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National histories of the Mesolithic: Comparing the British Isles and Denmark, 1840-2000

In order to compare and assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of 21st century presentation of the Mesolithic in European countries it is necessary to have some understanding of the development of Mesolithic studies and presentation in the relevant countries. The choice of the British Isles and Denmark as the most relevant case studies is due to a number of crucial factors in the make-up of their archaeological records and histories from approximately 1840 onward.
None of these countries develops in isolation; in fact, the tension between international information sharing and nationalistic agendas plays a significant role in this account. Further, each country and its place in Europe have undergone significant cultural, political and military upheavals in the period in question: these both affect and are affected by the development of archaeology. These developments make nomenclature potentially confusing; unless otherwise stated I will be referring to modern political geography when using the terms Denmark, England, Wales and Scotland and physical geography when referring to Ireland (ie, the whole island of Eire and Northern Ireland). As national borders and identities shifted, it is the learned societies and publishers in major cities (London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Copenhagen) that provide the stage for most developments until this focus shifts to the universities as archaeology is professionalised from the 1920s onwards.
A second tension runs through this account, that between the scholars working on archaeological material on the one hand and their wider audiences on the other. This entire project is predicated on the notion that there is a separation between public and scholarly understandings of the Mesolithic – and that communication between these communities is different to communication within each. Unsurprisingly, the nature and complexity of this divide has changed dramatically and differently in each of these countries. Particularly, relevant is the introduction of state-mandated schools, the professionalization of archaeology and formation of university departments. The general effect of this is to create a more specialist group of archaeologists that are (generally) less elite than the 'gentlemen scholars' of the early 1800s and for those on lower incomes to become literate and thereby have access to archaeological information.

Mesolithic pre-histories: 1840-1859

The Mesolithic as a concept has, for much of its history, been implicitly or explicitly defined in the negative: it fits with neither the archaeology of farming (later known as the Neolithic) nor the palaeontology of human evolution (the lower- and middle- Palaeolithic). Though early archaeologists struggled to resolve the chronology, they soon disassociated the Mesolithic from the spectacular remains of the upper-Palaeolithic and, in much of Europe, this awkward material was passed over as 'Epipalaeolithic' or 'Proto-Neolithic' – insignificant to the narrative of human development. This makes it very difficult to trace its history without, as Milner and Woodman point out, teleologically 'seeking to find the original use of the term as we would understand it today' (2005: 2). However, as this project is as much about the material displayed in museums (no matter how it is labelled) this approach seems parsimonious. Clearly, this approach requires a firm setting in the historical context, particularly in terms of the two sets of tensions identified above: nationalism and public presentation. Therefore, the backdrop against which this account takes place is a combination of the archaeological pasts of each territory and the historical circumstances of the mid-19th century.
Broadly, two archaeological factors are significant to forming the level of attention the Mesolithic is given in each locale: Pleistocene settlement and Roman occupation. England and Wales are the only territories under discussion with uncontested evidence for human activity prior to the Mesolithic and to have been under Roman occupation. Each of these factors conditioned the activities and attitudes of archaeological study. The existence of Palaeolithic remains (such as the Brixham cave discoveries; Gamble & Kruszynski 2009) focused London's archaeologists on the 'antiquity of man' and the first 'Britons' and this strengthened intellectual links with France (and southern Europe) where similar discoveries were being made.
The Roman occupation of England and Wales not only had a profound effect on the nature of the archaeological discoveries made, but gave a more direct link with classical authors and affected the perception of chronological development. Further, a connection with ancient Rome was subsumed into the rhetoric and self-image of the British Empire (though this was clearly complex; Brunt 1965). The development of the British Empire also conditioned relations between the countries of the British Isles (most dramatically England and Ireland). Further, relations between Great Britain and the wider world were conditioned by the power-dynamics of imperialism and the understanding of prehistory was shaped by the encounters of colonial administrators with indigenous peoples (by the 1930s this had been reversed - archaeology was seen as training for a posting to the colonies; Clark 1989: ??).
As early as 1849 archaeologists are aware of some effects of these conditions and Danish archaeologist J. J. A. Worsaae observes that 'English writers' have failed to bring the 'primeval national antiquities of the British islands … into a scientific arrangement.' He suggests this may be because 'on the British islands there exist remains of many different people.' He suggests that comparison with 'the national antiquities of countries that were never conquered by the Romans' might aid in differentiation between the 'antiquities of different people' and determining 'what remains are not Roman' (Worsaae 1849: iii–iv). These quotes are taken from Worsaae's preface to the English edition of Danmarks Oldtid oplyst ved Oldsager og Gravhøe (1843, English title: The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark) a book which was translated either just before or during Worsaae's visit to the British Isles in 1846-1847. Worsaae arrived in the midst of the split between the British Archaeological Association and the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain (summarised in Rowley-Conwy 2007: 99–108, this case is a perfect microcosm of how scholarly politics affects the shape of a discipline). He clearly, believed he was above all this in-fighting and, in private, was far less reserved about his impressions of British archaeology, condemning the lack of a 'generally accepted archaeological system', decrying the British Museum as an 'utter shambles!' and accusing archaeologists of being 'utter dilettantes' with 'no concept of the chronological sequence of monuments and antiquities' (Worsaae 1934: 137, 304, 137, 137; cited in: Rowley-Conwy 2007: 108–110). During both this visit and one made in 1852 Worsaae claims to have been received in Britain particularly well for his 'especial knowledge of prehistoric artefacts, to which little attention was paid in England and which did not even have a room of their own in the excellent Museum' (1934: 139; cited in: Rowley-Conwy 2007: 109).

