Archaeology on Funen - seen historically

Even a good way into the 20th century, archaeological activity – and with it the collection, preservation and presentation of our ancient cultural heritage – was still being driven primarily by individuals with a special interest in the subject. This was just as true of Funen as it was for the rest of the country.

The last of the archaeological enthusiasts
In his book ‘Et provinsmuseums historie’ (The History of a Provincial Museum) (1935), Svend Larsen, then museum assistant and later curator and director of Odense City Museums, writes: ‘During the first decades of the last century (18th century) Rasmus Nyerup from Funen undertook several ‘archaeological’ trips to his mother island (Funen). Tramping from one site to the next, and noted down any curious relics of the life of antiquity that he found, and he forged connections with people with the same interest. He was indefatigable in communicating about the finds that had been made.

Squire and historian Lauritz Schebye Vedel Simonsen (1780-1858), one of the 19th century’s most notable archaeological profiles from Funen.

Rasmus Nyerup (1759-1829) progressed from his origins as the son of a peasant on Funen to a position as professor of literature at the university in Copenhagen. This was an unusual achievement for that age, but what makes him particular well-known beyond his own time is his interest in antiquity, for Nyerup’s collection of archaeological artefacts later became the basis for the National Museum. Nyerup knew that objects were old, but not how old they were – nor was he able to assess their relative age. In 1806 he expressed it as follows: ‘Everything that comes from ancient heathen times floats before us as in a thick fog, in an immeasurable period. We know that it is older than Christianity, but whether it is a matter of years or centuries – or even over a thousand years – older, is the subject of pure guesswork and at best of only probable hypotheses.

Frederik VII – seen from an archaeological perspective – king of all Danish kings.

One of the people Nyerup met on Funen was the landowner Lauritz Schebye Vedel Simonsen (1780-1858) at Elvedgård. Single-handed and thanks to a veritable network, he collected archaeological artefacts with an extraordinary diligence that impressed the newly-founded National Museum. A like-minded contemporary historian, E.C. Werlauff (1781-1871), puts it as follows: ‘If there were one or two Vedel Simonsens here on Zealand and three or four in Jutland, the Museum would soon be filled to bursting point. We can learn from this that one individual’s perseverance and interest in an object can achieve more than entire commissions.’

N.F.B. Sehested (1813-1882) during excavations at Møllegårdsmarken at Broholm.

Vedel Simonsen was far from the only person to devote their energies to collecting archaeological artefacts on Funen in the first half of the 19th century. The most prominent ‘competitor’ was none other than King Frederik VII, who also had excavations carried out in barrows on Funen – for example at the rich site at Lusehøj near Voldtofte. Behind the king came a number of lords of the manor, who managed to build up extensive private collections in this way. One of the more conscientious and serious of these was the Lord Chamberlain, N.F.B. Sehested (1813-1882) at the manor of Broholm near Gudme. In 1833 he supervised the finding of the Broholm treasure, which with its 4.5 kilos is only surpassed by the Golden Horns as the largest golden treasure trove from Danish antiquity, and for the remainder of his life he gave archaeology his substantial and well-qualified attention. This resulted in countless excavations, a large collection, two books, pioneering work in the area of experimental archaeology and even an archaeological museum that was established – and still stands – at Broholm.

The White Doctor
It is one thing to compete with the king, but it is quite another when as a ‘competitor’ you have a place if not at the other end then at least a long way further down the social scale. This was the case with Vedel Simonsen’s contemporary and ‘colleague’, A.F. Lassen (1789-1883), better known as The White Doctor – after the white horse he rode. Vedel Simonsen was a qualified doctor but did not practice, while the opposite was the case with Lassen, who practised as a doctor but without having taken any examination. What they had in common was that they collected archaeological artefacts in their thousands.

A.F. Lassen – known as The White Doctor – in the uniform of a battalion surgeon. National Museum.

Doctor Lassen was a man of many parts, who was always on the move. He either bought archaeological artefacts or took them as payment for his medical services. For this reason  his collection was kept in a number of places at the beginning, in fact, wherever storage was on hand, but in 1858 he opened his own private museum in Sletterød – the Nordic Museum in Odense only opened two years later. When in 1871 The White Doctor was granted an annuity of 300 rigsdaler for handing over his collection to the Nordic Museum, the existing collection of 2200 objects was increased by no less than 20,000 archaeological objects! Thirty-four farm carts were required to drive the collection from Sletterød to Aarup, where it was transported by train to Odense.

