Scandinavia - Early Neolithic settlements

Tuesday, September 8, 2015




Plan of a passage grave at Damsbo, Denmark. A two-aisled house, 12 m long and 4.6 m wide, was the first structure on this spot (dotted red line). A burial chamber with a passage to the east was found in the middle of this feature, surrounded by a spiral of smaller boulders where deposits of broken pottery vessels were found. A curb of smaller stones surrounded these features, and an outer row of larger granite boulders enclosed the whole.


The ENII house at Rastorf with burial, fireplaces, and plow marks.

Early Neolithic settlements were poorly known in Scandinavia until the last 30 years or so, when large, open excavations became a common strategy in rescue archaeology projects. Small excavation units could not expose a sufficient area to make such structures and the related posts and pits visible and coherent. In addition, such houses must have been largely on the surface of the ground without much depth, so that repeated plowing for millennia erased many of the traces of these structures.

The earliest Neolithic settlements in southern Scandinavia are found in two zones, either coastal in the upper levels of late Mesolithic settlements or inland in new locations. The majority of settlements were inland, at some distance from coastal areas, placed at lakes or streams where fresh water was easily obtainable and conditions for grazing animals were favorable. Most of the sites were small, containing individual farms (Larsson and Brink 2013). Inland settlements are sometimes found beneath burial monuments that protected the locations from later plowing. The association of settlement and subsequent burial at the same spot may reflect attempts to legitimize claims to place through ancestry and inheritance.

Two examples document this practice, Damsbo in central Denmark and Rastorf in northern Germany. The house at Damsbo was found beneath a later passage grave and defined by the postholes that remained from the earlier structure. The postholes revealed a two-aisled house with four central posts. This large house, 12 m (40’) long and 4.6 m (15’) wide - the equivalent of a long, narrow classroom - was the first construction on this site, built sometime before the passage grave. Little was left of the house contents because of the later construction.

Excavations at Rastorf, Germany, revealed a similar structure with pits, a burial, and plow marks to the east in front of the house. It is unlikely that the plowed area and the house are contemporary, since the plow marks were also observed inside the house, but their location here may reflect the close proximity of the farmers to their fields. The house is a large rectangular structure with a central row of roof support posts, approximately 17 m (55’) x 7 m (23’) in size, almost 120 m2 (1300 ft2) in area. For comparison, that is the equivalent of two 18-wheel truck trailers side by side. The combination of cultivation and residence appears to be typical for an Early Neolithic single farmstead with associated fields (Steffens 2009). The normal arrangement for early TRB settlement during the fourth millennium BC appears to be single, isolated farmsteads.

The typical Early Neolithic house was either rectangular with oval corners or a more fully oval structure with a central row of roof support posts. This latter type of house has been designated as the Mossby two-aisled house, after the original place of discovery (Larsson 1992). The size of these elongated oval structures varies from 5 m (16’) to 17 m (56’) in length and 4.5 m (15’) to 7 m (23’) in width, ca. 35 (377 ft2).130 m2 (1,400 ft2) in area (Artursson et al. 2003, Eriksen 1992, Larsson and Brink 2013). The houses were usually oriented east-west. Cultural layers of midden and waste were found in front of the houses, outlining the former farmyard. The entrances to the houses were probably on one or both long sides. In most cases, no internal rooms were seen in the structures, although there are a few examples with an internal walled division. Often the house floor was sunken or semi-subterranean and contained an area likely used for the hearth and as a workplace and primary activity area (Larsson and Brink 2013).

Residential sites in the earliest Neolithic were small in size with a thin cultural layer compared to late Mesolithic settlements, suggesting that co-resident groups in the Neolithic were small (e. g., Andersen 1993). Madsen (1982) and Larsson (1992) argue that Early Neolithic settlements were regularly relocated within a short distance and rebuilt. This pattern has been observed repeatedly, for example, at the site of Dagstorp in Skane, where a number of houses and huts were uncovered (Andersson 2004). Detailed analysis of the ceramics indicated that only two houses were in use at any one time, and they were apparently rebuilt at a nearby location several times. The significance of this relocation is not clear, but may relate to patterns of land use and soil exhaustion caused by slash-and-burn agricultural practices.

Houses of the Mossby type were present during the entire Early Neolithic. Structures from the later Early Neolithic were somewhat larger than the older constructions (Larsson and Brink 2013). Slightly different house types appear at the end of the Early Neolithic and in the early part of the Middle Neolithic. The greater size might correspond to larger family groups or more than one family living at the same farm. Smaller houses or huts may be linked to farmsteads. However, no obvious clustering of farms into small villages is observed (Müller 2011).

The Neolithic settlement area expands over much of southern Scandinavia in ENII. Regional forest clearance is seen in pollen diagrams. Domesticates were more common. However, cereal growing continues to be limited; specialized hunting and fishing sites are still in use. Exchange of local and exotic materials appears to have intensified. An enormous amount of energy was invested in ancestor cults and other rituals, reflected in the construction of thousands of megalithic monuments and tens or hundreds of causewayed enclosures within a very short period. Elaborate offerings, including human sacrifices (Bennike and Ebbesen 1987), were placed in bogs and lakes. Within this context of larger population and large-scale construction between 3600 and 3200 BC-toward the end of ENI and into MN-the Early Neolithic settlement pattern in southern Scandinavia can be described as two levels with regional centers at the causewayed enclosures, surrounded by small settlements, each with a cluster of megalithic tombs and bog deposits. These types of sites are described in more detail later in this chapter.

The final stage of the TRB, MNA, 3300-2800 BC, is characterized by population growth and aggregation. One estimate of site size from eastern Jylland suggests that the early settlements covered ca. 500 (5,400 ft2)-700 m2 (7,500 ft2), increasing to 4,000 m2 (43,000 ft2) in ENII and 20,000 (215,000 ft2)-30,000 m2 (323,000 ft2) in MNA (Madsen 1982). It is not until the beginning of the Middle Neolithic around 3300 BC-700 years after the first appearance of the TRB-that substantial agricultural activity is seen. Vast areas of forest were cleared, and there is abundant evidence for cattle herding and the use of pasture as well as cereal cultivation, predominantly of wheat. Settlements increased dramatically in size and number, and more substantial houses were constructed.

Territorial divisions appeared to have been fixed; each territory may have been marked by a cluster of megalithic tombs. A group of hamlets appear to have shared a common regional ceremonial center at the causewayed enclosures (Madsen 1982, Madsen and Jensen 1982). Trade and exchange of flint axes, copper, and amber items intensified at this time. After 3300 BC, there is an influx of amber from western to eastern Denmark, suggesting an intensification of inter-regional trade relations (Ebbesen 1995). The heavier reliance on food production was apparently associated with more people more ritual activities and a need for prestige status symbols (amber/copper jewelry) to signify leaders and authority (Kristiansen 1987, Skaarup 1985).

Several Neolithic settlements are described in the following pages in order to convey some sense of the scale, contents, and organization of these small farms. The focus is on early TRB settlements. The discussion includes early inland sites such as Mossby in southern Sweden and Lisbjerg Skole from eastern Jylland in Denmark, early coastal sites such as Bjornsholm in northern Denmark, Almhov and Skjutbanorna in southwesternmost Sweden, Skogsmossen in eastern Sweden, and Kotedalen in southern Norway.

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