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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/The Bronze Age in Sweden

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 35‎ | October 1889


BY the Bronze age. Dr. Oscar Montelius[1] understands that period in the earliest civilization of the Northern races when they made their weapons, tools, etc., of bronze. Besides that composition, they knew only of one metal, gold. The word bronze includes all combinations of copper with tin or zinc, but the usual composition of the articles of this age was ninety parts of copper to ten of tin.

It would be a mistake, however, to refer all antiquities of bronze to the Bronze age. Vessels, rings, buckles, needles, and the like, were still made of bronze after the end of this period, just as they are even in our own day, but generally of a somewhat different composition from that which prevailed then. "To this age belong only weapons and edge-tools made of bronze, and such vessels and ornaments as are usually found with them."

Different opinions have been put forward as to the manner in which the Bronze age began in the North. "Some have supposed that it was due to the immigration of a Celtic race, others to a Teutonic immigration. Prof. Nilsson has endeavored to show that the North is indebted to Phœnician colonists for the earliest knowledge of metals; while Herr Wiberg, in Gefle, regarded the Bronze age as having begun in the North through the influence of the Etruscans." Prof. Lindenschmit, of Mainz, who has views of his own respecting the reality of a Northern Bronze age, regards most of the bronze works in question as Etruscan. Dr. Montelius's view is that the beginning of the Bronze age in Scandinavia was not connected with any great immigration of a new PSM V35 D805 Massive bronze axe with haft hole.jpgFig. 1.—Massive Bronze-Axe, with Haft-Hole. race, but that the people of the North learned the art of working in bronze by intercourse with other nations. The "Bronze culture," he thinks, gradually spread itself over the continent of Europe in a northerly and north-westerly direction, until at last it reached the coasts of the Baltic. The end of the Bronze age proper in Scandinavia, when it gave way to the "Iron age," is fixed in the fifth century before the Christian era, when it had lasted about a thousand years. It has been divided into six successive periods. Dr. Montelius does not attempt to distinguish between and describe all of these, but simply makes two general divisions—the earlier and the later Bronze ages.

The works of the earlier age are decorated with fine spiral ornaments and zigzag lines, some of which are seen in the axe (Fig. 1), and are associated with the remains of unburned bodies They are distinguished by artistic forms, and point to a highly developed taste, in which they generally surpass the relics of the. Bronze age found in other European countries. The works of the later age, of which an illustration is given in the knife (Fig. 2), are characterized by a very different taste and style of ornamentation. Instead or spirals engraved or stamped in the body of the implement, we find the ends of the articles often rolled up in spiral volutes. During this period the dead were always burned. The relative antiquity of burned and unburned bodies is determined by their relative positions in barrows in which both occur. The burned bodies are always above the unburned ones, showing later deposition.

The large majority of the antiquities belonging to the Swedish Bronze age were of native production. Nearly all the articles of bronze are cast; and traces of the use of the hammer do not appear till near the close of the period. Local styles are observable, so that it is often possible to distinguish with considerable certainty

PSM V35 D806 Bronze knife.jpg
Fig. 2.—Bronze Knife.

in what part of the North the article was made. Interesting evidences of the home production of these things are often found in the shape of the molds, of stone, in which they were cast, that are occasionally found. A mold of this kind, for casting four saws, is represented in Fig. 3. The presence of unfinished castings, PSM V35 D806 Stone mold for casting four bronze saws.jpgFig. 3.—Stone Mold for casting Four Bronze Saws. defective specimens, and broken molds, affords sure evidence that the bronze-founding work was done in the country. But "as there are no tin mines in Scandinavia, and the copper mines were probably not worked till more than a thousand years after the end of the Bronze age, we must conclude that the bronze used during this period was imported from foreign countries. Probably it was already mixed, either in the form of works or in bars, because copper and tin in a pure state very seldom occur in the North in finds of this age." Instances of the high perfection which the art of bronze casting had reached are seen in certain large thin bronze vessels cast over a clay core, and a pair of bronze axes with wide-spreading blades consisting of plates of bronze hardly more than the third part of a line in thickness, with the clay core over which they were cast still existing. These axes could not have been used as battle-axes, and were too frail to stand the shaking of being carried ceremonially in processions. It is therefore suggested that they were fixed somewhere as standing ornaments. The art of soldering being unknown, joining or repairing was done by pinning the pieces together or by casting bronze over the joint, often in a very clumsy way. Inlaying was practiced, with amber, or with a dark-brown material like resin, which must have produced an effective contrast with the yellow bronze. The art of gilding was not known, but objects were sometimes overlaid with thin plates of gold.

