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Dendrochronological Dating of Bronze Age Oak Coffins

the dating of 18. Storhj at Egtved, or when totally

incorrect or misunderstood dates for coffins are made
public (Ljungberg 1985; Ethelberg 2000).
Against this rather mixed and dubious background, the present investigation has had two main
aims: Firstly, to confirm the identity of the oak coffins
that are preserved and/or referred to in the literature;


secondly, to carry out as precise a dendrochronological dating of these as possible. By way of introduction,
an overview is given of the background for the investigation, its execution and the results obtained. In the
subsequent catalogue a detailed account is given of
the identity and investigation of each individual oak


An astronomer, Andrew E. Douglas, developed
the foundations of the dendrochronological dating
method in the United States at the beginning of the
20th century. The method spread to Europe in the
course of the 1930s, where the forest botanist Bruno
Huber in Munich was one of the first to use it to date
archaeological finds of wood (Liese 1978). It was,
however, first with the introduction of computer
technology to the dating process by Dieter Eckstein
in Hamburg in the course of the 1960s (Bauch, Liese
& Eckstein 1967; Eckstein & Bauch 1969) that use of
the dendrochronological method became widespread
in Europe. In Denmark, the method was first adopted
by the National Museum at the beginning of the 1970s
(Bartholin 1973), in the first years in close collaboration
with the dendrochronologists in Hamburg.
The idea of dendrochronologically dating the oak
coffins from the Bronze Age appears to have arisen as
early as the 1930s. In 1938, the Swedish geochronologist Ebba Hult de Geer visited the National Museum in Copenhagen in order to find wood suitable
for tree-ring dating. During this visit it was agreed
that she send a coring device to the museum so that
samples could be removed from some of the oak coffins (memo from Therkel Mathiassen 1st September
1938). But in a later letter to the Museum (24th September 1938), she writes that sampling should wait
until better coring equipment became available. Ebba
de Geers plans to investigate the oak coffins were
never executed and it is in the light of her rather
controversial dating method (Mller-Stoll 1951; Huber 1970) probably also doubtful whether it would
have produced useable results.
In 1953, Hermann Schwabedissen, Professor of
Archaeology at the University of Cologne, mentioned

the possibility of using dendrochronology to date

oak coffins in a letter to Bruno Huber (Schwabedissen 1983). Subsequently, Schwabedissen worked to
establish a dendrochronological laboratory at the
University of Cologne. As part of these plans, wood
samples were collected from archaeological excavations and samples were taken for radiocarbon dating and tree-ring measurement from several of the
oak coffins (6. Hsby, 1. Kong Arrildshj), partly for
purposes of dating, partly as a step in the construction of a dendrochronological reference chronology
for oak wood from North Germany (Schwabedissen
1973; Schwabedissen 1977; Schwabedissen & Schmidt
1982). In 1967, W. von Jazewitsch, from Hubers laboratory, succeeded in carrying out a dendrochronological dating of a sample from the 1. Kong Arrildshj
coffin relative to samples from an archaeological excavation at Heidmoor, Kreis Segeberg (Schwabedissen 1983:277-279); letter from H. Schwabedissen to
P.V. Glob 20th November 1967; dendrochronological date not published). In 1971, regular funding was
secured for the dendrochronological laboratory in
Cologne (Schwabedissen 1983:281) and Burghart
Schmidt, trained in dendrochronology at the laboratory in Hamburg, was appointed as its head.
By this time, work on dendrochronological dating
of the oak coffins had, as mentioned above, already
begun but now it really took off through collaboration between Hermann Schwabedissen, Burghart
Schmidt and Dieter Eckstein. In the beginning they
focussed their attention in particular on the oak coffins that were kept at the museum at Gottorp Castle in
Schleswig. But as early as 1967, Schwabedissen asked
for permission also to investigate some of the coffins at
the National Museum (letter from H. Schwabedissen


