Nationalmuseet: A Walk Around the Danish Prehistory Gallery at National Museum of Denmark

Hello everybody! I was very recently in Denmark exploring the land, trying to be a Viking and all that. Me being museum girl, I obviously ended in the Nationalmuseet…And I didn’t want to leave! This place holds the Best (and I meant that, truly) collection of pre-historic finds I have ever seen. Yes, I have been in the British Museum. Yes, I have travelled through France countless times, and yes the Altamira Caves are in my home land…Yet, I was blown away by this exhibition. The displays were fantastic. The information was neat, clear and well put together. There were handouts for those who wanted them, and the items were just amazing –  we are talking of things I had even study and seen in Powerpoint slides in my Undergraduate and Masters lectures. And I tell you, the pictures do not make them justice. So, with the information I gathered, some pictures I took (apologies if the quality is not at its very best) i will give you a walk about of why going to the Nationalmuseet is a must!…And you know the best part of this particular site? Yeah, It IS Free.

Entrance to the exhibition - clear and illustrative display pannels. Very well done in my modest opinion!
Entrance to the exhibition – clear and illustrative display panels. Very well done in my modest opinion!

The exhibition looks to walk through the highlights of Danish Prehistory, from the 13000 BC to the 1050AD. That means, technically from our point of view, that the include the Viking Age into their “prehistory”. This makes sense if we consider the lack of written sources, and the fact that there is a prolonged and sustained continuation of traditions and cultural patterns in the Old Norse, stretching from dare I say the Stone Age, up to our concept of the Early Middle Ages. Scandinavia was relatively isolated from the rest of Europe and that allowed for this status quo to continue for as long as possible…Some would argue that this changed with the appearance of the ruling dynasties of Northern Europe. However, my stand point is that the actual cutting point of old/ancient/whatever you want to call it Scandinavia is represented by the official adoption of Christianity as their religion – this is really what shook their world. Therefore, I am happy with this category and approach that the Nationalmuseet provides. In any case, the whole exhibition is composed of 24 rooms. I do not have pictures that necessarily follow this pattern, but I did a walk through the entire thing, so it should be well enough represented – if not room by room, nearly.

Starting in the Stone Age, the most striking and important archaeological find in the museum is the burial below.

The Vedbaek burial of a woman with her child. She must have been around 40 years old, and the child around 3. The flint knives on the child's body suggest it may have been a male.
The Vedbaek burial of a woman with her child. She must have been around 40 years old, and the child around 3. The flint knives on the child’s body suggest it may have been a male.

It has been dated from around 7000 years ago. The reasons of their deaths are unknown. However the skull of the woman presents and earlier injury on her neck – but it is difficult to determine if this actually killed her or not. She is also buried with a hair pin and the beak of a grebe.

More examples of the display pannels
More examples of the display panels

The following polished flints really grabbed my attention. If you have been in the Museum of London, you’d have seen similar things to this display. However the sheer quantity and clearly amazing craftsmanship sets them aside. The ones of the left of the picture were found in Maglehojs Vange, at the west of Copenhagen in 2001 during a drainage dig. The set on the right comes from Hagelbjerrggard near Ringsted. They were found in the 70s, while ploughing.

Hoard of flint finds 3700-3500 BC
Hoard of flint finds 3700-3500 BC

All the amber in the world: there were 5 display layers in total with amber found in Denmark
All the amber in the world: there were 5 display layers in total with amber found in Denmark

The next item is a beautiful piece of pottery (I could have photographed every vase in that case, because they were all brilliant, but this one is special).

Funnel bowl from Skarpalling, Himmerland c. 3100 BC
Funnel bowl from Skarpalling, Himmerland c. 3100 BC

The Skarpsalling Vessel, is one of the finest example of complex pottery design from the Neolithic. It was discovered in a burial mound, and its decoration is believed to have had ritual significance for the interment or the trip into the afterlife.

Moving on to the Bronze Age now – This picture was taken particularly for Alex! 🙂

2 swords from either Romania or Hungary. Dated from c.1600 BC, and found in Stendsgard and Torupgarde
2 swords from either Romania or Hungary. Dated from c.1600 BC, and found in Stendsgard and Torupgarde

The Egtved Girl is out next stop. This was a very important find for the understanding of textiles in pre-historic times. I am sure the picture I took shows why!

