Ajvide is a large settlement and cemetery on the west coast of the Swedish island of Gotland in the central Baltic Sea. It belongs to the Pitted Ware culture, chronologically placed in the Middle Neolithic, but this is a case where the term "Neolithic" does not carry with it the usual connotations of agriculture.
Gotland is a large island, measuring some 130 by 70 kilometers, located about 85 kilometers off the coast of Sweden and twice that distance from Latvia; it was never joined to either mainland but has been an island since the retreat of the Ice Age. It has a spectacular archaeological record and often has been considered culturally distinct from mainland Sweden. The longest archaeological sequence comes from the cave site of Stora Förvar, on a small island just off Gotland's west coast. This site reveals occupation from early in the Mesolithic, based mostly on marine resources: fish, seals, and birds. Early excavations also yielded pig bones, but direct dating of these bones has indicated that they are later intrusions into the Mesolithic layers. The largest terrestrial mammal on Gotland in Mesolithic times was the hare, an animal that could have colonized the island by crossing the sea ice that forms in the cold winters. Pigs, weighing far more than hares, apparently could not have colonized the island in this way.
Gotland was the northeasternmost limit of the Early Neolithic expansion of farming. During the time of the Funnel Beaker culture, farmers introduced cereals, cattle, sheep, and pigs, and for some centuries they exploited the interior of the island—a settlement pattern markedly different from that of the predominantly coastal Mesolithic. Carbon isotopes from the food people eat can be recovered from their bones and give a clue to their diet, because there is less carbon 13 in seafood than in terrestrial food; at Ajvide the change toward a terrestrial diet is reflected in the carbon-13 measurements from human bones. Because the Baltic Sea was always brackish rather than very saline, the Mesolithic human remains from Gotland produced a carbon-13 result that in the North Sea area indicates only a partially marine diet; in the Baltic, however, it probably represents a diet based almost completely on marine foods. In the Early Neolithic the diet was as fully terrestrial as in other agricultural areas.
Ajvide is the most important of the sites that show what happened during the early part of the Middle Neolithic: a recession of agriculture and a resurgence of coastal hunting and fishing. The carbon-13 measurements indicate a diet as thoroughly marine as in the Mesolithic, reflected in the coastal settlement pattern: the interior of the island (once again) was largely unoccupied. It is not clear why hunting and fishing regained preeminence at this time, but one factor may have been a small rise in sea level. This rise increased the salinity in the Baltic, enriching and expanding its natural resources. It is even possible that the harp seal established a short-lived breeding population at this time.
In any event, the coasts of Ajvide were occupied from c. 3300 to 2900 b.c. by coastal hunters and fishers of the Pitted Ware culture. Conditions of preservation are excellent: the site has yielded 2 tons of pottery and 3.5 tons of animal bones. Some seventy graves have been excavated, containing skeletons of varying ages, including an unusually high proportion of children. Adult graves contain diverse grave goods; one individual was buried with a large number of pig jaws and others with ceramics, harpoons, and fishhooks. Remarkably, some of the children have harpoons just as impressive as those of the adults, even though they were too young to have been proficient hunters.
Status, at least as reflected by grave goods, may have been inherited rather than attained. One of the most remarkable graves held the skeleton of a twenty-year-old woman. Across her knees was a row of perforated teeth of seal, fox, and dog, which may have been attached to the hem of a garment. On her breast were the jaws of five hedgehogs, and around her head were many hedgehog spines, apparently the remains of headgear made of hedgehog skins.
Hunter-gatherers did not usually establish cemeteries unless they lived in fixed settlements and claimed ownership of the land they occupied. Such permanent settlements were occupied for extended periods of the year or were occupied year-round. Ajvide may well have been inhabited all year: pigs were killed during the autumn and winter, seals were hunted in winter and spring, and the numerous fish would have been most easily caught during the summer. The major economic difference between Ajvide and sites of the Mesolithic is that pigs were present at Ajvide. Some researchers have argued that pigs were domestic and others that they were wild; this question remains unresolved.
Ajvide has produced many postholes, although it is difficult to isolate the ground plans of individual structures. In the center of the settlement was a large black area several meters in diameter caused by the spillage of large quantities of oil rendered from seal blubber, the smell of which was unmistakable during excavation. This could have resulted from purely economic activity, but at Ajvide the area may have had ritual connotations. The oil patch was demarcated by a series of large postholes, and the graves were placed in an arc around it. Some of the graves themselves were impregnated with seal oil. An economic product as valuable as seal oil may well have been imbued with ritual meaning.
After some centuries, agriculture returned to Gotland, and Ajvide was abandoned. Modern excavation and the application of scientific techniques have revealed the primary importance of Ajvide among the Pitted Ware sites on Gotland. The site shows that the appearance of agriculture need not have been an irreversible process and that under certain conditions hunting and fishing were a viable alternative, at least in the medium term.
See alsoThe Mesolithic of Northern Europe (vol. 1, part2).
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Österholm, S. "Traceable Remains of Train-Oil on Neolithic Seal-Hunter Sites." In Remote Sensing: Applied Techniques for the Study of Cultural Resources and the Localization, Identification, and Documentation of Sub-Surface Prehistoric Remains in Swedish Archaeology. Vol. 1, Osteo-Anthropological, Environmental, Economic, and Technical Analyses. Edited by Göran Burenhult, pp. 163–164. Theses and Papers in North European Archaeology, no. 13a. Stockholm, Sweden: Institute of Archaeology, University of Stockholm, 1997.
Rowley-Conwy, P., and J. Storå. "Pitted Ware Seals and Pigs from Ajvide, Gotland: Methods of Study and First Results." In Remote Sensing, Applied Techniques for the Study of Cultural Resources and the Localization, Identification, and Documentation of Sub-Surface Prehistoric Remains in Swedish Archaeology. Vol. 1, Osteo-Anthropological, Environmental, Economic, and Technical Analyses. Edited by Göran Burenhult, pp. 113–127. Theses and Papers in North European Archaeology, no. 13a. Stockholm, Sweden: Institute of Archaeology, University of Stockholm, 1997.