No traces remain of Bronze-age houses, and no representations of them occur among the rock-carvings. The tools were substantially the same as those known to the Stone age, but were more usually—not always—made of bronze. The most common tool was a kind of axe or chisel, known as a "celt." The celts were originally copies of the stone axes, and were "socketed" and not socketed. The socketed celts had a handle inserted into a socket, and were bound to it by a little loop that was provided in PSM V35 D807 Piece of woolen stuff of the bronze age.jpgFig. 4.—Piece of Woolen Stuff of the Bronze Age. the casting. The non-socketed celts were fixed, like the flint axes, into one end of a cloven haft. "Of sewing implements there have been found especially needles, awls, tweezers, and knives. They are almost always of bronze; but a few tweezers and one awl of gold have been found in Sweden and Denmark." The awls were fixed in a of which specimens made of bronze, bone, and amber are preserved. The needles were used in making woolen clothes, and the other implements for sewing leather or skins. Narrow strips or threads of skin were cut out with the knife, holes were bored with the awl, and the leather thread was drawn through the holes with the tweezers. "These implements are much more frequent than the needles, which partially indicates that clothes of skin were far more generally worn than those of wool during this period." Scissors were unknown.

The specimen of woolen cloth represented in Fig. 4 is part of a piece, five feet long and two feet wide, which was found in a barrow at Dömmestorp, in Holland, in 1869, and of which the larger pieces are preserved in the National Museum. It is now brown, and had a yellow border at the narrow ends. A coffin made of a cloven and hollowed trunk of oak, found in the "Treenhoi" barrow at Havdrup, in Denmark, in 1861, contained the body; of a warrior with his clothes well preserved. They consisted of a high cap, a wide, roundly cut mantle, and a sort of tunic, all of woven wool, and two small pieces of wool which are supposed to have covered the legs. At the feet were seen some small remains PSM V35 D808 Woman dress from borum eshoi jutland.jpgFig. 5.—Woman's Dress from Borum-Eshöi, Jutland. of leather, which possibly were once shoes. The outside of the cap was covered with projecting pieces of worsted, all ending in a knot, and the inside of the mantle with pendent worsted threads. The tunic was kept together with a long woolen belt, which went twice round in the middle, was knotted in front, and had two long ends hanging down and decorated with fringes. There were also found in the grave a second woolen cap, and a woolen shawl decorated with tassels.

A complete woman's dress (Fig, 5) was found in another Danish barrow, Borum-Eshöi, near Arhus, in Jutland, in 1871. The body had been wrapped in a large mantle, woven with a mixture of wool and cow-hair. The very long hair had probably been fastened up by a horn comb, which was found in the grave. Upon the head was a well-knotted worsted net; and remains of a second similar net were found. The dress consisted of jacket and sleeves, and a long robe, both of woolen stuff, woven in precisely the same way as the clothes found in the graves already described. The jacket was sewed together under the arms and upon the back, and was open in front. The coarse seam on the back showed that it used to be covered by the mantle. The robe was cinctured by two woolen bands, one of coarser and the other of finer work. The latter band, a belt, was of wool and cow-hair mixed, and woven in three rows, of which the middle one seems to have been of different color from those on the sides. It ended in thick ornamental tassels. A fibula, which may have fastened the jacket or the mantle in front, a spiral finger-ring, two bracelets, a torque, and three round decorated plates with points projecting in the middle, ornaments of the belt, were found in the coffin, and a dagger, the occurrence of which with a woman's body gives the archaeologists something to speculate upon. These graves were of the early Bronze age, and are therefore nearly three thousand years old. Both this body and the one in the Treenhoi barrow were inclosed in coffins made of the cloven and hollowed trunk of an oak, and were wrapped in untanned hides.

The ornaments of this age were far more beautiful and varied than those of the Stone age. They were made chiefly of gold and bronze. Amber was more rare than in the Stone age; and silver ornaments and glass do not seem to have yet been known. They included ornaments for the neck and breast, belt ornaments, bracelets, finger-rings, bronze buttons, combs, pendants, and pins. The weapons consisted of daggers, axes, spears, bows and arrows, probably clubs and slings, swords, helmets, and shields. The last were usually of wood or leather, but some of them are very elaborate works of bronze. Representations of helmets appear in the rock-carvings, but an actual specimen—a chin-piece, beautifully decorated and overlaid with gold—of only one has been found. The swords, of which, with daggers of bronze, large numbers have been found in Sweden, were made for thrusting and not for cutting, were short-hilted, and had two-edged and very pointed blades; their sheaths are sometimes unearthed in a more or less complete state of preservation. One is made of wood overlaid with well-tanned leather, and lined with fine skin; others are all wood-en, PSM V35 D809 Bronze sickle.jpgFig. 6.—Bronze Sickle. without leather, but sometimes decorated with carved ornaments. Not all of their weapons and tools were of bronze. Flints still continued to be used for the cheaper sorts, and for those most liable to be lost; and bronze seems to have been the mark of a choicer tool, a more favorite weapon, and perhaps of more wealth in the owner.