The Egtved Girl Burial

The oak coffin contained the remains of a young woman, aged between 16-18. It is believed that she was buried during the summer of 1370 BC. The archaeologists even found some skin, hair and teeth. Her dress was composed of a knee-length skirt made of cords and a short woollen bodice (very “modern” in current fashion terms). She was buried with some yarrow plant too, which is one of the factors that determined her burial must have taken place during the summer season. She was also accompanied by the charred boned of a young boy, aged 5-6. Recently, she had been subject of controversy as it seem that the analysis of strontium of her hair and teeth, the experts have determined she was born in the area of the Black Forest (Germany). So we could be looking at the burial of someone special. She had would have travelled to get to Denmark, but for what reasons? Was she a slave? Perhaps a young bride? Or maybe some sort of seer or healer? The interment of yarrow may be indicating that this woman had some sort of otherworldly connection.

Now the next item is one of the reasons why I went to the museum. And you should too! I have studied this piece, and now that I have seen it close, I can confirm it is the symbol of an era.

Solvognen - The Sun Chariot
Solvognen – The Sun Chariot

The Sun Chariot. I remember a cold Winter afternoon, sitting in a lecture room hearing Dr. Nick Thorpe talking about the Bronze Age and bringing this up on the screen. There is no wonder this item has instigated curiosity in the heart of archaeologists, as there is no other like it in the world. The bronze, gold-plated disk dates from around 1400 BC. It is the epitome of Celtic believe: the Sun being pulled by a horse. These were the two biggest cults through the Bronze Age and that have been found all over Europe.

Moving on, the following is another controversial find. And one that clearly influenced the Viking myth of horned helmets.

Horned helmet from the bog Vikso Mose, near Ballerup (Northern Zealand). c. 900 BC
Horned helmet from the bog Vikso Mose, near Ballerup (Northern Zealand). c. 900 BC

No. I know what you are thinking, and no, these were not taken into battle! They were rather ritualistic items! In fact, it is believed that as they represent they horns of the bull (another important cult animal within Bronze Age believe), these would have been worn by a priest for ceremonial purposes. It is likely they would have been adorned by feathers at the ends of the horns, and perhaps horsehair in the middle like a crest. Also, consider how inconvenient horned helmets would have been while fighting! Particularly when made out of Bronze! – If you do not believe me, speak with Alex, and he will tell you everything you need to know about them.

Found in 1926, in Fardal (central Jutland). Supposedly women's ornaments: horses heads, bird figurine, kneeling woman and a snake. Dated from c. 800 BC
Found in 1926, in Fardal (central Jutland). Supposedly women’s ornaments: horses heads, bird figurine, kneeling woman and a snake. Dated from c. 800 BC

More displays of Celtic/Bronze Age believe. The Sun always leading the way. These two stones found in Zealand and dating from around 1100-700 BC, are an indicator of the long-lasting practice of this cult. The one of the left is from Jaegersborg Dyrehave, depicting the sun on a boat. The one of the right is portraying a dance in honour of the sun, and was found in Engelstrup.

Sun images

Display indicating the journey of the sun and its symbolism
Display indicating the journey of the sun and its symbolism. It was very nicely done, and never seen something so neat for this explanation, so I thought it may be appreciated.

Still in the Bronze Age, another epic (for the lack of other word) display in room 13.

Lurerne - Bronze Age Lurs c. 1700-500 BC
Lurerne – Bronze Age Lurs c. 1700-500 BC

These musical instruments are from the later end of the Bronze Age. They may not seem like much in this section of the picture, but the entire display case was as big as my bathroom – honestly, there was loads of them and in top condition. Their shape is probably modelled after an ox horn. It seems that in Danish finds, these instruments come in pairs, and are always found in bogs, where they were probably interred as sacrificial offerings. We know from Swedish rock carvings that lur players took part in processions, and it is likely their music was fundamental for ceremonial purposes.

Bronze-Age display of shields - almost perfect state of conservation!
Bronze-Age display of shields – perfect state of conservation!

Rune stones : they had a collectiong or like 4 or 5 of them. All dating from Pre-history up to the Viking Age.
Rune stones : they had a collection or like 4 or 5 of them. All dating from Pre-history up to the Viking Age.

