Pitted Ware and Related Cultures of Neolithic Northern Europe

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Ajvide . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 435

The arrival of farming in northern Europe around 4000 b.c. changed substantially the life of prehistoric communities in the Baltic Sea basin and southern Scandinavia. Archaeologically, this event was marked by the development of the Funnel Beaker (also known as Trichterbecher, or TRB) cultural tradition—indeed, in the view of most scholars, Funnel Beaker culture arose as a result of the adoption of new farming practices and cultural traditions (such as new ways of making pottery, production of long-bladed flint and of polished stone tools, and new burial practices and house construction) by the local hunter-gatherer communities after a prolonged period of contact with the first farmers to the south, in central Europe. In terms of lifestyle changes, these hunter-gatherers-turned-farmers adapted farming to the local conditions by placing emphasis on stock keeping, by building more permanent villages away from coastal locations and shifting from a largely marine diet to one that was more terrestrial, and by developing complex ceremonies and rituals having to do with the celebration of ancestors and the burial of the dead. In the landscape, such rites were symbolized by earthen long barrows, megalithic chambered tombs, ritual earthworks, such as ditch and bank enclosures (causewayed camps), and other impressive structures. But northern Europe's first farmers also continued with hunting and gathering, and in terms of land use, their strategies to some extent followed earlier land use patterns, prompting some researchers to agree with Per Johansson's suggestion that farming "was only one ingredient in locally varying subsistence practices." The health and life span of the Funnel Beaker people remained broadly the same as that of their hunting-gathering ancestors.

However, this process of "Neolithization," marked by the dispersal of the Funnel Beaker tradition, covered only the southern part of northern Europe: Denmark, Scania, central Sweden, and coastal southern Norway. To the north and east, vast areas of northern Europe continued to be inhabited and utilized by hunting and gathering communities that now engaged in contact and exchange with the Funnel Beaker and similar farming settlements as they became a part of a new agricultural frontier zone. Such communities developed their own ways of coping with the challenges and opportunies offered by the relative proximity of the farming world; they made changes and adjustments, while at the same time retaining a huntinggathering lifestyle—in some cases, into the historical period. This is a fact little appreciated by most scholars of European prehistory, who tend to see the introduction of farming into northern Europe as the end of the hunting and gathering communities there. But the history of hunter-gatherers in Europe did not end five thousand or six thousand years ago. In eastern and northern Europe it continued for another two or three thousand years, and in some regions, hunter-gatherer communities—transformed into reindeer herders and commercial hunter-gatherers—have continued into the twenty-first century. Pitted Ware and related cultural traditions in northern Europe form an early stage in this exceptional cultural development.


Pitted Ware culture is defined by a characteristically shaped ceramic, which is round-based or pointedbased as well as flat-bottomed and which is decorated by rows of pits and incisions pressed into the body of the pot before firing. In shape and decoration, this ceramic reflects influences from northeastern Europe, where a major ceramic tradition became established in the sixth and fifth millennia b.c. Known as Combed, or Pit-Comb, Ware, this tradition originated probably in eastern Siberia and China in the Late Palaeolithic and so constitutes the oldest ceramic tradition anywhere. Although Funnel Beaker technological and stylistic elements are evident in Pitted Ware—demonstrating close relations between the two communities—Pitted Ware as a whole represents the westernmost extension of this ancient ceramic tradition.

The repertoire of Pitted Ware cultures varied from region to region, reflecting perhaps the heterogeneous nature of this tradition: that is, in each region, different ancestral communities participated in the constitution of the local culture. For example, the manufacture of stone tools reflected regional sources of raw materials, as did the production and stylistic variation of stone axes. One fairly widespread element of Pitted Ware culture was the use of fishhooks, harpoons, and nets and sinkers, as well as the use of lanceloate flint points (arrowheads or spearheads), which were sometimes serrated or fixed with a tang (or both) and which were probably used in the hunting of marine mammals.

