father’s background was in the artillery, but he later earned a living as an accountant. Beret, his mother, died when Olaf was only 9 years old. He also had a younger brother, Bjarne, which is my mother’s father, my grandfather.

Olaf graduated from upper secondary school in 1925, and went on to study theology. After graduating, he was employed as a sexton at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim from 1931 to 1939. He would take care of the church building as well as the graveyard. He would also ring the church bells. Between the years 1937-1942 he was also working as a vicar in the parish for the deaf community in Trondheim. He knew sign language and was also a chairperson for Trondheim Døveforening, the Association for the Deaf, from 1940 to 1942.

Before I get into the most interesting part of Olaf’s life, I also want to mention his encounter with World War II and the prison camps. Towards the end of the war, on the 25th of January 1944, he was arrested by the Germans as they were still occupying Norway. Six people came to arrest him, five Germans and one Norwegian. He was arrested under the vague charge of espionage. Me and my mom later found out that is was a woman, probably a neighbor lady or a association member in one of the many associations he was a part of, who had reported him to the Germans. Another reason why is was accused of espionage may have been his position in Trondheim Vernelag. From 1939 he was working in Trondheim Vernelag – Trondheim Probation and Parole Association – where he was taking care of convicted criminals on parole. This may have had something to do with the reporting of him, as people would report almost anyone to save their own. He continued working with Vernelaget as a manager or inspector until his death.

Falstad concentration camp outside Trondheim in 1945.
Photo by Oskar A. Johansens / Trondheim byarkiv / CC BY 2.0

After being arrested, he was first sent to Vollan where he stayed for two and a half months. He would spend many days in a so-called light cell where the light would constantly be on as a method of torture – they wanted him to speak. Then he was brought to Falstad just outside Trondheim, where he was kept for about three months. He later said that he was in a cell, meaning he probably didn’t get to go out much.

After Falstad he was sent to Grini, where he was for about two months. Then he was sent with a prisoner transport Kiel, where he would spend 12 days in a prison cell before he was sent to Sachsenhausen in Germany. He remained in Sachsenhausen until the war came to an end and he was evacuated on the 15th of March 1945 by The White Buses. He was then imprisoned in Germany and Denmark for a while before he could return to Trondheim one and a half months after being freed from Sachsenhausen.

As he knew sign language and because he was a priest, as far as we know, he would help deaf people in the camp in Sachsenhausen, translating for them and being a priest for them. He was very changed after the war, as a lot of people were. He wouldn’t talk much about the war and what had happend during the imprisonments in the concentration camps. Quite recently, me, my mother and my cousin have managed to find some information about him during the war, for example the dates of the arrest and when he was moved to the different places.

Olaf placing flowers on to the grave of a fellow prisoners (from one of the prison camps, I assume) in 1952.

Photo by Schrøder/ Sverresborg folkemuseum.

Olaf had a social-humanist way of thinking and it seems that he was a bit hesitantly when it came to his theological career (which was kind of lucky for me, I guess). Olaf had always been interested in history and this was the field that was closest to his heart. He was particularly fond of Nidaros Cathedral and during the time as a sexton, he started working with registration of the stonemason’s personal marks together with Gerhard Fischer, Tulla Fischer and Ola Ryssdal. As I have worked in the Nidaros Cathedral myself, I know the feeling you get when you are in the huge cathedral, preferably alone or in a quiet moment. You become very humble and amazed by the work that was done so many years ago. So, I can imagine that working as a sexton in the cathedral, having access to all nooks and crannies and being able to go everywhere in the old, Medieval building, would have made some special impact on him.

During the 1930’s and the 1940’s Olaf and Ola Ryssdal did a huge job registrating many of the stonemason’s marks in the Cathedral. The only problem was that they couldn’t reach the highest parts of the walls. Without a aerial work platform they had to be creative. They bought naval binoculars and a tripod to manage to see the marks far upon the walls.

Photo by Roede.

Stonemason’s mark from the end of the 12th century, outside on the octagon, Nidaros Cathedral. Mark No. 58 in Tulla Fischer’s register.

In 1946, Olaf was commissioned to prepare a detailed catalog of the stone masons marks. He was given the task by Gerhard Fischer who had great ambitions for the catalog. The catalog was sadly never finished, probably because Olaf was working on other things alongside this. Ryssdal and Olaf had done a huge job collecting information about the marks. Olaf became a key figure in the work with the stonemason’s marks, because in addition to registering the material, he also tried to catalog the material. It was not until the 1960’s that the marks in the Nidaros Cathedral were presented in a catalog and analyzed. The catalog and analysis were prepared by Dorothea ‘Tulla’ Fischer, and the results were published in 1965 as a supplement to Gerhard Fischer’s work on Nidaros Cathedral (D. Fischer 1965). This catalog was prepared on the basis of the material that Ola Ryssdal and Olaf had collected.

