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Norwegian Silver

Excerpts from Rikard Berge: "Norskt bondisylv" [Norwegian bønder-made/owned silver] (Risør, 1925)
Raw Material. Imported and Locally Produced Silver. The Mines.
Pages 27-34

 

Gullsmidr (goldsmith) is the name used by written Nordic sources to define someone who works in "noble" (precious) metals, whether gold or silver, and the work is called gullsmid (goldsmithing). But the name silversmith is also used. The name goldsmith is still used by those who work in the cities, whereas the tradesman in the country is called a silversmith. I suppose that goldsmith was a more prestigious name, and in addition, the goldsmith in the city had to include some work in gold for his journeyman's test. The rural silversmith worked only in silver. Most likely this created the difference in naming.

There probably was no great difference in the definitions in the Middle Ages; gold and silver were often considered equal; a man who is silfrdfrjugr has a lot of silver, or silfrfar, has little; he may have a silfrketill, silfrkista silfrkistill, or gullhus; gullkista to hide his valuables, and in both cases the name referred to either silver or gold. We know for sure that silver as well as gold jewelry was made here at home. On the other hand, raw materials always came from abroad, except when they resmelted old things.

Silver, what we are dealing with here, came in the old days from the Orient, Spain, and other places. In the Middle Ages they found rich silver deposits in central Europe, especially in Germany, and that was a major reason why the Germans for a long time were the pioneers in mining and jewelry work. As a result of the great explorations by seafarers in the 14 and 15 hundreds, the tremendous American silver production was dumped on the European market. The silver in Norway was either imported as ready-made decorative ornaments, or also as raw material. The written Nordic sources mention both kinds, and it is possible to identify it because of its decorative style. Precious metals were used instead of, or as, money whether it was minted or not. When our sources mention gullhella and silfrhella, they could be referring to rods or plates for jewelry Silver buttonswork, but just as likely for minting or use in trading. The sources talk about various types of silver: Norraent silver (Nordic silver.) most likely refers to silver used for trading, valued according to weight, while gray silver and white silver make reference to how pure it was which depended on the smelting process. Our sources often talk of "burnt silver", pointing to the smelting. Burnt silver might be processed and made into jewelry, or unprocessed. Around 1500 the expression to "burn" silver had become fully accepted in the dialect. When the Jyske Law (Danish law from that period) talks about burning false silver, it refers to silver alloying.

During the time when silver rings and silver coins were used in trade, it was quite natural that every man was in possession of a certain "weight" (amount) of silver. Using this silver as raw material for decorative ornaments as well as for trading was natural. For this reason we find in the Middle Ages appraisals showing that people held on to silver (and gold) themselves, and the silver smith was to have a certain amount of the raw material for his work. In Erik Magnus son's amendment to the law, 1282, the goldsmith appraisal goes like this: In the Danish book about jewelry work (1429) it is stated that according to the old rules, the pay for work that was not in gold, was to be half the weight of each full "lodd's ¼ lb." used. Here the goldsmith takes his pay out of the raw material. When people (i.e. the customers) were to furnish the silver themselves, the purity was probably so-so, and the smiths might often have reason for cheating since the raw material was of poor quality. A lot of the imported silver was substandard as is indicated by the regulation issued to the people of Bergen in 1607. The King had found out how "in our City of Bergen, there is found to be a great deal of deception and duplicity in regards to silver material, which is imported by the Germans on Bryggen (the Hanseatic League) and others and sold to subjects of nobility, clergymen, citizens, and bønder who live in this country, and these our above mentioned subjects are cheated to the highest degree, and the goldsmiths in that same area are deprived of their living because of the fact that said silver material does not meet the standards or the weight required when it is sold, which the Norwegian Law stipulates."

Native raw material was unknown in the Middle Ages. Production of silver in Norway, taken as a whole, did not occur until we opened the silver mines in Kongsberg. However, silver mines were known long before the Kongsberg silver veins. And those have yielded ore and pure silver - without any doubt. Otherwise it is impossible to understand the many old, and at times curious, legends about silver veins and ore deposits. "There is a dense murkiness obscuring the accounts about the early history of Norway's mining," says Brunnich; "we discern only shadowy outlines of some mines of the past, about which we are left with vague descriptions or at times just rumors. Thus, a number of descriptions from some place or other in Norway tell about ruins still indicating abandoned mines, about mounds piled up as a result of abandoned and now unknown, deep mines - to which they bear testimony, and about piles of slag from decayed smelting works, having no memorials in the yearly records of the country -"

Many of those tales and many of those mounds are testimonies of ancient iron mining in our country; some of them are remains of copper mines or other non-precious metals. What we are most interested in here, silver mines and silver deposits, are more scarce. Nevertheless, even to this day there are so many legends, tied to certain places, about silver deposits with actual mining activity, that I shall examine the most important ones, found in written sources or in oral tradition. They may even drive away some of the "murkiness" Brunnich talks about.

