After the glaciers retreated from northern Europe at the end of the Ice Age, forests were soon established across northern Germany and Poland, southern Sweden and Norway, and all of Denmark. These forests were inhabited by hunter-gatherers who exploited the abundant game animals and the rich plant life found in these woodlands and the aquatic life in adjacent rivers, lakes, and seas. The postglacial foraging societies of northern Europe are often considered to be the classic manifestation of the Meso-lithic way of life. Whether they were coastal communities accumulating immense shell middens or interior bands repeatedly visiting seasonal hunting camps, the Mesolithic groups of northern Europe left behind one of the richest archaeological records of hunter-gatherer societies anywhere in the world. Waterlogged sites in bogs and estuaries have yielded remarkable collections ofwood, bone, and antler artifacts in addition to stone tools and early attempts at pottery. Seeds and animal bones are abundant, and new isotopic techniques have allowed archaeologists to study the diet of these foragers in great detail. Burials have provided information about social practices as well as evidence of an increasingly sedentary way of life.


In order to understand the Mesolithic of northern Europe, it is important to know the history of the Baltic Sea, and, in turn, it is necessary to know about two major geomorphological processes: eu-stasy and isostasy. Eustasy is the change in coastlines caused by rising sea levels that drown low-lying coastal areas, while the upward rebound of land previously burdened by millions of tons of ice is termed isostasy. The combined result of eustasy and isostasy is that many sites that were once on dry land are now under water, as indicated by the finds of artifacts on the floors of coastal bays, while sites elsewhere that were once located on the coast are now far inland or at a higher altitude.

The basin of the Baltic Sea first filled with fresh water from the remnants of the glacial ice to form the Baltic Ice Lake. Eventually (by about 12,200 years ago), so much water had accumulated that it had broken through to the North Sea across central Sweden. The resultant brackish gulf is known as the Yoldia Sea. About 10,800 years ago, the isostatic rebound of central Sweden blocked off the ocean access, leaving a body of fresh water known as the An-cylus Lake. It was dammed at its southern end until some time just after 7000 b.c. The further tilting of the Baltic basin caused by continued isostatic rebound in the north and the total global melting of land ice then caused salt water to flow in through the 0resund, the strait between Denmark and Sweden, to form the Littorina Sea, the precursor of the modern Baltic. Continued eustasy and isostasy has resulted in significant changes in shorelines throughout the Baltic basin during the last several millennia.

Until the 1980s, the archaeological record of the Baltic basin was known almost exclusively from sites on dry land or in bogs, but submerged coastal sites have received greater attention in the years since. Near Kalundborg, along the west coast of the Danish island of Zealand, a swimmer can stand on the remnants of Mesolithic fish-trapping apparatus, for example. The recognition of isostasy as an important process has resulted in the discovery of sites much farther inland and at significantly higher altitudes than they had previously been expected, providing new information about Mesolithic settlement distributions.


Archaeologists have applied the traditional approach to defining "cultures" to the Mesolithic of northern Europe, based largely on changes in stone tool assemblages and the eventual appearance of distinctive artifacts such as pottery. This practice is most developed in northern continental Europe and southern Scandinavia, whereas elsewhere in Scandinavia, the Mesolithic is commonly just divided into periods such as "Early," "Middle," and "Late."

The Maglemose-Kongemose-Ertebolle sequence from Denmark and southern Sweden is perhaps the best known Mesolithic sequence in Europe (see table). The Maglemosian culture (not named for any particular site, just derived from the Danish for "big bog"), was the first major Mesolithic culture of southern Scandinavia, characterized by stone axes, microlithic tools, stone picks, and bone and antler barbed points. It was succeeded in Denmark and southern Sweden by the Kongemose culture (after the lake settlement of Kongemosen in Zealand), which continues Maglemosian traditions with stone axes and antler tools but also adds large blades to the stone-tool inventory. During the Atlantic period, Kongemose in turn is succeeded in Denmark and the western Baltic by the Ertebolle culture, about which much will be said below. In northern Germany, Ertebolle remains are known locally as the Ellerbek culture.