The demographics of mid-19th century archaeology

Further to his condemnation of the lack of work on British prehistory for its own sake, Worsaae condemns the failure of British archaeologists to have 'excited the public in general' (1849: iii). This awareness of a distinction between expert and public understandings of archaeology is telling, but it is difficult to know what Worsaae may have meant by 'public in general' in 1849: the numbers of self-identifying antiquarians or archaeologists in each country at the time is unlikely to have been very high. Those that were members of the archaeological societies were often involved in other branches of scholarship (Kristiansen 1981; Wetherall 1998).
Wetherall (1998: 22) adapts a scheme from Shapin and Thackray (1974) to suggest that there are three levels of engagement in archaeological study during from 1840 to 1890: Those that publish (papers, books, pamphlets), those who are involved in scholarly societies directly and those that merely consume the output.
Snapshots into the makeup of national archaeological societies reveal an approximate demographic picture of those engaged with archaeology at this time (Tables 1 and 2). Despite the lack of detail in this data it is clear that those engaged with archaeology are almost entirely in the upper echelons of society.

Total membership



Approx. percentages:



Provincial state officials (prefects, mayors, bailiffs)


High-ranking army officers


Landed nobility


Provincial bourgeoisie


University professors


Table 1: Membership of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries (Denmark) for 1844. Rough estimates by Kristiansen (Kristiansen 1981: 24)


Total membership












Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries




Fellows of the Royal Society








Officers in learned or provincial antiquarian societies




University academics




Foreign members




Members of Parliament




British Museum employees




Table 2: Membership of the British Archaeological Association, September 1844 (adapted from; Wetherall 1998: 33). Clearly, members can fall into multiple categories and not all members are accounted for



A slightly sideways look into the social role of academics is provided by a satirical story from the Illuminated Magazine: 'Mr Grubbe's night with Memnon' (Smith 1843). This tale is an 19th century equivalent of Night at the Museum (Levy 2006) in which the Egyptian antiquities come to life at night. The depiction of Mr Grubbe is of more interest here than his adventure: he is a bachelor, an entomologist, writes on Roman encampments and brass button-tops he believes to be ancient coins and has these pieces rejected from The Gentleman's Magazine. He reads these rejected pieces at the meetings of the many 'learned and scientific bodies' to which he belongs and is a 'walking catalogue of the British Museum – far more copious and elaborate than those hired by country visitors' (Smith 1843: 31–32). Relations between these self-selecting academics and the 'public' are further illustrated through Mr Grubbe's impressions of other visitors:
'There were, as usual, a great many people gaping about and asking foolish questions of the attendant; some mixing up the sphinx with the fossils they had seen [the natural history collections were kept at Great Russell Street until the 1880s]; and asking if it was ever alive; others feeling rather afraid of going too near the mummies by themselves; and others lost in mental arguments as to whether the colossal fist of red granite was a thunderbolt or the hand of a petrified giant; together with a great many ill-conducted little boys, with no veneration for antiquities, who laughed at the different objects as the would have done at any of Mr W. Bradwell's wondrous creations in a pantomime.'
(Smith 1843: 33)
Mission statement of the Institute – preserving for whom? - (Champion 1996: 122)

International nationalism

The use of archaeology in building and justifying national and international policy.
German-Danish relations - Worsaae's advocation of national history (1843)
Mission statement of the Institute – National monuments - (Champion 1996: 122)
Anglo-Irish relations?
London, Copenhagen and the CIAPP

Beginnings of Mesolithic studies: 1859-1900

In 1859, the first grouping of material that we would now identify as Mesolithic was made in print by Worsaae when he refined C. J. Thomsen's Stone Age into the Ældre Stenalder (Old Stone Age) that encompassed the Køkkenmødding (kitchen middens – accumulations of seashells containing archaeological material) and Yngre Stenalder (Young Stone Age – equivalent to the Neolithic) with polished-stone axes and pottery (2002: 53[orig. 1859]). The circumstances for this identification were unique to Denmark and illustrate the first stage of the national development sequence that lead to the varied situations in each country today.
Why did Lubbock ignore it? His travel to Denmark 1850s
Westropp 1872
More robust evidence (but no terminology) Worsaae 1886
The influence of Southern European type cultures on Anglophone archaeology
The hiatus theory
Brown 1893


Colonial influences on Britain?
French influences on London?


Pan-European connections

Periods and type-cultures

Fenland Research Council

Clark brings Danish methods
Increasing specialism – creation of a 'public', need for interdisiplinarity

Europe in turmoil

The London Congress 1943
Public engagement across 3 countries:

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