The environment and settlement of some of the regions of Mesolithic Europe

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The aim of this essay is to examine the environment and settlement of some of the regions of Mesolithic Europe that provided hunters and gatherers with many different avenues in which to exploit their means of survival in the areas in which they inhabited. The activities they undertook were carried out with great skill and mostly definitely organised with the upmost precision. They would have had an all round knowledge of the surrounding environment, the migratory patterns and movements of animals and other forms of wildlife and also the benefits that came with the changing of the seasons.

All these factors would have been used to organise the activities in a manner that would return the greatest amount of productivity, along with the ability to adapt and change the methods they practised when it was needed, whether it to be to deal with new sources or with shortfalls in other means of resources. The positioning of such settlements would have been placed at the right places in the landscape to take full advantage of the resources that these areas provided. The type of settlement used during the Mesolithic is wide-ranging, from possible year round occupation to sites that served a single purpose function.

Although the numbers are large and diverse, and cannot be covered in a totally comprehensive manner, by taking several sites, at least some insight into the function of these areas can be gained by looking at some of the examples that sprang up during the Mesolithic in Europe. With the preservation organic remains, a clearer picture can sometimes be gained into the reason why settlements were placed in the regions in which they were occupied. The excellent preservation from coastal and rivrine sites around Europe presents good evidence of this.

This can be seen from Mesolithic sites along the Northern and Baltic parts of Europe (Cunliffe 2001, 115). Tagerup in Sweden is one of the largest Mesolithic sites in the region represents a typical example of a hunting and gathering settlement, and sits on a hill where two rivers converge. An assembly of wooden stakes and holes were prominent on the site and are gathered to have made up a number of moorings and jetties for boats. Also along with this there was evidence of 13 fish baskets and a fish trap in the shape of a v.

The type of dwelling that may have been occupied came in the shape of a structure over 45 feet long and up to 20 feet wide, this is evident with the presence of post holes and stone paving. The range of artefacts recovered is substantial and consists of antlers, arrow shafts, wild boar tusks, needles, bone points and rite up as far as partly made tools. Also, situated some 300 feet to the east there is a cemetery containing the remains of five graves, and is thought to be part of an even larger burial ground, though this is the limit of the current findings.

The main function of the settlement points to it been primarily that of a fishing based village. But looking at the variety of artefacts recovered a range of organised subsistent activity must have been undertaken, suggesting some seasonal activity away from the camp, and also the possibility of trade with other groups (Bailey, Spitkens 2011, 32-33). The good preservation of some sites in Denmark gives an indication to the wide ranging function and activity that was been carried out in this region of Europe (Cunliffe 2001, 116). The site at Smakkerup Huse was located on a former fjord at Saltbaek Vig on the Zealand Island, Denmark.

Though the remains of actual living quarters are not preserved, evidence from organic remains suggest that the site was occupied year round, with varying dependence on fish, seals and mammals like red and roe deer. Artefacts recovered include wood and bone tools. These consist of a fish trap, a bow made from elm and pieces of a canoe along with wood chippings suggesting that boat building had taken place. Other items that were present included a painted pebble, small cups, bowls an amber pendant and perforated teeth (Cunliffe 2001, 116-117).

Other examples of possible year round occupation come in the form of shell middens and the settlements associated with them. These are often located at the meeting of different areas and are present around Europe. The types of site would have provided an abundance of resources that overlapped seasonal change. The shell midden at Ertobolle has been interpreted through remains that the purpose of occupation of this site would have been to hunt larger animals during the summer months and rely on sea mammals during the winter period.

While any gaps in the seasons would have been filled by the collection of fish and oysters, of which the midden mainly consists of (Cunliffe 2001, 113). Settlement examples further east in Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Russia and various regions that make up the whole area, sees similar style setups though on a somewhat larger scale in places. The area of Kierikki in Finland contains evidence of over 300 house floors stretching along the reaches of the Li River and is interpreted as permanent settlement for much of the year.

A system of trade is evident in the range of materials found, such as amber, greenstone and a large pottery style with some examples been over 100 litres in capacity and some used for the purpose of whale oil. The economy was that of fishing and hunting and this backed up by seal hunting and seal oil production that was most certainly used as a tool of trade (Bailey, Spitkins 2009, 33-34). Sarnate is an example of a style settlement found all along the coast of Latvia, with an organistaion of subsidiary satellite camps for seasonal use.

The camp was made up of dwellings constructed from logs with subdivision within these structures and areas for storage. Activities such as seal hunting and fishing and large scale gathering of plants supported the economy. A large scale processing of water chestnuts is evident from the toolkits found which consisted of mallets and pounders for crushing, shell casing and from the remains found in storage areas of the houses (Bailey, Spitkens 2009, 34-35). Styles of sites found in parts Estonia were characterised by large wooden dwellings which were placed on wooden piles, with large ridged roofs ranging in size from 30-90 square metres.

Some of the Interiors consisted of bark floors and either boxed in or stone lined hearths. Substantial amounts of material found within these areas was made up of fish species and various types of animals as well as remains of nettles and hemp thought to be used in garment making. High amounts of water chestnut, hazelnuts a large amount of hemp seeds and pollen indicate some areas of land were possibly cleared for some form of cultivation (Bailey, Spitkens 2009, 35). In north western Russia many sites are located along wetland areas of lakes such as the Vozhe and Lacha lakes.

