Was There Really a Neolithic in Norway?

By Prescott, Christopher | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Was There Really a Neolithic in Norway?


Prescott, Christopher, Antiquity


For temperate Europe, the transition to the Neolithic is still both defined by a shift from a hunter-gatherer to a farming economy and archaeologically recognized by its characteristic artefacts of pottery and polished-stone axes. But what should be the criteria in the far north of Nordic Europe, where the definition of a Neolithic is a less straightforward issue?

Neolithic culture and production in Europe are characterized by rapid spread within zones, up to cultural and natural thresholds. In southern Scandinavia the development of Neolithic economy and society is generally placed within the framework of interaction between Mesolithic Ertebolle groups and external Neolithic groups, Ertebolle evolution and the Neolithic Funnel-beaker Culture (Trichterrandbecher, TRB). Discussions of the spread of Neolithic agriculture and pastoralism go beyond these spatial, chronological and cultural limitations (Bjerck 1988; Hinsch 1955; Hodder 1990; Knutsson 1988; Nygaard 1988; Olsen 1988; Vorren & Nilssen 1982; Zvelebil 1993; Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1984; Ostmo 1988). After the development of the TRB in southern Scandinavia (c. 5200 b.p./ 4000 BC), there is a lacuna of disputed length in the continued spread to southern Norway and central Sweden. In most of Norway the pause in Neolithic expansion may have been as long as 1500 years, until the Late Neolithic period 3800 b.p./2400 BC. In some ways this lacuna is analogous to the interaction between Neolithic and Ertebolle regions and the development of Neolithic societies in the TRB (for interpretations of the latter see e.g. Andersen 1973; Becker 1947; 1973; Fischer 1983; Hodder 1990; Jennbert 1984; Rowley-Conwy 1985; Solberg 1989; Thomas 1988; Troels-Smith 1982; Zvelebil & Dolukhanov 1991).

Introduction of Neolithic agro-pastoral production in Norway was arguably limited to the Oslofjord region, where the TRB is represented for a period. In the course of the Middle Neolithic the TRB culture in this region probably retracted in a local process that Erik Hinsch termed 'deneolithization' (Hinsch 1955: 104; Ostmo 1988: 225f, disputed in Bjerck 1988). In the rest of Norway evidence of Neolithic production is at best equivocal. The present article explores the earliest indications of Neolithic influence outside the TRB regions in a north European periphery - Norway.

What is 'Neolithic' in a Norwegian context?

Although terms like 'Neolithic' are common to archaeological discourse, there is not always a meaning common to all usage (Zvelebil 1986: 6F; 1992). Thomas (1993; also 1991: 12) has reviewed how the meaning of 'Neolithic' has changed since Lubbock's original formulation as part of an evolutionary scheme in 1865, through emphasis on a 'way of life' including agriculture to an economic concept. In an attempt to salvage the concept from his own critique, Thomas suggests a diffuse, contemporaneous version of 'Neolithic' as a field of sometimes interlocking and sometimes unrelated social practices and traditions, fragmented and dispersed in time and space. In short, 'Neolithic' may refer to a chronological period, an evolutionary step, an economy or mode of production, or variable cultural phenomena (Thomas 1991: 119). Although never specifically analysed, variations of these applications can be found in Norwegian archaeology (e.g. Bakka & Kaland 1971; Brogger 1925; Naeroy 1993; Shetelig 1925: 47ff). And a more abstract definition of 'Neolithic' exacerbates doubts as to just what the orthodox material signatures of a defined Neolithic - like polished stone axes - represent.

[TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED]

In modern Norwegian usage, 'Neolithic' initially describes the chronological period concurrent with the southern Scandinavian Neolithic. Artefactually some southern Scandinavian types like flint axes and pottery are found, whilst typologies are developed that are based on local types (Nygaard 1989; Naeroy 1993). These parallel general chronological divisions in Southern Scandinavia, for example the Mesolithic to Neolithic transition around 5200 b. …

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Was There Really a Neolithic in Norway?
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