Bronze Age oak-coffin graves: archaeology and dendro-dating
by Klavs Randsborg & Kjeld Christensen
Many readers probably have on their shelves P.V. Glob’s study of Danish Bronze Age man (and woman) preserved, The mound people; the volume under review derives from the absolute dating of some of the oak coffins containing their burials. It is in two parts: the second ‘Dating of Bronze Age oak coffins from Denmark & Schleswig’ (pp163-246) by Christensen presents the dendrochronological data, while the first ‘Opening the oak-coffins: new dates – new perspectives’ (pp1-162) by Randsborg and dedicated to Andrew Sherratt provides a wide-ranging commentary on the burials.
The dendro-dating was initially done by German scientists, whose results were circulated informally but not published. In 1989 a date of 1357 BC was announced on Danish television for the Egtved coffin, though this one had not been sampled and the date was really from a coffin in different mound with the same Danish generic name of Storhøj (large mound). This prompted the Danish National Museum to obtain a date, of 1370 BC, for Egtved and then to embark of a fresh programme of dating, completed only in 2004. Twenty-nine dates have been obtained, from twenty-six burials in mounds from southern Jutland and across the German border in Schleswig. In most cases, the last growth year of the tree from which the coffin was made was between 1391 and 1344 BC, that is Period II of the Nordic Bronze Age (equivalent to British Middle Bronze Age); only three were certainly dendro-dated later, to Period III. Most of these coffins were thus made within two generations. The trees were between 130 and 400 years old.
Randsborg’s contribution originated as an archaeological commentary on the dates, which grew into the small monograph now published containing eleven sections with two appendices, six tables, bibliography and extensive illustration. He covers a range of subjects, so the volume will interest readers with various specialities, not just chronology, and it complements current work on Bronze Age burials in Britain by Jo Brück, Alison Sheridan and Ann Woodward.
After the introduction, there are three sections on good old-fashioned chronology and typology, with Appendix A reconsidering Lomborg’s scheme for the transition from Period I to Period II. Since Lomborg’s paper was in Danish, we are fortunate to have this discussion in English.
Four sections follow under the heading ‘Society’. These burials seem to have been deposited deliberately in wet conditions that would ensure excellent preservation of the bodies and their grave-goods. The grave-goods in turn were often rich, including various symbols of power, and enable Randsborg to talk of ‘the emergence … of personified kin-based social stratification’ from which he infers evidence for control of labour, production and manufacture, long-distance trade and transport, politics, warfare, and religious and astronomical knowledge. The sex and age of the dead (Table II) allows some (rather conventional) conclusions to be drawn: male burials contained weapons with razors and tweezers, but few tools or ornaments, while female burials had ornaments. Men received adult equipment around the age of 20, though the oldest men (50-60) may no longer have had weapons. Women received adult jewellery around 15 or 16. The richest burials were men and more men were buried than women or children. However, those women and children buried in oak coffins were treated in the same way as the men and Randsborg regards women as active participants in religious ceremonies and knowledge, though your reviewer can sense the resentment of some female colleagues to his conclusion that women had no part in metalworking! Wealth was distributed unequally: about 20% of men had as much bronze as the remaining 80%.
The location of these burial mounds appears to reflect routes, perhaps related to trade with central Europe (there is little evidence for contact with the west). A section on deposition of metalwork favours ‘treasure’ intended for recovery or isolation of ‘dangerous’ objects instead of a votive interpretation for hoards, though much of Randsborg’s argument derives from periods later than the Bronze Age.
The next section is on cosmology. The sun in particular was clearly important in the Nordic Bronze Age, as illustrated by the Trundholm sun chariot with its disc representing day and night, and Randsborg accepts the existence of detailed mathematical, astronomical and calendrical knowledge in the European Bronze Age (Appendix B with Tables III-VI), related to the Near East and perhaps extending even to Britain and Ireland on bronze shields. This persisted in the Nordic Area until the end of the Bronze Age, but did not survive the transition to the Iron Age which ushered in a less sophisticated cosmology now represented by Norse mythology.
Randsborg concludes with a short, reflective summary on the use of archaeology to write history.
The illustrations are very fine. In addition to figures in the text there are thirty-eight pages of plates reproducing oak-coffin burial inventories, usually from the original publications or from the Aner & Kersten series on the finds of the Earlier Bronze Age of the Nordic Area (which means that although the captions have been translated into English, annotations on the drawings themselves are in German).
As a volume of Acta Archaeologica this book should be widely available in academic libraries, but since its Danish publishers are now part of Blackwell’s empire it is also available as a monograph from Blackwell Publishing for about £80.
Review Submitted: July 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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