Iron Age Finland

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The topography, natural vegetation, and soil environments of Finland vary substantially. In the southwest region, encompassing the Åland Islands and Varsinais Suomi, a warmer climate marked by the greatest occurrence of deciduous tree growth in Finland led to earlier agricultural development. Safe natural harbors promoted the use of resources from the sea and trade with foreign ships. The west coast of Ostrobothnia had good water access and useful connections with Sweden. The south coast of Uusimaa, on the other hand, was unprotected and forbidding to access by ship. The heavy clay soils found there were unsuitable for cultivation unaided by a plow. Finnish farmers preferred to plant in small forest clearings and to use rotational slash-and-burn methods for preparing the soil. Thus, lighter, fine-grained soils found north of Uusimaa were favored. The interior of Finland, characterized by birch and pine forests and a complex system of lakes and rivers formed amid glacial moraines, was in many places not settled by farmers until the Late Iron Age and medieval times, but its rich hunting and fishing resources were utilized by Finns throughout the Iron Age. The soils of the interior are mostly highly acidic with only a very thin humus layer and are packed in most locations with many surface stones. These soils would rarely be adaptable to intensive plowed-field techniques of cultivation. The waterways were well-used routes of communication, especially during winter months when surfaces were frozen. Finns frequently moved through these water systems while on hunting, fishing, or trading expeditions.


The five-hundred-year period starting 500 b.c. in Finland is called the pre-Roman Iron Age. For a thousand years prior, the Bronze Age Finns had maintained lively contacts with their Baltic neighbors, including the Scandinavians. Immigrants from Sweden had settled along some of the coastal areas. But in the period after 500 b.c., more Germanic contacts and influences arrived, including a number of loan words and a greater dependence on agriculture. Southern Finns now became more aware of the proto-Saami peoples who lived in the interior. In the Early Iron Age, the Saami lived, herded, and hunted farther south than several centuries later. Their present situation is now far to the north. Other Finnish connections with Finno-Ugric tribes to the east promoted trade of bronze or iron goods.

Some scholars have seen in the archaeological record evidence that the beginning of the Iron Age in Finland is marked by a decline in settlement and a general impoverishment of the population, although the reasons for this having occurred have never been clear. By the late twentieth century, most archaeologists argued for a continuation of population and settlement in Finland. Changing living and burial habits may account for the lessening of some aspects of cultural visibility in the archaeological record. In particular, fewer metal objects have been found from graves of the Early Iron Age, but when archaeologists have focused their search, they have sometimes found dwelling sites easier to locate than the corresponding burial sites. This experience is the opposite of what Late Iron Age archaeologists have found. Later Iron Age burial sites have been more readily located.

Iron came to Finland c. 500 b.c., and by the Roman period (a.d. 1–400), local iron production is clearly in evidence. Iron tools and weapons were still rare in finds (meaning, for the most part, from graves), but by the end of the first millennium a.d., all parts of Finland had some iron. It is this lack of metal finds (either of bronze or iron) from the Early Iron Age that has created the impression, perhaps the illusion, that the period was more impoverished than what had come before or what came after. The situation changed within a few centuries, however. Already in the Roman period, material culture, as evidenced by the abundance of artifacts recovered, shows visible prosperity returning to the country.


During the first millennium a.d., Finnish tribes in the east were moving westward, and new immigrants expanded the existing population of Finland. Other Finns from nearby Baltic lands also moved into Finland. To the west, the population of the Åland Islands and Varsinais Suomi was growing through an influx of Germanic settlers. A 1990s research project conducted around Paimio in Varsinais Suomi included the excavation of a burial ground and dwelling sites near Spurila and a variety of botanical, pollen core, and phosphorus studies that reveal signs of human activity. The burial ground was in use from the first century a.d. into the eighth century. Datable artifacts, mainly brooches, span the period from c. a.d. 100 to 600. Artifact types indicate connections both with the southern Baltic shore and southern Scandinavia. One dwelling site was dated c. a.d. 400. Pollen cores show intermittent slash-and-burn activity during the early period under consideration here, although the earliest cultivation seems to date from the pre-Roman period. Palaeoethnobotanical studies of plant remains recovered from early soil layers demonstrate that the settlers of Paimio grew mainly emmer wheat and flax. The occurrence of common cultivation weeds also indicates the presence of human agriculture.

Settlement in south Ostrobothnia was limited. At Trofastbacken, Korsnäs, a pre-Roman Iron Age house with hearth, pottery remains, and a wide stone foundation supporting turf walls has been interpreted as a base structure for seasonal activity. Occupied probably only in the spring, this house provided shelter for hunters who came to this locality to hunt seal from the ice surface. Iron Age peoples occupied the coast of northern Ostrobothnia as well. Small settlements dating from the first six centuries a.d. show close Scandinavian ties across the Gulf of Bothnia. A system of barter trade was conducted at numerous points along the shores. One impetus for this trade was the presence of the early proto–market town of Helgö, precursor to Birka in the Lake Mälar region of eastern Sweden. Helgö, which began as early as the fourth century a.d., has been described as a production and trading center supported by chieftains in the area. Ostrobothnians may have been particularly interested in trading with the Swedes for bronze ingots and ornaments. In return they could have offered fur pelts. The Finnish word raha has come to mean "money," but originally it meant "fur pelt." Barter trade with pelts could have become so ubiquitous in the region that the pelt itself became a kind of currency.

