His Royal Highness the Archeolgist

I went to the library the other day to dig up one of my favourite books: "Kungen som grävde" (= the king who dug) with photos by Jan Mark. It´s a reportage from one of King Gustav VI Adolf´s archeolgical work trips to Italy, where he excavated some Etruscan ruins.

Gustav Adolf first took part in a dig in 1898, when he was 15 years old. A grave field from the Iron Age was being dug out near one of the summer homes of the royal family, Tullgarn, and he got himself involved. A few years later, his mother´s close friend and doctor, Axel Munthe, arranged a dig for him at Capri, where he had a villa. Munthe was also very interested in antiquity (it was a bit of a gentleman´s sport in the 19th Century, wasn´t it?); we visited the villa a few years ago, and it was full of debris from ancient cities.

When Gustav studied in Uppsala, he participated in the first course the university arranged in Swedish archeology. He then initiated the excavation of the Håga mound from the Bronze Age, and a few years later a professor of archology stated that the crown prince was without a doubt the best all-round archeologist in Sweden. I can believe it - because I like him, but it´s hard to find anyone from that time saying anything the least critical about any member of the royal family. I wonder how much of the praise is real and how much is just standard servility. He did get 17 honorary doctorates during his lifetimes, among them one from Oxford, both for his work in archeology and his patronage of art, something he was introduced to by his uncle Eugen, who was - and still is considered - a respected artist, besides being a prince.

Queen Margrethe of Denmark, at 16.
The Bernadotte family was offered the Swedish crown in 1818, after the last of the Vasa-kings had been dethroned. Jean Bernadotte was one of Napoleon´s generals and had quite a career for a lawyer´s son. His wife and queen was the daughter of a silk merchant. Rich, but not royal. Their descendants have been an interesting mix of artists, intellectuals, and incapables. Of course, being royal, with all it used to mean in terms of duty and class, it can´t have been easy for those inclined to do something really useful.

Gustav Adolf´s parents were King Gustav V, who is mostly known today for being a homosexual tennisplayer with a keen interest in embroidery, and Queen Viktoria, a Preussian princess who spent much of her time in Italy, both because of a cold marriage (I understand she had a very close relationship with her doctor) and severe asthma. He was set up with a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria, but fell in love with her sister instead, and married Margaret of Connaught in 1905 at Windsor Castle. They had five children and then she died, very young, after an unfortunate series of minor colds, chicken pox, and ear infections. Gustav remarried, a great-grandchild of Queen Victoria this time, Louise of Mountbatten. They had no children together.

Queen Louise on the right.
Gustav VI engaged some of his family for the cause of archeology. Queen Louse often came to visit at the excavation sites, and she did her part of washing old potsherds. Several of his grandchildren, among them Margrethe (the present Queen of Denmark), spent summers there.  Margrehte is also a very accomplished artist and illustrator.

Gustav was also a good photographer, as was his mother, Queen Viktoria. I´m queueing at the library for a book from last year, about Viktoria´s photographs from Egypt, and will blog about that later. 

Ok, maybe not always so elegant...
The reason I like this king the best is, I suppose, that I always thought he seemed so kind. I liked Prince Bertil, his son, as well. They both remind me of my grandfather and of actors like James Stewart and Alec Guinness. I also have a weakness for archeology, and 50´s fashion. He was so elegant, don´t you think? I want to dress like that!

The photographer Jan Mark, by the way, seems to still be active. His father-in-law was the king´s marshal of the court, and his wife took part in the digs. This is how come Mark and his camera became involved, at this and other royal projects. He has also shot a photo book about Capri and the villa San Michele, where Queen Viktoria spent so much of her time.


  1. interesting to read about this connection with archeology. things have changed a lot, but i think it's a shame that informed and self-educated amateurs don't have the same chance to participate that they once did.

    of course, money always used to grant participation, and i assume being royal didn't hurt ;)

    1. Also, these days there are more trained archeologists out there than there are jobs for them. I think the field has moved forward a lot scientifically and technologically as well. On the other hand, without these gentlemen antiquarians, perhaps there wouldn´t be any archeology as we know it today...

      However, if you want to try digging, there is Gotlands arkeologiska fältskola, which is a kind of summer camp open for anyone. Very popular, I understand! http://www.gafs.me/index.html

    2. "a field school open to all." that looks like great fun! i'm sure the pros worry about the damage amateurs can do to a site. no telling what information was lost in the early days when the amateurs were doing the digging before professional standards were developed. i still like movies where the gentlemen archaeologists are digging for egyptian tombs, tho. ;)

    3. At archeological summer camp I think you can get it out of your system while being supervised by pros. Indiana Jones-play in a controlled environment! There will be no mummies in a Swedish Iron Age gravefield, though! LOL