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

Spread the love

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…

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Please click here for Page Two…


  • Nils 5th May 2020 at 1:31 am

    Wonderful pictures! I am writing a book on Scandinavian history, would it be ok to use one of these images in my book? If so, who should I give credit to? Thank you for a great historical website!

    • chickpea 12th July 2020 at 10:48 am

      Thank you so much for your kind comments! Apologies for not responding sooner, but there have been gremlins in my blog and I’ve only just been able to see your message. Scandinavian history is absolutely fascinating and I bet it’s a lot of fun to write about!

      You are welcome to use any picture (if you still want to) – I would just ask you to credit it to this blog!

      Good luck with your book! I hope to be able to read it one day…


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: