Archeaologist Uncovers Rare Prize

For nearly 30 years, Wisconsin archaeologist T. Douglas Price has tramped the damp fields and coastal meadows of Denmark looking to put flesh on the bones of prehistory.

In the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age, an epoch that spanned a period of about 6,000 years beginning in 10,000 B.C., Denmark, it turns out, was a happenin’ place.

“It was a superb place for people to live,” says Price, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of anthropology. “Everything we find indicates it was a very rich environment. It was a very, very good place to be.”

With a climate moderated by the ocean and abundant natural resources — seals, fish, deer, wild pig, fowl, nuts — the hunting and gathering life in prehistoric Denmark was about as good as it got in an age when the height of technology was a stone axe.

Modern Denmark also boasts a high quality of life, but it is an especially good place to be if you are an archaeologist. Neolithic graves dot the countryside. And, importantly, the moist soil of the Scandinavian country lends itself to the preservation of organic material – the remains of food, clothing and other mundane necessities that help archaeologists piece together a picture everyday life in the Stone Age.

For Price, Denmark has been a particularly rewarding environment, as his work over many years has earned the Wisconsin researcher the unique distinction of being the first non-Dane to be awarded the Westerby Prize, Denmark’s pre-eminent award for archaeology. The $17,000 (100,000 Danish kroners) prize is awarded annually for “distinguished contributions to Danish archaeology.”

“The prize means a lot since I’m a foreigner there and they’ve never given it to an outsider before,” says Price. “When you come in from the outside, Denmark is a phenomenal place to do archaeology. You can see archaeology every day there. There are Neolithic tombs all over the landscape.”

Price began work in Denmark shortly after graduate school, and for a decade he, along with his Danish archaeologist wife, Anne Birgitte Gebauer, worked primarily on Zealand, one of the many islands that make up the country of Denmark.

“We were walking fields, finding sites and digging for 10 years,” Price explains. “Almost all of our work was done in coastal regions, although we finally excavated an inland site a few years ago.”

All of this, says Price, provided an excellent setting to ferret out the signals in the archaeological record that depict the human transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer, one of archaeology’s great quests.

“Over time, my interest turned to why these hunters became farmers,” says Price. “It was in the late Mesolithic, just before the Neolithic, when farming emerged. Agriculture came to Denmark about 4,000 B.C.”

One of the intriguing questions about this transition, of course, is why?

“There is no indication the resources changed substantially. We’ve looked at a series of sites and we can see that there was no dramatic change in the availability of food. I think it was an economic-religious phenomenon.”

Farmers, according to Price, had been doing their thing in Germany, Denmark’s neighbor to the south, as far back as 5,500 B.C., 1,500 years before agricultural practices arrived in Denmark. Why animal husbandry and the cultivation of wheat, barley, grapes and lentils took longer to reach Denmark, no one is sure. But the delayed timing provides archaeologists with a window to see how such a monumental cultural, technological and economic change infused Stone Age culture.

“That shift to agriculture, in the absence of climate change and the availability of natural resources, indicates people are changing their way of life. It was a new way of doing things.”

During a long career, Price’s work has added significantly to the store of knowledge about Denmark’s prehistory, work that continues as he sorts through the data accumulated from a place kind not only to its inhabitants, but to archaeology and archaeologists.