In northern Poland and Germany, the Meso-lithic cultural sequence is less sharply defined. The Komornica culture of northern Poland is roughly contemporaneous with the Maglemosian and shares broad similarities with it, and it is succeeded by the Chojnice-Pienki culture. In northern Germany, a variety of local Mesolithic groups tracked the developments in southern Scandinavia.


The foraging societies of northern Europe at the beginning of the Holocene are known primarily from sites along the shores of lakes and bogs. At Friesack, about 150 kilometers northwest of Berlin, hunter-gatherers repeatedly visited the side of a lake between 8700 and 7800 b.c. They left few traces of their presence, but careful excavation has revealed over thirty visits separated by intervals ranging from a decade to a century. Waterlogged refuse layers at Friesack have preserved a remarkable array of finds. The Preboreal and early Boreal inhabitants of Frie-sack hunted red deer, roe deer, aurochs, beaver, rabbits, small carnivores, and birds; they also caught pike, catfish, and turtles. Many wooden artifacts, including arrows and a bow, along with nets and baskets, were found. Earlier occupations occurred primarily in the spring, while the later ones took place in the fall. This pattern of repeated seasonal visits to the shores of lakes and bogs was repeated countless times across northern Europe during the early Ho-locene.

Mesolithic chronology for southern Scandinavia.

Mesolithic chronology for southern Scandinavia.

The breakthrough around 7000 b.c. that connected the Littorina Sea to the North Sea inundated many coastal lowlands and the Mesolithic sites at the mouths of rivers and bays. Since the early 1980s, it has been possible to explore a number of submerged Mesolithic settlements, including several from the Preboreal period. The bottoms of the 0resund strait between Denmark and Sweden and of the Store Bxlt strait between the Danish islands of Zealand and Fyn are now accessible to archaeologists wearing scuba apparatus. They have found several early Mesolithic sites on the Swedish side of the 0resund between 6 and 20 meters below the surface. At Pilhaken 4, trenches were dug with water nozzles and suction, resulting in the recovery of flint tools and bones from roe deer, red deer, and aurochs. Other sites were found during the construction of the bridge and tunnel between Denmark and Sweden during the 1990s. The new submerged finds indicate that early Mesolithic coastal settlement was probably as intensive as it was later in the Mesolithic.

While the coasts of southern Scandinavia were being inundated by early Holocene eustasy, central Sweden was experiencing dramatic coastline changes due to isostatic rebound. These changes had the most significant impact in the vicinity of the modern city of Stockholm. The rebound began as soon as the area was free of ice and is still continuing today. Soon after the ice retreated, the higher points of land began to poke through the surface of the Yoldia Sea as rocky islands. Since the ice front was not far to the north, icebergs must have floated among them. By about 8000 b.c., a thin belt of islands extended to the east of the Swedish mainland for about 130 kilometers through this cold, watery world. Around this time, the first humans reached these islands either by boat or by walking across winter ice.

Until the latter part of the twentieth century, the Mesolithic sites of the Stockholm Archipelago were almost completely unknown. Several factors account for this. First, the continual upward movement of the land meant that these sites were far from the sea and on very high terrain. Archaeologists expected to find Mesolithic sites near the coast and in lowlands. The sites had indeed been on the coast, but what was the coast in 8000 b.c. is now 75 meters high and well inland. Second, most tools left by the inhabitants of these sites were made primarily from local white quartz, not flint. Quartz does not fracture like flint to make artifacts that look like the blades and flakes found farther south. Since quartz pieces lie everywhere across the landscape, tools made from quartz blend in with the nondescript pebbles and gravel strewn across the surface.

