At the Danish National Museum

An Auroch

Dear Readers, the Danish National Museum is packed full of interesting things. On the ground floor there’s the prehistory of the area. The first floor is Viking territory, and on the second floor there’s the Children’s Museum. Well, we started off the day with an ambition to do at least the prehistory and the Vikings, but by early afternoon we realised that our brains were already full, and we didn’t have the capacity to take any more in. And so, we concentrated on the prehistory of Denmark, and very interesting it was too.

The auroch (Bos primogenis) was believed to be the ancestor of our domestic cows, but it was a very large, fierce beast. The bulls found in Denmark were between 61 and 71 inches tall at the shoulder, and the last one in Northern Europe became extinct about 3000 years ago. They are the animals often seen in cave paintings.

Cave painting of aurochs from Lascaux in France

This particular individual showed scars on his ribs from previous encounters with humans, and arrowheads found around his body show that he was probably shot at and ran into the bog to escape, where he collapsed and died. His body was not butchered, which shows that the hunters didn’t get butcher him. Small populations of aurochs lived on in eastern Europe until much later, with the last one dying in Poland in 1627. The Nazis were obsessed with bringing the auroch back by interbreeding various types of domestic cattle. The results may look like aurochs, but they won’t have the genes of the original animal, and I imagine that their behaviour is very different.

As is usual in museums, I end up skipping from place to place, picking up various things that interest me like a human magpie. For example, Denmark and the Baltic countries in general are hotspots for amber, one of my favourite semi-precious stones. I rather liked that in the museum they have example of both real and fake amber ornaments. In the photo below, c) is an actual stone-age amber bear, while d) shows a couple of imitations.

It wasn’t unusual for stone-age people to be buried with their dogs, as in the grave below.

Stone axes could be made both for use and for ceremonial purposes, and the latter were most likely to be found in graves. I loved the variety of stones used in the axes in the case below, and the skill and smoothness with which they were made.

Later, in the Bronze Age, teeny tiny bronze swords were cast to go into funerary urns (as by this stage people were sometimes being cremated rather than buried) – ‘proper’ swords were too big.

I always feel rather discomfited at the sight of human remains in glass cases in museums – after being buried with such care it makes me sad that they’re now revealed to be gawped at. But there is no doubt that interesting things have been found in graves. The Egtved Girl, for example, was about 18 when she died, and she was buried with the cremated bones of a much younger child of about 5 or 6. There has been much speculation – was the child a sibling, the girl’s own child, or even a human sacrifice? Her costume was also interesting, with a short cord skirt and cropped top, not so dissimilar from something that a teenager of a decade ago might have worn. She died in the Nordic Bronze age, about 1370 BC. The cord skirt in particular is interesting – similar garments have been found in other places in Scandinavia, and they often had metal pins in the cords. I’m not sure if anything similar has been found in other parts of Europe. It certainly implies (to me at least) that either the climate was warmer then, or that this was a specific costume for burial.


Those of you who were lucky enough to get to the Ice Age Exhbition at the British Museum a few years ago might recognise the item below – it’s a Sun chariot. The horses were believed to carry the sun through the sky. When we were looking at this, there was a clap of ‘thunder’ and an animation started that showed the horses pulling the sun through the sky. At the end of the day, the sun appeared to fall into the sea, where it was rescued by a celestial duck who looked after it until the following morning. I cannot begin to express how much I love the idea of a celestial duck.

Sun Chariot

And how about these magnificent musical instruments? These are Bronze Age Lurs, a kind of horn that would, I’m sure, have produced a most impressive sound, and which are only known from Scandinavia, Denmark in particular.  There’s a statue of a pair of Lur players in Radhusplasen, the main square. I was told that they only sounded these days when an adult virgin went past. Hah! The butter manufacturer Lurpak has two intertwined lurs as part of their packaging, something that I’d never noticed before.

Some Lurs

Well after all these wonders we were starting to get a bit tired, but then we hadn’t yet gone into the Rune Hall, where a number of stele (standing stones) are inscribed with details about those who are commemorated on them.

This one was place in honour of Gunulf, a ‘clamourous man’, by his sister Ragnhild. She says that ‘Few will be born better than him’.

On the back, it says that whoever damages the stone, or drags it away, must be a warlock/demon. I note that, unlike the other stones, it has holes so maybe it was pulled into position using ropes.

I am becoming extremely fond of Denmark and its attitude towards its citizens. How about the way that they have rooms especially for nursing mothers, or anyone who just wants a sit down with their little one? There are always plenty of changing rooms/toilets and parking spaces for prams, and at the war museum earlier this week I noticed that prams and wheelchairs were positioned so that people could use them if they wanted/needed to. It’s true that Danes have 50% taxation, but then unlike some I could mention I don’t see tax, and redistribution, as a bad thing. In more equal societies everyone is happier, including those who are rich.

And finally, how about this extraordinary carriage? It again was found in a grave and I think it shows how rich Bronze Age society must have been to just bury something as precious as this. It is decorated in pure gold, and I fell in love with the little faces and the extraordinary detail. If only we could talk to our ancestors, and understand more about their lives and their beliefs. As it is, we can only try to piece things together from our perspective. I’m sure we miss so much.




4 thoughts on “At the Danish National Museum

  1. Ann Bronkhorst

    Maybe the celestial duck was keeping an egg-like (well, sort of) sun warm each night. Practical.


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