Mesolithic Dwelling Places in South Scandinavia: Their Definition and Social Interpretation

Article excerpt


There has long been controversy in Danish research over the recognition of Mesolithic dwellings. Some researchers state that there are no convincing dwellings known from the Danish Mesolithic, while others will accept a series of features as characteristic of dwelling-remains. A central point of disagreement has been whether the large concentrations of worked flints that are in most cases found to coincide with the presumed dwelling-floors can actually have been deposited inside dwellings (Bokelmann 1989; Gron 1995; Stapert 1994; Sorensen 1996). The present paper argues that they were, but accepts that the inhabitants did not walk around on, sit on or sleep on heaps of razor-blade sharp pieces of flint. One must take the complex and socially regulated depositional processes of material inside the dwellings into account to reach a more nuanced and credible picture of what happened. As such problems are widespread in early prehistory, this discussion should be of general interest.

Spatial behaviour within the dwelling-spaces of hunter-gatherers should generally be organised in accordance with sets of culture-specific rules reflecting the social 'positions' of the individuals as well as the cosmic aspects of the dwelling-space. It is strange that such a general cultural/ behavioural trait--with a few exceptions--has been given so little attention in archaeology, in spite of the massive documentation that has existed for a considerable time (e.g. Leem 1767; Rank 1951). In cases where such spatial patterns can be reconstructed on the basis of archaeological finds, they afford direct insight into the social organisation of the groups that inhabited the dwellings (Gron 1995; Gron & Kuznetsov--in print). Spatial organisation within a dwelling reports a different aspect of life to specialised ritual contexts such as burials bur may be equally ritualised. The type of behavioural rules we discuss here regulate not only the placing of the individuals in the dwelling-space, but also how they deal with artefacts and waste.

An analytic focus on the spatial and temporal aspects of the depositional processes in the supposed dwelling-pits, in combination with the development of excavation and recording methods suited for this type of approach, have been successfully applied to the south Scandinavian Mesolithic material in recent years (Gron 1995). By demonstrating repeated patterning in the spatial organisation of the material in the suggested dwelling-pits, we have been able to identify single- or multi-family dwellings, as well as lighter summer dwellings or large winter houses with central posts (Gron 1990, 1995). The changes of the dwelling-types through time have in combination with indications of the general settlement layout (e.g. number of dwellings on the settlements, distance between them), facilitated the distinction of what seems to be long-term changes in the social organisation of south Scandinavian Mesolithic society, some appearing to anticipate Neolithic practice (Gron 1998 a).

This case study leads on to a more general discussion on dwelling-organisation as a means of elucidating cultural and social developments in hunter-gatherer societies.

Evidence for dwelling-places

Isolated floors

A number of Mesolithic 'bark floors' (which often include twigs and branches) have been found in the peat-bogs during the last 100 years. At Ulkestrup I, Zealand, Denmark, belonging to the Maglemose Culture, the best-preserved part of the floor consisted of bundles of branches 25 cm long and 5-6 cm thick. Between these were found smaller branches, twigs, remains of leaves, and leaves of Marsh Fern (Thelypteris palustris) (Andersen et al. 1982:12) (Figures 1, 2). At Duvensee, northern Germany, five Maglemosian bark floors were found, one on top of the other, the lowest one resting on a kind of platform made up of twigs and thick, straight branches, probably a kind of foundation in the damp peat area (Schwantes 1925:174-175). …