The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in the Sandy Lowlands of Belgium: New Evidence

Article excerpt

Until recently little was known about the Late Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in the sandy lowlands of northern Belgium. The only evidence was a few highly disturbed dry-land sites (Meeuwen, Dilsen, Weelde, etc.) which yielded a Late Mesolithic lithic industry, small amounts of Michelsberg/Hazendonk pottery and Neolithic tools (polished axes, arrowheads, large blades in mined flint, etc.). Based on these largely surface data, several neolithization models have been elaborated for the sandy area on the agrarian frontier in Belgium. In nearly all models, a long survival of the Late Mesolithic tradition is claimed. According to some of them, Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in the sandy area persisted almost without any influence from the adjacent Neolithic/agrarian groups of the Middle Belgian loss region until or after the arrival of the Michelsberg culture (Verhart 2000: 111-15, 231) or even until the start of the Bronze Age (Vermeersch 1990: 100-101). Some (Creemers & Vermeersch 1989; Vermeersch 1996) have even proposed a `transhumance' model in which these native hunter-gatherers were employed by Michelsberg farmer-herders for herding cattle in the sandy area. They also interpret the Michelsberg enclosures found at numerous locations in Middle Belgium as possible indications of some kind of tension between the two population groups.

Recently, however, new and more reliable evidence, mainly from wetland sites, sheds a totally new light on this topic. Salvage research in the valley of the river Schelde (Crombe 1998), in particular in the vicinity of the Antwerp harbour (FIGURE 1), revealed two important wetland sites--Melsele `Hof ten Damme' (van Berg et al. 1992) and Doel `Deurganckdok' (Crombe et al. 2000). The two sites are similar in their environmental setting: they are situated on elongated but narrow sand ridges of Lateglacial origin within the former flood plain of the Schelde river and are consequently sealed by thick layers of peat and alluvial sediments. The site of Melsele was investigated in 1984-1986 and 1990 over a relatively small area of c. 100 sq. m. A preliminary analysis of the findings combined with the results of extensive radiocarbon dating on different materials and contexts (Van Strydonck et al. 1995), however, indicates the existence of an enormous palimpsest at this locality. It is believed that the top of the dune has at least 3 different occupation phases--a Late Mesolithic, a Final Mesolithic with pottery and a Middle Neolithic--the remains of which have been irrevocably mixed by bioturbation processes. Although re-use and bioturbation are also attested at Doel, this site seems to offer better prospects.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The site of Doel `Deurganckdok'

The site of Doel was discovered and subsequently excavated during the construction of a dock in the Antwerp harbour situated on the left bank of the Schelde. The salvage operation was conducted by Ghent University in close collaboration with the regional archaeological service Archeologisch Dienst Waasland between May and September 2000. A total surface of about 4000 sq. m was investigated, but in extremely bad conditions, so that only part of the data could be collected properly.

The excavations revealed the presence of two prehistoric areas, one dated to the Final Mesolithic, the second to the Neolithic. Besides numerous hearth-pits, in both areas archaeological material, consisting of lithics, ceramics and burnt ecofacts (bones, hazelnut shells, burnt seeds, etc.) was collected from a c. 10-20-cm thick bioturbated layer at the transition of the peat and underlying cover sand. This layer has been interpreted as an old A-horizon which was sealed by peat from 5050 [+ or -] 55 BP (NZA-12075) onwards.

Final Mesolithic zone

Next to numerous flint artefacts belonging to an older Federmesser occupation, the lithic industry found at this location contains a series of artefacts with clear Late Mesolithic affinities. …