Once archaeologists learned where and how to find early Mesolithic sites in eastern Sweden, many were found, primarily in forested areas between 70 and 85 meters above modern sea level. The Soder-torn Peninsula south of Stockholm was just a small cluster of rocky islets at the outer edge of the archipelago in 8000 b.c., and several hundred Mesolithic sites have been found there since the early 1980s. Also around 8000 b.c., pioneering foragers began to settle the islands of the Stockholm Archipelago, locating their shoreline camps on sheltered bays and along narrow straits between islands. Seal hunting probably drew Mesolithic pioneers to the outer archipelago, while sites on the larger islands closer to the mainland contain a greater variety of hunted animals. Agneta Akerlund has argued that the inhabitants of the outer islands of the Stockholm archipelago persisted in a distinctive lifestyle that focused on fishing and sealing for several millennia.

Farther out in the Baltic, hunters arrived at Stora Forvar cave on the island of Stora Karlso, off the coast of Gotland, around 7200 b.c., having crossed Ancylus Lake by boat. The coast of Gotland, as in the Stockholm Archipelago, was the location of gray-seal rookeries. Ashy Mesolithic layers at Stora Forvar contained the remains of more than a thousand seals. Sea birds and fish were also caught. Human bones in the Stora Forvar deposits indicate the presence of children and adolescents along with male and female adults, so it appears that the site had been inhabited by entire families who came to stay for an extended period rather than by seasonal seal-hunting parties.


After about 6500 b.c., the Mesolithic cultures of northern Europe became increasingly complex and varied. People became increasingly tied to smaller territories and specific locations. Some Kongemose and Ertebolle sites, such as Tagerup in southern Sweden, have habitation traces that suggest year-round occupation, while elsewhere, seasonal movements became constrained. The use of bulky items like large flint axes and pottery, fixed features such as fish weirs and traps, and the burial of the dead in cemeteries are important evidence for such seden-tism. Yet the increased evidence for the use of dugout canoes indicates that people living in permanent or semipermanent locations were also able to exploit much larger territories along the coasts and among the islands of the Littorina Sea and the North Sea and to move inland along rivers. Meso-lithic settlement was also pushed farther north into Sweden and Norway.

The most famous Late Mesolithic sites of northern Europe are the Ertebolle shell middens. These are large deposits of seashells created by millions of individual actions of opening oysters, limpets, and scallops, extracting the meat, and tossing away the shell. The result is a dense, stratified concentration of shell that also includes flint tools and animal bones, yielding important information about diet and tool use. Such "kitchen middens" (in Danish, kokkenmoddinger) have long formed the core of our knowledge about the Late Mesolithic of northern Europe and dominate the general archaeological literature.

As important as the coastal shell midden sites are, it is important to recognize that they provide only a partial glimpse of life in the Late Mesolithic. It seems unreasonable to expect that people actually lived on these mounds of discarded shells, so it is necessary to look away from these coastal middens to find more substantial places of habitation. Other important sites consist of the places where non-shell rubbish was discarded, especially the "discard zones" adjacent to shoreline settlements. A major development in the last decades of the twentieth century was the discovery of several Ertebolle cemeteries in Denmark and southern Sweden, as well as substantial facilities for catching fish on a large scale with traps and weirs. Finally, it is clear that Late Mesolithic people throughout this region did not abandon the interior lakes and bogs around which their activities had revolved during the preceding millennia, and archaeologists have begun to recognize the relationship between the interior and the coastal sites.

Late Mesolithic Interior Settlements. Ring-kloster in eastern Jutland (Denmark) is a Late Mesolithic interior site located on the shore of Lake Skanderborg, about 20 kilometers inland from the coast. It consists of a shoreline habitation area and the "dump zone" in the adjacent lake. Ringkloster was occupied intermittently between about 5400 and 3550 b.c. Animal bones reflect both the hunting of terrestrial animals, especially wild boar, and the trapping of small fur-bearing mammals such as pine marten and otter. Seasonal indicators from the animal bones suggest a cold-weather occupation between the autumn and early spring. Bones of dolphin and marine fish point toward contact with the coast. Ringkloster may have been occupied either by Ertebolle foragers, who spent the rest of the year at the coast, or by members of an interior settlement system that was in contact with, but distinct from, the coastal dwellers.

