The cod fishing in Lofoten dates back to the Stone Age. In prehistoric times, fishermen also came from settlements far away from the Lofoten Sea, to participate in the rich fishing and to take stockfish back home.
In the period 11–1400, Vågar – or in Norse Vágar – was the hearth for the emergence of the stockfish trade and the center of the trade. Then the fishermen could sell part of the catch to merchants who came north from cities in the south. The king and archbishop also arranged for the trade to be concentrated in Vágar so that they could collect taxes here. In the 12th and 14th centuries, Vágar was perceived and described as a market town (small town). This urban status ceased at the end of the 14th century as a result of the Jektefart which enabled northerners themselves to bring their fish to Bergen.
Regardless, fishing and stockfish production continued and gradually increased in size, while other fishing villages also grew. Stockfish was still an important part of the diet for the coastal population. At the end of the 14th century, stockfish exports from Bergen accounted for the largest share of the kingdom’s foreign trade. Both the king and the church had greater income from land, but the stockfish was important.
Stockfish in large quantities first found their way to England’s port cities, then to most cities in the Hanseatic League (North Sea and Baltic Sea) and it is generally believed that stockfish from Lofoten were of superior quality due to the coincidence between the cod appearing in the Lofoten Sea in spring and the optimal climate for drying at that time. Stockfish was an important part of the diet that the Catholic Church allowed during fasting (up to 1 / of the days of the year). This led to Southern Europe becoming the most important market after the Reformation.
There is no contradiction between the image we get of Vágar through written sources and what archeology has given us, but the written sources must be reinterpreted at the same time as the texts provide a deeper understanding of material culture.
Vágar is the place in Hálogaland that is most often mentioned in written sources from the Middle Ages, both saga texts and other documents. This is probably due to the strong interest that both the king and the archbishop had in having control of this important fishery. Without the presence of those in power, little was written about daily life, even though people continued to live their lives.
The densely populated area in the harbor area mostly covered an area of 20 meters, but there were other settlements that belonged to Vágar in several places in what is now the Kabelvåg area.
In the years between 1975 and 2003, Professor Reidar Bertelsen led excavations under the auspices of the University of Tromsø. Many thousands of discoveries have been cataloged. Ceramics and other objects from countries in Europe testify to extensive international contact throughout the period from the 11th to the 19th century, but the nature of this contact varied over time. The 15th century is a particularly interesting era because the urban functions have disappeared, but the character of the buildings shows a strengthened contact with the city of Bergen due to Jektefart.
This story is written by Prof. Reidar Bertelsen, 2021. Pictures of AR models: Aurora Borealis Multimedia; historical picture: Museum Nord, Lofoten Museum’s Collections; other photos: Museum Nord
Presentasjon av Reidar Bertelsen
Vágar – lofotfisket – tørrfiskenopen pdf (norwegian)