Pitted Ware settlements are located in coastal regions of northern Europe: along the southern coasts of peninsular Scandinavia from southern Norway to central ("middle") Sweden, along the northern coast of Jutland, and on major islands in the Baltic: Öland, Gotland, and Åland between Sweden and southern Finland. There are some Pitted Ware sites in the interior, such as Alvastra, but such locations tend to be multicultural aggreggation sites and may not have belonged to any one community. Such coastal orientation suggests a focus toward the exploitation of marine resources, and this was indeed the case.


Bone remains from Pitted Ware sites show that sealing, fishing, and capture of waterfowl were the mainstays of the Pitted Ware economy. The only terrestrial animal of any importance was the pig, which appears to have supplemented the diet of Pitted Ware communities on special occasions.

The economy of the Pitted Ware people, like their material cultures, varied from one region to another. Studies of seasonality of occupation on Pitted Ware sites in central Sweden (around Stockholm) suggested to Stig Welinder that, at first, Pitted Ware communities spent most of the year at their main village on the coast, making seasonal forays inland to hunt for pigs and fur-bearing animals and to engage in exchange with farming communities in the interior. Later on, islands off the coast became more important, and people switched to a seasonal exploitation of seals and other resources in the archipelago in the spring and the autumn when these resources were the most abundant.

On Gotland in the central Baltic, seals made an overwhelming contribution to the diet of Pitted Ware communities. Cultural layers of Pitted Ware settlements such as Västerbjers, Ire, and Ajvide revealed bone remains of seals, pigs, dogs, fish, and waterbirds. At Ajvide, an extensive dark cultural layer was saturated with seal train oil and numerous seal bones and was interpreted as a "seal-altar," a ritual seal-butchering area. On the nearby island of Åland, people of Jettbole seem to have treated seal skulls in a special ritual manner, and clay figurines found there combined seal and human features.

The clearest indication of Pitted Ware diet, however, comes from the stable isotope carbon and nitrogen analyses of human bones and teeth. Skeletons buried on Gotland offer evidence that seal was by far the predominant element of the Pitted Ware diet, so much so that Gunilla Eriksson has described the Pitted Ware people on Gotland as "the Inuit of the Baltic."

At the same time, however, pigs feature as an important part of bone assemblages found on many Pitted Ware sites. It is clear that pigs had to be brought to Gotland, Åland, and other islands by human agency—pigs do swim, but not that far. The size and shape of some of the pig bones suggest some sort of selective breeding, perhaps domestication. This is a classic problem for archaeology: Were these pigs domesticated? And if so, why did people eat mostly seal? Scholars have argued about this for some time. Some favor a domestic pig hypothesis; others argue for them being wild; and still others suggest that people kept semiwild "freeland pigs" that were under partial control of human beings who fed them surplus seal and fish and so tamed them without exercising much control over their reproduction. It is clear from the stable isotope analyses that none of the pigs examined had any marine input in their diets; they consumed completely terrestrial foods. This argues in favor of the wild pig hypothesis, although it does not explain how wild pigs got to be on Gotland in the first place. The evidence also suggests that pigs were consumed on ritual occasions only—the intermittent pig feasts did not occur often enough to make a mark in the stable isotope record, but they did generate enough pig bones to feature prominently in the bone remains. It is clear that the pig was a ritually significant animal: carved boar tusks and pig jaws were deposited in the graves of the Pitted Ware people.

It seems that Pitted Ware communities buried their dead in cemeteries, although most of the evidence for this comes from a single region: the island of Gotland, where around 180 graves, distributed over several burial sites, usually with associated cultural layers, were found. At Västerbjers, flat-grave inhumations contained grave goods such as ceramics; worked boar tusks; pendants of seal, dog, and fox teeth; awls, spears, harpoons, and fishhooks of bone; stone and flint axes, hollow-edge axes; flint, slate, or bone arrowheads; stabbing weapons of deer antler; bone plaques and awls; perforated bone disks; tubular beads of dentalium and cylindrical bone beads; and bones of seals and pigs. Slate artifacts, battle-axes, and several other artifacts testify to far-ranging contacts with other regions of the Baltic and northern Europe. All age groups, from children to mature adults, were buried in the cemetery. Although there is some variation in the grave goods, there is no clear pattern indicating a special social standing by gender, age group, or any other grouping. It seems that grave goods reflected life history and social status on an individual basis. The time span of the cemetery has been radiocarbon dated to 2850–2500 b.c.