Between the years 1935 and 1956, he worked as the supervisor for most of the archaeological excavations that were done in Trondheim during this period, lead by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters. This was a hectic period in the city, with a lot of archaeological digs. It was not always easy to gain acceptance for the care that was needed to preserve the past buried below the surface. During these years, he documented and made descriptions from a number of excavations in Trondheim, and he left a significant amount of source material about the medieval town buildings.

This is Olaf during a city walk in 1965. He is guiding curious and interested inhabitants of Trondheim.

Olaf was ahead of his time when it came to the way of thinking. He hated the diggers and the digging they did in the historic grounds, for example. He probably thought that, when it came to archaeology, things had to be done properly, neatly and carefully. It also seems like he was thorough when it comes to what archaeological material to take care of. When my mother was young, she was told a story about one time they found a lot of skeletons during an excavation and the archaeologists didn’t really care to keep them all, but Olaf thought it was important, so he took them home and stored them in the linen closet – to the great despair of his wife. The story also said that some of these skeletons are exhibited in the Public library in Trondheim, together with a ruin from the Medieval period. Maybe this story isn’t 100% accurate, but I think it says something about Olaf anyway. He saw everything that was found during an excavation as important archaeological material, in the same way as coins, jewelry and such.

But there is some truth in the story about the skeletons, tho. Grethe Authén Blom, when asked to tell about the work with her book about the history of Trondheim city, she said:

– I had several trips up to Trondheim to review the source material that was available in the city, in particularly the archaeological excavations. Here I met the great amateur archaeologist, Olaf Digre. Among other things, he was out during evenings and at night, fished up bones and skulls from the underground, where the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (Veivesenet) and others municipal agencies had been working and had just left these bones to ‘lie and float’.

Grethe Authén-Blom in an interview which was published in HIFO-Nytt no. 4 1993.
Historikeren, 2018

Olaf’s work was used in the first volume of “Trondheim’s history” (1955) where Grethe Authén Blom explained the city’s historical development and topographical conditions. It is also worth noting that other archaeological information was used to a small extent in this work, according to Øivind Lunde.

In 1953 a test excavation was carried out at St Jørgen’s house in Trondheim, before they started building a new west wing. The excavation was led by Olaf. During the investigation, several objects from the Medieval period. A particularly beautiful find was a silver spoon with a Renaissance shape. It was whole and without significant corrosion after the long stay in the earth. The finds from Trondheim’s building site are rich in wooden spoons and bones from the Middle Ages. We rarely find metal spoons, and most often as fragments. Metal had a value in reuse, while a silver spoon was a luxury item reserved for the wealthy. The spoon was dated to the late 1500’s.

The spoon thah Olaf found (T17408)

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet CC BY-SA 4.0

Olaf’s observations and maps made during excavations have been of vital importance for the impression that later experts have gained of the medieval town of Trondheim. Olaf’s work has since his time been developed by professionals and given more muscle through legislation, but archaeologists and historians acknowledge the great importance of Olav’s early efforts in this field, which were based entirely on idealism. It is written in “Faglig program for middelalderakeologi – Byer, sakrale steder, befestninger og borger” by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage that the documentation of the medieval cities of Trondheim and Bergen made in the first half of the 20th century was marked by the works of in particular two researchers, Gerhard Fischer (1890-1977) in Trondheim, and Christian Koren-Wiberg (1870-1945) in Bergen, but also by the work of Olaf Digre in Trondheim the period between 1935 and 1956.

The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters later gave him a small position at the coin collection at the museum, where he also worked with historical material. He continued with archaeological excavations, but this time outside the town. He handed in whatever he found and made reports. He would also study the cloisters and churches outside Trondheim during this period. In particular he was interested in Tautra monastery, Skaun church and Byneset church. The history of cloister and churches in the region of Trøndelag was one of his primary interests. A lot of the research he did during these years would be something he planned to write down and finish as a pensioner.

Unfortunately he never retired. He died while on a trip to Oslo in 1969, relatively young, only 62 years old. All the knowledge, discoveries and all thoughts he had that he never wrote down was lost forever. Admittedly, there were many notes, letters, photos and other things left after him in his office, but a lot of this was unfortunately thrown away when a new one was to take over the office. But his memory lives on, and all the work he had done for the history of Trondheim will be remembered. Before he died, he received a memorial coin in silver by Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters in 1968.

Information from:
Mellomalderarkeologi i teori og praksis
En bygningsarkeologisk undersøkelse av koret i Sakshaug kirke
Det kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab
SPOR nr 1, 1997

2 thoughts on “December 10th – My great uncle, Olaf Andreas Digre

  1. Pingback: December 11th – Archaeological finds handed in by Olaf A. Digre – Tonje Rogersdatter – A viking life

  2. Pingback: December 12th – The silver treasure from Trondheim – Tonje Rogersdatter – A viking life

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