Small islands in interior lakes of southern Scandinavia were favorite late Kongemose and Ertebolle settlement locations. Agerod V, in the Agerod bog in southern Sweden, was located on a small island in an immense marshy lake, about 400 meters from the nearest dry land. Fish traps in the surrounding lake provided a supply of perch, bream, and tench. The inhabitants of Agerod V also went to the mainland to hunt red deer, roe deer, moose, and wild pig, although two of the hunters forgot their bows on the island.

A short distance inland from the modern Baltic coast in northern Poland, the site of D^bki provides another example of a Late Mesolithic interior site. During several occupations between 5400 and 4600 b.c., the inhabitants of this site hunted beavers, deer, and ducks and caught several species of freshwater fish, especially pike and perch. Two seal bones are the only evidence of contact with the coast, however. The settlement layers at Dabki contained pointed-base pottery much like that of the Ertebolle sites of southern Scandinavia, suggesting that the distribution of this ware was more widespread along the south Baltic littoral than previously thought.

Late Mesolithic Coastal Settlement. The famous Late Mesolithic settlements and shell middens of the Ertebolle culture of Denmark and southern Sweden were occupied between about 5800 and 3800 b.c. It is important to understand that coastal Ertebolle sites show considerable variability, and they must also be considered together with the interior Ertebolle settlements like Ringkloster for a full picture of Late Mesolithic life in southern Scandinavia.

The name "Ertebolle" comes from a large shell midden at the northern end of Jutland excavated in the mid-nineteenth century by a special commission set up to determine whether the shell mounds were natural or manmade. Since then many other Ertebolle sites have been excavated in eastern Jutland, the Danish islands, and southern Sweden, and related sites of the Ellerbek culture are found in northern Germany and Poland. The classic shell middens are generally found only in the western part of the Ertebolle area, where the high salt content of North Sea water produced large shellfish. Middens are either small or absent in eastern Denmark and southern Sweden because the lower salt content of the Baltic hampered mollusk growth.

Ertebolle itself, located on the Limfjord in northern Jutland, is a long, narrow midden about 140 meters long, 20 meters wide, and 2 meters thick, while the nearby site of Bjornsholm is about 325 meters long and between 10 and 50 meters wide. Such an elongated shape running parallel to the shoreline is typical of Ertebolle shell middens, which are composed primarily of oyster shells, with some scallops, mussels, and periwinkles. Mixed among the shells are mammal, bird, and fish bones, flint tools, and hearths containing ash and charcoal. Careful excavation has revealed that these middens are not continuous accumulations but rather were the product of many short occupations that produced piles of shell and refuse between 2 and 7 meters long and between 30 and 50 centimeters thick. Over several centuries, such repeated smaller accumulations built up to form the large middens. Near Ertebolle and Bjornsholm, several smaller sites on headlands and small islands were special locations for seasonal activities. The general absence of evidence for structures suggests that the surfaces of the Ertebolle middens were primarily the location of food preparation and consumption. Other habitation areas are presumably nearby, perhaps behind the midden on the landward side, but the archaeological focus on the middens themselves has hampered their discovery. The middens may appear to be more important than they actually were in the Ertebolle settlement system, since even a small group eating shellfish can produce an enormous pile of discarded shells in a short time.

On the Danish island of Zealand and along the southern coast of Sweden, many inlets and fjords have yielded extensive traces of Ertebolle settlement without shell middens. In southern Zealand, ninety-seven Ertebolle sites have been found around Karrebxk-Dybso Fjord, leading to the estimate that this estuarine ecosystem and its hinterland supported about two hundred and fifty people. Similar concentrations of population around fjords and estuaries are coming to light on both sides of the Oresund. Tagerup, for example, lies at the head of a narrow fjord on the Swedish side of the Oresund. Two large circular huts about 7.5 meters in diameter and a longhouse about 15 meters long indicate a substantial permanent Ertebolle settlement, much larger than the previous Kongemose occupation on the site.