Suggestions of agricultural and pastoral occupations appear in the rock-carvings. One of these sculptures, at Tenegby, in Bohuslän, represents two animals harnessed to a plow and driven by a workman who is walking behind. Another, on one of the remarkable carved stones of a grave at Kivik, shows a two-wheeled chariot, with two horses, and a driver standing upon it. Bits and bridles of nearly the same kind as those used now have been

PSM V35 D810 Rock carving in lokeburg bohuslan.jpg
Fig. 7.—Rock-Carving in Lökeburg in Bohuslãn.

found; and the bones of domestic animals and hides—both tanned and untanned—of oxen and cows, are common.

Shapely bronze sickles (Fig. 6) and hand-mills attest to a systematic

PSM V35 D810 Section of a barrow at dommerstorp in south holland.jpg
Fig. 8.—Section of a Barrow at Dömmestorp in South Holland.

cultivation of grain. "Tillage," Prof. Montelius adds "necessarily presupposes fixed dwelling-places; that these existed is further made probable by the fact that the barrows of the period so often lie thick together."

While writing was unknown during the Bronze age, a sort of picture-writing existed which is preserved in the rock-carvings found quite often in different parts of the country. There can hardly be a question of the age of these works, for the representations of swords and other known objects correspond closely with the objects themselves that remain; and the absence of Runic or other inscriptions in connection with them forbids the presumption of their belonging to a later age than that of bronze. The pictures do not indicate much artistic power in the carvers, but they furnish useful clews to the kind of life the people led and the trend of their thoughts. Thus, besides illustrating the use of horses and oxen, they tell us of the appearance and size of the boats (Fig. 7), of which no actual specimens that can be certainly assigned to the Bronze age have yet been found. These vessels seem to have been usually, but not always, alike at the two ends. "We often see the high and narrow stem terminating in an animal's head; sometimes the stern also is similarly decorated. As no indisputable traces of masts and sails have been found on the rock-carvings, the boats of the Bronze age would seem to have been exclusively designed for rowing. The same is also the case . . . with the remarkable boat found in the bog at Nydam, in Denmark, which belongs to an early part of the Iron age. We often find sea-fights described on the rock-carvings. We have also proofs of peaceful intercourse by sea with other peoples in the many things imported from foreign lands which occur in the finds from the Bronze age. Chief among imported goods we must reckon all the bronze used in Sweden at this time regarded as raw material. Probably also most of the gold used there during the Bronze age was brought from other countries. Besides these, we ought also to set down as imports certain bronze works which are undoubtedly of foreign origin, because they are very rare in Scandinavia but common in other countries."

The dead were buried unburned in the earlier and burned in the later part of the Bronze age. The unburned bodies were usually laid in cists composed of flat stones placed edgewise, and covered with similar stones. Coffins made of oak trunks split and hollowed out are not uncommon. The stone cists, which contain several skeletons, and are often very large, appear to be the oldest; others are smaller, and contain a single extended skeleton. Sometimes the bones do not lie immediately in the small stone cists, but in an earthenware vessel, which may be closely surrounded by the stones of the cist, or may be without a cist. Sometimes, again, graves of the Bronze age are made up entirely of collections of burned bones lying buried in the ground and only covered by a flat stone, as in Fig. 8.[2] The burial-places "thus form a gradual transition from the great grave chambers, and the stone cists with their many skeletons, of the Stone age on the one side, to the insignificant grave with burned bones at the end of the Bronze age on the other." The graves were usually covered with a barrow, and this often contained several stones. The barrows are generally situated upon some height which commands an unimpeded view over the sea or some large lake. Weapons, ornaments, and vessels of earthenware or wood are often found by the remains of the dead. The author believes, from the evidence of the finds lately made in that land, that the condition of Greece during its Bronze age was in many ways like that of the North during the same stage of its civilization; and that probably Homer's description of the heroic age of Greece would in more than one respect apply to the south of Scandinavia three thousand years ago—"at least if we do not allow our eyes to be dazzled by the poetic shimmer which hangs around the heroes of the Trojan war." But the Bronze age both began and ended in Greece earlier than in the North. There are also other countries in which the Bronze age ended later than in Scandinavia. Of these was Mexico, when the Spaniards entered upon the conquest of it. And yet in many respects, the author remarks, the civilization of the Aztecs was "as high as that of which Europe could boast in the middle ages." He expresses no inference from this remark, but presumably expects us to draw one that the Scandinavians of the Bronze age were possibly not so barbarous as we assume that they were.


  1. "The Civilization of Sweden in Heathen Times," by Oscar Montelius, Ph.D., with maps and 205 illustrations (New York and London Macmillan & Co.), whence the materials for this article are derived.
  2. In the middle of the bottom of this barrow was a stone cist nearly seven feet long (a), containing an unburned body and a bronze pin. Higher up were found three small stone cists containing burned bones and antiquities of bronze. Close by the little cist at the top of the barrow stood a vessel filled with burned bones, and near the cist, marked b, lay a heap of burned bones, covered only by a flat stone.