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Bronze Age Scandinavia



Bronze Age Coffin Burials . . . . . . . . . . . . 80

Bronze Age Cairns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82

The Bronze Age was first acknowledged as a separate period, and thus as an object of study in 1836, when Christian Jürgensen Thomsen published his famous Three Age System. In this system, the Bronze Age was sandwiched between the Stone Age and the Iron Age. The latter periods built on indigenous materials of stone and iron. The Bronze Age, by contrast, was founded on an artificial, and thus truly innovative, alloy of copper and tin, metals that were traded into metal-poor Scandinavia from metal-rich regions of central Europe. Thomsen's system evidenced an evolutionary logic that was virtually Darwinian, and it became the foundation of all later research, which has progressed mostly in leaps.

The investigation, during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of numerous extremely well-preserved bodies of persons buried in oak coffins below earthen mounds is of special significance. The thousands of mounds in the cultural landscape thus became linked to the Bronze Age and gave rise to the notion of "the Mound People." Likewise, a growing awareness of the past among peasants and the bourgeoisie, in conjunction with nationalistic trends and more effective agricultural and industrial production, brought increasing numbers of bronze artifacts to museums. Then, in 1885, Oscar Montelius was able to establish subdivisions of the Bronze Age into periods I–III for the Older Bronze Age and periods IV–VI for the Late Bronze Age. Later scholars have regulated the content of this system, which nonetheless still stands, surprisingly intact. Current research endeavors to improve our understanding of Bronze Age society. These interests have been prompted by improvements in theoretical tools, in absolute chronology, and in methods of data recording and analysis. Scandinavia in the Bronze Age stands as one of the most bronze-rich areas in Europe, despite the fact that every bit had to be imported.

geographical framework

The core region of the classic Nordic Bronze Age is southern Scandinavia, consisting of Denmark, Schleswig, and Scania. The adjoining northern European lowland in present-day Germany, as well as southern Norway and south-central Sweden, can be considered to be closely associated. Within this region cultural coherence was mediated through particular practices in the domains of metalwork style and personal appearance, sacrificial and funerary rituals, cosmology, economy, and social conduct and organization. The Bronze Age to us nevertheless is very much the culture of a social elite.

Northern Scandinavia is culturally distinct, if not unaffected by the general Bronze Age idea. The border is fluid and changeable, however. With increasing distance northward, cairns for burial replaced mounds, bronzework becomes rare, and eastern patterns of communication toward Russia, Finland, and the eastern Baltic region become prevalent. Moreover, the focus of pictures carved on rock changes from food production to hunting and fishing, hence also reflecting differences in subsistence economy, ideology, social organization, and probably ethnicity.

chronological framework

Among more recent research advances, count the "revolutions" of carbon-14 dating and dendrochronology, which have been applied to Bronze Age materials with astonishingly precise results. The small group of oak-coffin graves, notably, could be dated to a brief period between 1396 and 1260 b.c. The Bronze Age proper commenced c. 1700 b.c. and concluded c. 500 b.c., but metals became socially integrated by about 2000 b.c., during the Late Neolithic period—already a bronze age in all but name. Approximate dates in calendar years are as follows: Late Neolithic I, 2350–1950 b.c.; Late Neolithic II, 1950–1700 b.c.; period I, 1700–1500 b.c.; period II, 1500–1300 b.c.; period III, 1300–1100 b.c.; period IV, 1100–900 b.c.; period V, 900–700 b.c.; and period VI, 700–500 b.c.

Metal was brought in from metal-controlling societies in central Europe. Comparative chronology therefore is the foundation for assessments of social networks and dependencies across Europe. The Late Neolithic period and the earliest Bronze Age (period IA) are contemporaneous with the Danubian and Únĕtician Early Bronze Age cultures in central Europe (c. 2300–1600 b.c.). Periods IB–II correspond to the Middle Bronze Age Tumulus culture (1600–1300 b.c.). Periods III–V are parallel to the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture (1300–700 b.c.). The final Bronze Age, period VI, corresponds to the Early Iron Age Hallstatt culture (700–500 b.c.).

the beginning

The first copper objects appeared in southern Scandinavia in the fourth millennium b.c., along with the consolidation of food production. They presumably were accompanied by experiments with metallurgy, but the knowledge was not maintained. At the end of the third millennium b.c. metallurgy was reintroduced, together with the northward dispersal of Bell Beaker material cultures; this time, production and use of metals were integrated permanently into culture and society.

