Painting the past in 19th-century Norway

The 5th and 6th centuries AD have quite different meanings around present-day Europe.  The fact that we have multiple names for the period is telling.  In the Mediterranean East, for instance, this is the Byzantine era.  In the West it’s Late Antique.  Around the North Sea it’s often called the Migration Period.  In Scandinavia it’s also the Iron Age (albeit the post-Roman one).   The romanticised connotations of these names are diverse and important. It’s a time of faded glory (Late Antique); wandering tribes (Migration Period); a convoluted and tired Empire, tinged with an oriental mysticism (Byzantine); or a slow accumulation of processes begun halfway through the first millennium BC (Iron Age).  The 5th and 6th centuries, though their shadows are sometimes cast by broadly comparable evidence, project themselves variously onto the screen of our imagination.

I’ve written before about the striking continuity Norwegian archaeology displays through the long Iron Age.  For instance, some small barrow cemeteries continued to be used through the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages and into the Migration Period, many even lingering into the Viking Age.  This scale of continuity puts the Norwegian Migration Period in a somewhat different light to that of much of southern and western Europe, which experienced a starkly different series of transitions with the coming and going of Empire.  Furthermore, these cemeteries have always played a prominent role in the landscape, many of them containing monumental barrows, some even marked by standing stones.  They capture the imagination in a manner that the (for the most part) invisible cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England and Merovingian Gaul do not.

These prehistoric mounds and megaliths did not escape the attentions of the 19th-century re-inventors of the Norwegian landscape: painters.  Norway, at the beginning of the 19th century, had a growing sense of identity and an impetus to establish a distinct cultural footprint.  Formerly under Danish control then Swedish, the Norwegian constitution was drawn up in 1814.  Twenty-two years later the national museum of art was founded in Oslo (then Christiana).  A key figure among its founders was the painter Johan Christian Dahl, who gave the purpose of the new museum as not only for providing model examples for art students in the capital, but also for the refinement of public taste.  The foundation was to grow a sense of worth, not just among its citizens, but also to establish the Norwegian landscape itself as a worthy subject of romantic landscape painting (Lødrup Bang 1987, 125–6).  Most accounts make Dahl out to be a man working for the common good, setting out to open Europe’s eyes to the potential of Norway as an artistic subject, a landscape inhabited and worked by farmers following ancient traditions, fighting a millennia-old battle against an unforgiving landscape with an heroic past of its own.

Dahl himself was a painter of considerable talent and ambition.  Indeed, he is generally credited as the father of Norwegian landscape painting.  Furthermore it was Dahl, followed by his two most famous students Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who championed this subject.  A number of Dahl’s paintings feature Scandinavian (Norwegian or Danish) prehistoric remains.  Consequently prehistoric Norway, which includes the Migration Period, was present at the quite intentional moulding of modern Norwegian identity.

Flicking through Dahl’s complete works (Lødrup Bang 1987), I came across the following 17 paintings that contained obvious examples of Scandinavian prehistoric monuments:

  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Moonlight (1816) [Denmark]
  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Winter (1825, 1829) [Denmark]
  • Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827) [Norway]
  • Fjord Landscape with a Menhir (1833, 1837, 1839) [Norway]
  • Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1835, 1838) [Norway]
  • Grave by the Sea with a Menhir (1838)
  • Menhir by the Sea (1838)
  • Danish Winter Landscape with Dolmen (1838) [Denmark]
  • Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes (1839) [Norway]
  • Landscape from Voss with Grave Mound and Menhir (1840) [Norway]
  • Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1840, 1841, ?1842) [Norway]

All of these paintings sit quite comfortably alongside his equally numerous renderings of castle and church ruins, variously from Norway and Germany.  The thing about Dahl’s paintings of prehistoric remains though, is that the barrows and megaliths tend to sit integrally with the landscape; they become part of the natural environment.  Dahl’s aim was to paint nature and his human subjects were very few.  Because he often made human figures diminutive, their presence lends a sense of imposing scale to the landscape.  People are not the subjects of the painting, and they usually have their backs to us.  Their engulfment in the landscape stands in for our own.  Because of Dahl’s emphasis on nature the barrows and megaliths become an inseparable part of the landscape, lending it chronological depth and a sense of the romanticised mythological past.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Domen near Vordingbord in Winter (c.1825). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Symbols abound in Dahl’s paintings.  Dead trees and rainbows are so ubiquitous they verge on cliché.  He was also known to have observed and drafted landscapes in the summer, and then painted snow over them, to achieve a sense of melancholy and perhaps the hope of renewal.  Prehistoric monuments fulfilled similar roles.  In the painting “Vordingbord in moonlight” (in Denmark, above), the moonlight, winter and stones all stand for death and the past.  In “Menhir at Sognefjord in Winter” (also above) the megalith symbolises the antiquity of the winter landscape, as well as disconsolation and death (being a grave marker).  Nevertheless, the ray of light that peeps over the mountains and strikes the apex of the standing stone is perhaps our symbol of rejuvenation in this otherwise sombre painting (Lødrup Bang 1987).

