Quaternary collections - Stratigraphy and sediments


Kurt H. Kjær

Collection manager

Kristian Gregersen

About the collection

The Quaternary stratigraphical collections comprise very rich collections of subfossil mollusc shells from our Quaternary sediments. The collections were created as a tool in stratigraphy and were quintessential for our growing knowledge about the succession of ice ages and interglacials, and the changing environments after the last ice age.

The main parts derive from Denmark and Greenland, but also comprise more specialised collections from other countries, particularly in the Arctic. Especially, there is a very large collection of marine macrofauna from northern Russia and Siberia – probably the largest outside Russia. We also have smaller collections from Sweden, Iceland and Svalbard.
The much smaller collection of Quaternary sediments, such as varved clay, loess and diatomite, has been collected mainly for use in teaching and exhibition.

The Quaternary collections are associated with the Centre for GeoGenetics.


  • Rich and unsurpassed collections of marine macrofauna from the last interglacial (Eemian) in Boreal to Arctic areas of Denmark, Greenland, Russia and Svalbard
  • Rare marine macrofauna from Early Quaternary times in Greenland, Russia and Svalbard

Important subcollections

  • Peat collected and analysed for plant remains by Japetus Steenstrup (1813-1897) in bogs outside Copenhagen in the 1830’es. The first contributions to an understanding of environmental and climate change after the ice age. The large collection is dried up, but accompanied by the collector’s personal notes, which earned the then young student (later professor) an university medal.
  • The Patorfik site on the Nuussuaq peninsula in West Greenland has yielded a unique marine fauna from early in the Quaternary, a period which is little known in the Arctic. It was first sampled by Hinrich Rinch in the 1840’es, who was also the first to give a scientific description of the “Inland Ice”. Later, this collection greatly expanded through Leifur Símonarson’s work in the 1970’es.
  • The Tjörnes peninsula, northern Iceland, is a classical locality for studying the transition from the Tertiary into the Quaternary. It was visited and sampled by professor Johnstrup in the 1870’es, (when Iceland was still a part of the Danish Kingdom). Later the collection was augmented by specimens bought from Hand Schlesch’s 1920 collections.
  • Very rich and diverse early Holocene faunas from the Swedish west coast collected in the late 1800’es and early 1900’es by Victor Madsen and Valdemar Nordmann of the Geological Survey. This large material is rich in tiny and rarely seen gastropods unfortunately never reached publication. The sites no longer exist.
  • Plant remains in travertine from Zealand. This large and somewhat special “hobby” collection was made by the librarian Carl Elberling in the 1860’es. It records the transition from tundra to forest, a supplement to Japetus Steenstrup’s earlier peat investigations.


The Quaternary stratigraphical collections emerged, as mentioned above, as a tool for the stratigraphical division of the Quaternary epoch with its changing ice ages and interglacials and accompanying climate oscillations. This research goes back to the mid-1800s, when it had finally been established that the ”glacial theory” was not a mere hypothesis; the ice ages were real. In Denmark the research was based in the Geological Museum, which at that time also comprised the Geological Surveys of Denmark and Greenland (now GEUS).

Since the surface geology of Denmark is almost entirely made up of Quaternary sediments, it was natural to concentrate on this epoch, and the country became leading in the field. This owes especially to the unique and close cooperation between geologists, botanists, and zoologists, both in the field and in the laboratory.

This went on until after the Second World War, when physico-chemical analyses and dating, as well as ”microstratigraphy” based on microscopic organisms gradually replaced the macro-remains as stratigraphical tools. Therefore a very large part of our Quaternary stratigraphical collections date from this era. Still, rather large collections have also been incorporated in modern times. This owes to the museum’s participation in expeditions and major international research projects in the Arctic.

The collections are organized in a Danish and a Greenlandic collection, which are arranged stratigraphically according to interglacials and periods of the Holocene. The Danish collections nearly doubled in 2010 when our museum took over the collections from GEUS (The Geological Surveys of Denmark and Greenland). These collections are also arranged both stratigraphically and geographically, because they were routinely collected to serve in the geological mapping.