National Museum Denmark | Highlights of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic collections

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving recently completed a round trip by train from London to Copenhagen via Hamburg, I’d love to share some of the highlights from the outstanding—content, preservation and display—early prehistory at the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen (Danish | English). It’s probably the best Mesolithic exhibition I have seen and I can but urge a visit if you have not yet been.

Between The Bogs and The Sea

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe exceptional preservation of organic materials in Denmark (also northern Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, southerm Scandinavia and Baltics)—including human beings, clothing and artefacts—relies on two factors: (a) the rich, wet, anaerobic conditions in their fast-disappearing peat bogs; (b) that many Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity areas now sit below sea level, a reflection of significant sea level rises after the last glaciation (although some land in the west if Jutland has risen by 50-60m after the weight of ice was removed, and continues to rise very gradually, as in Scotland—although southern England is still sinking).

Image | Broddenbjerg idol, dated to the late Bronze Age (not Mesolithic, unfortunately). More info »

Star Carr 2010We do have similar preservation in the UK, but far less frequent. Sites such as Star Carr & Flixton, Uxbridge, Thatcham, Bouldnor, Stainton West, Amesbury and Goldcliff East are/were rare survivals. Modern land drainage, development, together with industrial-scale agriculture threaten to destroy the tiny fraction that might yet remain. Star Carr will be (organically) gone, dissolved in acid or dried out within our generation, after 10,000 years in soggy peace. Star Carr 2010 pictured ↑

0430-Cop101If you’re interested in the travel itinerary, briefly, and it is well worth doing by train, here’s a rough summary. I used the Deutsche Bahn website (timetables) and then called the UK DB office to book everything, and they were able to find the best fares. There’s also some excellent advice on the brilliant website Seat61 that includes other options such as a ferry from the UK and the Köln or Hamburg sleeper trains to Copenhagen.

Itinerary Summary

  • London St Pancras Eurostar d. 06.50 (weekday) to Bruxelles-Midi
  • Change to DB ICE 15 to Hamburg Hbf (via Aachen) changing at Köln to ICE 2218, a. 17.12 | Overnight in Hamburg
  • Hamburg to Copenhagen on DB ICE 2218 direct d. 09.28, train boards ferry at Puttgarden (DE) to Rødby (DK) for 45 mins and great fun, a. 14.14
  • Two days in Copenhagen also visiting Roskilde Viking Ship Museum and Malmö Sweden (via the amazing Øresund Bridge) both about 35 mins by train from Copenhagen
  • Copenhagen to Hamburg on ICE 34 direct d. 11.44, a. 16.16 | Overnight in Hamburg
  • Hamburg (ICE 587) to Bruxelles-Midi by ICE trains (weekend) d. 10.53 with changes at Hannover (ICE 650) and Köln (ICE 14), a. 17.35
  • Bruxelles-Midi to London St Pancras by last Eurostar d. 19.52 (to be safe), a. 21.06

Some panorama views to tempt you – more below too. L to R | The Vig aurochs, Amber carvings and pendants, the dugout boat from Broksø (Early Neolithic) →


Pictures | Click to enlarge | Taken in “museum mode” without flash – sorry for the quality. This is a selection only since there’s so much more in the museum, all compelling. The Bronze and Iron Age collections are particularly disturbing, given the degree of preservation (with often palpable human violence, and nice wool costumes).

Navigating Danish Early Prehistory

Like archaeology in most other countries, Denmark’s is littered with “Cultures” or “Techno-complexes” derived from 19th and early 20th Century attempts to rationalise (and typologise) material culture—artefacts and common feature traits such as burial practices or settlement types—against a chronological “evolution”. Cultures, in this sense, are groups of like traits usually named after a “type site” or region. So, for example, we have the Creswellian (after Creswell Crags in Derbyshire) as the type site for upper Palaeolithic, late glacial lithics and bone & antler artefacts. Here’s my rough attempt at unraveling Denmark’s culturescape:

Cultural Period Dates BC Chronozone Sea Level Economy UK Equivalency

Late Palaeolithic

Hamburgian 13,500 – 11,100 Warm Bølling
Glacial Dryas II
Warm Allerød
90m lower Mobile hunters, tundra Creswellian
Federmesser & Brommean 11,900 – 10,700 Allerød interstadial Mobile hunters, tundra, ameliorating
Ahrensburgian 10,500 – 9000 Younger Dryas glacial to Preboreal
60m lower Mobile hunters Presence in Scotland, Orkney, Hebrides, England


Maglemosian 9600 – 6000 Preboreal to Boreal
30m to 5m lower, 1m / 100 years, isostatic land uplift in west 50 – 60m, less in east Mobile hunter-gatherer-fishers, persistent places Early Mesolithic
Star Carr
Kongemose 6000 – 5200 Atlantic
Warm and moist
0.5 – 2m fluctuations in 500 yr cycles (Littorina fluctuations) Mobile hunter-gatherer-fishers, persistent places Late Mesolithic

Mesolithic – Neolithic transition

Ertebølle Early 5300 – 4500
Late 4500 – 3950
Atlantic to Subboreal
Peat bogs forming
Mobile hunter-gatherer-fishers, persistent places, shell middens, pottery Late Mesolithic


Funnelbeaker 4100 – 2800 Subboreal As today Animal husbandry (cows, pigs), emmer and barley crops Early Neolithic

Stronsay_flintsAhrensburgian arrowheads from Stronsay, Orkney Islands (Scotland) →

The Tåderup Elk drowned while being hunted around 6700 BC | Early flint arrowheads (Hamburgian and Ahrensburgian – compare with the Orkney examples above | Antler barbed points (upper group retain their flint barbs) | 8,000 years of arrowheads and microliths ↓


The Aurochs from Vig (2m high) | A wild boar | Bone and antler tools | Two Ertebølle arrow shafts with tranchet flint arrowheads still in place (birch resin glue) ↓


Finds from very early Hamburgian and Ahrensburgian campsites | Flint assemblage | Paddle and bow ↓


Bone and antler “daggers” with flint blades still in place | Fishing trap | Musical instruments including mouth bow and drum beater | Selection of Ertebølle artefacts towards the transition to agriculture | Late Ertebølle grave goods ↓


And Finally into the Neolithic

Some amber bling, a little trepanation to relieve pressure, signs of violence (an arrowhead in the sternum and a hole in the head) ↓



A bit of reading

  • Andersen, S. H. 2009. Ronæs Skov: Marinarkæologiske undersøgelser af en kystboplads fra Ertebølletid. Jysk Arkæologisk Selskabs Skrifter 64 | Underwater sites with amazing preservation
  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlankholm, H. P. 2008. Southern Scandinavia in G. Bailey & P. Spikins (eds) Mesolithic Europe. Cambridge: University Press | State of knowledge in regional summaries
  • Eriksen, B. V. (ed.) 2006. Stenalderstudier: Tidligt mesolitiske jægere of samlere i Sydskandinavien. Jysk Arkæologisk Selskabs Skrifter 55 | Early Mesolithic research papers with English summaries
  • Vang Petersen, P. 2008. FLINT fra Danmarks oldtid. Forlaget | No English, but still a useful guide to flint sources, technologies and typologies

Up the creek without a paddle?

Mesolithic canoe Creative Commons 2.0Great story out this week. Decorated and painted paddles dating back to the Ertebølle “culture”—late Mesolithic hunter-gatherer-fisher—have recently been found in Horsens Fjord, Denmark. They were being damaged by strong ocean currents.

“The indispensable dugouts enabled the Ertebølle people to travel far and wide. They could even travel across ice in winter, so it was probably not uncommon for them to meet people of foreign origin.”

The paddles have been Carbon-14 dated to around 4700-4540 BC, the Middle period of the Danish Ertebølle period.

“The painted paddle blades bear witness to the decorations and colours which have undoubtedly been a regular part of everyday life in the Stone Age, but of which we only get the occasional glimpse.”

Read the article | Nov 2012 →
More pictures and coverage | Feb 2012 →
Some more visualisation images* of Mesolithic life →

* Creative Commons 2.0 licenses