Modern human settlements also feature in Dahl’s paintings, sometimes placed in juxtaposition with ancient remains.  They reference the deep legacy of Norwegian farmers.  They connect the apparent mundanity of the present with an heroic past.  This is true for the various versions of “Birch Tree at Slinde” (below), but more obviously for “Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal” (also below), where the barrow and its megalith impose themselves upon the little farmstead, their nearby tree finding some kind of life-force in the ancient tumulus, while the tree in the foreground withers.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1838). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1841). Source: Project Muse.

None of this is to say that Dahl knew an awful lot about Norwegian prehistory, or that he particularly cared to learn.  Here we are not dealing with an archaeological understanding of the past, but an artistic one.  During his time in Dresden Dahl would have been in touch with antiquarian circles, but this was long before the academic discipline of archaeology was formed.  As such, scientific understandings of the ancient past were less separable from popular understandings informed by the visual arts, poetry and literature.  Dahl’s paintings must have struck a pre-existing chord with their audience (Caspar David Friedrich, a colleague of Dahl’s, was using similar devices in Germany at the time), but they also reinforced a particular understanding of prehistory, as one that was seamless with the natural landscape, and continuous with the present. In doing so, Dahl pulled the past and the present together, affecting both with a sense of the other, whilst simultaneously diminishing four uncomfortable centuries of external rule.

As explored in a recent article by Mari Lending, Johan Christian Dahl had some intriguing opinions on the preservation of ancient barrows, which is where we arrive some of the more familiar subjects of this blog: grave goods and jewellery.  While Dahl was beginning to explore ancient monuments with his palette and brush, his antiquarian contemporaries commenced theirs with spades and pick axes.  Dahl was resolutely against these excavations, declaiming museums of finds from these monuments as a force for destruction, and championing the barrows as “museums” in their own right, intact and set in their landscape context.  The removal of artefacts from these tombs to the Oldsaksamlingen (Collection of Anquities) in Christiana he saw as profoundly destructive.  Rather than the preservation of grave goods as purely material objects, Dahl focused on the preservation of the landscape, integral to the barrows, and integral to them their hidden and buried treasures.  Though unseen, artefacts like elaborate brooches were nevertheless inseparable from the landscape for Dahl.  Like a building indicates an inhabited landscape through the knowledge rather than the explicit depiction of its human inhabitants, a barrow could only really be a barrow if it contained its material assemblage.  With that removed, the barrow was a mere reconstruction or imitation.

Though Dahl’s opinions now seem antiquated and perhaps even a little naive, I think we’ve all felt a bit like this after visiting excavated sites.  For instance, similar feelings might be expressed upon viewing the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, where we know that the sunken barrows are at least partly reconstructed and have been pillaged variously by treasure hunters of centuries gone by as well as 20th-century archaeologists.  Their neatly mown grass and roped fences add further layers of alienation and artificiality to the modern visitor.  Obviously both excavation and conservation are fundamental to both our knowledge of the past and its material preservation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t self-contradictory as Dahl himself observed more than a century and a half ago, and it doesn’t mean that these inevitabilities are trivial in how we create knowledge about the past. The choice is paradoxical, but would we rather envisage a Migration Period as a continuous, tangible presence in the world we inhabit, or as a roped-off reconstruction?


Lending, M. 2009. ‘Landscape versus museum: J. C. Dahl and the preservation of Norwegian burial mounds’, Future Anterior 6(1), xi-17 [available online from, accessed July 2015].

Lødrup Bang, M. 1987. Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1857: Life and Works. Vols 1-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Mortimer’s Red Pen and the End of Antiquarianism

A few years ago I picked up a little booklet in Hull Museum called A Victorian Boyhood in the Wolds. It seemed a suitable purchase because I was at the museum to examine some of the Anglo-Saxon artefacts the author, one John Robert Mortimer, had excavated from the barrows of Driffield in the 19th century.  Holding these doubly ancient objects had compelled me to find out more about this man, who seems to loom out of his portrait (below) with about as much eery inscrutability as the barrows he opened.