The period around 2000 b.c. is an important turning point in the social history of early Europe, with, for instance, innovations in tin-bronze technology and consolidation of social hierarchies. In southern Scandinavia there was a veritable boom in metal use, which was connected to a powerful metal-producing center in the Únĕtice culture across the Baltic Sea on the river plains of the Elbe-Saale area of Germany. Overt presentation of salient individuals was avoided, perhaps because social practices were rooted in principles of communality. This view finds support in the continued emphasis on sacrificial practices in sacred wetlands; at least, this is where some of most prominent finds of early metalwork have been discovered, notably, the hoards of Gallemose and Skeldal in Jutland and Pile in Scania. There are small signs of an elite group, which appears to have interacted closely with neighboring elites.

It was not until about 1600 b.c. that social structure and the material world shifted manifestly toward patterns that came to characterize the Nordic Bronze Age. Precisely at this time large earthen mounds began to be built, and identities of wealth, rank, age, and gender began to be presented overtly. One probably must understand these presentations as forming part of an aristocratic and highly competitive lifestyle among a social elite and not necessarily in terms of rigid positions of rank within this elite.

Copper as raw material prevailed for a while, but from c. 2000 b.c. objects were more consistently made of bronze, which by 1700 b.c. had become absolutely dominant. Flint and stone, accordingly, were valued less. The local production of metalwork initially was very one-sided: flat axe heads were favorites from the onset and were put to traditional social and practical uses. In about 1600 b.c., however, a much more varied repertoire of bronzework was produced, circulated, and consumed in a variety of new or altered contexts. This variance coincided with the first overt elite manifestations and with the spread of new social habits, ideas, and fashions—part of the so-called Tumulus culture.

metals and social inequality

It has been claimed that in early Europe it was not money that made the world go around, but metals. It is certainly true that when the technique was first discovered and became part of the fabric of social life, European societies were altered in the process. Social hierarchy can exist easily without metals, but it is harder to find profoundly metal-using societies that maintain an egalitarian way of life. The reasons for this are not straightforward, but one can speculate on such factors as differential access to and control of key resources and of exchange networks. Copper ore, in fact, is unevenly distributed geographically, with a few major concentrations, hence providing a natural barrier against uniform circulation of raw copper and finished objects in Europe. Tin is distributed even more narrowly, with only one major source in central Europe, located in the mountains between Saxo-Thuringia and Bohemia.

Craft specialization is another important factor, because it creates divisions in society beyond those of gender and age. Producing items of copper is a difficult and prolonged process, demanding divisions of labor and specialist knowledge and thus an institutionalized system of apprenticeship. The fantastic transformation of raw copper into finished objects is difficult to comprehend and may well have been surrounded by secrecy and mythical imaginations, again a possible medium for gaining control. In a sense, metallurgy is the exercise of power over material and human resources. Social hierarchy and elitism thus walk hand in hand with metallurgical production in metal-poor as well as metal-rich regions of Europe. Most important, however, the metal objects themselves—owing to their inherent attraction and ascribed functions and meanings—actively built social identity. Metal objects soon assumed important roles in creating and maintaining individual identities relating to gender, status, and rank, hence accentuated social distinctions of various kinds.

organization of metalwork production

The basic technique employed by the Scandinavian metalworker was casting. Hammering the bronze rarely was used as a primary technique. This is unlike the situation in central Europe, where, for instance, vessels and shields were beaten into shape rather than cast. Cold and hot hammering nevertheless was not unknown in Scandinavia, indispensable as these techniques are to harden, for instance, the cutting edge of an axe or a sword. Remains of melting and fragments of tuyeres and crucibles of baked clay are known from some settlements, especially from the Late Bronze Age. Composite stone molds of Bronze Age date exist, but their rarity suggests that they usually were made of more perishable clay and sand. This is consistent with details on the bronze objects implying that they often were cast using the lost-wax method (cire perdue). In addition, so-called Überfangsguss or over-casting was used, for example, when the hilt of a dagger or sword needed to be attached securely to the blade or when repairing broken objects. Skills in metalworking were considerable, and the objects created in bronze were far more complex than earlier objects in copper.