A distinctive feature of Ertebolle settlements in Denmark and southern Sweden is the occurrence of pottery (fig. 1). It is unclear whether it was an indigenous development or was adopted from pottery-using farming communities to the south, although at the moment, it seems more likely to have been indigenous. Ertebolle pottery appears in two basic forms: thick-walled, pointed-base, sack-shaped vessels of various sizes and small oval bowls termed "lamps." Whether or not the latter actually served as oil lamps is unknown. Although the pointed bases on the pots made it impossible to rest them upright on a hard surface, they were ideally suited for being set on the ground along a sandy shoreline.

Another important development of the Ertebolle culture was the development of large-scale installations to capture fish using either traps or weirs. Mesolithic fish traps are usually conical wicker baskets with a narrow funnel-like opening in one end. Fish could swim in with the current but could not find their way out again. A trap left in the water long enough would fill with fish by itself. A fish weir is a low, thickly woven fence in a tidal zone. When the tide comes in, fish swim along with it over the fence, but when the water recedes, they are trapped on the beach behind it. The existence of such stationary features reveals that: (1) local populations were large enough to make such construction worthwhile; (2) people controlled the rights to the fish that they caught and were not compelled to share the catch with others who had not participated in the construction (which might have diminished their motivation to make the effort); and (3) there was some means of preserving or storing the fish that could not be immediately consumed. Underwater investigations in Denmark, especially in conjunction with the building of the Store Bxlt Bridge from Zealand to Fyn, have revealed the extent of passive fish trapping. Multiple belts of traps have been found preserved underwater in bays of the Danish islands, and stakes of fish weirs have been found at a number of submerged sites, such as at Tybrind Vig.

The discovery of submerged sites has added a new dimension to the study of the Ertebolle culture since the early 1980s. Most of these areas are covered by about 5 meters of water, but divers have been able to find evidence for activities that, during the Mesolithic era, took place in the intertidal zone as well as artifacts that were lost, discarded, or abandoned immediately offshore. Tybrind Vig, for example, has yielded a remarkable array of wooden finds in addition to the usual artifacts from flint, bone, and pottery. Some of the most intriguing submerged Ertebolle/Ellerbek sites have been found recently on the northern coast of Germany on the floor of Wismar Bay, around the island of Poel. At Timmendorf-Nordmole, submerged refuse layers have yielded numerous well-preserved artifacts, including many wooden fish prongs called "leisters" (fig. 2), wooden stakes from fish weirs, and the remains of a dugout canoe. Most of the bones come from fish, especially eel and cod, as well as from sea mammals and birds. Radiocarbon dating of food residues on pottery indicate that the site was occupied between about 4400 and 4100 b.c., toward the end of the Ertebolle culture, just before the transition to agriculture in this region.

Classic Ertebolle pointed-base pot and a smaller vessel interpreted as an oil lamp.

Fig. 1. Classic Ertebolle pointed-base pot and a smaller vessel interpreted as an oil lamp.

ErtebMe Cemeteries. In 1975 earth moving for a new school in the town of Vedbxk, north of Copenhagen in Denmark, revealed an Ertebolle cemetery. The cemetery was near the shoreline of what had been an inlet of the sea six thousand years ago. Although some graves had been destroyed by the construction, archaeologists found eighteen burials containing at least twenty-two individuals of various ages. In many of the graves, red ochre (iron oxide) had been sprinkled over the corpses. The graves of older individuals often contained antlers of red deer. Many females had necklaces and belts of beads made from shell and animal teeth, while males were buried with flint tools.

