Iron Gates Mesolithic

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The Iron Gates region stands out for its exceptional record of human occupation during the Late Glacial and Early Holocene periods and for the unique insight it provides into the events surrounding the transition to agriculture in the Middle Danube basin. Here, along a 200-kilometer stretch of the river Danube that forms the border between Romania and Serbia, settlements of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Early Neolithic farmers have been found at more than thirty locations. The distribution of the sites is very much a reflection of the pattern of research. Surveys and rescue excavations undertaken in the 1960s to 1980s prior to construction of two dams across the Danube targeted valley floor areas on both sides of the river that would eventually be flooded. Very little archaeological exploration has taken place in areas farther from the river.

The majority of the known sites occur in the zone where the Danube has cut a series of deep gorges through the southern arm of the Carpathian Mountains. Rapids and whirlpools were a feature of this section of the river prior to dam closure. Sites have also been found downriver, in the more open section of the Danube Valley between the Iron Gates I and II dams. In spite of the contrast in physical setting, the archaeological records of the two zones show many similarities.

Scientific dating methods such as radiocarbon were not easily available at the time of the investigations, and excavators relied mainly on artifact typology and stratigraphy to date their sites. Since the 1990s research on surviving archaeological collections, involving AMS radiocarbon dating and other forms of scientific analysis, has led to a reassessment of the relative and absolute chronologies of the principal sites.


Some archaeologists have argued that the Iron Gates Mesolithic exhibits a trend toward increasing social complexity and sedentism, culminating in the Late Mesolithic "Lepenski Vir culture" between c. 7000 and 5500 b.c. However, this view seems to owe more to the archaeologists' expectations than to sound archaeological evidence. It has yet to be demonstrated by, for example, seasonality studies of animal and plant remains or direct evidence of food storage that any of the Iron Gates sites were permanent, year-round settlements. Moreover, although Lepenski Vir has come to epitomize the Iron Gates Mesolithic, many of the archaeological "indicators" of complexity there—including much of the sophisticated architecture, art, and evidence of participation in long-distance exchange networks—probably date to a time when agriculture had a significant impact on the Iron Gates economy.

In fact there is no clear pattern of temporal change in the Iron Gates Mesolithic. The early stages are very poorly documented. Use of caves and rock shelters on the Romanian bank can be traced back to the Late Glacial period, c. 12,000 b.c. An open-air settlement had been established at Vlasac shortly after 9500 b.c., and there were occupations at Padina and Lepenski Vir by the early eighth millennium b.c. The duration of these Early Mesolithic settlements is unknown, and few architectural or other remains survive.

The character of Mesolithic settlement in the Iron Gates region is best represented at Vlasac on the Serbian bank of the Danube and Schela Cladovei in Romania. The evidence from these two sites relates mainly to a restricted period of the Late Mesolithic between 7100 and 6300 b.c. The inhabitants appear to have lived in trapezoidal "pit" houses. Hearths consisting of rectangular pits lined with stone slabs were found in some of the houses, but there were no other internal divisions. Sometimes the hearths were all that survived of the houses.

Burials are an important feature of both sites and occur within the confines of the settlements rather than in formal cemeteries. Eighty-five graves containing the remains of more than one hundred individuals were found at Vlasac, and more than sixty graves have been excavated at Schela Cladovei. Single inhumation was the norm; the dead were placed in simple earthen graves, often lying extended on their backs, but sometimes laid on one side with the legs and arms flexed. The skull was sometimes buried separately and, occasionally, groups of skulls have been found. There is persuasive evidence for the deliberate disposal of individual human bones, groups of disarticulated bones, and body parts still held together by soft tissue, probably linked to practice of excarnation—where the corpse is first exposed to allow the flesh to either rot away or be removed by scavengers. Excarnated bones were either buried separately or added to graves containing an intact body (fig. 1). Ivana Radovanović in The Iron Gates Mesolithic (1996) has suggested that excarnation was reserved for individuals of higher status. However, apart from the presence of red ochre in many graves, burial goods are few and provide no clear evidence of social distinctions within the communities. Bones of dogs, the only domestic animal of this period, have been found in association with human remains at Vlasac, and there is one possible example of the separate burial of a dog—a practice known from the Mesolithic elsewhere in Europe.

