30 September 2022

Deciphering an old photo of Norway

[this post is written for family members and will likely be of little interest to others]

Half of my genes came from Norway, and half of those from the Fjaerland fjord, where the Distad family had its roots.  About fifteen years ago Google Maps showed "Distad" marked on the western side of the fjord, about halfway between Balestrand on the Sognefjord and Fjaerland up at the northern terminus of the fjord.

I visited the Fjaerland fjord in 1982 and met some distant relatives who kindly gave me a chart of family names going back to the 1600s.  One of my cousins had the good fortune to be able to spend a summer there working on a farm.  When it was time for her to return to the United States, the family she was staying with presented her with a gift of the photo embedded at the top, which they thought might show the original Distad homestead.

The photo (image quality impaired by glass frame) shows four timber-framed buildings on stone foundations with what are probably sod roofs.  Behind the buildings is a deep cleft in the mountains, and in front is a flowing stream.  The text at the bottom includes an identification number (8271), the words "suphellerbraen" (in) "Fjaerland", and the photographer's name ("K. Knudsen, Bergen").  

The photo was a duplicate of an original stored in The National Archives of Norway.  I tried to track it down to see if any additional notes associated the name Distad with the photo, but didn't have any success.  Apparently material in the archives is labeled with the photographer's name, but not with info about the subject matter, and a search of Knudsens (and for "Fjaerland" and "Distad") didn't locate the original image.

What puzzled me was the topography in the photo.  The "Distad"-associated region in the mid-portion of the fjord that I had visited (and could now view on Google 3D maps) did not look at all like the landscape behind the four structures in the photo, since that property faced a fjord, not a flowing stream.

This week while "mousing around" tilting and dragging the Google 3D view, my  eye was suddenly caught by the word "suphellebreen"-

- at the far right of the photo, a long distance up the valley from the town of Fjaerland at the head of the fjord (yellow oval).  And suddenly everything made sense.

"Suphellebreen" is "soup-ladle-glacier" - one of the branches of the massive Jostedalsbreen glacier (when I had visited Fjaerland forty years ago, the Distads had driven me up to see the glacier, which I remembered as Jostedalsbreen).  So the snowfield behind the buildings in the heirloom photo is actually the tongue of the glacier (visible more vertically at the top left of the photo), and the stream running in front of the buildings is glacial meltwater heading down to join the fjord near Fjaerland.  The location for the photo of the buildings is probably the other red oval (labeled "glacier viewpoint").

The unanswered question is whether the Distads owned or lived in those buildings.  In more modern times they have clearly been further south, but there's not much tillable farmland along the fjord, where the slope is steep, while up near the glacier there probably has always been better topography for farming.  Maybe someone in the family (someone younger than me) can tackle either the national archives for more details on the photo or can perhaps find records of old land ownership.

FWIW, this entry marks my 18,000th post on TYWKIWDBI in 15 years of maintaining the blog (and those posts have generated about 64,000 comments).


  1. Congratulations on the milestone post! I have no connection to your family, but found the post very interesting nonetheless.

  2. I found it interesting as well! I'd suggest that the place where the photo was taken could be quite a ways downstream from the observation point, even half way down the valley. The glacier has obviously receded a long way from when the photo was taken, with its toe all the way at the bottom of the valley. Given the trees between the site of the photo and the toe of the glacier, it could be a mile distant.

    1. I totally agree. I hadn't gone down to Streetview level - did my cruising using satellite images. Would be great to walk past that parking area to look for foundations in the brush/trees and sweep with a metal detector to see what might be there. If only...

  3. looks like your photo was taken very close to this location: https://www.google.com/maps/@61.4632256,6.8211601,3a,75y,332.6h,100.29t/data=!3m8!1e1!3m6!1sAF1QipOHzm3z26dMtv5LGedGKr2rW70J4OEVDngJlDTM!2e10!3e11!6shttps:%2F%2Flh5.googleusercontent.com%2Fp%2FAF1QipOHzm3z26dMtv5LGedGKr2rW70J4OEVDngJlDTM%3Dw203-h100-k-no-pi-0-ya84.24591-ro-0-fo100!7i11264!8i5632
    this is the Google street view photo directly under the "Suphellebreen Glacier Viewpoint" legend if you zoom the Google maps view of this area all the way in.

  4. Great sleuthing! I think we all have that photo, and now have bit more context for it. Maybe, since Mary was the one who bought this photo back, she could research further.

  5. You may have written this for family, but a web search with positive results is always a great read!

  6. Congrats on the milestone... or is it millstone. LoL
    I must be a latent voyeur because I like this stuff, looking at the lives of ordinary people in different cultures and how different they are from the encyclopedia descriptions of people in that culture.
    That steep sidehill is not a problem for goats and sheep, cattle will adapt to it as soon as they're hungry.
    I'm imagining two or three generations working the family farm/homestead then the glacier melts and there is no stream, no water. Now they have to fight the flatlanders for a scrap of land to survive. Perfect story for John Wayne.

  7. Looks like log buildings, rather than timber framed. Norwegians historically used many notches on the corners of buildings. The one on the building on the left is most likely a Norwegian saddle notch, used on round logs. Too little quality in the picture to actually determine the other buildings, but they may be more squared off logs which would likely have a half dovetail notch.

    My father did extensive work in his field of tracing the log building notches in Europe to their descendants in the US. I was there in Norway as a child in 1981 for his primary research in Sweden and Norway. In the US, we never took interstates The county by county maps of all of our American road trip with the log buildings on back roads marked is a treasured archive that I now keep safe.

    1. Here's a book I think you would enjoy reading (if you haven't done so already) -



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