Exceptional Stone Age Norwegian excavated

February 20, 2015 - 06:00

An 8,000-year-old human skeleton is now undergoing meticulous analysis. It’s extremely rare for such old human remains to be found in the Nordic countries because much of the region was covered in a crushing sheet of ice until 9,000 - 10,000 years ago.

Archaeologists work painstakingly at separating ancient, soft and vulnerable skeletal remains from rock-hard soil. (Photo: Natural History Museum, UiO)

Archaeologists have found large portions of a skeleton buried by a Stone Age settlement at Brunstad in Stokke, Vestfold County. It could be around 8,000 years old. They know it was an adult who had been ritually buried.

“The discovery is sensational in a Northern European context,” says Archaeologist Almut Schülke at the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum. She is in charge of the excavation.

No other skeletal remains have been found so intact from this far back in time in Norway. At Stavanger Airport, archaeologists recently found human remains dating back to about 4,000 BC. The Brunstad skeleton is not the oldest find of human bones, however. Skulls have been found in Vest-Agder County which probably predate this Stone Age ‘Norwegian’ by 1,500 years.

Foetal position

Archaeologists came across the Brunstad grave last summer when excavating a Stone Age settlement in Stokke on a plot where a new conference centre is going to be constructed. As the land was lower then, the gravesite was probably close to the seashore when the person was buried. The soil around the skeleton is nearly rock-hard today. The team had to chisel into it and they were overjoyed when they came across human bones.

Their field work in 2014 was a hot and sweaty job because Norway was having a record-hot summer. Once Schülke and her colleagues realised that they had come across human bones they decided to cut out large blocks of the compact soil containing the precious remnants.  This enabled them to complete the finer extraction work under controlled laboratory conditions.

“The skeleton was in a pit which was built up around the edges with rocks. The pit was about a metre wide and one-and-a-half metres long,” says Schülke.

The person was buried sitting or perhaps lying on its back, with the head tilted forward and the arms embracing the legs in the foetal-like “hocker position”.

The scientists have been unable so far to verify whether the person was a man or a woman. The cranial remains and the traces of pelvis were too poorly preserved to provide an answer. Further analyses of the bones should at least reveal things about the person’s diet and give other indications of the environment he or she lived in.

Comparisons with other Stone Age grave sites

Skeletal remains from this period of the Stone Age have been found in Sweden but such discoveries are always extremely rare and significant.

Femur found in the grave.

“Finding skeletal remains in such old graves is highly unusual,” says Fredrik Molin. He is the project leader of a Stone Age excavation at Motala in South-eastern Sweden.

There too, archaeologists have found graves with human remains. The bones were rather poorly preserved and were perhaps a little younger than the skeleton in the Brunstad grave. In Motala the corpses had been placed both full-length on their backs and, like at Brunstad, in the hocker position.

This is seen in other graves from the same time.

“It seems as if this was a rather uniform practice in this period,” says Molin.

In Motala, as at the Brunstad site, the grave was located right near the settlement.

“This makes for a close relationship between the living society and the dead. This is interigung and it contrasts with how we currently do things. Now we keep the dead at a distance,” says Molin.

Bones from the entire body

Osteoarchaelogist Sara Gummesson worked on the excavation at Motala. Now she has contributed to the digging, conservation and analysis of the Brunstad skeleton.

“We found cranial fragments, thighbone and shin bone, ribs and an arm,” she says.

Gummesson shows us parts of the skull and then points to something that looks like a decayed tree root. We are actually looking at forearm bones.

This forearm bone is infiltrated by roots but it shows that the corpse’s palms were arranged to face upwards. (Photo: Marianne Nordahl)

“We see from the position of these bones that the person was buried with their palms turned upwards,” she says.

The archaeologists found nothing to indicate that the Stone Age person was buried in a coffin or anything of the sort. Some archaeological discoveries from this period have indicated that the corpse was wrapped in textile prior to burial, but this is uncertain, according to Gummesson.

One of the problems the scientists have with dating these bones is that many of them are fully intertwined and infiltrated with tree roots. In some places the bone has more or less become a root. This has made it really hard to date.  So the C14 analyses at Brunstad have given diverse results about how old the bones are.  

One trial put the age at 5,000-6,000 years old. Another dated the bones back to the same age as the settlement – which was populated as much as 8,000 years ago.

The researchers are inclined to place their bets on this older date.

They found no other objects in the grave but are working on an analysis of charcoal fragments and bits of flint.

The answers to additional tests should be available by summer. These will hopefully tell more about how the person in the grave lived and reveal new information concealed in the grave.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling

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