Acta Archaeologica

to P.V. Glob 20th November 1967). At this time the

National Museums Archaeological Sciences Department was not yet engaged in dendrochronological
work and therefore permission was given for German
dendrochronologists to take core samples from ein
oder zwei Eichsrgen (letter from E. Munksgaard
to H. Schwabedissen 12th June 1968). Later this permission was extended to apply to almost all the National Museums oak coffins only the Egtved Girls
oak coffin was explicitly excluded for the time being
because of its great value as an exhibit (letter from
E. Lomborg to H. Schwabedissen 26th April 1977).
The National Museum contributed to the investigation with information about the oak coffins (archaeologist Ebbe Lomborg) and practical assistance (museum curator Tage E. Christiansen, master of forestry
Kent Havemann and the author). In exchange, the
tree-ring data etc. were to be made freely available to
the National Museum (letter from H. Schwabedissen
to J. Troels-Smith 4th May 1973). With time, some of
the coffins kept at other Danish museums were also
included in the German investigations.
The German dendrochronologists investigations
of the oak coffins in Denmark and Schleswig (hereafter referred to as the German investigations in
contrast to the later Danish investigations) were
primarily carried out between 1972 and 1982. In
1975, tree-ring measurement and relative dating (i.e.
crossmatching) of 12 of the coffins was carried out
(letter from H. Schwabedissen to E. Lomborg 18th
December 1975). Some years later, the number of
relatively-dated coffins was increased to 20 and in the
first months of 1982 it proved possible to carry out
absolute dendrochronological dating (i.e. crossdating)
of a mean curve for the investigated oak coffins and,
as a direct consequence, also of each individual coffin (Schmidt & Schwabedissen 1982; Schwabedissen
& Schmidt 1982).
In January 1979, the tree-ring data for the Danish
oak coffins were handed over to the National Museum (letter from B. Schmidt to T.E. Christiansen
of 12th January 1979) together with a master curve
comprising 418 years and calculated on the basis of
measurements carried out on 20 oak coffins (laboratory number: Kln Baumsaerge20, MWK 6; NNU M
223, EGEKISTE). This material was registered and
archived at the Archaeological Sciences Department

of the National Museum at the beginning of 1983

(memo from Niels Bonde 6th May 1983). No evaluation of the material was carried out in connection with
this, but attempts were made, unsuccessfully, to clarify
a series of problems concerning the identification of
the individual coffins etc. (letter from N. Bonde and
K. Christensen to B. Schmidt 22nd April 1983; reply
from B. Schmidt 7th October 1983). Subsequently,
the National Museum received a further master curve
for the oak coffins from Germany (Kln MWK 1A;
NNU DM100011), containing the same number of
years as the first, but presumably involving data from
a larger number of coffins (letter from B. Schmidt to
N. Bonde 19th January 1993).
In the years subsequent to 1982, the Germans appeared on several occasions to be working on publishing the results of their oak coffin studies but no such
publication appeared. One of the reasons for this was
that, in late 1982, some uncertainty arose concerning
the absolute dating of the German master chronology
used in dating the oak coffins (letter from B. Schmidt
to N. Bonde and K. Christensen 7th October 1983).
On subsequent comparison with a master chronology
from Ireland, it became clear that the oldest part of
the German master chronology (prior to 550 BC) was
incorrectly dated, such that it was necessary to move
it 71 years further back in time (Pilcher et al. 1984).
As a consequence, all the oak coffins became 71 years
older than revealed by the investigations up to that
time. As this situation was not generally known, a
popular scientific Swedish journal was in 1985 without declaring its sources able to publish a series of
incorrect dendrochronological dates for the oak coffins (Ljungberg 1985); these dates quickly passed on
into the professional archaeological literature ( Jensen
1987). In the years after this, the German dendrochronologists waited for an archaeological reaction to
the dating of the oak coffins, but this was not forthcoming and the dates remained unpublished (letter
from B. Schmidt to N. Bonde 19th January 1993).
At the National Museum there were, initially, no
plans to publish the dating of the oak coffins this
was the work of the German dendrochronologists.
The situation changed abruptly, however, on the
evening of the 17th April 1989, when a Danish archaeologist made a sensational announcement on the
TV news: He had been informed by German col-