The origin and duration of the Pitted Ware culture have been a matter of some debate among prehistorians. On the one hand, the Pitted Ware tradition has been represented as a wholesale return of the Neolithic society to hunting after the initial experiment with farming: Fredrik Hallgren, for example, maintains that "farmsteads in the interior were deserted in favour of coastal settlements, where the main livelihood was fishing and sealing." On the other hand, Pitted Ware culture is regarded by some researchers as an offshoot of an essentially farming society: they see Pitted Ware societies as pigherding farmers who occasionally cultivated cereals, or else they view Pitted Ware artifacts as a signature of Funnel Beaker or Corded Ware farmers who might have traveled to the seaside to get some fish and seal. Another view, however, rejects both of these interpretations. As Gunilla Eriksson correctly notes, Pitted Ware was a hunter-gatherer society with its own sense of identity. The clue to its existence lies in the history of contacts between foragers and farmers in the first five hundred years of Stone Age farming in southern Scandinavia (4000–3400 b.c.).

Pitted Ware culture seems to have arisen in the fourth millennium b.c., and its tradition falls into a time between 3500 and 2500 b.c. The culture emerged in the context of two events. First, it coincided with the disappearance in some regions of the first farming settlements of the Funnel Beaker tradition, which for the previous four hundred years had occupied the interior regions of the southern part of Scandinavia. And second, it was associated with the strengthening of contacts and exchange with hunting-gathering communities in Finland and the eastern Baltic, evident in artifact imports and stylistic traits. Pitted Ware tradition was replaced in most regions by the Corded Ware culture before or by 2500 b.c., which in turn gave rise to a range of cultural traditions combining Pitted and Corded Ware elements in the Early Bronze Age.

Pitted Ware culture, represents a broader historical development: a case of innovating hunter-gatherers active in a contact zone between foragers and farmers. As people adopted farming practices within the context of the Funnel Beaker culture, hunting and gathering traditions were not forgotten. After a few generations, coastal regions—where fishing and sealing presented a more viable alternative to farming for subsistence—returned to a hunting and fishing lifestyle, with seal and pig forming the focus of activities. This shift in emphasis was supported by the presence of agricultural communities inland and farther afield (as in Denmark and Poland), where the demand for seal fat and oil, furs, and perhaps various forest products supported the development of specialized hunter-gatherer strategies for trade. The presence of large amounts of ceramics, the size of the pots, jars with remnants of seal oil, and mineralogical indicators of the movement of pottery between Pitted Ware sites and the southern shores of the Baltic all suggest such trade. Within a few generations, these activities created a separate set of communities with a separate set of symbolic expressions: the Pitted Ware culture. The model for these symbols was provided by contact with the cognate hunter-gatherer communities farther east: perhaps Pit-Comb Ware in Finland, Combed Ware cultures in the eastern Baltic, and other similar groups.

Pitted Ware culture was eventually absorbed into a foraging-farming society of the Early Bronze Age about four thousand years ago. But the set of strategies its people generated provided a viable alternative to becoming farmers. These strategies focused on contact and exchange with the farming world, while remaining a hunting and gathering community. Such use of the agricultural frontier zone was also developed successfully by many other foraging communities in northern and eastern Europe, as the evidence from large, weathy villages such as Kierikki in northern Finland or Sarnate in Latvia indicate. Augmented by fur trade and reindeer husbandry, commercial hunter-gatherers—a lifestyle pioneered by the bearers of the Pitted Ware culture—has been continuing successfully to the present day.

See alsoAjvide (vol. 1, part 4).


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