Skateholm is a small coastal village located in the southernmost part of Sweden. A major part of the area close to the coastline comprises a wetland about 4 kilometers in length, running more or less parallel to the present coastline. During the Late Atlantic chronozone (c. 6800–4000 b.c.), which included several transgressions, an inlet was formed in stages. The freshwater from a couple of small rivers was mixed with inflowing saltwater, transforming the inlet into a basin with high levels of nutrition and diverse salinity levels advantageous to a wide variety of fish, birds, and mammals. Such an environment was quite attractive to humans in the Late Mesolithic with a base in fishing, hunting, and gathering. They settled on capes and islands close to the available resources. As a result of the transgressions, favorable sites for settlement subsequently were submerged, and the settlers had to move to suitable new camps. At least four such major settlement sites and several seasonal camps have been identified within the inlet, covering the time sequence 5200–4500 b.c.
Research has been adapted with a view to obtaining an overall picture of the infrastructure of the settlements in an attempt to identify activity areas of various types. This research applies, in particular, to the highest-lying sections with a partially disturbed, find-impoverished layer—in the majority of cases sites situated on slopes. Interest has concentrated on the upper sections of the settlement areas as the result of research conducted at the Bo⁄gebakken site on the Danish O⁄resund coast. In 1975 construction work was carried out on the upper reaches of this site, where several graves of Late Mesolithic age came to light. The question was raised whether the Bo⁄gebakken phenomenon was anything other than unique.
At Skateholm the main area of interest, toward which the majority of fieldwork has been directed, has been the investigation of nearly ninety burials on two main sites, Skateholm I and Skateholm II, located just a couple of hundred meters apart. Investigations have shown that Skateholm II is somewhat older than Skateholm I. Both sites contain numerous graves, which also were related to a contemporaneous settlement. Within the compass of a small area it is possible to study similarities and differences in the pattern of settlement and burial customs over the space of several hundred years. The size, location, and great age of the two cemeteries are naturally of considerable interest to the researcher, although there is another, equally fascinating aspect that concerns insight into the symbolic world provided by the cemeteries and burials.
The processing of the Skateholm material has produced indications that point to a complicated burial ritual. These rituals concern not only the interment itself but also the whole range of activities from the moment it was realized that a person was dying up to the act of refilling the grave. The dying person appears to have eaten a "last supper" with a particular content, evidence of which is provided by the fish bones in the stomach. The positioning of the deceased in the grave and the composition of the grave goods followed a particular pattern. The ritual included the deposition not only of objects such as tools and ornaments, which are classified as grave goods, but also of the skeletal parts of animals. Food, including fish, also was placed in the grave.
Various activities took place in connection with the filling in of the grave. Food was eaten, and the leftovers were deposited in the filling material. Traces of wooden structures raised over the grave pit have been found. These structures had been burned down before the refilling of the grave. The Mesolithic mortuary practice also included a small number of cremations, three out of eighty-seven. Three main categories of body positions can be identified: supine, seated, and crouching. The composition of the grave goods follows a more distinctive gender pattern than do the body positions. Tools, such as knives and axes, typically are found with men, whereas women have ornaments, such as belt decorations made of animal teeth. In addition various combinations of animal bones were sewn onto the clothes. Antlers also are found buried in a few graves. Red ochre was used frequently, more often than not covering only limited parts of the deceased person's body.
Certain differences in mortuary practice can be detected between the cemeteries. The crouching position, for example, is virtually unknown in the older cemetery at Skateholm II, whereas almost two of every five people interred at Skateholm I were placed in this position. The custom of depositing red deer antlers in graves is, on the contrary, quite unknown at Skateholm I, whereas it is a common feature at Skateholm II. At Skateholm the first evidence of dog graves was found. Dogs were provided with grave goods and were strewn with red ochre, reflecting a symbolism that appears to have applied to humans and dogs alike.
Investigations of grave fields such as those at Skateholm have radically influenced the approach to Late Mesolithic societies in northern Europe. The evidence of large grave fields with complex burial practices has added to the fund of information about the society. The Skateholm cemeteries thus can be placed in an interesting context with regard to both western and eastern Europe. Similarities exist between the cemeteries at Skateholm and those at Bo⁄gebakken in eastern Denmark, for example. Several sites from the Late Mesolithic of southern Scandinavia have provided both cemeteries and single graves. Cemeteries in conjunction with large settlements seem to be a common feature.
Mesolithic cemeteries occur in western Europe in conjunction with shell middens, such as those at Téviec and Hoëdic in Brittany. New studies and radiometric dating of previously investigated cemeteries have provided a fresh and valuable perspective on Mesolithic cemeteries along the eastern Baltic coast and neighboring areas. The large cemetery at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik in Karelia has been shown to be of Mesolithic age, and the cemeteries at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik and at Zvejnieki in western Latvia are contemporary with the oldest known burials in Scandinavia.
See alsoOleneostrovskii Mogilnik (vol. 1, part 3).
Larsson, L. "The Skateholm Project: Late Mesolithic Coastal Settlement in Southern Sweden." In Case Studies in European Prehistory. Edited by P. Bogucki, pp. 31–62. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1993.