Spent Friday working for my friends Mattias Pettersson and Roger Wikell, digging on one of their Mesolithic sites in the Tyresta nature reserve south of Stockholm. It’s an incredible place. Imagine:
An archipelago with lots of little rocky islands, located far from the coast of the mainland and teeming with seals. Mesolithic people go there in kayaks to hunt at certain times of the year, bringing chunks of rock for toolmaking. At their camps, they knap it into arrowheads, blades to edge bone harpoons, and knives to butcher seals. The camps are strewn with bones, knapping debris, charcoal and the shells of hazelnuts brought from the mainland as snacks.
Now imagine the land rising out of the sea as we press Fast Forward. As the sea drains away from the archipelago, the hunters follow the receding coastline, making new shore camps at ever-lower levels, and finally they never come back. (All this takes place before the world has even been made according to Biblical chronology.) The area becomes rugged highlands with lakes and brooks and bogs, and is soon covered by dense woods. These woods are useful to people for hunting, logging, charcoal production and pasturing livestock. But they don’t stay there much and they leave few traces. The scatters of Mesolithic seal-hunting debris under the moss are rarely disturbed.
In 1999 a forest fire raged through the Tyresta nature reserve, wiping out hundreds of hectares of pine, spruce and birch — a sixth of the reserve’s area. The heat was so intense that the ground vegetation, moss and grass turf, also went up in smoke. A few large trees survived, but over a vast area, everything that had accumulated there since the end of the Mesolithic was gone. Suddenly the islands of the ancient archipelago were once again in plain view of each other, but no longer across the waves of the sea — across low-lying expanses of naked rock and charcoal. The vegetation is regenerating slowly, but the burnt area is still an absolutely amazing sight, a drained Mesolithic archipelago.
Into this Mordor-like post-apocalyptic landscape Mattias and Roger wandered. Ancient lithics scatters were everywhere, peeping out of the scorched earth if you knew what to look for. The material has never been covered by much sediment, it’s really just sitting on the ground surface where it ended up thousands of years ago. The sites the guys discovered number in the hundreds. And right now they’re digging at site number 121, about 65 meters above current sea level, corresponding to a shoreline in the Maglemosian.
It’s on the shore of what was once the inner reaches of a long, canal-like inlet sheltered by low cliff walls. The inlet had shallows near its mouth and the shore-displacement was rapid, so the time when it was a good place for a sealing camp was brief, perhaps only one generation. Very good for archaeologists seeking sites with single-component occupation.
Digging and sieving half a square meter to a depth of 10-20 cm today, I found a handful of knapped quartz. Earlier, the guys have found a chip of Cambrian flint at the site, a material traded from Västergötland on the mainland, hundreds of kilometers away. No 121 hasn’t got any preserved bone, but with a bit of luck these sites produce carbonised hazelnut shells for radiocarbon dating. (No hazel bushes are likely to ever have grown in such a rocky habitat.) Such dates are valuable not only for archaeology, but also for the shore-displacement research done by quaternary geologists who follow the Tyresta excavations avidly.
I had a great day at Tyresta, wonderful to be able to contribute a little to such exciting work. All research-driven, no land-developer pressure, only the most informative sites are targeted for excavation! And all, of course, on a shoestring budget.
Read Mattias & Roger’s paper about Tyresta in the Coast to Coast: Arrival anthology. (Massive PDF file).