Stable isotope analysis of collagen extracted from the human bones indicates a diet (and thus an economy) heavily dependent on fish, shellfish, and other aquatic resources. The bones of carp, catfish, and sturgeon were recovered in large quantities in Anglo-Romanian excavations at Schela Cladovei between 1992 and 1996. Many of the fish caught were enormous, some weighing as much as 200 kilograms. Large and small land mammals were hunted for their meat, hides, and pelts, and their bones were used as raw material for manufacturing a range of tools and weapons. Wild plants likely were collected for dietary and other purposes, but their remains have been recovered only in very small quantities, even when fine sieving and flotation have been used.

The chipped-stone artifacts from Vlasac and Schela Cladovei, though more numerous than those made of antler, bone, or boars' tusks, are less distinctive and are made almost exclusively from local sources of flint, radiolarite, and quartz. Decorated items are rare. They consist largely of stones and pieces of bone, often engraved with a net-like motif.

The strongest evidence that the inhabitants of Vlasac and Schela Cladovei engaged in trade and other forms of exchange with neighboring groups is the presence in some of the graves of the shells of marine mollusks, which probably originated in the Adriatic or Aegean. These certainly were acquired through exchange rather than procured directly from the source.

Intergroup contact may be manifested in other ways. Some of the adults buried at Schela Cladovei died violently, shot by arrows equipped with bone points. Others suffered broken bones, including skull fractures, which also may have been the result of violence. The high incidence of arrow wounds at Schela Cladovei is unusual, but such evidence is not unique in the Iron Gates, and numerous other examples have been reported from sites across Europe dating to various stages of the Mesolithic. The causes of the violence at Schela Cladovei and its social context are unknown. It may signify conflict with other groups in the form of feuds or raiding, but retribution or ritual killing within the community (and even accidental shootings) cannot be ruled out.

Growing evidence indicates that the settlement record of the Iron Gates Mesolithic is not continuous. A conspicuous gap in the available radiocarbon dates between 6300 and 6000 b.c. suggests that many sites, including Vlasac and Schela Cladovei, were abandoned during that period. This coincided with a phase of cooler and wetter climate affecting much of western and central Europe, when the Danube and other river systems experienced more frequent and more extreme flooding. Faced with an increased threat from flooding, it is possible that people chose to relocate their settlements onto higher ground, either to more elevated terraces or onto the upland plateau at the edge of the valley—areas that were not surveyed archaeologically in the 1960s and 1970s.

The only site that can be shown to have remained in use during this period is Lepenski Vir. This remarkable site has a number of unusual, even unique, features. The architecture is more elaborate than that of any other site (fig. 2). The trapezoidal buildings, which show considerable variation in size, have specially prepared plaster floors and elaborate hearths, entrance facades, and other stone-built elements. Burials seem to have been deliberately located within or under some of the buildings. The site also has an unusually high frequency of decorated objects including stone "altars" and the famous sculptured boulders. These are between 15 and 60 centimeters in height, and were pecked and ground from sandstone boulders obtained near the site. Many are carved with abstract motifs. Others are figural, although usually only the head is clearly defined with exaggerated features such as large, often downturned mouths and bulging eyes. These representational forms are sometimes described as fish-like or half fish and half human. The frequent placement of the sculptured boulders on the floors of buildings, and the apparently deliberate deposition of parts of red-deer skulls with antlers and parts of animal carcasses inside some of the buildings, can be interpreted as symbolic acts. The shape of the buildings may also be symbolic. On the opposite bank of the Danube is the imposing trapezoidal mountain of Treskavac. Although archaeology does not reveal the belief system of the Iron Gates Mesolithic, it is not stretching credibility to imagine Treskavac as the abode of spirits that exerted a powerful influence on the lives of the local inhabitants. All these features suggest that Lepenski Vir was a special site. Although there was a settlement there before 7500 b.c., many archaeologists believe that it eventually developed into a "sacred place," used primarily for burial and ritual, and the plaster-floored buildings are often described as shrines or temples.

