Are dams cultural assets?

10 December 2008

As a response to governmental request, several Norwegian public sectors have initiated projects for recording historical monuments, installations and sites. The purpose is to document and present a selection of objects from the different sectors (road and railway constructions, telecommunications, military installations, lighthouse systems etc.) with a high national historical value, and hence in need of special attention and preservation. This documentation and object selection is necessary because cultural environments and objects representing modernization and technological development are poorly recorded and under-represented in national records of historical monuments and sites.

In 2006, the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE), representing the energy and water resource sector, completed a project on hydro power production sites. The project was carried out in collaboration with The Directorate for Cultural Heritage and presented a list of 27 sites, with a focus on hydro power stations of national historical importance. The projects carried out by NVE are mainly funded by the sector’s public research funds with some contributions from companies (such as Statkraft SF, a state-owned hydro power enterprise) and the Norwegian Electricity Industry Association (EBL). The project’s conclusions, selected objects and installations are not in any legal sense binding. The goal is that public administration at all levels and owners/stakeholders use the project results as professional guidelines when constructions and installations in the energy and water resource sector are subject to close-down or major changes.

Dams as cultural heritage 2006-2009 is a similar project presenting a list of dams that represent various types and purposes; helping to ensure preservation and maintenance of dams that are highly valued from a historical perspective. In order to select dams of historical importance, a nationwide survey of the variety of purposes and types of dams of all ages is needed. The project is divided in three phases. In the first phase (2006-2007), as much information as possible has been collected from the whole country. In the second phase (2008) the dams will be sorted and evaluated. The production of a final report is the third phase, and is expected to be completed by autumn 2009.

Data on 2750 dams are already included in the official dam register held by NVE, the governmental authority on dam safety in Norway. About 335 of these are large dams (height over 15m). This register shows that the most intense construction period in Norway was between 1950 and 1989, which runs more or less parallel to the golden era of hydro power development. The total number of dams of all ages and types in Norway is challenging to estimate. So far, in autumn 2008, the project has collected information on an additional 2600 dams. These dams do not have priority with respect to governmental supervision of dam safety, as they are mostly small, older dams and/or dams out of service and do not pose a threat to public safety.

The project does not include nationwide field work. In spite of this, the collecting of information about the additional dams has been a time consuming task. Representatives of NVEs five regional offices have collected information. Their effort amounted to 30 months in 2007 and 2008. Sources of information about dams not included in the official dam register are numerous: NVEs’ own employees, county and local authorities, water management associations, hydro power companies, historical societies, museums, literature and archives. The type of information the project requested is dam type, original and present purpose, age, site/locality, context, condition, history and ownership. A report on the historical development of dams in Norway has been written to distinguish between different dam types, and to link the dams to different historical periods.

The second phase started in autumn 2008, evaluating the dams as cultural heritage. All dams, including the dams in the official dam register – about 5400 – will be evaluated. The key parameters are dam type, purpose, age, context and condition. The final selection of dams will have to reflect the various types and purposes, both representative and unique samples. A group of experts representing the aspects of water use history in Norway will assist the project in the selection process. Some especially selected field inspections will be carried out in this phase. The project is expected to conclude with a list of historically important dams representing different types and purposes from the seventeenth century until today, worthy of preservation, in the autumn 2009.

Among the findings so far, the project has pointed out some rare dam constructions which are of great interest due to their unique design. One such example is a multiple arch dam with tilted arches – Nåvatn dam – built in southern Norway in 1941 (Figure 1).

Water use history

The dam itself is a technical installation in a river, stream or lake. As encountered in the landscape, it communicates much more than technological history. The larger context can tell us about the history of pre-industrial daily-life, of water supply, forestry, mining, energy production, recreation etc.

In Norway, nature has provided excellent conditions for using water in different production processes – hydro power in particular. Electricity production was the precondition for the modernisation of Norway (99% of all electricity production comes from the hydro power industry). In Norway the water volumes are large and relatively well distributed, there are many high heads and the mountain areas give favourable natural storage. The dam is the ‘hard worker’ preparing the ground for many water-based activities and enterprises. Against this background the Norwegian professor Terje Tvedt, specialist on water history and development studies, characterizes the Norwegian dam as ‘an expressive monument in stone commemorating the relation between water and society in this country’. (Tvedt, 1997).

