Exploring Denmark’s Glorious Past in the National Museum: Part One – Ancient Denmark

The National Museum of Denmark, Nationalmuseet, Denmark, Copenhagen

If you’ve by chance read any other posts of mine on Copenhagen, then you will already know that I love the city.  And its people.  And its museums.  The Danish National Museum was, I feel, grossly undersold by the guide books I consulted, and therefore I didn’t set aside enough time to explore their truly exceptional collection.  What I saw, I loved.  Now I just need to get back to the city to see the rest of it.  Dang, if only Denmark wasn’t so expensive…

The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Cute elephant detailing around the windows of the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Cute elephant detailing around the windows of the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Anyway, the Nationalmuseet (I shall call it that, since it’s shorter than the English version) is the largest cultural history museum in Denmark.  I couldn’t find out much about its history in English, and Google Translate does some strange things when turning Danish into English, so I’ll keep this brief.

Modern and tidy central atrium of the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Modern and tidy central atrium of the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

The origins of the museum goes back to around 1650, when it all belonged to a royal collection.  In the early 19th century, there was a concerted effort to organise the collection and finally in 1824, a new museum was established which had all prehistoric Danish and classical objects in one place.  My understanding is that the current location of the museum had been the collection’s home since 1853.

First Some Random Danish Archaeology

The first room on the archaeology of Denmark has an interesting array of objects which start with the most adorable little bronze man.  Admittedly I thought he would have been made much earlier than the 5th/6th century, but he’s just too cute for words.  Not sure if he’s singing, screaming, or just has very large lips.

Part of bronze statuette from Gudum, 400-550AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Part of bronze statuette from Gudum, 400-550AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Plate brooch, 600s-700AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Gold spirals and pins from the late Bronze Age, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  Around 2000 gold spirals were found weighing 0.63 kg.  They are slightly flattened, as if they had been squeezed around something – probably woollen thread. They could have decorated a cape or cap worn by a priestly king when worshipping the sun.

Gold ring with seven diamonds and enamel, c. 1600, found at Kaerstrup Manor on the island of Tasinge by Dennis Maigaard.  Made when the art of cutting diamonds with many facets was new, so most of the diamonds have the natural pyramid shape of the raw stone.  This makes it rare in a European context.  May be linked to the owner of Kaerstrup in the 1620s, Christian IV's mother-in-law Ellen Marsvin.

Gold ring with seven diamonds and enamel, c1600AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  This was made when the art of cutting diamonds with many facets was new, so most of the diamonds have the natural pyramid shape of the raw stone. This makes it rare in a European context. May be linked to the owner of Kaerstrup (where it was discovered) in the 1620s, Christian IV’s mother-in-law Ellen Marsvin.

Earliest Traces of Danish Life

Following the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago, the Scandinavian region was populated by different groups of people.  The loss of ice brought the advantages of tundras, which were quickly inhabited by reindeer and elk, which in turn brought hunters from the south.

By 8,500BC, the climate had warmed up and brought more water, and more flora and fauna, and gradually humans started settling permanently in the area that became Denmark.  They lived a nomadic lifestyle, and it was only with the establishment of agriculture from 3000BC that the population settled down.  As it settled down, it also became more interested in burying worldly goods along with the dead – and archaeologists and historians thank them for this useful tradition.

Thanks to bogs and boggy conditions, there are some extraordinary finds on display – it was a real eye-opener for me, not least because I usually find prehistory hard to engage with, since I don’t know much about it, and need something more than bits of flint to focus on.

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A wounded elk that sank to the bottom of a lake at Taderup, 8700BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark. The skeleton was found in a peat bog in 1922. Elk antlers and bones were used for tools and weapons and extensive hunting led to the species being wiped out in Zealand c8500 years ago.  Tooth beads and tools made of elk antler and bone were valuable barter objects.

Fragment of fish trap from Villingebaek, northern Zealand.  c 6000 BC

Fragment of fish trap from Villingebæk, c6000 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Trap of bound twigs for catching small fish and eels.  Lille Knabstrup, western Zealand.  4500 BC

Trap of bound twigs for catching small fish and eels, 4500 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Detail of the trap of bound twigs for catching small fish and eels, 4500 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The twigs look fresh.

