Norwegians Rediscover Carpentry

For MTTwo Norwegian restoration experts spend their summer vacations in Filippovskaya repairing its early 18th-century church.
KENOZERO NATIONAL PARK, Far North -- One might be surprised to meet a mayor among the carpenters stripping logs off a church in the Arkhangelsk region in the Far North, especially if he is from Norway.

But in the village of Filippovskaya in the Kenozero National Park, people are getting more and more used to the mayor and to the team of restoration specialists who have been arriving every summer since the mid-1990s to spruce up the park's landmark wooden structures.

The early 18th-century church in Filippovskaya is badly scarred by years of bad maintenance and several inexpert renovation attempts. The Norwegian-financed construction crew -- which this August included two Norwegian restoration specialists (one of whom is also a mayor), a Russian architect and a crew of carpenters -- is replacing damaged logs and attempting to restore the structure's original shape.

The Norwegians are not only here to help out; they are also here to rediscover building techniques that have not been used in Norway since the Middle Ages.

Hans Sundsvalen, an expert in wood conservation technology and the mayor of the rural municipality of Sauherad in the Telemark region, said that while Norway and Russia now use very different techniques for building log structures, their methods were once very similar.

"In Norway, a thousand years ago, close-fitting notches to provide the strongest and closest fit of the logs were being hewn almost in the same way as in Russia today," Sundsvalen said. "The same is true with some ax-work techniques that are still in use in Russia. But in Norway, they disappeared during the Black Death epidemic of the 14th century, though in almost all existing medieval houses in our country, the traces of these methods can be found."

Sundsvalen said an attempt to imitate the old Norwegian methods of building log structures as part of the so-called Medieval Project was a failure. "And when we came here and began working with Russian carpenters, we were surprised to find out that these techniques were still implemented here in everyday work.

"Thanks to Russian carpenters' probation work in Norway and our involvement with the restoration of old chapels and churches in Kenozero, we can gain practical knowledge of techniques extinct in Norway," he said.

Sundsvalen and Bjarne Lofthus, a professional restorer with specialized experience in jack-lifting old houses in Norway, have spent part of their last six summer vacations reconstructing the Filippovskaya church and other wooden structures.

The two restorers took up the project in 1997 on the invitation of the Norwegian Environment Ministry, and altogether, they have both spent more than two months in the Kenozero National Park.

The Norwegian Environment Ministry first got involved in far northern conservation in 1988, when a Soviet-Norwegian agreement on protecting the Barents Sea region's environment and cultural heritage was signed.

The Kenozero National Park has been one of the most significant areas of the two countries' cooperation. Norwegian experts have visited the park frequently since the mid-1990s with funding from the Nordic Council. Each year, six wood-building restorers are sent to work in the park.