Montelius, Gustav Oscar

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(b. Stockholm, Sweden, 9 September 1843; d. Stockholm, 4 November 1921)


Montelius was strongly influenced by the great Scandinavian archaeologists Thomsen, Worsaae, and Nilsson, the creators of the scientific method of archaeology and the authors of the theory of three successive ages of Stone, Bronze, and Iron, of which they had demonstrated the stratigraphieal validity in their work in the peat bogs and barrows of Denmark. At the age of twenty Montelius joined the Swedish Archaeological Service and began working in the Swedish National Museum, where he remained for fifty years. In 1913, when he was seventy, he retired from the museum as director and state antiquary. Montelius traveled extensively; his reputation in his maturity and old age was international.

Montelius adopted the three-age system of Thomsen and Worsaae and expanded it into a four-age system comprising the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron. He was particularly interested in the Neolithic and Bronze ages, into which he introduced further subdivisions. He divided the Scandinavian Neolithic, for example, into four phases: the premegalithic (Neolithic I); the dolmen period (Montelius II); the passage grave period (Montelius III); and the longstone cist period (Montelius IV). Montelius’ work in subdividing epochs of the prehistoric past paralleled that of G. de Mortillet in France and his Neolithic subdivisions, although never widely adopted, were a model for the subdivisions of the Bronze age made by Déchelette in France and Fox in Britain.

Montelius believed firmly in the exact description and classification of prehistoric artifacts—indeed, he may be considered the founder of prehistoric taxonomy. He distinguished between open and closed finds and carefully classified prehistoric artifacts according to form, design, and ornament. He further taught the importance of studying the associations among these properly described and classified artifacts, and began to arrange them in sequences based upon changes in form, design, and ornament. This notion of typological sequence was developed by Worsaae; Montelius’ refinement of it allowed him to establish a relative time sequence for Scandinavian artifacts.

Montelius next addressed himself to the problem of translating this relative chronology into an absolute one, and to the question of how new forms of implements and new customs came into existence in Scandinavia. Drawing upon the man-made chronologies of Egypt and Mesopotamia—going back to 3000 B.C.—he devoted himself to establishing links between the ancient East and Barbarian Europe; his Bronze Age Chronology in Europe was published in 1889. Between 1889 and 1891 Flinders Petrie was able, by cross-dating, to establish the absolute dates of Mycenaean Greece; Montelius then set out to develop these dated connections, although he realized that the opportunity to establish cross-dating diminished in proportion to geographical distance from the eastern Mediterranean. In 1892 Montelius published his own account of the relationship between Greek and Oriental chronology; in 1897 he extended this from Greece to Italy; in 1898 he developed the connections between Mediterranean chronology and that of Germany and Scandinavia; in 1900 he dealt with France and the Netherlands; and in 1908 with England and Scotland. By 1910 he had done all that it was possible to do with the methods of his time in correlating the undated prehistoric sequences of Barbarian Europe with the dated sequences of the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt. He thus established a historical chronology of prehistoric Europe that, however modified, served prehistory until the advent of geochronology and carbon-14 dating.

Montelius’ popularizing work, The Civilization of Sweden in Heathen Times (1888), is a model of early haute vulgarisation. In the study of cultural origins he was, in the end, an advocate of the sort of modified diffusionism which was taken up after his death by Gordon Childe. Montelius applied his theories and tested them in relation to megalithic monuments; his The Orient and Europe (1894) ïs a classic statement of the theory of megalithic origins in the eastern Mediterranean.


Montelius’ chief works are discussed in the text; a Festschrift presented to him on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Opuscula archaeologica Oscari Montelio dicata (Stockholm, 1913), contains a list of 346 of his writings.

Glyn Daniel

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Montelius, Gustav Oscar

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