Christian Jürgensen Thomsen and the Three-age System

Solvogn from the Bronze Age, at display at the National Museum in Denmark Image: Malene Thyssen,

Solvogn from the Bronze Age, at display at the National Museum in Denmark
Image: Malene Thyssen,

On December 29, 1788, Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen was born. He is best known for the development of early archaeological techniques and methods. He also introduced the Three-age system, i.e. the periodization of human prehistory into three consecutive time periods, named for their respective tool-making technologies, the Stone Ages, Iron Ages and Bronze Ages.

Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788 – 1865)

Christian Jürgensen Thomsen
(1788 – 1865)

Christian Jürgensen Thomsen was born in Copenhagen into a pretty wealthy merchant family. Not much is known about Thomsen’s early life and education. Probably around 1816, he was selected head of the Collection of Northern Antiquities. It is assumed that he was aware of the three-age-model through works of Lucretius, Vedel Simonsen, Montfaucon and Mahudel and he decided to sort the material in the collection chronologically. Prior to Thompson, the materials was often sorted according to their levels of the craftsmanship they demonstrated. He regognized that crude elements were often displayed together with fine ones and metal objects with stone artifacts.

Thomsen began to map out which phenomena occurred in the deposits and which did not. He discovered that often, stone tools were connected with amber, pottery, and glass beads while bronze was found with iron and gold. Silver however, was only found in connection with iron. Thomsen managed to connect each period with its preferred cutting material and he also discovered that grave goods differed between several burial types. Uncreamated corpses and stone-chamber tombs were apperantly found with stone tools while bronze weapons were more connected with stone-schist graves. Chamber tombs in barrows were more likely connected with iron. Interestingly, blass beads were found in all three periods, while glass bowls only appeared in the iron age, as Thomsen described.

Thomsen concluded that with the help of the archeological context, it was possible to develop a framework of the materials in the collection and classify ne finds according to their relation to the established chronology. This could be done, even without the exact knowledge of its provenience. This system was established around 1825 and the museum’s visitors were introduced to Thomsen’s method in detail. He published several scientific articles, emphasizing the importance of his findings.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a three part documentation on the Sky Disk of Nebra, a Bronze Age Artefact.

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