Yes, we can safely say that archaeological artefacts were collected in the 19th century. We get a good impression of this and of the relations between the two collectors in a letter written by Vedel Simonsen to his friend, Werlauff. Here he discussed the problems associated with the aggressive collecting of the time, and he sees his contribution as a fight to ‘save these objects for the Museum, since it is not only The White Doctor – who without doubt has a commission from Hamburg – and for the same purpose rides from house to house, a rag-and-bone man in Odense is buyer for a jeweler in Copenhagen, a Herr Petersen for England, and the country’s priests and prophets for the Diocesan Collection, but also most of our nobles such as the earl of Gyldensteen, the baron of Dallund, the chamberlain at Hvidkilde etc. and now, in the English fashion, wish to establish collections of antiquities; and that is not to mention the many other enthusiasts brooding over a clutch of historical finds as though they were a golden egg they were waiting to hatch; they are, then, many and various, the workers harvesting our tiny little field.’

Funen as a tiny little field, where many people are harvesting the far too limited supply of archaeological artefacts – a fine picture! And it was, in fact, a problem, for the objects in The White Doctor’s collection, for example, have no information about their origination, which was not considered a problem in the 19th century but which today makes the collection – of 19,900 archaeological items – virtually useless for archaeological research. And, as we know, things cannot be found a second time, and much information was lost to the collection mania of the 19th century.

Funen’s first museums
At the end of his life, Vedel Simonsen did not feel that he was accorded sufficient gratitude for his considerable contribution to the National Museum’s collection – it did amount to over 6000 archaeological artefacts! The aforementioned Werlauff suggested, therefore, that in the future the friends should hand their finds over to the new museum in Odense, but this Vedel Simonsen did not dare do. His confidence in the museum in the capital city was greater, and the preservation of ancient objects for the future was not the least concern of this idealist from Funen.

This was in 1855, and, had Vedel Simonsen only lived five years longer, his doubts might have been greater, for in 1860 Odense and the people of Funen were given their own museum. Its origins went as far back as 1816, when the privy councillor Johan Bülow of Sanderumgård (1751-1828) donated 54 archaeological artefacts to ‘the Funen literary society’, who promised to acquire a cabinet for the presentation of the collection. This was a historic event, which Victor Hermansen in his book ‘Odense og tredelingen’ (Odense and the Tripartition) (1960) describes in the following manner: ‘People at the time were entirely aware what Bülow’s gift meant – it was the first provincial museum in Denmark’. In 1817 Bülow himself wrote in a letter: ‘Odense now has a small collection of archaeological artefacts, for which I laid the base.’ In addition, this development could be observed in a number of other places in the country with the foundation of local museums in many provincial towns. Naturally enough, these museums became to a large extent centres for archaeological activity as well as obvious recipients of local collections of ancient objects. For this reason not everyone in Copenhagen looked upon this tendency with equanimity, for it could well mean that a quantity of good finds would not come the capital’s way.

Merchant and archaeologist, Jens Winther, photographed at the Langeland Museum in front of the Stone Age find from Lindø in about 1920.

On Funen the archaeological museum in Odense was not the only one to be established. On Langeland two flint axes ignited an interest in antiquity in 10-year-old Jens Winther, son of a local merchant. His prime occupation was the continued running of the family’s trading company, but alongside this he also found time to carry out archaeological excavations, developing a considerable collection and founding Langeland’s Museum, which was completed in 1905. All these activities were paid for by Jens Winther himself, including the extension of the museum in 1932 and its running costs up until 1945.

A new century – and new times
In 1933 the director of the National Museum, Johannes Brøndsted, was on a tour of inspection at the Funen Diocesan Museum, and this was the occasion for establishing rules for the museum’s future excavation work. Since then, archaeological excavation has made up a significant part of Odense City Museum’s field of activities.

Chemist – and collector of ancient objects – Christen Mikkelsen (1844-1924).

In the 20th century there was a continued tendency for individuals to set their hallmark on archaeology on Funen, and, as has been mentioned, private individuals were not subject to the same tight restrictions as the Funen Diocesan Museum. This contributed to the museum’s acquisition of significant finds and collections of ancient objects. Two Odense chemists, in particular, Christen Mikkelsen (1844-1924) and his son Poul Helweg Mikkelsen (1876-1940) left their fingerprints on archaeological collection - each in his own way. Mikkelsen senior preferred to collect historical objects through purchase or as gifts rather than through regular excavation, and over the years this led to a respectable collection that was passed on the Funen’s Diocesan Museum. The son, Poul Helweg Mikkelsen, was active in a different way in the field, which was where he placed most of his energies as a collector. Initially this was in a close collaboration with the National Museum, but as time went on it was the Funen Diocesan Museum that benefitted most from Mikkelsen’s excavations. In 1935 Svend Larsen (1905-1964) put it as follows: ‘Because he donated finds to the Diocesan Museum, people became even more willing to pass information to Chemist Mikkelsen about the finds they made in the fields. There was never a question of Helweg Mikkelsen not being permitted to dig, nothing about the results of digs having to go to the National Museum, nothing about the dig having to wait several months. It was started at once, and people knew that the day would come when they would have the chance to see their things presented in their own museum.’