When it comes to silver deposits, Telemark appears to have had the most. At any rate, we have more tales from there, and it was there that mining first developed into an industry in Norway. Many accounts indicate that the work was actually being performed in a professional manner. In Dalskasine in Dalane, Kvitseid, there is a 2 meter dig driven into the mountain. More recently they have found pure silver and silver ore that had been covered up again with earth. H.I. Wille tells us that about 3/4 of a mile east of Synsttveiten in Selgjord (Seljord) there is an old copper mine driven into the mountain "2 1/2 fathoms toward the east", with a vein 4 fingers wide: already at that time this mine had been abandoned for ages. People up in the highlands can still point out a 13 meter long elevation with an equally deep pit. The Synsttveit man was the owner or major partner in the mine, it was said. He transported the ore down the Svarttjonn Valley, and at Øvland there was a miner name Tor who smelted and minted.

Tor came to Øvland as a tenant and ended up as the owner and a very rich man. His smithy was located away from the gard buildings, and whenever he was working in the smithy, they would hang up a towel in the upper walkway of the storehouse. If the towel was hanging there, all was safe, but if anyone came to the gard, they took it down, and the blacksmith stopped hammering. Tor Øvland forged dalars: to mold the dalars he made an impression of a valid dalar in wet clay. He made a lot of this kind of money, and it took a long time before anyone detected it. But finally it was discovered, and the lensmann came to Øvland. Tor was just then expecting a load on horseback from the north, and he ran out to meet the boy with the horse and asked him to throw the load off. He did, and the ore is lying on a rocky outcropping in the Lidstoul valley to this day. They claim that there are stripes of silver in the ore. Tor Øvland was given a choice of either paying a fine or losing his life. The fine took everything he owned, but the legend says nothing about what happened to the Synsttveit man. At Stigslid in Selgjord they heard a lot of hammering over in a big pile of rocks; that was "silver picking".

The sokneprest in Lårdal found silver ore in Prestehagane next to the prestegard. It is said that the mine is located in Gaagehaug, a peninsula of rock outcropping just outside the prestegard. The sokneprest even made ferrules for his cane from the silver he found there. The ferrules are filigreed, and the cane is supposed to have been at Blikom in Skavsaa (Skafså) until recently. Some people say that a community silversmith made the ferrules. This would probably take us back to around 1600. Later, Lensmann Christofer Blom had silver buttons made from the same mine; he left behind a lot of silver, including silver buttons with the dates 1689 and 1697.

"In the Saesvodd Hills, on the border with Bykle and Vinje, there is supposed to be a really splendid silver mine. At Saesvodd there was a very wealthy man who also owned the mine. When he had company and the water (on the lake) was nice and shiny, he allowed his daughters to use silver coins (instead of stones) for skipping across the water, that's how much he had of them and how little he cared about them. He sent silver from the gård to Denmark to have coins made from it." (recorded by Oystein Vesaas). This sounds somewhat fabulous; however, it is a fact that the largest smelting works building we know of was located where the river flows into the Saevats Lake. Tremendous amounts of cinder and slag and deep house foundations can be found there. The silver mine here in Saesvodd and one in Vaagslid (Vinje) are said to be mentioned in "old records". On the Hardingvidda (Hardangervidda) there are, according to the legends, mines in several places. For instance, in Veigdalen there was a silver mine also; two brothers from Numedal found the ore and were mining in secret. They made a variety of items in silver, - brooches, buttons, spoons, etc., and every year they set out for Eastern Norway to sell their silver products. But in the end they filled in the opening and covered it with dirt. Some people say that it was one from Eidfjord who found the mine and that he sold his items in the Bergen area. "These legends are probably based on historical fact," says the Reverend O. Olafsen who has provided me with information about the Veigdal mine; and he points out that in 1889 a hole or a depression was discovered in Veigdal by a tourist guide who was putting up markings along the road from Bjoreidalen to Bogen. He found a 6 meter deep cave with visible signs of having been made by man. The cave was then full of water, and the opening had been covered up with rocks. The guide found silver ore there. -- Among other mining excavations we can mention one in Vindeggen where they found gold and copper. People believe that it is the same veins that pop up in various places. "The veins underground go all around the earth just like stretching a rope," an old Selgjord man told me. "The mines in Aamdal and Gullnes and Vindeggen point in the same direction; it's the same vein."

At Skeide in Flatdal it is told that the old Skeide man was digging clay in the cellar under his utility building, and he came across a band of silver……? He cut off a piece with his axe, and it was pure silver. He then tore down the utility building, filled in with dirt and planted grass over it, otherwise they would have expropriated his gard and put it under the crown.

However, the best known legend in Telemark is the legend about Olav Graa, which we'll discuss in the next chapter. But otherwise, tales about silver mines and silver finds are known many places in Norway. A story from Hyllestad in Setesdalen relates that there was a silver mine there; but then the King announced that he could take any property he wanted on the condition that the owner was given another gard of equal size. This startled the Hyllestad people and they blocked off their mine with rocks, similar to the Saesvodd mine.

