Roman Riches in Iron Age Denmark

otherartifacsDanish archaeologists made an unprecedented discovery in the municipality of Ishøj, located just 18 km (11 mi) outside of Copenhagen, in October 2007: an intact grave of a high-ranking man or “prince” from the Roman Iron Age (c. 1-400 CE). Hailed as one of the most important discoveries in recent memory, the grave provided a unique glimpse into the material wealth and aesthetic tastes of the ancient Danish elite. Sensational objects like gaming pieces cast in glass, gold jewelry, and an exquisite Roman wine set in bronze were among the items uncovered. All of these and more are now presented in a new exhibition, The Ishøj Prince (Danish: “Ishøjfyrstens”), at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Jan Kindberg Jacobsen, Curator of Ancient Art at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, about the importance of this discovery, and of how a Danish prince amassed the trappings of a Mediterranean magnate.

“Although richly furnished burials from the late Roman Iron Age are not an unknown phenomenon in Denmark, the one belonging to the ‘Ishøj Prince’ stands out. The grave was excavated, restored, and analyzed in accordance with today’s scientific standards. This has allowed for a very detailed reconstruction of the violent events that resulted in the death of the Ishøj Prince, providing a broad insight into the funeral rites and dedication patterns of the period.”

JW: Dr. Jan Kindberg Jacobsen, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! We are happy to share your expertise and speak with you about this exciting exhibition.

dolphin1The artifacts presented at The Ishøj Prince have been dated to the later part of the Roman Iron Age (c. 250-400 CE) and are considered by archaeologists to be among the most important artifacts ever uncovered on Danish soil. Why is this the case, and what makes these objects so important to those interested in ancient Germanic peoples?

JJ: Although richly furnished burials from the late Roman Iron Age are not an unknown phenomenon in Denmark, the one belonging to the “Ishøj Prince” stands out. It does so because the grave was individuated during regular archaeological excavations, and not as a result of agricultural activity or construction work as it often happens. The grave of the Ishøj Prince is an important find, which aroused considerable public interest during the days immediately following its discovery. It did so not only because of its rich and well-preserved grave goods, but, as the exhibition shows, subsequent scientific research has added much knowledge to our understanding of the “prince.” The grave was excavated, restored, and analyzed in accordance with today’s scientific standards. This has allowed for a very detailed reconstruction of the violent events that resulted in the death of the Ishøj Prince, providing a broad insight into the funeral rites and dedication patterns of the period.

However, something which is also most remarkable is the fact that an additional 29 graves were excavated in the near vicinity of the princely grave. The layout of the graves shows that the Ishøj Prince was the first burial in the area: studies of the grave goods indicate that this would have been around c. 250-260 CE. During the following 150 years, graves were constructed in a circle around the grave of the Ishøj Prince. Interestingly, none of the 29 graves come close in competing with the princely grave, neither in terms of grave goods nor in regard to the size of the grave itself. This strongly underlines the social and military position the Ishøj Prince would have enjoyed within the Iron Age society.

JW: Is one correct in assuming that these buried treasures came to present-day Denmark by way of trade? Can you perhaps comment on the extent to which the Romans influenced the inhabitants of Denmark during this era, and whether we can characterize such influence as “Romanization”?

JJ: Regarding trade, the answer is yes, to some extent, although we have to imagine that various cultural and commercial mechanisms led to the arrival of Roman objects in Scandinavia. With respect to the occurrence of Roman banquet accessories in bronze and glass, in Germanic graves, it appears obvious that well-established direct or indirect trade routes were in place between the northern provinces of the Roman Empire and what is now Denmark. Being so, many of these early “Danes” would have used Roman vessels–surely as a means of displaying social importance–without ever having set foot on Roman territories.beakers

However, on certain occasions, one might suspect that some had more direct cultural connections to the Roman Empire. This might, for example, have been the case when considering the famous “Hoby grave,” which dates around two centuries before that of the Ishøj Prince (c. 50-60 CE). The Hoby grave contained a complete Roman banquet set, which consisted of figure-decorated silver and bronze vessels as well as Roman fibulae. The grave, which is on display in the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, must have belonged to a very important “prince” with direct contacts to the Roman Empire.