Dams from the pre-industrial period in Norway were often made of earth, wood or stone (alone or in combination). Dams have developed from simple and small to advanced and huge concrete and rockfill constructions parallel to advances in technical achievements and knowledge on the utilisation and handling of watercourses. The choice of design and materials are also influenced by increasing requirements of modern security and supervision.

A brief historical summary of dam functions can illustrate the diversity of demands dams have fulfilled, and are still fulfilling.

In Norway, mill technology was put to use by monasteries in the thirteenth century and small mills were also common at farms that had a stream or river on the property. According to a rough estimation there were 30,000 small mills in Norway by the 1830s (Tvedt, 1997). Small dams were built at streams and rivers to support grinding mills, stamping mills and sawmills. These arrangements fulfilled, for centuries, basic needs for food, clothing and wooden products. They could be built one after the other downstream. The dam constructions were often simple. The regulating device consisted of one or two large stones, peat or wooden poles that were removed at the discharge hole. These were generally in use only when the stream or river was flooding.

Gradually these farm mills were replaced by larger community mills driven by water wheels. These were far more effective and were situated where water-flow was guaranteed all year round. They could satisfy the demand for flour in small communities. The mill arrangements were vital elements in the preindustrial period, and some of them have been documented, restored and preserved by historical societies or regional museums (Figure 2).

From the 1500s the watercourses were also put into service of forestry. Temporary and permanent dams were built as the gate saw technology spread in Norway. Like traditional mills, they were situated close to the stream or river where the water power was exploited directly. The gate saw made forestry more effective and profitable, and large-scale forestry became possible. Floating timber appears as early as the Viking age, but assumed not to have required construction of dams. As long as the amounts of timber to be floated were small the watercourses were utilised in their natural state. As the timber trade expanded, long-distance floating became necessary. In 1688 the records show an amount of 1200 water-powered saw mills in Norway (Hillestad 1992). The watercourses transported timber to the markets for 400 years until motor vehicles took over.

Mining depended on water wheels to run pumps, elevators and bellows, and dams were constructed to secure water supply for operating these devices. The Silver Mines at Kongsberg were established in the 17th century. The area around the mines is a complex system of artificial lakes, dams and water channels that provided water and power for the mines (Berg 1993). The Silver Mines and the mining landscape in Kongsberg are protected by law as a cultural environment, and the protection also covers dams and water channels (Figure 3). Most of the dams are masonry dams, some of them with a central core of peat. These dams are the oldest known dams still in use (holding water), some dating back to the 1660s.

For a long time, dams have been constructed for freshwater supply. Larger cities such as Trondheim and Christiania (Oslo) had such water infrastructure by the eighteenth century. From the 1850s smaller cities and communities followed. These constructions were originally mainly masonry or concrete dams.

Before the electric refrigerator became common from 1880s, small streams and ponds were used to produce ice for cooling. Small earth fill dams were constructed in order to establish ice reservoirs. For many years Norway exported ice, mainly to England. One trace of this business is a dam in the Oslofjord area named Temsen – associated with London’s River Thames. A masonry dam near Oslo, restored by Oslo municipality, was originally a dam constructed by a local brewery to supply ice for cooling. This reservoir is popularly called Oslo’s ‘first refrigerator’ (Figure 4).

Considering that hydro power development from the 1880s became the major force in the industrialisation of Norway, it is not surprising that 65% of the dams in operation today are linked to the hydro power industry. Today, rockfill dams are the dominating large dam type, but at an earlier stage masonry or concrete dams dominated. The city of Hammerfest in northern Norway was in 1891 the first Norwegian city with electric street lighting produced by the city’s hydro power station. The major hydro development projects from the early 1900s were located in western and southern Norway, often linked to large-scale industrial development. Today the cities Odda, Sauda and Rjukan are examples of new communities entirely based on large-scale industry. In these contexts dams are large, mostly in masonry or concrete (Figure 5).

The main hydro power development period in Norway was in 1955-1985, and in the period from 1959 to 1979 ten large dams per year were constructed. Of all large dams constructed after 1970, 85% are embankment dams.