Dendrochronological Dating of Bronze Age Oak Coffins

leagues that the Egtved Girls coffin had been dated
dendrochronologically the tree used to make the
coffin was allegedly felled in 1357 BC (NNU ref. no.
7.51-1). This prompted justified amazement at the National Museum where it was known that no measurements had yet been carried out of the tree rings on
the Egtved coffin. As mentioned above, it alone had
been explicitly excluded when the German dendrochronologists were given permission to investigate the
Danish oak coffins. This story on the TV news (which
in subsequent days was repeated in several newspapers) quickly turned out to be founded on a misunderstanding: The burial mound in which the Egtved
Girl lay buried is called Storhj (large mound), but
Storhj or Storehj is the name given to many
burial mounds all across the country, including one at
Barde in Western Jutland. It was the coffin from this
latter mound that was dated to 1357 BC. (According
to the German list of dates the year given is 1358 BC;
the reason that it was reported as 1357 BC could be
due to the fact that there was, in addition to the tree
rings that were measured, also a final incompletely
preserved tree ring on the coffin. The correct date,
following the Danish investigations, in which several
further tree rings were demonstrated on the coffin, is
1373 BC.). The misleading date was also published in
a popular scientific book, which also contained incorrect dates for the coffins from 5. Guldhj (Ebbesen
1989:51, 88).
The confusion surrounding the date for the Egtved
Girls coffin made it clear to the National Museum
that a dendrochronological investigation of this coffin
was now urgently required. On the 18th December
1989, the author obtained permission from the museum to saw through the lid of the coffin in order to
obtain a suitable surface for tree-ring measurement
and on the 22nd December of that year the result was
available: The tree used to make the coffin was felled
in the summer of 1370 BC (Christensen 1990; Christensen & Jensen 1991).
When the tree rings on the Egtved Girls coffin
were measured, there was no Danish chronology for
the Bronze Age and dating of the coffin was only possible by comparison with the datasets received from
Germany for the other Danish oak coffins and the
associated combined master curve for all the oak coffins. When working with these datasets and curves in


connection with the Egtved dating it became clear,

however, that there was a series of problems associated with them. Firstly, in several instances there
was doubt concerning the identity of the oak coffins
that had been investigated and dated. Sometimes the
museums information on a coffin was so inadequate
that it was not immediately possible to establish with
certainty which coffin was involved; in other cases it
was difficult to assign the data received from Germany to a particular coffin. Secondly, it was clear that in
the German investigations the coffins had been sawn
through in places where a large number of tree rings
was preserved. This was, of course, because the main
priority in the first phase of the project was to measure long series of tree rings which it was then possible
to date. On revisiting the coffins it could be established in many cases, however, that a larger number
of tree rings were preserved elsewhere on the coffin
and, in some instances, also sapwood. As such, reinvestigation of the coffins would allow more precise
determination of the felling dates for the trees used in
their manufacture.
Regardless of the causes of these problems, it became clear that new tree-ring measurements of the
coffins were necessary if the aim a precise and secure
date for each individual coffin was to be achieved.
The author began reinvestigation of the Danish oak
coffins while employed at the National Museums
Archaeological Sciences Department. The work was,
however, delayed for reasons beyond the authors
control, but it then continued in various ways, including with support from The Danish Research Council
for the Humanities. The dates arrived at have been
made available to archaeologists as they were obtained
(Christensen & Jensen 1991; Randsborg 1991; Jensen
1993; Randsborg 1993; Randsborg 1996; Vandkilde
et al. 1996; Jensen 2002) and have been published by
the author in summary form (Christensen 1998).
When, in 2002, the author joined the WM Dendrochronological Laboratory (WM Trdateringslaboratoriet), a joint venture between the private institution Wormianum and Moesgrd Museum, completion
of the oak coffin project was one of my primary aims.
A further grant from the Danish Research Council
for the Humanities made it possible to investigate the
remaining unstudied oak coffins at Danish museums
and with extensive cooperation from Archaeolo-


Acta Archaeologica

gisches Landesmuseum at Gottorp Castle also the

oak coffins kept in Schleswig. The work was, accordingly, completed in 2004.
In July 2006, WM Dendrochronological Laboratory surprisingly received some pieces of wood
from the Skrydstrup Girls oak coffin for investigation. For further details, see the latter part of the

introduction to the Catalogue, Section A, Addendum 23. Due to the advanced state of this study,
this coffin has not been included in the overviews
of, among other things, the number of dated and
undated coffins and the coffins geographical distribution given below.

Fig. 1. Location of the 22 burial mounds with preserved oak coffins that have been investigated dendrochronologically. The numbers refer to
section A of the catalogue.