Published: 30/5/2020

Hans Christian

Becoming an archaeologist was never really my ambition. I read about archaeologists, I asked for books about prehistory and early experimental archaeology for Christmas, I could never keep away from a good, abandoned rubbish heap or junk yard, I scoured the coastline for interesting flotsam.


Because despite that, one of the heroes of my Danish childhood was a large Danish businessman, collector and amateur archaeologist, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865).


Thomsen never got a university degree. Modern archaeologists usually do, they even get on in archaeology. In 1800, that was not an option, no university taught archaeology, but anybody who had an official position in Denmark in those days had one, in something.

That became a problem when the Danish government decided to set up a committee to create a Danish National Museum more than two hundred years ago. Nevertheless, Thomsen managed to become the curator of the Museum from 1816 to 1865, the year of his death.

He had not academic qualification but as a collector of archaeological finds, and as an experienced archaeologist, he had proved himself better qualified than anybody else to take on the task.

On the way, he also created the world’s first ethnographic museum and he changed the very nature and practice of archaeology itself.


Learning to visit museums

So, when I visited the National Museum in Copenhagen in my childhood, with my head full of silly notions about the Wild West from cinema visits, Thomsen’s museum presented me with large glass cases full of objects illustration the lives of North American Indians – and, further along, Africa, Oceania, the Arctic … The whole world was there, it seemed. I developed a habit I still have, when I visit a new museum, of walking through all the galleries and seeing everything, before I decide whether to concentrate on anything in particular. I got used to expecting gallery to follow gallery, with more and more exciting stuff. Museums cannot be too big, no gallery too full.

I got into the museum-going habit in a serious way in the decade between 1959 and 1969, a decade when museums began to change dramatically. Where, before, they had presented displays of objects, mostly in cases, they now became places where objects were presented so that you could understand them in their context.

There would often still be things in cases, but rather than a case being full of similar pots of similar swords or similar flint tools, they started showing you the pot and explain what it was for, alongside the tool that might have been used with it. In the Stone Age (they would explain on labels), the flint scraper was used to remove meat from bones in the stone age and afterwards the meat was boiled in the pot.

Thomsen and the three historical “ages”

In a sense, although Thomsen had been dead for a hundred years, this new approach was building on Thomsen’s innovative approach to archaeology.

What Thomsen did was to take a very ancient notion – that of the “three-age system” suggested by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. He lived from 99BC to 55BC, so well before Vindolanda was first occupied by the Roman army). Lucretius was the first to suggest that human technology can show us something about the way human culture developed, from less developed to more developed stages, from the Stone Age over the Copper or Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

In the Stone Age, people were a bit primitive and savage (actually, that is what my teachers told me a school, too, in the 1960s). As we moved through the Bronze and Iron Ages, they got more and more sophisticated and they made objects that were more and more beautiful. That was clear evidence of “progresss”.

Typically for this kind of thinking, it showed a upward curve in the development of human civilization, placing the Romans at the top: they made things out of iron, as you  know from all the iron oxide you come across when you dig Vindolanda. They also made beautiful things, which we can indeed see from many of the finds at Vindolanda: it is easy for fall for that kind of “things-just-keep-getting-better-and-better” thinking.

What Thomsen did – using his experience of excavating Danish pre-history in his own country – was to put chronology into Lucretius’ three “Ages”.

“Do not just classify by the materials our ancestors made their tools and weapons from,” is the way he might have put it. “Notice that when you work carefully down through the layers – carefully, paying attention to what you come across – you see that the topmost layers are younger than the layers further down. The iron age sits on top  of the bronze age which again sits on top of the stone age. And when you find an object, look at what other objects it is found with. In that way, when we see the object in its context, we get a more complete idea of how our forefathers used not just a single object but a range of objects, at the same point in history.”

And Thomsen was not really interested in aesthetics. Whether a prehistoric object was “beautiful” or not was not his first interest. He wanted to know where it was in the layers, vertically, chronologically. And then he wanted to know the context: the more things you find together, the more things you can connect with each other, the better the story you can tell about them.

That completely changed the way archaeologists looked on their work and the finds and that, of course, influenced that way curators did things.


Thomsen and the modern museum

And that is how I came to see the modern, post-1960s museum as an embodiment of Thomsen’s ideas. Curators began reconstructing history, rather than just displaying historical artefacts. Where I used to find mahogany-framed glass cases with Viking finds in museum galleries, I might now also encounter a fully-dressed Viking man and woman in reconstruction, to show me the finds as they were used, in context. The subtleties of historical development became clearer as curators were able to demonstrate that the pre-historic “ages” were not uniform and short-term but lasted hundreds, if not thousands of years and show a clear development from an early to a later stage.


I go isolation-shopping

In order to excavate in such a way that you can see that kind of detail, you need proper tools. I do not know what Thomsen used when he did his fine work in the trench. A table spoon perhaps.

In order to be correctly tooled-up, I have bought myself a trowel. I am now the owner of a four-inch (I am metric myself, but “when in Rome”, as they say) Tyzack trowel, a quality product, strong enough to reach the furthest historical periods in even hard soil but well-balanced enough to allow its user to advance slowly and carefully when I get there. The centre-of-gravity sits right in front of the handle, just as it does on a good kitchen knife.

I have every hope that digging begins again at Vindolanda in one form or another this year. If it does, I shall request access to the ditch and wield the willing steel over Britain’s Roman Heritage.

If that does not happen – or if access to the ditch is not granted – the trowel can eventually become a donation to Vindolanda Trust which, as we know, is always happy to accept donations of any kind. Andrew Birley and his team expect to be digging Vindolanda for many decades to come: there will be too many trowels in Vindolanda’s fine new Volunteer Centre.

I have no ambitions as an archaeologist, really. Except one, perhaps, namely to dig at Magna.

Digging Magna is, as you probably know, is the Trust’s next great project, one that become more and more urgent, as one dry summer follows the next in Northern England. Dry springs and summers dry out the wet layers in Magna, threatening the survival of the organic finds which we know are there, waiting to be uncovered. If we get there in time.

So, there is plenty of work to be done and much to experience in future at Northumberland’s always active Roman archaeological site. I hope to see you there some time.