Saltbæk Vig

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The Saltbæk Vig Project was a regional archaeological investigation of the beginnings of agriculture in prehistoric southern Scandinavia around 3950 b.c. The chronological focus of the project was the Late Mesolithic and the Early Neolithic, approximately 5000–3300 b.c. The multistage project included intensive field walking of all accessible fields within defined survey zones. Guided by the field walking data, a total of fifty-three test excavations were carried out to investigate whether clusters of material on the surface had any related stratigraphy and to confirm the date and characteristics of the surface collections. Excavations were conducted at sixteen sites dating from around the transition to agriculture that had organic remains. Recording of museum collections, interviewing of local landowners, and palaeo-environmental investigating were also components of the project.

The Saltbæk Vig is located in northwestern Zealand, eastern Denmark, near the town of Kalundborg. This area was selected because the water level in the inlet is artificially maintained at 1.2 meters below sea level due to a land reclamation project dating back to the 1860s. As a result coastal Mesolithic localities from late Kongemose culture and onward are now above sea level in the inlet. Much of the area is accessible to fieldwork because of cultivation and limited modern development. Museum records had indicated that material from the Late Mesolithic Ertebo⁄lle culture as well as material from the Early Neolithic Funnel Beaker culture was present in the area, and there was potential for preserved organic materials.

The research area was defined by the sea and by the watershed around the inlet and the major river that feeds into it, the Bregninge Å. The area is approximately 16 kilometers long from northwest to southeast and 8.8 kilometers wide, or about 140 square kilometers, including the roughly rectangular inlet, which is 36 square kilometers. The field survey covered about 22 square kilometers in three zones. In all 415 localities, including settlements, stray finds and graves were recorded; 55 localities were previously known. More than fifty thousand artifacts were collected and stored at the local museum including forty thousand flakes, more than five thousand blades, four hundred polished axes and fragments, two hundred projectile points, one thousand pieces of pottery, and a variety of other flint and ground stone objects.

general finds

The survey recorded all materials that were encountered, but as expected most finds belonged to the Stone Age. The majority of localities were found along the south shore of the inlet, concentrated toward the mouth to the west. Relatively few sites were found along the north shore or in the valley of the Bregninge Å in the eastern, more inland part of the project area. The four transects and areas surrounding the long dolmens produced only few finds documenting the general low density of inland settlement.

A few settlements, stray projectile points, and cores were found belonging to the Late Palaeolithic (11,500–9000 b.c.), Maglemose (9000–6400 b.c.), and Kongemose (6400–5400 b.c.) periods. Only a few sites from the Bronze Age (1800–500 b.c.) and Iron Age (500 b.c.–a.d. 700) were recorded, mainly in the Tranemose area south of the Saltbæk Vig.

Most Mesolithic sites date from the Ertebo⁄lle culture, 5400–3950 b.c.; in all twenty-eight settlements were located immediately on the coast at low elevations, 80 percent of these on marine deposits. Settlements were located where fishing opportunities were optimal. At Saltmade, a middle Ertebo⁄lle site, a permanent fish trap was found dating from 5100 b.c. Another similar site at Smakkerup Huse from 4990 b.c. had a partly paved fishing area and boat landing along the shore containing fragments of dugout canoes, many wooden stakes, bone awls used as spear points in fishing, and an outcast layer with waste material from the settlement. The site was occupied year-round; hunting for terrestrial mammals and collection of plant food and shellfish supplemented the shallow-water fishing. Similar Mesolithic sites include Tybrind Vig, Mo⁄llegabet, and Vænget Nord. Usually the pattern is one large permanent site in a fjord supplemented by smaller seasonal camps. In Saltbæk Vig three clusters of sites appear to have coexisted at the mouth of the Vig, along streams on the central part of the south shore, and at the Bregninge Å delta. Mesolithic sites in the region are about 2,200 square meters and on average contain 136 artifacts with a maximum of 494 artifacts. Sites from the Mesolithic and the transition period to the Neolithic are about half the size of the sites from the early and middle Funnel Beaker and not as rich in flint.