Oak Boat from Brokso, c3500 BC

Oak Boat from Broksø, c3500 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Vessel overflowing with amber, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Serious displays engaging young visitors, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Serious displays engaging young visitors, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Material in the oak coffin from Trindhøj, c1347BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Material in the oak coffin from Trindhøj, c1347BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Different angle of the material in the oak coffin from Trindhøj, c1347BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Different angle of the material in the oak coffin from Trindhøj, c1347BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seeing the weave of the material in the oak coffin from Trindhøj, c1347BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seeing the weave of the material in the oak coffin from Trindhøj, c1347BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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The hat in the oak coffin from Muldbjerg, c1365BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Bronze age garment with two pins, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Detail of the Bronze Age garment with two pins, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Detail of the Bronze Age garment with two pins, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Folding chair from Guldhøj, second half of 1400s BC, ash and decorated with patterns inlaid in pitch, with a (fragmentary) otter skin seat, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Detail of the inlay of the folding chair from Guldhøj, second half of 1400s BC, ash and decorated with patterns inlaid in pitch, with a (fragmentary) otter skin seat, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Many Bronze Age weapons, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Many Bronze Age weapons, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Early Bronze Age Chariot of the Sun, c. 1400 BC, found in September 1902, when the bog Trundholm Mose in W. Zealand was first ploughed up.  The elegant spiral ornamentation on the disc reveals its Scandinavian origin.  The Sun Chariot illustrates the idea that the sun was drawn on its eternal journey by a divine horse.  The chariot is not itself part of the religious belief.  The sun image and the horse were placed on wheels to illustrate the motion of the sun.

Chariot of the Sun, c1400 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The Sun Chariot shows the idea that the sun was drawn by a divine horse.  The sun image and the horse were placed on wheels to illustrate the motion of the sun.

Detail of the sun part of the Chariot of the Sun, c1400 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  

Detail of the sun part of the Chariot of the Sun, c1400 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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The other side of the Chariot of the Sun, c1400 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Gold boats, some with sun images in the form of concentric circles, c1500-1100 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The ship is the most common motif in rock carvings and is also found on bronze objects. Often it is seen with solar symbols such as the Sun Ship, the sun's means of transport.  Ships were also made from the metal equivalent of the sun - gold.

Gold boats, some with sun images in the form of concentric circles, c1500-1100 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The ship is the most common motif in rock carvings and is also found on bronze objects. Often it is seen with solar symbols such as the Sun Ship, the sun’s means of transport.  Ships were also made from the metal equivalent of the sun – gold.

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Horned helmet, c900 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Gold bowl with sun motifs and horse-head handle, 1100-900BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Inside the gold bowl with sun motifs and horse-head handle, 1100-900BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Inside the gold bowl with sun motifs and horse-head handle, 1100-900BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Rock carving of a sun image depicted on a stand on a ship, 1100-700 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Rock carving showing a dance in honour of the sun, 1100-700 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark. The crew on the ship are holding up sun images.

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Lurs, 1200-700 BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  Lur horns were Nordic wind instruments used in Bronze Age rituals. These lurs were found in bogs.

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Rock carving showing sacred symbols, probably marking the presence of a higher power, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Carved stones, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Celtic Influence

The cooling of the climate in about the 4th century BC, led those living in Denmark to migrate southwards towards Germany.  This explains the strong Celtic cultural influence on Denmark.  It was also from this time that iron ore was extracted from the peat bogs – I had no idea that there was such a thing as bog iron – and we can see this iron used in one of the wagon found buried in the Dejbjerg Bog.

The wagon on display in the museum is the better preserved of the two that were discovered.  The iron in the carriage body was forged from continental mountain ore, so it was probably made in central Europe by Celtic artisans – and the decorative elements do look very Celtic. However, the wheels were repaired in Denmark – one of the rim hoops was forged from Danish bog iron ore.

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The Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

Beautiful bronze pattern along the edge of the body of the Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

Beautiful bronze pattern along the edge of the body of the Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

Celtic face on the edge of the body of the Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

Celtic face on the edge of the body of the Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

The body of the Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

The body of the Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

Looking at the construction of the Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

Looking at the construction of the Dejbjerg Wagon, end of 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

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Detail of the bull on a cauldron of riveted bronze plates, 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark. Made by Celtic artisans in Central Europe and used as a votive offering.

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Detail of the face on a cauldron of riveted bronze plates, 1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark. Made by Celtic artisans in Central Europe and used as a votive offering.