Manufacturing objects of bronze is specialist work and therefore, as mentioned earlier, required divisions of labor within society. The quality of Scandinavian metalwork and remains from the production process suggest that further specialization soon came about: from c. 1600 b.c. there was a division into ordinary metalworkers producing for kin and community and specialist metalworkers retained by the social elite. A patron-supported craft production is suggested by findings in the large period II longhouse at Store Tyrrestrup (Vendsyssel, Denmark). There, unfinished axes had been deposited, together with casting residues, under the floor, close to the fireplace. The smith is a curiously anonymous person throughout the Bronze Age, and this may sustain the interpretation of a patron relationship. In fact, only one burial of a bronzesmith is known, at Galgehøj (Hesselager, Denmark).

the dead and the living

Funerary practices are embedded in society as a statement of the way things are or should be. They are performed by the living in memory of the dead and as a mixture of habitual ritual action and social strategy; quite often one aspect dominates the other. Inhumation in stone cists or oak trunks was the dominant burial custom in the Older Bronze Age, whereas cremation in urns took over in the Late Bronze, with period III as transitional. These two major funerary customs of the Bronze Age broadly reflect the situation in Europe, first in the Tumulus Bronze Age and, from about 1300 b.c., the Urnfield culture. Both probably must be understood as the rapid spread over geographic space of particular social and religious practices among an "international" elite.

In the Older Bronze Age mounds of turf or cairns of stone were erected to cover the inhumed remains of the deceased, who was placed in the coffin wholly dressed and with various accessories, regulated by such parameters as age, gender, profession, and rank. Borum Eshøj near Århus and Hohøj at Mariager Fjord in Denmark and the Bredarör cairn at Kivik in Sweden are examples of large tumuli. The tumulus-covered burials from the Older Bronze Age can have represented only a segment of the population, no doubt chosen among the elite. The new custom of tumulus burial was first used to commemorate certain heroes of war and only later came to incorporate other social identities.

In the Late Bronze Age fewer tumuli were built, but existent ones continued in use as the family burial place, celebrating the recent dead and the ancestors. Small houses sometimes were built at the mound periphery, probably indicating that the corpse lay in state before the cremation ceremony took place. The cremated bones usually were placed in a pottery urn together with a few personal items of bronze. The conspicuous display of the previous period is mostly absent. A large number of urns typically were placed in the side of a tumulus or near it, and it is likely that more people than in previous years received a proper burial. The cremation custom contributed to making people more equal in death, but still the level of wealth varied quite a lot. It therefore is likely that the cremation custom concealed a reality of considerable social inequality. This view is supported by the existence of chieftains' burials below giant tumuli, notably Lusehøj in the central region of southwestern Fyn and the mound of Håga near present-day Uppsala in central Sweden.

personal appearance and social identity

Material culture, and, in fact, all sorts of cultural consumption, is predisposed to fulfil a social function: namely, that of legitimating social differences. In the Bronze Age elite identity was signified outwardly through forms of personal appearance that included particular types of dress and personal equipment. Objects of bronze and gold formed an integral part of an aristocratic outfit, which varied according to status, gender, and probably also age. The inhumations of the older Bronze Age reflect ideal social structure within the privileged group of people who received a mound burial. Skeletons, unfortunately, have been preserved only rarely, but the small group of well-preserved oak coffins provides valuable information not least on gender distinctions. In the Late Bronze Age the custom of cremation made it difficult to assess personal appearance and thus the social identities the deceased had maintained in life. Principles of dress and accessories appear to have remained the same throughout the Bronze Age, whereas the style of metalwork changed systematically from period to period, notably with spirals in period IB–II and wavy bands in period V.

