ESTABLISHING SCIENTIFIC ARCHAEOLOGY

[THOMSEN, CHRISTIAN JÜRGENSEN].

Leitfaden zur Nordischen Alterthumskunde, herausgegeben von der königlichen Gesellschaft für Nordische Altherthumskunde.

Kopenhagen, 1837. 8vo. Uncut in the original printed wrappers. A very light damp stain to hinges and spine cracked vertically down the middle, but still tight and cords intact. An excellent clean and fresh copy. (4), 108 pp.

Scarce first German edition of this milestone publication, which laid the foundation of modern archaeology and transformed it into an exact science. With this seminal publication, Thomsen was the first to establish an evidence-based division of prehistory into discrete periods, and with it he became the originator of the three-age system (the division into Stone Age - Bronze Age - Iron Age), which is "the basic chronology that now underpins the archaeology of most of the Old World" (Rowley-Conwy: From Genesis to Prehistory, p.1). This foundational work altered our understanding of our world and our place in it and contains the first use of "culture" in an archaeological context.

"Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, (born Dec. 29, 1788, Copenhagen, Den.-died May 21, 1865, Copenhagen), Danish archaeologist who deserves major credit for developing the three-part system of prehistory, naming the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages for the successive stages of man's technological development in Europe. His tripartite scheme brought the first semblance of order to prehistory and formed the basis for chronological schemes developed for other areas of the globe by succeeding generations of archaeologists." (Encycl. Britt.).

Up until the beginning of the 19th century, our understanding of antiquities had been very loose and fumbling. Studying the artifacts, earlier archaeologists had used a great deal of imagination, especially when adapting information from written sources to the objects. Only when Thomsen enters the scene, this approach changes. He is the first to focus the investigation upon the artifacts themselves. Quickly realizing that this approach must be the only way forward, he soon distinguished clearly between objects, both similar and different, and established what belonged together in time and where there were chronological differences. He was among the first to differentiate between history that could be studied through written sources and prehistory which could only be studied through material culture. He realized - as the first - that in order to interpret findings of prehistoric objects, one would have to know their source and the context in which they were found - thus establishing the foundation for modern excavation technique. He trained the great archaeologist J.J.A. Worsaae and sent him on excavation expeditions to acquire artifacts for ethnographic museum that he had founded and thus also founded Danish archaeology.

Thomsen was the first to perceive typologies of grave goods, grave types, methods of burial, pottery and decorative motifs, and to assign these types to layers found in excavation, thus combining our different sources of knowledge to establish certainty.

When, in 1836, the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries published Thomsen's illustrated contribution to "Guide to Scandinavian Archaeology" (i.e. the present publication), in which he put forth his chronology for the first time, together with comments about typology and stratigraphy, Thomsen already had an international reputation. But this publication gave him more than that - it made him the founder of modern archaeology and arguably the most influential archaeologist of all times.

In 1816 Thomsen had been appointed head of "antiquarian" collections, which later developed into the National Museum of Denmark. It was while organizing and classifying the antiquities for exhibition that he discovered how much more sense it would make to present them chronologically, and so he did, using what is now known as the "three-age system". Proposing that prehistory had advanced from an age of stone tools, to ages of tools made from bronze and iron was not in itself a novel idea, but no previous proposals allowed for the dating of artifacts (which Thomsen's system did for the first time) and they were all presented as systems of evolution. Refining the idea of stone-bronze-iron phases, Thomsen turned it into a chronological system by seeing which artifacts occurred with which other artifacts in closed finds. In this way, he was the first to establish an evidence-based division of prehistory into discrete periods. It is this seminal achievement that led to his being credited as the originator of the three-age system.

He provided for the first time a solid empirical basis for the system that ever since the present publication has laid at the foot of all archaeological research. He showed that artifacts could be classified into types and that these types varied over time in ways that correlated with the predominance of stone, bronze or iron implements and weapons. In this way he turned the Three-age System from being an evolutionary scheme based on intuition and general knowledge into a system of relative chronology supported by archaeological evidence.

"His published and personal advice to Danish archaeologists concerning the best methods of excavation produced immediate results that not only verified his system empirically but placed Denmark in the forefront of European archaeology for at least a generation. He became a national authority when C.C Rafn, secretary of the Kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab ("Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries"), published his principal manuscript in "Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed" ("Guide to Scandinavian Archaeology") in 1836."

This groundbreaking publication was immediately translated into German (published the following year, 1837), in which form it reached a wide audience, influencing the archaeologists of all of Europe. In 1848, it was published in English and became highly influential on the development of archaeology theory and practice in Great Britain and the United States.

In 1849 Thomsen founded the world's first ethnografic museum, which continued to contribute significantly to the development of modern archaeology.

"Throughout the course of the nineteenth century growing amounts of archaeological material were being recovered as the vastly expanding engineering activities of the Industrial Revolution were transforming Central and Western Europe into the "workshop of the world." Indeed, much of the popular appeal of archaeology in early Victorian times lay in its seeming demonstration that this contemporary technological advancement, which both intrigued and delighted the middle classes, was no mere accident but the acceleration of a tendency for "progress" which was innate in humankind. This evidence that cultural evolution as opposed to degeneration from an original state of grace had been a significant feature of human history made archaeology pre-eminently a science of progress. Within the context of the history of the discipline, however, the birth of this "scientific archaeology", as distinct from the antiquarianism of earlier times, is generally associated with the unfolding of the "Three Age System" and the pioneering work of C.J. Thomsen.
While in the past a few archaeologists had attempted to subdivide prehistoric materials into various temporal segments, it was Thomsen who first envisaged, and applied, on the basis of archaeological evidence, a systematic classification of antiquities according to the criteria of material use and form which could be correlated with a sequence of temporal periods: the Ages of Stone, Bronze, and Iron, familiar to every student of archaeology for the last hundred years.
The novelty of this approach, however, did not lie in the concept of technological development gleaned from his familiarity with the conjectural history of the Enlightenment, or in his assumption of a sequence of Stone, Bronze, or Iron Ages, itself a variation of Lucretius' popular model. Rather, it lay in his employment of "seriational principles" acquired from his extensive knowledge of numismatics, which he used to combine evidence concerning technology, grave goods, along with the shape and decoration of various artefacts into an internally consistent developmental sequence. Though Thomsen's Museum of Northern Antiquities in Denmark had arranged its collection of artefacts in accordance with this new system as early as 1819, the first written account of his research was not set out in print until the "Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed" ("Guide Book to Northern/Nordic Antiquities") was published in 1836.
While prior to Thomsen's work, thinking about antiquities in both Europe and the United States bas both intellectually fragmented and essentially speculative, the publication of the "Ledetraad" and its translation into German a year later unified archaeological studies by providing scholars with an exemplar or "paradigm". For, while previously antiquarians and indeed classical archaeologists, who were interested in what are now recognized to be prehistoric remains, tended to look to written records and/or oral traditions to provide a historical context for their finds, it was Thomsen who liberated archaeologists from this restrictive assumption through the creation of a carefully controlled chronology which allowed for the comprehensive study of those periods in history for which NO written records were available. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Thomsen's system established itself as THE system, as his basic classification of artefacts, arranged in periods by virtue of an analogy with the form and function of tools in his own day, was modified an elaborated upon by, among others, Worsaae, de Mortillet and John Lubbock." (D.A. Nestor: Cognitive Perspectives on Israelite Identity, pp. 46-48).

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