The largest of these at Lacha, consisted of three large post framed rectangular dwellings in an area covering nearly 1500 square metres. These had a one or two hearths inside the house and a further two near the dwellings. Also storage pits and a ritual pit was present, which contained a birch trunk with an elk skull attached. Animals included elk, beaver, and swan and also pike was common among the remains. A bog in the region also turned up the remains of ornamented bows, skis, a sledge as well as items such as a fishing basket and a net made from sedge (Bailey, Spitkens 2009. 95). Also the evidence of trade in certain materials native to a specific region been traded around the Baltic and Scandinavia. This may have been facilitated with the use of skis and sledges during winter and boats in the summer. Items included amber being moved from southern to northern Scandinavia, the trading of pumice from Norway to southern parts of Scandinavia and a range of other materials from seal oil between islands in the Baltic to green Olonets between Finland and northwest Russia (Bailey, Spitkens 2009, 35).

With these main settlement sites, a system of smaller sites may be linked to the main encampments, with people moving to these areas for a range purposes, including seasonal exploitation of plant and animal life. Examples from Scandinavia like that of Aggersund, which due to the high amount of whooper swan remains that were only available in winter months, indicate a specialised winter swan hunting site. Another site at Dyrholm would by its organic remains suggest an area for the purpose of eel fishing, while a site at Vaengo So has been interpreted as a whale processing site with large amounts of whale bone evident.

As well as serving as serving needs of food processing these outlying sites away from the main encampments may have also served a number of other functions. The meeting of groups of communities for trade, exchange of ideas and the practice of social and ritual events may also have been the function of many of these sites around Europe (Cunliffe 2001, 117). Moving west to the British Isles there is some debate to nature of to the Mesolithic settlement pattern in Ireland and how it might have developed and fits into the pattern seen around Europe.

Taking a preference for settlement near waterways, the evidence from sites indicates reliance mainly on marine life. These areas also provided a diet of subsistent resources such as a variety of plants and berries and wild animals. In comparison with Britain the hunting of red deer seems to have had a limited role in the Mesolithic. It has been suggested that he reasons for this is due to the species not appearing until very late in the Mesolithic or the early part of the Neolithic (Barry 2000, 6).

Linked to this, is the question of woodland clearance around sites and how it may related to settlement and how people in the Ireland during the Mesolithic manipulated these areas. The evidence for this practice in Ireland is somewhat constrained. At Star Carr in Britain and areas in Europe the clearance of land from around a site has been interpreted as a possible method to lure animals, such as red deer into a clearing making them easier to hunt (Megaw, Simpson 1981, 51). The clearance of woodland around sites in Britain is evident at a number of other areas.

SW Cherhill and Summerland Farm being two examples of candidate’s for long-term settlement. Here the activities involved large scale clearance of trees for the purpose of a number of activities. These included the setting of hearths, wood burning, and wood and flint workings. (Conneller, Warren 2011, 132-133). SW Cherhill with a large assemblage flint which included microliths, scrapers, burins and flakes were connected to the processing of Aurochs and beaver for their meat, hide and bones due to these being the main type of remains being present.

The Summerland Farm site with an array of flint tools including scrapers, blades and awls was connected to the processing animals and plants and possible hide working (Ibid). The lack in numbers of any dedicated settlements in comparison to Britain is a matter of debate. Unlike Britain, where there is a comparison with a number of sites such as Skipsea, Broxbourne, Thatcham and Owen Banks, the evidence for this in Ireland is lacking (Megaw, Simpson 1981,53). The settlement at Mount Sandel in Derry is the only example of a base camp in Mesolithic in Ireland.

This settlement near the River Bann is thought to have been occupied from summer through to autumn and supported by an economy of fishing through the remains of mainly salmon and eels that were recovered (Barry 2000, 6-7). The problem with many sites in Ireland is that the function would seem to have served a specialised of transit purpose. Although this may be evident it does not mean that they did not function in a subsidiary role to a larger more permanent camp.

Although the lack of physical evidence with regard to base camps, evidence from Lough Boora and Derravaragh, as well as Newferry would suggest that settlement could have been widespread and been in the vicinity of specialised sites such as these examples. At Lough Derravaragh for example, specialised sites have been identified along the shore of what would have been an island during the late Mesolithic and it is reasonable to say that the area may have been a focus of greater activity.

Newferry some 40 kilometres upstream from Mount Sandel represents another specialised area, with over 40 polished axes and large numbers of blades recovered, as well as the remains of salmon and eels. It is suggested that this area was visited by groups for lithic workings and also woodworking for the purpose lining the river with fish traps and weirs (Barry 2000, 8-9). Other aspects may also figure in the number of identifiable settlements compared to Britain, such as changes in the environment. It is evident that the rise of sea levels and make-up of woodland would have had some effect on people and settlement over the millennia’s.

A continuation of changes since the Mesolithic has made a clear interpretation more difficult, one example been the later sites tend to be more low-lying than earlier sites. In relation to this, much of the evidence for settlement may be lost to areas been subjected erosion and change and much of the material covered by alluvial or peats deposits (Barry 2000, 9). These examples, though only a small fraction of many types around Europe, represent in a broad sense the organisation that existed in settlements around Mesolithic Europe.

It shows the importance that was put upon that coastal and rivers and also the role that the inland played in some areas in the purpose of other means subsistence. Although these types of settlement present a picture of organisation and a form of settlement that would not normally be linked to the idea of roaming hunter and gathers. This does not mean of course that everyone returned to the same place every night in time for evening supper. Looking at the situation in Ireland regarding settlement, or clear evidence of it, does not mean that the inhabitants of Ireland where any less complex than their neighbours in Britain or Europe.

People are not stupid even if they lived some 10,000 years ago, quite the contrary the knowledge and skills possessed by not only people in Ireland but across Europe regarding the environment they inhabited would easily put a modern human to shame. Simple logic within humans or any other species will dictate that any area providing abundance in resources and food supplies necessary for survival will be the focus of constant attention and therefore encourage some form of settlement.

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