Christian Jürgensen Thomsen

Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (29 December 1788–21 May 1865)

Today is the 233rd anniversary of the birth of Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (29 December 1788–21 May 1865), who was born on this date in 1788.

Thomsen lived through what is sometimes called the Danish Golden Age (Den danske guldalder, roughly 1800–1850), known for its painting and its neoclassical architecture, but it was also a flowering of Danish society in which someone like Thomsen found himself in a vibrant society and was able to make his contribution at least in part because of the circumstances of his time. Thomsen was a gentleman antiquarian who was given the task of organizing the collections that would someday become the National Museum of Denmark.

In Thomsen’s time Nordic prehistory was beginning to be be revealed through the discoveries of artifacts. Neolithic Denmark, in particular, has yielded remarkable finds including the Brudevælte Lurs (discovered in 1797, when Thomsen was a child), and, later, the Trundholm Sun Chariot (discovered in 1902), the Veksø helmets (discovered in 1942), and Tollund Man, one of many preserved bog bodies to be found (discovered in 1950). The Nebra Sky disc (discovered in 1999) and the Tollense Valley battlefield (discovered in 1996) were both in northern Germany, not far from Denmark, and, presumably, were regions integrated into the developments of Nordic prehistory.

The Brudevælte Lurs

Thomsen wrote a classic early work on archaeology, Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed (published in 1836; an English language work Guide to Northern Archaeology appeared in 1848, which says on the title page “edited for the use of English readers,” but it doesn’t mention Thomsen anywhere that I can find). The entry on the Brudevælte Lurs reads as follows:

“…trumpets of bronze, of a very large size, and consisting usually of two parts, whereof one was inserted into the other and of the appearance of which an idea may be formed from the annexed cut. They are generally found along with bronze swords and belong consequently to the more ancient period of paganism, as is also indicated by the ornaments. The inferior extremity is adorned with a circular disc, the anterior side of which is ornamented; from the mouthpiece depend ornaments of bronze and on some of them there are contrivances for the insertion of cords. On one specimen a long metal chain is preserved. They have been found in bogs in several parts of Denmark so well preserved that they may still be sounded.” (pp. 52–53)

Thomsen’s most noted contribution was his organization of the museum he organized according to the “Three Age System,” which divided prehistory in a Stone Age, a Bronze Age, and an Iron Age. The Three Age system is given an exposition in Guide to Northern Archaeology on pages 63–71. It is worth noting that powerful ideas about history, which shape our understanding of the world, sometimes emerge from museums and how they display and curate their collection, and this is the case with Thomsen. Museums are, in effect, institutions of public instruction, and therefore part of the institution of education. The national museum in the capital city of a nation-state can have an enormous intellectual influence upon a population.

Franz Boas (09 July 1858–21 December 1942) is relevant in this connection, as he was also concerned with how collections are to be displayed in museums. In an article from the 17 June 1887 issue of Science, Boas’ contribution to “Museums of ethnology and their classification” included this observation:

“…the main object of ethnological collections should be the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes. I believe that this object can be accomplished only by the tribal arrangement of collections. The second object, which is subordinate to the other, is to show horn far each and every civilization is the outcome of its geographical and historical surroundings. Here the line of tribal arrangement may sometimes be broken, in order to show an historical series of specimens: but I consider this latter point of view subordinate to the former, and should choose to arrange collections of duplicates for illustrating those ideas, as it were, as an explanation of the facts contained in the tribal series.”

Thomsen’s three-age periodization may be considered an exemplification of cultural evolutionism, and in this may be contrasted to the influential cultural relativism of Franz Boas. In other words, Boas was arguing against the kind of cultural evolutionism implicit in Thomsen’s Three Age System. Boas in his later career became famous for (among many other things) his cultural relativism, which we see was part of his thinking early in his career. While Boas is remembered as an anthropologist and a social theorist, it would be difficult to over-estimate Boas’ influence over the social sciences in the twentieth century, and it would probably be accurate to say that he influenced philosophy of history more than most philosophers of history, simply because his overall influence over the thought of his time.

In certain respects, the same could be said of Thomsen: who does not know the three-age system of stone age followed by bronze age, followed in turn by the iron age, and, for everyone familiar with this idea, who can remember when they first heard it? The ideas of cultural evolutionism and cultural relativism are pervasively present, to the point that we rarely realize how often we invoke them, or how both my coexist in our thought when we fail to make them explicit and to understand what principles we are invoking, usually implicitly, in our interpretation of the past.

Here is another instructive passage from Guide to Northern Archaeology:

“The study of the Greek and Latin languages has given birth to the modern philology. By the example of the classical historians modern history has attained its eminence, of which fact there can be but one opinion among men of scientific acquirement; none but the uninstructed and superficial observer would ascribe the movement of a machine to the great external and visible wheels without taking into account the inner principle of motion. But with the remains of the old classical literature the moderns have moreover combined a new spirit of intellectual activity, sprung indeed from an ancient root, but which by degrees has expanded into a new tree with another stem and bearing other fruit. The knowledge of the old time embraced man, that of our time nature at large. The special subjects of the labours of antiquity were mythology, language, history, as also philosophy, or in other words the history of man; what in modern times has been added to these is the knowledge of the world in all its departments, or in general terms the history of nature. The latter could not have sprung into existence without the former, no La Place without an Euclid, but the later development of knowledge has placed such a distance between the two, that they may be considered as independent of each other. Both together complete the culture of the human intellect. If we enquire under which of these two modes of intellectual activity the Old Northern literature is to be classed, the natural answer must be, under that of the olden time. It contains, like the Greek and Roman, scarcely any other element than the religious, the historical and the linguistic; the philosophical is wanting. To require more from it than in virtue of its nature it could afford, would be unreasonable.” (p. 3)

By mentioning the “inner principle of motion” ultimately responsible for the movement of a great machine, Thomsen is here making explicit the need to find the fundamental principles by which we interpret the world, and not to merely rest content with superficial understanding. And in comparing the sequence of Euclid preceding Laplace to the development of ideas in the traditions of a people he is driving home the central idea of cultural evolutionism: we must have Euclidean geometry before we can have the work of Laplace, and we must have the mythology, language, history, and philosophy of earlier eras for them to eventually develop into the intellectual disciplines we have today. In noting the absence of philosophical ideas in Old Northern literature he is acknowledging that the society represented by this literature had not yet developed to a point at which it could produce philosophical ideas.

Further Resources

____________________________________________________________ (French with English subtitles) (in Danish)

Translated from the description of the video:

Christian Jürgensen Thomsen became from 1816 leader of The Royal Commission for Antiquities Storage (Antiquities Commission), which needed a loving hand. It is considered the predecessor of the National Museum. In doing so, he pioneered the collection and categorization of antiquities. His most landmark effort was the development of the threefold division of antiquity into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. Thomsen is considered one of the founders of the cultural history museum system. His work gained enormous importance for the development of archeological science. And then he was sent to Paris to fish an invitation out of the imperial couple to Countess Danner…



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