From Sondeled it is told that the man at Lunde was working a silver mine in secret. But when the King demanded that all mines were to be registered with him, the Lunde mine was closed up, tightly, and no one has found it since no matter how hard they have looked. The bonde at Homme in the same community also worked a silver mine in secret, but when the Egeland Works was built, it became too dangerous to continue with the mine, especially since the law stipulated that an iron works could not be operated near a silver mine; the owner of Egeland therefore paid off the man from Homme, and he closed up his mine. Since then no one has found it. In Gjerstad there is a story about a man who saw a crack in the closed-off opening of a silver mine, and he could see the gold hanging like icicles inside the mountain. Around the year 1600 there was a man by the name of Tallak who lived at Aas on Vegardshei; he became a very wealthy man, and an account tells us that his wealth came from a silver mine he was working. In order to dispose of the silver ore, he placed it inside a hollow log which buyers from Holland picked up and took away.

A widespread legend with some historical base is told in Konnismo in Nordre Audndal. In a mountain called Stiknollen a "wildsmith" had settled down, and he worked in gold and silver as well as in other metals. The legend points to certain pieces of work that are around still.

From Hallingdal there are accounts of silver finds both in the old days and more recently. In Nes, for instance, they are supposed to find the same veins as in Kongsberg. A man in the Li neighborhood, way, way back, found a silver vein some place by the Todola River. Pure silver was hanging in big lumps. He broke off a lump, then closed up the opening, which he never was able to find later. From that lump they made brooches which are to be found in the community still. By Langevatn in the same town a herd's boy saw the silver vein hanging in the mountain. He, too, wanted to keep it secret, but he never found the place afterwards. Similar to the legend from Lid is a legend from Aal. A "husmann" (crofter, one who had an official agreement with a bønder, allowing him to live on a small piece of the land, which usually included a simple home and a barn and enough land to grow some potatoes and harvest enough hay for a cow, a goat, or sheep or two on the condition that the husmann and, if it applied, also his wife and children, spent a certain number of weeks or months helping out with work on the main gard.) A husmann who was mowing grass in Ridalen, saw the silver hanging in the mountain. He broke off some of it and brought it to Sjugurd Skjervheim, a silver smith. Sjugurd processed the silver. The husmann and the silver smith set up a contract that one of them was to break out the silver, and the other one processed it, and they kept going with this. It was said that the husmann once found a lump weighing 4 ½ lbs. This was in the 1820s.

In the areas farther north there are also legends about silver smiths who worked in silver from local silver mines or from ore they themselves had discovered. From Stordalen (Sunnmore) comes a story about a man who found a big lump of silver ore and took it to a silver smith in the community, who broke it up, smelted the silver and made silver buttons from it. -The silver smith, Jon Funtaune in Meraker, for instance, was supposed to have his own mine in Kluken next to the Swedish border. On a summer mountain gard, Prestfossan, a part of the prestegard in Selbu, people used to live year round. A silver smith used to live there, and he was a wealthy and influential man. He used to shoe his horse with silver shoes and the harness was fitted with silver ornamentation all around. No one knew where he got his silver, but some people believed he had a mine. In regards to this man there is also a more widespread legend, saying that the sokneprest was not supposed to ring the bell until he saw the silver smith on the road to the church. The legend implies that he lived some time during the Middle Ages. --- The legend about the mineSilver clasp from Telemark in Svoluskardet in Stjordalen has been discussed earlier; it was said that they could hear hammering underground as if someone was working.

There are still a number of legends about silver deposits, but the samples I have included here, show plainly enough their historical value. To begin, we have to eliminate everything that is fantastic or poetic, tales that are found in several locations and having features of a fairytale. When that is done, we are left with a number of pieces of historical information, tied to specific locations, information that we cannot just ignore. Based on the biological aspects of many of these legends we can establish that they have ties to certain locations and ancient visible local memorials or keepsakes; next, there are ties to certain families and people who are named along with items in the possession of a family or an individual. Finally, the legends are tied to a certain time, corresponding to specific historical events. If we then examine the legends through written sources, we find that they are based on facts.

It is not possible to establish a time of actual operation for all of these mines or excavation. Most of them are probably from a more recent period, but in general we are fairly safe in saying that they date from the time period between 1500 and 1800. It is noticeable that what they found often was pure silver, in lumps. It is therefore reasonable to assume that some of these finds date back to the Middle Ages, and that this in certain cases could lead to a primitive, private operation by the owner of a gard. However, the great impetus for mining in Norway came about when the German miners came to Telemark around 1500.

The first king who tries to do something for mining in Norway is Kristian II. In Akersbakken by Oslo they tried starting a silver mine with the aid of miners from Saxony. In 1524 the bishop in Hamar is given "Sundzberg" as an endowment; that is the first time the Gullnes Works in Selgjord is mentioned. But it was not until 1537 and from then on, under Kristian III, that mining picked up. The history of Gullnes, or Golmsberg, as the Germans called it, is so well known that I'll just point to older accounts. Here I'll only point out that the Gullnes mine had silver mixed in with the copper, and that actually considerable amounts of silver was smelted. In a letter to the King in 1542 it is stated that both in Gullnes and in Mosanapp in Fyresdal they are producing "silver, copper, and lead". In 1544 they got 71 lbs. of silver from 71 hundredweight's of ore. There was a shortage of small change, and the intention was to smelt the silver and mint it, but it was a slow process.

 

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