A Victorian Boyhood in the Wolds is a wonderfully rambling account of Mortimer’s upbringing in rural East Yorkshire.  His boyhood contained such episodes as pitched battles between villagers over scarce water in times of draught, as well as scavenging for dung to be used as fuel.  Slightly worryingly, little John Mortimer seems to have spent an inordinate amount of his childhood terrorising the local wildlife.  He recollects with some relish an episode in which he literally caught a rabbit with his teeth.  When he wasn’t capturing songbirds with a stick coated in birdlime, he was blasting them out of trees with an antique six-foot flint and steel rifle.  The animal inhabitants of the Wolds must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when in 1851 Mortimer was inspired by a visit to the Great Exhibition to take up archaeology as a somewhat less maniacal  hobby.

John Robert Mortimer

John Robert Mortimer: a blight on mother nature, but a boon for British archaeology (image from here)

Mortimer spent the rest of life excavating the tumuli of the Wolds.  He published this work in 1904 in a massive volume called Forty Years’ Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire.  Thanks to the immaculate records Mortimer kept of his excavations, this book was way ahead of its time.  Surprisingly however, Mortimer’s idiosyncratic and erratic autobiography was originally intended to be included in this volume of pioneering scientific archaeology.  That these two things should ever have been put together in such a dramatic juxtaposition seems unconceivable to the modern archaeologist.

The editorial action that removed this bizarre autobiographical preamble fascinates me because it seems to capture an awkward moment between antiquarianism and modern archaeology.  In one sweep of the red pen Mortimer edited out the final remnants of his own antiquarianism, which had maybe been as much about the triumphs of the collector as it had been about deductive study.

It seems fitting that Mortimer should have been the one to make this final cut, given his characterisation as a northern outsider looking in on the privileged group of formally educated and wealthy gentleman scholars (see here).  His initial proposal of including extracts from his childhood may have been Mortimer’s way of staking his claim to the heritage he excavated.  It showed just how tightly he was bound to the soil of the Wolds.  However, in the end, he excised these last remnants of the old school.  Mortimer spent his childhood picking up dung, as well as flints, from the fields of the Wolds, and I’d like to believe that perhaps he had little truck with the antiquarian cult of personality.

Thomas Browne’s Pursuit of Knowledge

Recently, I’ve been reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a novel that traces the meandering recollections of the narrator through history and autobiography, mixing fact and fiction, and set against the backdrop of the flats of East Anglia.  If that sounds confusing, then I’ve described it aptly.  It stands quite apart from any genre I’ve read before and I’d recommend it very highly to anyone who wishes their own internal monologue could be as profound as the narrator of The Rings of Saturn.

The book begins with a discussion of Thomas Browne, a 17th-century polymath whose writings included subjects as diverse as medical anatomy, linguistics, archaeology, and much more besides.  Specifically, Sebald dwells on Hydriotaphia, Browne’s 1658 account of the excavation of Roman urn burials near Walsingham in Norfolk.  We now know that Browne was, in fact, mistaken: the urns were Anglo-Saxon (the Heritage Environment Record is here).  Hydriotaphia is, therefore, the very first account of an early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery excavation.  The description of the excavated material leads into a meditation on mortality, expressing an acute disappointment in the fleeting physicality of the body.  Ironically, Thomas Browne himself was to become an artefact, when his bones were accidentally disinterred in 1840 and later became part of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum’s anatomy collection until 1921, when they were once again returned to the soil.

Thomas Browne’s skull, now re-interred, pinched from here (the image that is, not the skull)

The part of Sebald’s account that really interested me was his description of Browne’s musing that “all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world”.  I thought this was a rather fitting quotation from a man who might be considered among the first archaeologists, who was called by the same desire as we all are to spend our energies uncovering and scrutinising those pinpoints of light, reconstructing what we can about the darkness that surrounds them.  It’s a particularly fitting metaphor for the study of early medieval jewellery.  My attraction to these items has always stemmed from the way they stand out as relatively untouched by the ravages of time, unlike the bones of those people that wore them, and most of the other objects with which they were buried.  Despite the patina that transforms gleaming, warm bronze to an attractive, emerald green, I often see these brooches, pins, clasps and other accountrements as virtually pristine items to which we can still directly relate, and from which we can shed a little light on darker ages.