Recreation is rarely the original purpose of dam construction in Norway. In some city parks, dams have been constructed for pure aesthetic pleasure. Some dams have lost their original function and stand ‘alone’ as the only physical trace of earlier enterprises and activities. The construction of a dam is expensive and the structure difficult to demolish, and over a long time span the dam and its reservoir becomes a ‘natural’ part of a landscape. In this manner a dam contributes to create a landscape. The older, larger and more solid it is, the more it will influence our conception, image and experience of the landscape.

This brief summary of dam types in Norway shows that the enterprise of damming up rivers and streams has a long and complex story. The cultivated watercourses tell stories of multiple water-based energy use, transportation, water supply to households and industrial enterprises, and recreation etc. All the stories can illustrate the various tasks a dam is set to activate. Over time the dam and its context will be a part of the society’s collective memory.

Preservation of dams

After close-down, dam constructions are often left idle in the landscape. For many of the small and oldest dams worthy of preservation, one problem is that the dam owners are private individuals or municipalities or others having limited financial abilities. Many of these dams may also be in poor condition, sometimes the owner is unknown. Finding financial solutions for installations out of service and outside profitable enterprises is therefore a major challenge. When it comes to financial abilities generally, one should take notice that all owners/stakeholders of an installation are also responsible for the historical aspects of the enterprise. Many companies are highly aware, and proud, of their own history. This awareness is a valuable resource in the effort to encourage preservation. A dam establishment meets many demands and makes various kinds of production possible, and as such makes history in a wide social context.

The larger dams, and typically the dams still ‘at work’ for hydro power production, have to meet strict safety requirements, and naturally this often will be in conflict with historical preservation interests. But even the dam safety aspect is a history, and many dam constructions can communicate this aspect. A dam construction is often modified, and the changes/layers in the construction are also of historical value. Therefore a multi-layered dam construction is as historically interesting as an authentic dam construction. Both authenticity and change are important aspects when dams are evaluated historically.

Preservation is often understood as physical preservation and protection by law. Protection by law, enforced by the Norwegian Directorate of Cultural Heritage, is the most powerful policy instrument. Physical preservation of these technical-industrial installations is however a most challenging task. They are often extremely complex, and safety always has high priority. At close-down it is demanding to find an alternative use for the installation.

To find alternatives to physical preservation in cases where dams must be removed or radically transformed is therefore a central issue. One alternative is to provide comprehensive documentation of the entire life cycle of the dam in question. This involves examination of case files, drawings, photographs, film, publications, interviews etc. The material must be collected by professionals and made easily accessible for the public. Some hydro power companies in Norway have initiated documentation projects of this kind.

As a project follow-up in 2009, NVE will work on developing appropriate measures to balance safety requirements and cultural values. These measures include guidelines and sets of rules securing that the selected dams of high cultural-historical value are taken into consideration by dam owners, cultural heritage administration and procedures in NVE. Any kind of preservation measure, big or small, expensive or not, requires a dialogue and close cooperation between all parties. It is necessary to consider the development of comprehensive documentation requirements as an alternative to conventional physical preservation.

Promoting preservation and gaining public acceptance of a dam as cultural heritage raises many issues. An obvious fact is that the older an object is the easier it is accepted as a cultural asset. The traces from our recent past, especially from 1900s onwards, challenge our sense of time and sense of historical value. Another obvious fact is that the smaller the scale and the more traditional (preferably handicraft) an object is, the easier it is accepted as a cultural asset. Cultural environments and objects representing modernisation and technological development are often large-scale, complex and unattractive to the eye, hence challenging our sense of time, history, size, technology and aesthetics in general.

These challenges should be met openly by dam owners and public authorities. An open-minded dialogue may correct the impression that cultural heritage is a burden, and encourage a discussion about the diversity of cultural heritage. Dams tell stories about tradition and modernization, and we need to be reminded of both. The public, depending on their point of view, can conceive dams as both good and evil. Dams are however the actual condition for many enterprises we consider as historically important in the development of our society.

Helena Nynäs is a heritage consultant/project manager for the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. Email:

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