Distinction of late Ertebo⁄lle and early Funnel Beaker assemblages found in the survey poses a problem because of strong similarities in both lithic and ceramic technology. Besides diagnostic ceramics the best indicators are specialized core axes from Ertebo⁄lle and early polished flint axes from the Funnel Beaker (fig. 1). Among six sites from around 3950 b.c., when the first domesticated animals appear, most show a continuation of Ertebo⁄lle tradition. At Smakkerup Huse, cattle bones dating from 3920 b.c. were found in an otherwise Mesolithic context with wild fauna and Ertebo⁄lle flint and pottery, including the pointed bottom of a small cup. Other sites, like one located inland on the sandy hill of Lindebjerg, represent new settlements away from the classic waterside locations of the Mesolithic and probably a different kind of subsistence: an earthen long barrow dating from 3790 b.c. is located in the vicinity of this settlement along with several later settlements and megalithic tombs from the middle Funnel Beaker period. A similar early site was found below the long barrow at Mosegården.

Almost sixty settlements were recorded from early and middle Funnel Beaker (3950–3200 b.c.), defined by the presence of Funnel Beaker–type pottery and polished thin-butted flint axes. Settlements were situated more inland, on higher sandy areas, but also on clay soils showing a more diverse use of the landscape; many finds were located beyond the coastal zone of the survey. Deposits of pots and axes were placed in wet areas; megalithic tombs were found near settlements or at higher elevations.

Settlements vary in size but are rich in flint, yielding up to 4,000 pieces, with an average of 186 artifacts per site. The density and spread of material on sandy elevations around Illerup and at the plateau hills may represent repeated and shifting use. This would suggest long-term attachment to a preferred part of the landscape, but—in contrast to the Ertebo⁄lle—not a long-term continuity of the individual site apart from the funerary monuments. Similar accumulations of occupation have been observed in the southern Swedish region of Scania and on the south Danish island of Als. The economic and social changes in early and middle Funnel Beaker seem to involve a system of redistribution of food and other products among occupationally specialized groups. For example the flint inventory at Gro⁄nvang was dominated by burins (chisel-type tools), at Lindebjerg North by scrapers. At other sites, such as Smakkerup Huse (3500 b.c.) and Nekselo⁄ (3500–3100 b.c.), dimensions of the permanent fish traps suggest catches beyond local consumption.

Late Funnel Beaker (thirty sites from 3300–2800 b.c.) and Corded Ware (three sites from 2800–2400 b.c.) finds are focused more on the coast; the substantial settlements are about 3,600 square meters. Late Neolithic settlements and stray finds (2400–1800 b.c.) show a reduction and a shift in the habitation. Eight small settlements (less than 1,000 square meters) and several burial mounds are located along the north and east shore of the inlet, particularly on Alleshave.


By investigating the correlation between various aspects of the landscape and the archaeological data, a pattern of land use emerges involving a wide range of activities of greater or lesser intensity. Through time three thresholds in settlement organization can be identified where the cultural landscape was reorganized and new areas inhabited. The first is the appearance of a coastal habitation following the establishment of a marine environment in the bay during the Late Kongemose and Ertebo⁄lle. The second threshold is the shift to inland locations and increased settlement size during the Early Neolithic Funnel Beaker. The third is the reduction and relocation of the habitation to the coastal areas along the north side of the inlet during the Late Neolithic.

A curious duality appears at the beginning of the Neolithic with a gradual adoption of Neolithic elements (including domesticates) by the local Ertebo⁄lle, on one hand, and a movement of people inland with a farming economy and burial monuments, on the other. With absolute dating of only one site, it is uncertain whether the two trends are coeval or the inland occupation is slightly younger.

An intensive field survey like Saltbæk Vig increases the known number of settlement sites. Previous records were biased toward Neolithic burial monuments and stray finds of polished flint axes. This study especially emphasized the Mesolithic presence in the area: both settlements along the coast and inland hunting activities on higher sandy areas. Finally, the multidisciplinary approach produced a wealth of subsistence and palaeoenvironmental data from the Saltbæk Vig area.

See alsoThe Mesolithic of Northern Europe (vol. 1, part2); Tybrind Vig (vol. 1, part 2); Transition to Agriculture in Northern Europe (vol. 1, part 3).


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