The first rich mound burials appeared in period IB, c. 1600 b.c. They commemorated certain persons with a warrior identity, presumably males, as, for instance, at Buddinge (Copenhagen, Denmark) and Strandtved (Svendborg, Denmark). Notably, it was not until period II that females became visible as persons of rank. Early elite warriors carried a sword or dagger, a weapon axe, and sometimes a spearhead or a long pointed weapon for stabbing (fig. 1). Dress accessories of bronze included a dress pin and belt hook and sometimes a frontlet of gold sheet, as well as such personal items as tweezers, palstave (an axe-like implement), or chisel for work and a fishhook. Running spirals quite often adorned the weaponry of period IB, but the real breakthrough of this ornamental style did not occur until period II, when it became especially associated with female trinkets and worship of the sun.

Several hundred burials testify to personal appearances in periods II and III. The small group of oak coffins from the peninsula of Jutland in Denmark is particularly valuable as a source for Bronze Age social life, because they preserve organic materials, such as wood, wool, and antler. These burials contained such personalities as the Egtved Girl, the Skrydstrup Woman, the Mulbjerg Man, the
Trindhøj and Borum Eshøj bodies, and the Guldhøj Man.

High-ranking women and men wore woolen dresses of superior quality, including shoes and headdress. Over a belted kiltlike coat the males wore a mantle and, on the head, a round-crowned hat. One or more additional objects of bronze and sometimes of gold accompanied the deceased or completed the dress, among them, arm ring, belt hook, dress pin, fibula (a clasp resembling a safety pin), double buttons, tweezers, razor, dagger, and hafted axe for work or for war. Bronze swords in a finely cut wooden sheath symbolized high male rank in addition to adulthood and warrior status. The sword was suspended at the waist or arranged diagonally across the chest. Buckets of birch bark, wooden bowls with or without tin nail ornamentation, folding stools of wood with otter skin seats, antler spoons, and blankets of wool and oxhide add to this picture of social superiority.

The female dress seems to have varied according to position within an age cycle, with a major division at the transition to womanhood. The miniskirt of strings worn by the sixteen-year-old girl from Egtved may have shown that she was unmarried. The long skirts worn by the eighteen- to twenty-year-old young woman from Skrydstrup and the middle-aged woman from Borum Eshøj may have signaled their status as married women. Similarly, elaborate hairstyles stabilized by a hairnet or a cap might well be associated mainly with married women. A short blouse with long sleeves, by contrast, appears to have been worn by women of all ages. A spiral-decorated belt plate of bronze—later a belt box—fastened to the stomach with a belt of wool or leather also was nearly a standard dress accessory. Smaller, button-like plates (tutuli), fibulae, neck collars, and various rings of gold and bronze for the ears, arms, legs, neck, or hair completed the female dress. Small personal items, such as antler combs and bronze awls and strange objects perhaps carrying magical meanings, sometimes were added to the outfit, contained in a small purse or box or suspended at the belt.

settlement and landscape

The sources for subsistence economy notably consist of pollen diagrams, preserved fields, plow furrows, wooden plows, bones of livestock, charred remains of domesticated plants, and tools of stone and metal. Sources for settlement organization include the remains of wooden longhouses, four-post structures, and storage pits in addition to many other fragments of human activities in the cultural landscape. It was only within the last decades of the twentieth century that Bronze Age settlements began to emerge in the archaeological record. Important fieldwork has been undertaken, notably in Thy, on Djursland; in Sønderjylland and southwestern Fyn in Denmark; and in the regions of Malmö and Ystad in Scania. Important sites are Fosie IV near Malmö and Apalle near Stockholm in Sweden. In addition, there are Højgård in southern Jutland, Bjerre and Legård in Thy, Grøntoft and Spjald in western Jutland, and Hemmed on Djursland, all in western Denmark.

