The Bronze Age


Life and death in the Bronze Age

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The Bronze Age is a fascinating pre-historic period. The people who lived at that time are close to us, yet in many ways they are far removed from our reality. In the Bronze Age, people were interested in what was happening elsewhere, and the events that took place far from home came to have an impact on them. It is also a period that gave us unique and important archaeological finds as well as monuments showing incredible cultural and human creativity.

Human in life and death

The people of the Bronze Age were farmers. Agriculture varied from region to region, but scientific studies have shown that the landscape was becoming increasingly affected by human activity during the period – the land was being farmed. Bronze Age farms were large and solidly built. Houses of all different sizes have been discovered, and some were as large as 500 square metres. The multi-room structures also had room for animals and storage, and may have been large enough to house a different group of people in each end.

What did the people of the Bronze Age look like? Much like us. They wore woven wool garments of varying design. Men were clean shaven. Their burial practices, however, were much different from our own: they built barrows for their dead, and buried them in coffins with gifts and other items from this life. The dead were often given weapons, bronze jewellery, combs, bowls made of bark or brooches. The gifts were carefully chosen, and it is possible to tell from them whether the deceased was a man or a woman.

Barrows by the thousands

Over a period of just four hundred years beginning around 1600 BC, the people living in Denmark built tens of thousands of barrows. They were placed in prominent locations where it was possible to see them from a distance. Barrows were often located along the coast, on plains, at fords or on the highest point in a given area. Ensuring barrows could be easily spotted meant that they became monuments in and of themselves, and gave groups living near them a way to associate themselves with an area, or served to mark important roads.

Barrows were the final resting places for a community's deceased members, and they could contain many individual graves. The central grave – the person for whom the barrow was initially built – was made up of a layer of flat stones arranged on the ground. The coffin was then placed on the stones. The mound itself was then built around the grave. A typical coffin was the hollow trunk of an oak tree. Some coffins have been found intact and with the remains of the deceased still inside the mounds. Organic material survived thanks to the humid, airtight conditions inside the barrows. These conditions have made it possible for us to get to know Bronze Age people such as the Egtved Girl and the Muldbjerg Man.

Monuments of monumental significance

Building a barrow was no small construction project. It took know-how, planning and an ability to make calculations. And not least it took a lot of manpower. Barrow height and design varied, but they were all built of turf that had been cut out of meadows and then stacked in the shape of a dome. The largest barrows reached a height of seven metres, had a diameter of 30 metres, and used more than 700,000 sections of turf.

Construction gathered kin from near and far. Relatives lived on farms in the family's ancestral territory. People were close and organised groups so they could help each other tend to grazing animals and to help them make contact with people living in other regions. These contacts were important in order to secure items made of bronze, or to obtain tin and copper so they could produce their own bronze and fashion locally designed goods. People also exchanged staple goods and helped each other to build the large wooden buildings.

The construction of a barrow was a major event that was accompanied by celebrations and religious rituals held in nearby buildings. Once the barrow was completed, it served as a permanent witness to the event and the fellowship of the people that built it. But barrows also served as a way to show travellers and strangers the importance of the people who lived in the area.

Universal order

The barrow was also a reflection of the way the world was organised. Its structure incorporated sun symbols, with sunrays emanating from the centre of the burial chamber. Sun worship was at the centre of Bronze Age religion, and sun symbols were used as decorations on items made of bronze and carved into stones as petroglyphs.

Rock carvings serve as depictive stories and myths that explain the world order. For example, the passage of the day was shown as a sun being dragged across the sky by different animals. Night and death were associated with water, which was also used during burial ceremonies. The pictures illustrate rituals such as processions and sacrifices. Holy sites where items of value were offered were often located near lakes and bogs. Special buildings used by religious cults have also been identified.

New era, new burial practices

Sometime after 1000 BC a new burial practice emerged. The dead were cremated and their bones were gathered, placed in ceramic urns and buried in barrows with gifts. The urns were interred in either the southern or eastern ends of barrows. This showed that the burial mounds still played an important role, but the change from burials to cremation must have been accompanied by a significant shift in people's beliefs about life after death.

Sacrificial practices also changed in the late Bronze Age. Offerings from the early Bronze Age were mostly spears, axes and other weapons. But 700-800 years later the most common offerings were large collections of women's jewellery. Lurs, bronze helmets, large bronze vessels, gold bowls, and of course items with religious significance such as the Sun Chariot were all offered as sacrifices that remain as exceptional today as they were then. A number of bodies dating from the late Bronze Age have been found in bogs, but whether they were human sacrifices or died from other causes is unknown.

Bronze Age people living in Denmark were aware of events as far away as the Mediterranean, and some must even have spent years travelling. The lively contact with people throughout Europe was peaceful, and saw the exchange of goods and gifts, as well as helping to forge social bonds. But conflict and strife lurked as well. The sword was invented during the Bronze Age, and it was used together with the spear, bow and arrow and axe.

Suggested further reading:

Jørgen Jensen 1998: Manden i kisten. Hvad bronzealderens gravhøje gemte. Gyldendal
Jørgen Jensen 2002: Danmarks Oldtid. Bronzealder 2.000 - 500 Gyldendal
Mads Kähler Holst, Marianne Rasmussen og Henrik Breuning-Madsen 2004: Skelhøj. Et bygningsværk fra den ældre bronzealder. Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark 2004, p.11-26

Links to the National Museum's websites:

Illustration ideas:

Højgruppe i landskab
Bælteplade eller soltegn på helleristning
Rekonstruktionstegning af opbygning af storhøj: (Fig. 4 i Mads Kähler Holst, Marianne Rasmussen og Henrik Breuning Madsen 2008: Cirkler, sfærer, hjulkors og høje. By, marsk og geest nr. 20. Sydvestjyske Museer