The List met with Ellen Grav, archaeologist, and Kristin Tiller, project manager at the NTNU University Museum, to discuss the museum’s novel exhibition. This article originally appeared in The List Winter issue 2022 and was written in partnership with NTNU University Museum.
When you walk through the doors of the NTNU University Museum, the first thing you see is Tora’s warm toothless smile. You half expect her to hobble over to greet you, as she looks pretty spry despite her advanced age of 750+ years. You soon realise though that this inviting old woman is only an incredibly life-like recreation, but who was the original Tora?
"Tora might have been a part of a Trondheim merchant family, this would have made her part of the higher rungs of society at the time, around the late 18th century."
“Tora might have been a part of a Trondheim merchant family,” says archaeologist Ellen Grav. “This would have made her part of the higher rungs of society at the time, around the late 13th century.” Trondheim was a large town at the time and going through its golden age. The grand Nidarosdomen was about to be finished, trade flowed through the town, and the Archbishop’s seat was here.
Tora’s skeleton was discovered in the 1980s when a medieval graveyard was found where Trondheim’s main library is today. Several other remains were excavated, but Tora was chosen for recreation for a special reason. “Most of the skeletons have a rich story you can find through DNA and other means, but we wanted to pick an individual with a visible story,” says Ellen. And it’s certainly worked.
When you meet Tora, you do get an immediate impression of a real person with a rich history. Her advanced age in a time when people barely lived past 40, and physical details like her hunched back and her swollen finger joints, are threads in her story — and all accurately recreated based on her remains.
Photography by NTNU University Museum
Filling in the blanks
However, there’s one important thing we have to keep in mind. “There are things we know for certain, but many things about Tora are what she might have been,” says Ellen.
First of all, we don’t even know her real name or who she really was. What we do know though is when she was alive, where she was buried, and that she was well-fed as a child. That, plus the tough physical labour she did (based on her worn joints), indicates she likely led a life similar to the merchants who were the period’s ‘middle class’. Connecting these dots allowed the recreation of Tora, but it wasn’t easy work. “It might seem simple to produce something like Tora but it’s not. Having a lot of blanks is still hard and we have to make a lot of choices,” Ellen explains.
Kristin Tiller, the project manager responsible for bringing Tora to life, agrees and says it was still a rewarding process. “We spent a long time deciding how we want to portray her and how we want her meeting with visitors to be. We went with making her approachable. She’s smiling and standing in an inviting manner.” Then followed a long process of researching artists that could bring Tora to life in an authentic manner.
But why is it so important we don’t leave these blanks unfilled?
Making history come alive
“Tora must have had an extraordinary life when you think of the time period she lived in,” says Kristin. “In just 65 years, she witnessed the incredibly prosperous times of Trondheim, but also the downturn. There were unprecedented crop failures, hunger, and illness.”
Having an incredibly life-like person from that period standing in front of you makes everything else in the exhibit feel much more real. The upper floor of this building of the museum hosts a full-sized recreation of parts of Trondheim’s former merchant street.
Going through the exhibition after meeting a person who might have actually lived in one of these houses brings this experience to a whole new level. And this is evident from Tora’s amazing reception.
“We see it both in increased visits and the attention that we’ve gotten online and in media,” says Kristin. “I think it's so fun to see visitors stand in front of her like they are waiting for her to breathe. They witness all the incredible details; like the fuzz on her upper lip, the hint of tears in her eyes and take all this in with awe.” You can go visit Tora at the NTNU University Museum, and who knows, she might soon get a new companion from the past to keep her company.
This article originally appeared in The List Winter issue 2022 and was written in partnership with NTNU University Museum.