Curiously, the "shrines" and sculptured boulders appear in the archaeological record of Lepenski Vir at a time when many ordinary residential sites were abandoned. By continuing to use the site as a burial ground the group may have been seeking to maintain rights of ownership and inheritance to the land, the river and resources. It has been suggested that the sculptures were apotropaic, representations of ancestors or "river gods" that were intended to protect the site—the ritual home of the ancestors—from the unseen forces that were responsible for extreme and unpredictable floods.


The settlements that had been abandoned c. 6300 b.c., including Schela Cladovei and Vlasac, were reoccupied c. 6000 b.c. From the outset a marked change in cultural patterns is apparent. The sites now contain the bones of domesticated livestock (cattle, pigs, sheep and/or goats) although hunting and fishing still contributed to the economy. Changes in material culture and technology are evident, reflected in the appearance of pottery, ground stone artifacts, and new forms of bone tools. There is evidence for trade or exchange in exotic materials, including obsidian and high-quality "Balkan" flint that originated outside the Iron Gates region. A new form of burial, where the body is curled up in

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the fetal position, was introduced. All these features can be paralleled in early farming settlements of the Starčevo culture that start to appear in other parts of the Middle Danube basin c. 6000 b.c.

Two competing theories seek to account for these changes. Some archaeologists believe that the Iron Gates region, and the Danube gorges in particular, remained a refuge for hunter-gatherers for centuries after cereal cultivation and stock raising were introduced to the surrounding regions; they interpret the appearance of pottery and bones of livestock in the Iron Gates as the product of trade with neighboring farmers. Others argue that the Iron Gates Mesolithic people quickly adopted agriculture, pottery, and other elements of the Starčevo culture—caught up in the same process of
"Neolithization" that saw farming communities established over much of the northern Balkans by c. 5900 b.c. A third possible scenario is that Iron Gates region was colonized by immigrant farmers who ousted or exterminated the indigenous Mesolithic people and took over their traditional sites. While this idea cannot be discounted, as of 2003 there was no scientific evidence to support it. The weight of evidence appears to favor the second explanation. Pottery occurs in such quantity at Lepenski Vir, Padina, Schela Cladovei, and other sites that it is difficult to imagine it was all brought in from outside.

Lepenski Vir has produced other critically important data. This is the only site in the region where the events of the final Mesolithic and Early Neolithic, c. 6300–5500 b.c., can be studied as an uninterrupted process. Research since the 1990s has cast doubt on the elaborate chronological subdivisions of the site proposed by the excavator, and it seems that the architectural and artistic traditions represented by the trapezoidal plaster-floored "shrines" and sculptured boulders persisted throughout this time range.

The people buried at Lepenski Vir are a continuous cross-section of the Iron Gates population of that period. Chemical analysis of their bones reveals a significant change in diet around the time that pottery and other "Neolithic" artifacts appear in the archaeological record. The group ceased to subsist mainly on fish and other aquatic foods and derived the greater part of its dietary protein from terrestrial sources. Such a major change in diet is likely to have required a direct investment in agriculture.

Although the label "Neolithic" can be assigned to the people and culture of the Iron Gates after 6000 b.c., echoes of their Late Mesolithic ancestry survive in the later artwork of Lepenski Vir and in the trapezoidal buildings that continued to be erected there and elsewhere in the Danube gorges.

See alsoTransition to Farming in the Balkans (vol. 1, part 3).


Bonsall, Clive, Vasile Boroneant̅, and Ivana Radovanović. The Iron Gates in Prehistory. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2004.

Bonsall, Clive, Mark G. Macklin, Robert W. Payton, and Adina Boroneant̅. "Climate, Floods and River Gods: Environmental Change and the Meso–Neolithic Transition in Southeast Europe." Before Farming 3–4, no. 2 (2002): 1–15.

Radovanović, Ivana. The Iron Gates Mesolithic. Archaeological Series, no. 11. Ann Arbor, Mich.: International Monographs in Prehistory, 1996.

Srejović, Dragoslav. Europe's First Monumental Sculpture:New Discoveries at Lepenski Vir. Translated by Lovett F. Edwards. London: Thames and Hudson, 1972.

Clive Bonsall