Almost all of the Vedbxk burials were in an extended position, lying on their backs. One contained the skeletons of a young woman and a newborn infant. Beneath the mother’s head had been a cushion of some perishable material ornamented with snail shells and deer teeth. The baby’s body had been placed on a swan’s wing. More disturbing was the triple burial of a man, a woman, and a child. The man had a bone point in his neck, suggesting either a violent death or an arrow shot into the corpse.

When they were found, the Vedbxk burials caused quite a sensation because, aside from a few isolated single burials, no Ertebolle cemeteries were then known. In years since 1975, more Ertebolle cemeteries have been found, and now more than one hundred graves are known from this period. In the early 1980s, the Swedish archaeologist Lars Larsson of the University of Lund began excavations at sites at Skateholm in southern Sweden, along the shore of a prehistoric lagoon near the Baltic coast. Skateholm I and II are both cemeteries. Skateholm I yielded sixty-five burials, while twenty-two graves were found at Skateholm II. Several of the burials contained the skeletons of dogs, and some had grave goods as elaborate as those of people, including antlers and flint tools.

In 1990-1991 a submerged hunter-gatherer settlement site was found in southern Denmark at Mollegabet. During the excavation, the remains of a dugout canoe were found. The Mollegabet dugout was made from the trunk of a linden tree more than 60 centimeters in diameter. Some human bones were found around the boat, and after it had been taken to a laboratory, additional human bones were found in the soil inside. A return to the site revealed additional human bones that are believed to have washed out of the canoe.

The Mollegabet canoe contained the remains of a male about twenty-five years old. A skull fragment shows traces of a healed wound, probably inflicted by an axe. The body appears to have been covered in sheets of bark. In the boat, an arrowhead was found. As at Vedbxk, it could have caused the death of this individual or may have been shot into the corpse after the person had died by other means. Antlers found nearby also may have belonged to the burial. The Mollegabet canoe burial suggests that the Nordic tradition of boat burials may have deep prehistoric roots.

The Ertebolle burials from southern Scandinavia reflect a society with complex rituals associated with death. Individuals (even sometimes dogs!) had distinct social identities and were carefully treated after they died. Certain locations were formally associated with the dead, thus marking important places in the landscape.


Once northern Scandinavia was free from ice, the land was available for human settlement. This region has seen considerable isostatic uplift, such that in some parts of northern Sweden, coastal Mesolith-ic sites may now lie more than 100 kilometers from the coast. Coastal Norway had already been the scene of hunter-gatherer settlement since early in the Holocene, and valleys in the mountainous interior of Norway and Sweden were settled almost as soon as they were clear of ice.

Altrasket is a Mesolithic coastal site at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia that is 25 kilometers inland and 100 meters above the present sea level. Excavations revealed several depressions along an ancient beach-terrace that were the locations of pit-houses with hearths. Other features with stones have been interpreted as "boiling pits." Mammal bones include ringed seal and moose. As in the area near Stockholm, the northern part of the Baltic basin was an archipelago of rocky islets in the Lit-torina Sea. Altrasket was located on one such island.

At the far northern end of Norway, on the island of Soroya, the site of Slettnes has also yielded traces of Mesolithic house depressions. Among these depressions were five large rocks covered with carvings of forest animals such as moose. Slettnes is far above the Arctic Circle, indicating that Mesolith-ic people were capable of adapting to cold conditions if the rich resources of the sea and the coastal forests made it attractive to do so.


The Mesolithic societies of northern Europe provide an important example of how rich natural resources, particularly those of lakes, streams, and seacoasts, can sustain substantial populations. Although agriculture became available in nearby parts of central Europe when communities of the Linear Pottery culture arrived around 5500 b.c. in northern Poland and Germany, there was little incentive to abandon the foraging way of life. Yet when the transition to agriculture did occur in southern Scandinavia about 3900 b.c., it was surprisingly rapid over the entire area between the southern Baltic coast and the Dalarna River in central Sweden. In northern Sweden and Norway, however, an essentially Mesolithic way of life persisted for many more centuries.

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