Another big player in the Celtic world – The Dejbjerg Wagon. Again, in a lecture with Dr. Thorpe we had a vivid discussion about these artefacts. There have been several burials across Europe involving wagons. Therefore one can assume their sacrificial purpose is obvious, and in fact this one was dismantled and buried in a peat bog for that purpose. However, these items could be indicating more than just ritual. These would have been genuine methods of transport, even if locally – and this comes across as a certainty after having visited Trelleborg (I’ll talk about that in another post), where the settlement had a cross of wooden paths used to transport goods from side to side and out into the surrounding villages! I believe there are further studies relating to this concerning some wagon findings in Yorkshire that would suggest the same hypothesis. Moreover, these are great displays of power by the magnates of the settlements. So it is likely they may have been used in rituals of gift giving, carrying their master across the settlement while giving away treasure. In any case, they are truly remarkable.

The Dejbjerg Wagon
The Dejbjerg Wagon

Next, and jumping into the Iron Age, we have a fantastic piece, of international renown, and one of the master pieces of the museum. The Gundestrup Cauldron.

The Gundestrup Cauldron
The Gundestrup Cauldron

It weights nine kilos! And it was made c.100 BC in the Balkans, and then exported to Denmark. It was found once again in a bog burial, as a sacrificial item. Due to the great craftsmanship and incredible wealth, it is supposed this was offered to the gods rather than just buried with its owner. It is a pity I could not take a picture of the inside of the item (it is protected by a very thick glass), but the carvings are simply mind-blowing. It is decorated with all sorts of animals, mythical creatures, and deities.

Skin shoes found in the Ronbjerg Mose bog. In western Jutland, c.2-1 century BC
Skin shoes found in the Ronbjerg Mose bog. In western Jutland, c.2-1 century BC

Continuing with our Iron Age trip, we encounter this!

The Warship from Hjortspring
The Warship from Hjortspring

The vessel was unearthed in the 1920s out of the bog known as Hjortspring Mose, on the island of Als (Sonderjylland, south Denmark). It was built between 400-300 BC, and it is 18 meters long. It is the oldest find of wooden plank ship in Scandinavia. It contained several weapons, armours and war gear, indicating that its sinking may have been for ceremonial purposes (notice a trend?). A boat of these dimensions would have required a crew of at least 20 men, and it is supported that before it was sunk, it would have been in battle. The interpretation of the museum is that an army of around 80-100 men would have come to the island on a fleet of 4-5 of these boats. the launched the attacked but they failed, thus the victorious native population buried the ship with the belongings of their defeated enemies.

Finally, my last stop in the Danish Iron Age – the burial of a clearly wealthy lady.

The Woman of Himlingoje
The Woman of Himlingoje

It has been estimated that the deceased was around 40-50 when her life came to end. She was buried with a brooch inscribed with the name widuhudaR, which is male. So it is contested whether this is the signature of the smith that made the fine item, or a gift from a man to this female. Interestingly this burials presents a clear sign of Roman influence: a Charon’s coin was found in her mouth, as a way to pay for her passage into the afterlife. There are several pieces that are of Roman made in her grave: drinking vessels, beads and arms rings. The question remains whether she was of Norse or Mediterranean origin. Perhaps she was a native with clear connections with the empire, and that may have been the source of her power and wealth.

Ok so we are nearly finished now. I would just like to incorporate, and end this post as the museum does: with the Viking Age. To my surprise, there was a considerable lack of Viking artefacts on display. However, these is a legitimate reason for this. Many of you may know that currently there is an exhibition about the Vikings organised by the Nationalmuseet going around. It stopped at the British Museum in 2014 under the name Vikings: Life and Legend. So a few of these items are currently on loan elsewhere for different displays. Nevertheless, I captured a few things… These are of importance to me. Why these and no others. Well first for the lack of certain items as I just explained. Secondly, because they relate to my research! 😉

Explanation panels of the Vikings

Recreation of a typical Old Norse woman dress

Yet another wonderful panel explaining the different art styles of the Viking Age. Nice and easy point of reference.

An entire display showing the image of the Vikings in popular culture…Were you expecting me to miss it?

2 traditional gilt bronze brooches. Interesting find this one from Lerchenborg, as they found inside the brooches beads of silver, glass and rock crystal, a Frankish costume brooch made of silver, another silver pendant with silver chain, as well as Frankish, Scandinavian and two Arab coins!

More jewellery from the Viking Age – featuring more common pendants, and coloured beads. These would be part of anyones attire.

Well, this is all for me now. But there are more reviews and travel posts from my trip to Denmark coming up, so…Keep an eye out! Hope you enjoyed it, perhaps even as much as I did!

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