The Bronze Age falls within the Subboreal period, which was on the whole warm and dry. In the settled regions, especially near the coast, the landscape was open, with mounds prominently occupying the top of the low hills. The forested inlands, far from the coast, were only thinly settled. The economy was agrarian, based on the cultivation of cereals in small oval fields close to the settlements and on herds of livestock grazing in nearby pastures. Cow dung probably was collected as manure for the fields. Domestic animals, such as cattle, sheep, and horses, contributed immensely to keeping the land open, as did felling of trees with metal axes for the building of houses, ships, wagons, and burial coffins. The coast rarely was far removed from settlements in the Bronze Age, and fishing is known to have contributed to the basic economy.

The farm usually consisted merely of one wooden longhouse, which in the beginning of period II developed from having two aisles to having three aisles (divided by posts). Longhouses were of a variety of sizes, the largest covering 400 square meters and the smallest about 50 square meters, with a range of intermediate sizes. In analogy with royal buildings of the Late Iron Age, the largest long-houses have been designated "halls" and interpreted as residences of chiefly families, for instance, at Brødrene Gram, Spjald, and Skrydstrup in Jutland (Denmark). Some houses were so well preserved that internal divisions could be observed into a living area with hearth and a barn area with small compartments for the stalling of cattle or horses.

The basic settlement unit was the single farm, consisting of a longhouse and typically also a small, four-posted building, perhaps used for the storage of hay (figs. 2 and 3). The last decades of excavations have demonstrated a predominantly rather dispersed settlement organization, with farmsteads each occupying a micro-territory of a few square kilometers within a larger social and economic macro-territory. Sometimes the family cemetery of mounds is located on the manor; in other cases, the mounds are placed in particular community cemeteries. Macro-territories were separated from each other by bogs, lakes, streams, and rivers, which were considered liminal places inhabited by spirits and gods.

Excavations often reveal several houses in the same area, but this pattern does not necessarily indicate the existence of a village, as all these houses hardly stood at the same time. Old houses were left to decay when new houses were built. Single farms seem to be a dominant feature, and villages in the form known from the Early Iron Age, with fencedin clusters of buildings, have so far not been ascertained in the Bronze Age. Still, however, the people occupying the single farmsteads could well have shared some of the routines of daily life and work.

In the Late Bronze Age a settlement hierarchy, with a large central farmstead surrounded by smaller farmsteads, is apparent in one well-examined and very wealthy region in southwest Fyn, with the site of Kirkebjerget as a nodal point. The giant mound of Lusehøj, with its two rich cremation burials from period V, is located nearby, among a group of larger and smaller mounds. A settlement hierarchy may well have existed in the Older Bronze Age, especially in regions with large concentrations of burial mounds. Future research will show whether the hierarchical model is generally applicable to the organization of social space in the Bronze Age.

rituals and cosmology

The Bronze Age is rich in pictures, relics, and fragments of practices with a ritual character. Together they deliver certain clues to a complex world of myth, cult, and religion, which was entangled with the social world of the elite. One motive, in particular, dominated the cosmology, that is, the journey of the sun across the sky, day and night, throughout the year. This motif formed part of the pictures carved on metalwork and on rock, for instance, in Bohuslän in Sweden. The famous sun chariot from Trundholm Mose in northwest Zealand (Denmark) must be understood as a cult object. The sun disk, with its day-golden and night-dark sides, is pulled by a horse, but the sun horse is placed upon a sixwheeled wagon. The Trundholm chariot probably played a role in religious ceremonies and processions. Through depictions on rock carvings and on bronze razors the sun horse is related to other sacred signs, mainly ships.