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Bronze cauldron, c300 BC, from Etruria, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  It was deposited in a bog as a votive offering.

The so-called woman of Huldremose is one of the star exhibits of the museum.  She is a 40 year old who was bundled into the bog – possibly as a sacrifice – fully clothed and is a boon for archaeologists.  There has been much speculation as to how and why she ended up in the bog, and the fact she was so very well preserved (as were her stomach contents) ensures that she’ll continue being speculated over for years to come.  For me, the clothes were amazing – so soft looking and such a beautiful, simple pattern.

Clothes of the woman from Huldremose, c100 AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Clothes of the woman from Huldremose, c100 AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Sheep’s wool blanket, 9th century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Skin shoes, 2nd-1st century BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

The  Hjortspring boat, 400-300BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

The  Hjortspring boat, 400-300BC, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Roman Influence

From the first to the fifth century AD, the Romans interacted with Danes, even though their frontiers were far off.  Relations were created and maintained through trade and for the 1st century AD in particular there are more frequent Roman finds, which show that some Danes served in the Roman army.

The silver cups found in a burial in Hoby show that it wasn’t just rubbish that ended up beyond the frontiers of the Empire.  The cups were made and signed by Cheirisophos, and were probably made for a high ranking official in the Roman army.  The name Silius is engraved on the cup, and by some fluke, written sources name the commander of the Rhine Army, posted to Mainz in 14-21AD, as Silius.  The same chap?  Could be – after all, the quality of workmanship on the cups suggests that they would have been commissioned by someone of high rank, and it was common for Roman officials to gift items to those they were keen to have good relations with.

The story that the cups tell are also suitable for a Roman official – an allegory of Roman/Germanic relations in this period.  A central scene shows Priam, king of the Trojans, kneeling before Achilles, asking for his dead son’s body.  Achilles is an ideal, muscular Roman fellow, and Priam is a ‘foreigner’, with his beard, trousers and Phrygian cap (which generically designated foreignness).  Priam is basically a Germanic Barbarian type and there he is, kissing the hand of the powerful Roman type.

Image of Priam before Achilles from the Iliad Cup, 1st century AD, made in Italy, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Image of Priam before Achilles from the Iliad Cup, 1st century AD, made in Italy, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Women sitting behind Achilles, from the Iliad Cup, 1st century AD, made in Italy, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Women sitting behind Achilles, from the Iliad Cup, 1st century AD, made in Italy, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Sleeping soldiers on the Iliad Cup, 1st century AD, made in Italy, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Sleeping soldiers on the Iliad Cup, 1st cent AD, made in Italy, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

The second cup seems to show the story of Philoctetes, who was stuck on the island of Lemnos, where he had the crucial bow and poisoned arrows of Heracles, which Odysseus went to get, in order to win the Trojan wars.

Philoctetes has his snakebite tended to on the second Iliad Cup, 1st century AD, made in Italy, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Philoctetes snakebite tended to on the second Iliad Cup, 1st century AD, made in Italy, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

In the first century AD Roman goods were imported into Denmark, but they were luxury items, made of glass, bronze or silver.   Over the course of the second and third centuries AD, the wealthy families of Denmark were buried with imported Roman metal and glass goods, and when you see the Circus Cup, you can understand why it was such a prestige item.  Might have been utterly baffling to a Dane who had never been to see wild animals at arenas, but that probably just went to make it more mysterious and important.

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The lion on the Circus cup, 2nd century AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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The blue leopard on the Circus cup, 2nd century AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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More painted glass, Roman era, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Items from the Himlingoje Grave, first half of 3rd century, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Items from the Himlingoje Grave, first half of 3rd century, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Rock crystal sphere with the Greek inscription ABΛAΘANAΛBA and an anchor, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Soldiers’ equipment from Nydam, c400 AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Wooden boxes from the soldiers' equipment from Nydam, c400 AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

Wooden boxes from the soldiers’ equipment from Nydam, c400 AD, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

From the bridge over Ravning Meadows, in the Vijle river valley, built c979-80, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The bridge fell into disuse in c1000 AD when it was superseded by fords.

From the bridge over Ravning Meadows, in the Vijle river valley, built c979-80, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The bridge fell into disuse in c1000 AD when it was superseded by fords.

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