Houses reused for over 1000 years during Stone Age

January 17, 2018 - 06:20

We’ve always heard that Stone Age people lived in caves. It turns out that’s not the case. They often lived in earthen huts, which they reused and kept up rather than building new ones.

Photo shows the excavation of a reused Norwegian tent site at Mohalsen in Vega municipality in Nordland county. The site is dated to approximately 8300 BCE. Archaeologist Silje Fretheim is on the right. (Photo: Hein B. Bjerck)

Small, simple earthen huts from the Stone Age appear to have been used for 1000 years. They may have stood empty for 40-50 years at a time before being maintained and reused – again and again.

Archaeologist Silje Fretheim at NTNU’s Department of Archaeology and Cultural History finds that incredible. “Few buildings today have lasted for as long as 1000 years. Their use for that long tells us there was a point to maintaining the homes,” she says.

She recently discussed her doctoral thesis on housing and settlement traditions in Norway in the Mesolithic period. Her research gives a quite different picture of Stone Age people than today’s youth are taught at school.

“I have school age children myself, and I discovered that most schools still teach that Stone Age people lived mainly in caves. But they absolutely didn’t,” Fretheim says.

The Mesolithic period in Norway spans approximately 5500 years, starting about 9500 BCE, when people were nomadic hunters and gatherers. At the beginning of the period, people lived in tents believed to have been made from animal hides, although no tent coverings have been found from this time. Eventually the homes became more permanent.

Unique for Norway

Fretheim analysed information from 150 excavated Stone Age dwellings, extending from the northernmost county of Finnmark to southern Norway. Over half of them were excavated within the last 15 years, and it is the first time someone has compared the information based on the excavations.

The amount of relatively well-preserved Mesolithic dwellings in Norway is unique to Northern Europe, and Fretheim’s dissertation thus gives a new picture of the Stone Age population that also reaches beyond Norway’s borders.

“In other parts of the world, house remains and traces of people from the Stone Age are buried under today’s farmland, or they’re under water because the land along the coast sank after the last ice age.

“In Norway, though, stone-age remains have been preserved because the areas along the coast rebounded from the glacial weight of the last ice age instead. Another reason is that agriculture in Norway has been less extensive, and so it hasn’t covered the traces of the Stone Age. In Finnmark, where cultivated land is the least prevalent, it’s possible to see many traces of the oldest dwellings,” says Fretheim.

From tents to pit houses

Not surprisingly, finding traces of 10 000 to 11 500 year old homes of people from the Mesolithic period is pretty limited.

Fretheim says archaeologists have found tent rings, which are stones that were placed on the tent flaps. They’ve also found cleared surfaces, with clearly defined concentrations of tool remains. Producing stone tools created a lot of debris.

The earliest homes were small.

The floor area of these early dwellings “is almost always between five and ten square metres,” says Fretheim, “which may indicate that nuclear families moved around with portable tents. I think the tents were probably part of the mobile lifestyle ‘package’ that people travelled with.”

Several things happened 9500 years ago that impacted the housing and settlement patterns in Norway: the forest spread into new areas, the sea level along the coast stabilized and the final ice sheets from the last ice age retreated from the interior.

Dwellings then became larger. Instead of pitching a tent on the ground, the floor was partially dug down into the ground of so-called pit houses. The rest of the house was built up with a framework of wood and turf.

The largest pit houses were up to 40 square metres.

“Several families may have lived together, or perhaps hunting teams shared houses,” says Fretheim.

Landmark attractors

As the sea level stabilized, Fretheim believes it became possible for people to build their knowledge of the area’s natural resources, such as good fishing spots. This diminished the need to follow animals such as reindeer or seals on their migrations. People came to prefer living in areas with fishing and hunting conditions that were stable and varied.

The pit houses were kept up and reused to a great extent, with the most used ones being maintained for over 1000 years.

Fretheim thinks it’s fascinating to think about how these house remains affected people in the Stone Age and somehow kept drawing them back to those places.

“Physical objects made by people continue to affect people and landscapes long afterwards. I imagine that the pit sites that were visible in the landscape at the time helped to create the first cultural landscape. These were the first visible traces left behind, so people recognized those places and chose to rebuild there rather than in new locations. People became more settled and linked to certain sites because they saw them as good places to live,” Fretheim says.

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