The Late Mesolithic Stone Age settlement of Ty-brind Vig, which today is submerged, is located on the west coast of the Danish island Fyn (central Denmark) facing a sea called Lillebxlt. Originally, it was a coastal settlement, but because of a geological tilting of the southwestern part of Denmark that has taken place since the Mesolithic, the prehistoric coastlines of this part of the country today are submerged. The site therefore now lies on the seafloor, c. 250 meters from the present-day coast and 2-3 meters below modern sea level. Because of the gradual rise in sea level, the habitation area proper (on dry land) was heavily eroded, while the lower and more protected parts of the site, mainly the waste or dump areas in the adjacent marine deposits, were and still are well preserved. There, the prehistoric remains have always been situated in wet, oxygen-free, and calcareous sediments, the best preservation conditions for "soft" organic materials, such as wood, bark, fibers, and bast, so far seen at northern European settlement sites.
The area around Tybrind Vig is hilly and was formed during the end of the Late Glacial of Denmark, c. 16,000 b.c. During the Mesolithic the site was located on a protected bay with shallow waters and connected to the more open sea (Lillebxlt) by a narrow canal. The subsoil consists of a mixture of morainic clay and sand combined with gravel. The surrounding area was covered by primeval forest of lime, oak, and elm with thickets of hazel. Along the seashore there was a belt of seaweed.
The settlement was occupied during a gradual rise (transgression) in sea level, so the lower sediments are more coarse and sandy, while the top horizons consist of fine-grained mud (gyttja). During the transgression the surrounding coastal areas were eroded, and a large number of forest trees died and fell into the water and later became embedded in the marine sediments. Today these tree trunks allow for exact dating by dendrochronology and also give an indication of the duration of habitation. Carbon-14 dates inform us that the occupation period spanned some 1,500 years, from about 5500 to 4000 b.c., that is, the entire duration of the Ertebolle culture in southwestern Scandinavia.
Fig. 1. Ornamented paddle from Tybrind Vig.
The Tybrind site is the first and still the most extensive underwater excavation of a Stone Age settlement in Nordic waters. It was there that the great scientific potential of such sites became evident for the first time—mainly owing to the excellent preservation conditions for organic materials. This also was the site where Danish archaeologists learned how to excavate settlements on the seafloor and developed the necessary expertise and technical equipment for such investigations.
As mentioned, the habitation area proper eroded away during the transgression, and only the grave of a young girl and a newborn baby was still in place in this part of the settlement. All other finds of material culture and waste from the site were excavated in the adjacent marine deposits, where they had ended up during occupation. Besides the huge amount of waste, the area in front of the settlement also functioned as a "fishing ground," evidenced by the presence of hundreds of stakes from destroyed fish fences, fishhooks (of bone), nets, net floats, fish weirs, and leister prongs. This area probably was the access to richly stocked waters that were the main reason for selecting this particular spot for habitation.
The hundreds of animal bones—mainly from fish (small cod, flatfish, and dogfish); sea mammals, such as gray seals and porpoises (but also one killer whale); and red and roe deer and wild boar—give evidence of the economy of the site. In the forest fur-bearing animals, such as pine marten, otter, fox, and badger, were trapped. The only domesticated animal was the dog. Hazelnuts and acorns were collected and roasted at the site. The types of animal bones and chemical analysis of human bones, combined with the wide array of fishing equipment and the location of the settlement, supports a clear dominance of a marine diet.
The excavation has shed light on many aspects of material culture and art. All the ordinary artifacts of the Ertebolle culture, such as flint, other types of stone, bone, antler, and pottery—as known from sites on dry land—have been recovered. Because of the long duration of occupation, some changes in the inventory also were seen, most notably, the oldest ceramics in southern Scandinavia, dating to c. 4700 b.c.
A large array of wooden implements has been found at the site. Among them are axe handles of different sizes, lances, spears, bows and arrows, and a variety of paddles. There also were several dugout canoes, made of hollowed-out trunks of lime trees, one that measures 9.5 meters in length with a capacity of up to 700 kilograms. In addition, there are a variety of tool types that have never been encountered earlier from the northern European Late Mesolithic, and whose uses are obscure. The number and diversity of items of wooden equipment clearly show how essential this material was—it is estimated that only about 10 percent of the all the equipment consisted of flint.
The most extraordinary finds were textiles made of twisted strings of lime and willow knitted together in a technique called "needle netting"; these are the oldest European textiles found to date. There also are several ornamented paddles exemplifying a completely new type of Mesolithic craft working in "soft materials" (wood). The motifs are very different from those of earlier finds on ornamented bone, antler, and amber; these new designs consist of rounded curves, ovals, circles, and similar geometric shapes carved into the surface of the paddles and filled with a brown substance (possibly paint). For the first time we also have been able to analyze the remains of charred food crust from the inside of the pointed-bottom Ertebolle pots, telling us that they were used for cooking soup made of cod with a mixture of herbs of the grass family.
Excavation of this type of Mesolithic site opens up completely new avenues for Stone Age research in northern Europe. On dry land, agriculture or drainage has destroyed nearly all wetlands. On the seafloor we still can obtain a wide range of information, not only on material culture but also on subsistence and the environment, information that was lost long ago in now dried wetlands.