The Language of Objects: Christian Jürgensen Thomsen's Science of the Past

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The Danish amateur scholar Christian Jürgensen Thomsen has often been described as a founder of modern “scientific” archaeology. Thomsen's innovation, this essay argues, reflects developments within neighboring fields, such as philology and history. He reacted against historians who limited themselves to histories of texts and therefore abandoned the earliest human history. Instead, he proposed a new history of objects, which included the entire history of humankind. Thomsen's work as director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen was especially important for this renewal. The arrangement of artifacts not only helped him formulate his theories, but also allowed him to present his arguments in a language of objects. At the same time, Thomsen's definition of archaeology as a museum science placed his branch of archaeology in a closer relationship with other museum sciences, such as geology and comparative anatomy. From the 1840s, Thomsen's museum became a model for how the study of human artifacts could deliver scientific insights into human nature and the laws of human development.
Original languageEnglish
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)24-53
Number of pages30
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012

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