Although “Romanization” is too decisive a term, it can be argued that contacts with the Roman world brought cultural and technical “inspiration” to northern areas. This is reflected in many areas, ranging from road constructions to military strategies and, as we have seen, the use of Roman banquet ware as a display of social importance in life in addition to death.

skeleton2JW: Forensic studies conducted on the skeleton of the Ishøj Prince have enabled archaeologists to determine exactly how he died: multiple wounds to the skull, which likely occurred as the result of battle. What else do we know, if anything, about this mysterious but wealthy man? What does the presence of many exquisite artifacts suggest about his life, beyond his high social stature within his community?

JJ: The Ishøj Prince unquestionably lived in a notably violent period. Clearly, the manner of his death tells the story in a very direct way, but what we also know about the period is that many battles were raging across Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia. The latter is well-known fact in Danish archaeology through the finds of several large accumulations of enemy equipment, which were taken after victories, destroyed, and thrown into lakes as offerings to the gods.

Within this context, the Ishøj Prince would have had an elevated military position, reflected by the military signal horn with which he was buried. At the same time, he was a rich man as we can see both from his imported drinking vessels as well as his personal jewellery, which among other items, included a large gold ring. This find suggests that he was the head of an extended family; in his day, he would have been recognized as an important player within the regional as well as interregional community.

JW: Of the artifacts displayed in the show, I was most intrigued by the gaming pieces and the Roman glass beakers. Could you share more information, explaining how the prince would likely have used them?

JJ: The gaming pieces intrigue me too, James; today, it would be odd if a high-ranking military officer was buried with a Sony PlayStation, but it makes sense within the cultural context of the Ishøj Prince’s era. Owning a board game with glass pieces would in itself have been a sign of social importance, since it was an expensive and manufactured personal item. In truth, actually having the time to dedicate yourself to board gaming would be a very effective way of showing the surrounding community that you had your affairs under control, and that you were a man of great importance.

The board game might also have played a role the in social interaction between the heads of important families. It is easy to imagine that the Ishøj Prince would have used the gaming board as an informal gamesopening to more serious discussions with his social equals. Probably on the same occasions, the Roman metal vessels were used to serve refreshments alongside the finely decorated glass cups. However, unlike within the borders of the Roman Empire, the cups would not have contained wine but rather beer.

JW: Before concluding this interview, I wanted to ask you how museum visitors have reacted to this exhibition? Has the exhibition aroused a degree of curiosity amongst the Danish public?

JJ: Yes, more than we had hoped for! During the month of March alone, some 10,000 people visited the “Ancient Mediterranean” section of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, where the Ishøj Prince is exhibited. The success of the exhibition seems to be connected to the fact that many Danes are surprised to learn that the impulses of the Roman Empire reached as far north as Denmark. At the same time, the story of the life and death of the Ishøj Prince is intriguing since the scientific research, on which the exhibition rests, has unveiled many compelling details. I should like to thank the Kroppedal Museum in Tåstrup for lending us the artifacts from the grave of the Ishøj Prince. We could not have presented this exhibition without their cooperation.

JW: Dr. Jan Kindberg Jacobsen, I thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with our audience! I cannot wait to see what future exhibitions will be organized at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. We hope that you shall keep us posted!

JJ: Thank you James for providing the opportunity to present the Ishøj Prince to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. We shall surely keep you updated on future initiatives at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

The Ishøj Prince has been extended at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark until June 9, 2013.

Photo Credits:

  1. An elegant Roman wine set in copper with glass beakers. Photo: Kroppedal Museum.
  2. An unusual Roman glass beaker decorated with dolphins. Photo: Kroppedal Museum.
  3. These rare Roman glass beakers with painted figures were the prince’s most precious possessions. Photo: Kroppedal Museum.
  4. The Princely grave undergoing excavation in 2007. Photo: Kroppedal Museum.
  5. Gaming pieces of black and white glass. Photo: Kroppedal Museum.

jankinderbergDr. Jan Kindberg Jacobsen (1976) is the Curator of Ancient Art at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. After graduating with a degree in Classical Archaeology in 2004 from Aarhus University, in Denmark, he obtained his PhD degree in 2007 from Groningen University, in the Netherlands, where he still holds a position as an associated researcher. Since 1998, he has been involved in archaeological projects in Italy, Greece, and the Black Sea region.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. Jan Kindberg Jacobsen, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted by their respective owners. We would like to extend our thanks to Mr. Lasse Juhl Nielsen, Communications Assistant at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, for helping make this interview possible. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.