A similar trade situation developed in the eastern Baltic, across the Gulf of Finland, between Finns and Estonians. Fisherman of individual households or extended families developed and maintained prearranged trade relations with household counterparts on the opposite coast by bartering Baltic herring for grain and other cultivated foodstuffs difficult to grow in the coastal soils of southern Finland. This kind of household economy and arrangement for trade relations was typical of the Finns, for whom the extended family or kin group was the most important social and economic unit. Such households might sometimes consist of thirty or more people pooling their labor and production skills.

In what is now known as Russian Karelia, at the eastern side of present-day Finland, pollen and charcoal analysis of lake sediments reveals that there was some human impact in this area during the pre-Roman Iron Age (500 b.c.–a.d. 1), but no significant land clearance occurred until much later, during the Late Iron Age.


In a.d. 98, Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote in his book Germania that a tribe he called the Fenni lived at the northern fringes of the Roman Empire. He described the Fenni as wild and very poor, having no weapons, horses, or houses. If his information were to be presumed at all correct, he could not have been talking about the southern Finns, although this description might fit the proto-Saami of northern Finland. Terms such as "Fenni," "Finni," and "Phinnoi" were used by classical writers in the first several centuries a.d. primarily to describe the nomadic people of northern Scandinavia. Since these people were so far away from the writers and their audiences, some of the descriptions are completely fantastical.

The Saami are the indigenous people of Scandinavia. They were a hunting and nomadic herding culture living in symbiosis with the large reindeer herds of the region. Until they were pushed to the northern territories in postmedieval times, the Saami lived as far south as the central interior of Finland. Their skill at hunting the arctic animals whose rich fur pelts were prized as luxury items by Europeans and others farther south forced the Saami into trade relations with both Scandinavians and Finno-Ugric tribes during the Viking and medieval periods.


Most Iron Age archaeological remains from Finland come from burials. Finnish burials of the period are often found in large stone cairns situated overlooking the sea or a lake. Many of the early cemeteries, from the first century a.d., are found near the mouths of rivers. Some of the largest cemeteries resemble the tarand type known from Estonia. This type is characterized by rectangular enclosures outlined on the ground with stones. The cemeteries grew as new rectangles were added. The appearance of tarand cemeteries in Finland marks closer contacts with, and also immigration of, Estonian farmers. Various other styles of burial, including inhumations and cremation burials in urns, are known from this time. Over time stone cairns become on average smaller, and various forms of cremation pit cemeteries appear. Archaeologists caution that not all stone cairns of this period contain burials, and some may have nothing to do with human burial.

Not only do certain types of graves characterize the early part of the Iron Age, but grave contents are important as well. During the Early Roman Iron Age, we see for the first time graves including weapons in Finland. These weapon graves occur, for the most part, in coastal areas from the first century a.d. Two distinct groups can be observed among the graves: individuals buried with a spearhead only and others buried with a bigger assemblage consisting often of a sword and shield plus spear. Most of these graves are from southwest Finland and southern Ostrobothnia. Archaeologists sometimes attribute the appearance of weapon graves to the rise of a social class of warriors or special class of persons in authority. However, spears can also be used as hunting weapons and are easier to obtain since they require less skill and labor to be made. The social class of males buried with spears alone is therefore ambiguous. Normally archaeologists assume that individuals buried with weapons are male. Where skeletal remains are adequate, it is usually possible to confirm this by a visual assessment of the bones. With the advent of DNA testing of archaeological remains, however, some surprising gender-role contradictions appeared in Iron Age remains from Europe. Although these exceptions are quite rare, they only serve to emphasize that the bearing of weapons can be a mark of social status and not merely an indicator of occupation.


The Finnish worldview during the Iron Age was cyclical in type, meaning that all things were seen to progress in cycles. The seasons revolved; life germinated, flourished, and died; and human beings lived to be reincarnated from the kin-based groups of ancestral spirits. Ancestor worship and shamanic communication with the spirit world were major elements of this religion. Carvings on rock, called rock art, may depict the activities of Finnish shamans seeking favors from spirits, such as requests for hunting luck. Shamans would also intervene in order to try to cure illnesses afflicting humans or domestic animals.

The kin group, which was so important socially and economically, also played a religious role. Folklore evidence strongly indicates that pre-Christian Finns did not so much worship generalized ancestors but rather venerated and appealed for help from the ancestors of their own kin group. There was a close and intense relationship between the living community and the family cemetery. This was made closer by the belief that babies born into the family brought back to life in a new identity the spirits of those who had lived before. It was a complex worldview that suited the Finns' annual struggle with the not always kind forces of nature and provided them with a great deal of psychological support. Existence in rural Finland could easily become marginal with one bad harvest, and extended periods of rural famine have been well documented in historic times.

See alsoSaami (vol. 2, part 7); Finland (vol. 2, part 7).


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Deborah J. Shepherd