The chemist, Poul Helweg Mikkelsen (1876-1940), made a indelible impression on archaeological collection on Funen.

Helweg Mikkelsen undertook many excavations but he is especially remembered for his internationally famous study of the ship burial at Ladby.

On Langeland the merchant Jens Winther was at work and remained active as an archaeologist right up until 1946, when his place was taken by Hakon Berg. This activity left its mark, not only in the cabinets at the Langeland Museum but also in a series of archaeological publications of high quality. Just as there was a relationship of big brother to smaller brother between the National Museum and the Funen Diocesan Museum, so did the Museum in Odense at times attempt to acquire influence over archaeology in the area covered by Langeland's Museum. To put it mildly, relations were not of the warmest between Svend Larsen and Jens Winther and with him his assistant and successor, Hakon Berg. In addition, Jens Winther also had the powerful National Museum to worry about in the form of Sophus Müller. This was also the reason for Jens Winther rejecting the offer of government funding – such as that given to Funen’s Diocesan Museum – and in that way avoiding both the involvement of others in the museum’s excavations and the annual inspection visit from Copenhagen. Not only that, but for a period their disagreements became so intense that Jens Winther simply forbade Sophus Müller access to his museum.

Museum curator Erling Albrectsen (1904-1984), photographed in 1969.

‘Funen’s first professional archaeologist’
Highly significant for research into Funen’s prehistory was the appointment in 1940 of Erling Albrectsen (1904-1989) –‘Funen’s first professional archaeologist’ – as his successor, Henrik Thrane, described him in his obituary in Fynske Minder 1990. Over a lifetime – up until 1970 – Albrectsen managed to excavate, research and present virtually all the periods of Funen’s prehistory. Especially impressive were the five volumes of Fynske jernaldergrave (Iron Age Burial Sites on Funen), of which the first was published in 1954 and the last in 1973; volume three, which dealt with the Roman Period (200-400 AD) gave Erling Albrectsen his doctorate.

At more or less the same time as Albrectsen retired from Funen’s Diocesan Museum and Hakon Berg from Langeland’s Museum – though not as a result of these – archaeology entered a new period. While research, presentation and conservation of Funen’s archaeology had to a certain extent been the project of individuals, the increasing number of tasks in the archaeological field of work now required increasing numbers of archaeologists. No one either can or wishes to question the contribution of the prominent figures of Funen’s archaeology in the 20th century, with Jens Winther, Helweg Mikkelsen, Sven Larsen, Erling Albrechtsen and Hakon Berg at the forefront, but if we are to take a hard look at it, the first university trained archaeologists to be appointed were, in fact, in 1971 (Jørgen Skaarup, Langland’s Museum) and 1972 (Henrik Thrane, Funen’s Diocesan Museum).

In the 1930’s, however, Jens Winther created a school for younger archaeologists, who went to Langeland as a natural part of their training in order to take part in the first Danish surface surveys at Stone Age dwelling sites. If we also include Holger Friis and Vendsyssel Historical Museum, as well, of course, as the National Museum, then we have mentioned the most significant places for a large part of the 20th century seen from a purely archaeological point of view.

The causes for the shift in archaeological practice and conditions are numerous. New excavation methods using, for example, large digging machines as a replacement for the workman-with-shovel made it possible to move more than a hundred times as much earth in a shorter space of time and thereby examine large areas several kilometres square, for example at the Sarup cult site. Starting with the Langeland Museum’s involvement in underwater archaeology in 1972, a completely new element is opened up for archaeologists, in that it allows access to fascinating studies of wrecks, blockages, flooded Stone Age dwelling sites and so on. At the same time new computer technology allowed archaeologists to manage far larger masses of data than before. Changes have even been made in the area of legislation, which have meant that an ever-increasing number of excavating museums were given the task of saving what could – and can – be saved from destruction through construction works. Today over 90% of archaeological excavations are dictated by construction work and do not come about through choice or a research strategy on the part of archaeologists. The expression ‘administrative archaeology’ is often used to describe these new times, because to a far greater degree than in the days of Albrectsen or Hakon Berg the conditions governing the work of the archaeologist are dictated by external factors. Today, scarcely 30 years since two men and two museums coped with Funen’s archaeology over a lifetime, there are four museums and a half a dozen archaeologists – at times with the help of more flexible colleagues! – who have the task of saving, researching and communicating the prehistory of Funen.



Odense City Museums
Overgade 48
DK-5000 Odense C
Tel +45 6551 4601
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