Danish Razors and Swedish Rocks: Cosmology and the Bronze Age Landscape

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Introduction: Cosmology and landscape

Ideas about prehistoric landscapes have changed during recent years as part of a more general concern with studying meaning and experience in the past. Today the term 'landscape' refers as much to the significance of places as it does to the distribution of resources (Bender 1993; Tilley 1994; Ashmore & Knapp 1999; Ucko & Layton 1999). People's attachment to particular landscapes is social as well as economic, and for that reason it is perfectly possible for separate communities to think of the same area of ground in quite different ways (Bender & Winer 2001).

It is not only the features and associations of the topography that give rise to competing interpretations. Every study of the landscape involves some account of its physical features, but cosmologies provide a more abstract interpretation (Barth 1987). They offer a theoretical account of how the world was made and how its different parts are related to one another. They account for the creation of life, the formation of the land and the status of human beings. Such ideas would have been vitally important in the past (Blacker & Loewe 1975), but in the absence of written information they are difficult for prehistorians to investigate.

Visual images supply a possible source for studies of cosmology, and provide the basis for this paper, which compares the characteristic decoration on Bronze Age metalwork with similar designs in the rock art of South Scandinavia. The drawings on razors and other artefacts have been interpreted in terms of an ancient cosmology (Kaul 1998), but the rock carvings have played a more conspicuous role in landscape archaeology (Goldhahn 2002). In fact both approaches overlap. Whilst the decorated artefacts must still be studied on their own terms, the siting and organisation of the petroglyphs suggest another way of working with these ideas.

Decorated metalwork in Bronze Age Scandinavia

The Bronze Age metalwork of Scandinavia was among the first groups of prehistoric artefacts to be studied systematically. The different types were defined during the nineteenth century and the typological sequence worked out by Oscar Montelius remains largely unaltered today. It provides the basis for the chronology of Northern Europe (Graslund 1987). At the same time, some of this metalwork is distinctly unusual, for it includes a number of items with figurative decoration. Most of these are razors but there are also weapons and ornaments (Kaul 1998). Although some of the motifs have parallels in other regions, the closest comparison is with drawings in an entirely different medium. On the metalwork from Denmark there are many pictures of horses, boats and the sun. Between about 1600 and 500 BC the same motifs are more widely distributed in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian rock art. (Figure 1; Glob 1969; Malmer 1981).


That connection is important. The chronology of the decorated metalwork has been transferred to the drawings of ships, and this has established the dates of some of the petroglyphs (Kaul 1998: chapter 6). At the same time the wider connections of both sets of images have attracted attention and a number of writers have suggested links with the visual culture of central and north-east Europe, as well as more distant affinities in the archaeological records of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Greece and Crete (Larsson 1997; Kristiansen 2004a). Such connections may even commemorate the travels of local chiefs during the Early Bronze Age (Kristiansen 2004b).

Work has also been conducted at a more local scale. The main development has been the publication of a detailed study of the decorated metalwork of Denmark. This has gone far beyond the traditional questions of style and chronology and has involved a new analysis of the images themselves (Kaul 1998). This works builds on earlier research in the same field (Gelling & Davidson 1969) but is notable because it does not depend on anachronistic comparisons with Old Norse religion. …