Feasts with cultic activities, sport games, and processions seem to have taken place regularly, in spring and autumn and at the solstices of winter and summer. They probably also occurred on other occasions, such as when important people died or when war victories were celebrated. The end point of these activities frequently was marked by the deposition in watery places of valuables of bronze and gold as gifts to the gods. The latter often are located at the boundary between settled territories, thus hinting at the communal intention of these sacred depositions. Instead of bronze valuables, ritual killing and sacrifice of humans took place on rare occasions in sacred liminal places thought to be inhabited by spirits and gods. Other offerings of valuables were connected to the settlements; in particular, it was customary to deposit small hoards in a posthole when building a new house. Still other cult activities were carried out in specific houses—cult houses or temples—known from the sites of Sandagergård in Denmark and Kivik and Håga in Sweden.

social networks and the end of an era

Bronze Age elites all over Europe strove to acquire wealth in metals and to possess the newest fashions in dress and metalwork in order to emphasize aristocratic appearances and manners. Much material culture in the Bronze Age can be understood broadly as the international language of an elite, who used it in strategies to maintain and extend authority inside society and to sustain alliances with neighboring elites. Ingots of copper and tin are rare, and this suggests that bronze reached Scandinavia as finished objects that were recycled continuously.

Metals moved across Europe as trade in commodities and exchange of gifts. The means of transport were wagons across land and ships on the great rivers of Europe and onward across the Baltic Sea to Scandinavia. Trackways of stones or wood have been excavated, mostly connecting territories across swampy areas, but linear distributions of tumuli across the landscape indicate the existence of major
lines of communication, in all likelihood earthen roads. Large ships, horses, and chariots are depicted on rock carvings, supplemented by finds of horse bones in settlements and a few boats and wooden wagons from bogs. Horses' bits and bronze fittings for chariots or wagons occur occasionally in burials and sacrificial hoards.

Some people probably made the great journey to faraway places and, as a result, were able to enhance personal power and prestige on their return. The Bronze Age, however, was not characterized simply by peaceful exchanges of ideas and material goods. Hostile encounters also took place—always with serious implications for combatants and noncombatants alike. The huge number of weapons, some cases of skeletal trauma, and pictorial representations of armor and fighting all suggest recurring warfare.

The end of the Bronze Age in Scandinavia can be explained mainly with reference to the social and economic situation in central Europe, where there was a crisis in the supply of metal in the ninth and eighth centuries b.c. Before the end of the eighth century in central Europe iron had taken the place of bronze as a common medium of exchange and measure of value, but in Scandinavia this did not happen until a couple of centuries later, even if iron objects began to appear. The rich Nordic Bronze Age slowly faded and came to an end around 500 b.c. Bronze was increasingly short in supply and the "international" elitist network, which depended on bronze for its existence, simply ceased to exist. From 750 to 700 b.c. new political alliances and social networks were in the making, primarily between the dynastic semi-urban Hallstatt kingdoms and Mediterranean city-states. Scandinavia had become a marginalized region outside the mainstream of events.

See alsoBell Beakers from West to East (vol. 1, part 4); Bronze Age Coffin Burials (vol. 2, part 5); Bronze Age Cairns (vol. 2, part 5).


Hvass, Steen, and Birger Storgaard, eds. Digging into thePast: 25 Years of Archaeology in Denmark. Translated by John Hines and Joan F. Davidson. Copenhagen, Denmark: Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries, 1993.

Jensen, Jørgen. Danmarks Oldtid. Vol. 2, Bronzealder:2000–500 f.Kr. Copenhagen, Denmark: Gyldendal, 2002.

Kaul, Flemming. Ships on Bronzes: A Study in Bronze Age Religion and Iconography. Studies in Archaeology and History 3. Copenhagen, Denmark: National Museum of Denmark, 1998.

Kristiansen, Kristian. Europe before History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Larsson, Thomas B. The Bronze Age Metalwork in SouthernSweden: Aspects of Social and Spatial Organization, 1800–500bc. Archaeology and Environment 6. Umeå, Sweden: University of Umeå, 1986.

Thrane, H. "Bronze Age Settlement in South Scandinavia: Territoriality and Organisation." In Experiment and Design: Archaeological Studies in Honour of John Coles. Edited by A. F. Harding. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1999.

Vandkilde, Helle. From Stone to Bronze: The Metalwork of theLate Neolithic and Earliest Bronze Age in Denmark. Århus, Denmark: Jutland Archaeological Society and Århus University Press, 1996.

Helle Vandkilde

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