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The Dendrochronological Investigation

In Denmark alone, the number of burial mounds
from the Bronze Age has been roughly estimated at
40-50,000 ( Jensen 2002). How many of these once
contained oak coffin burials is not known, but this
figure must run into several thousands. The great
majority of coffins have now disappeared due to
natural processes of decay. In many cases their former
presence can be recognised during excavation as thin
black stripes in the earth; in others only the form of
the surrounding stone packing suggests that this once
enclosed an oak coffin. Sometimes some small pieces
of the coffin wood are preserved. In only a few cases
are the oak coffins preserved more-or-less intact to
the present day.
But even when oak coffins do survive until the
present this does not necessarily mean that they are
secured for the future. Several well-preserved coffins
have been broken apart by their finders in the hunt
for the treasure they thought must lie within (UI 27.
Vellerup, 2. Borum Eshj). And when no treasure
was found, the coffin could then be used as a watering
trough (5. Guldhj) or split into planks for building
(UI 16. Stamplund). Some coffins ended up in private
ownership and were, after some years, subsequently
lost (UI 5. Foldingbro, UI 17. Stevnehj). Others went
to museums but have subsequently been destroyed,
for example during wartime (UI 2. Dybvadgrd), or
have simply disappeared (UI 22. Toppehj, UI 23.
From Denmark, there are reports of finds of up to
about 60 oak coffins from the Bronze Age (cf. Catalogue), but there are today only 30 more-or-less well
preserved coffins in Danish and German museums.
Even these coffins are not always what they seem
 Translation: David Earle Robinson & Anne Bloch Jrgensen.
The translation was financed by a grant from Dronning
Margrethe IIs Arkologiske Fond.
 Two numbering systems are employed (cf. Catalogues
A & B below): Simple numbers for studied and often
dendrochronologically dated oak coffins, and UI numbers for
Un-Investigated coffins (ed. note).

virtually every conceivable form of mix-up, numbering error and mixing together of coffins seems to have
taken place. These mistakes can be quite elementary,
for example a coffin which has the wrong name and
museum number (UI 22. Toppehj) or has two different museum numbers, each of which refers to a
different burial mound (21. Trindhj/5. Guldhj). The
situation can also be more complex, such as when
one coffin in a museum has been restored using pieces of wood from another (10. Muldhj/17. Storehj at
Barde) or when pieces of sapwood lying in one coffin (5. Guldhj, 21. Trindhj) prove to originate from
another (17. Storehj at Barde) which stood alongside
the first in the museum store. Two coffins could have
been mixed up by mistake (8. Maasbll/UI 22. Toppehj), or doubts can arise as to which coffin individual fragments belong (9. Margarethenberg/8. Maasbll). The relevant archaeological literature may state
that a coffin is now kept at a particular museum even
though in reality it is stored at another (19. Snder
nlev sb. 20) or disappeared long ago (UI 22. Toppehj, UI 23. Tvillingehj). Coffins can have been
misplaced in museum stores and lost for a number of
years (15. Sortehj). Or the wood can be so degraded, due to lack of conservation, that it is no longer
possible to measure the tree rings (UI 15. Skjoldhj).
Mistakes and misunderstandings are also possible
during the actual dendrochronological investigations,
such as when a coffin from 5. Guldhj, loaned by
the Museum at Koldinghus to the Konge Museum
in Vamdrup, was presumed to be the coffin from 16.
Store Kongehj, which lies near Vamdrup or when
a coffin from 10. Muldhj, loaned by the National
Museum to Moesgaard Museum and exhibited there
together with finds from 2. Borum Eshj, was presumed to originate from the latter burial mound or
when fragments of two coffins from the same burial
mound became mixed together (19. Snder nlev sb.
20, graves 8 & 9). And the misunderstandings continue right up to publication of the results, such as when
the dating of 17. Storehj at Barde was presented as

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