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Ertebolle Culture; Mesolithic ingenuity

The Ertebolle culture of the late Mesolithic Denmark ( 5300-3950BC) is fascinating from an ancient technology point of view, not just because of the exceptional preservation of bone, antler and even wood finds, but the ingenious designs.

The people who lived in this region of southern Scandinavia relied heavily on fishing and shellfish, leaving extensive shell middens. The landscape was one of marshes, expanses of shallow salty water which must have invited fishing, and a network of rivers and Estuaries. Much of Europe was covered in deciduous forest at that time, but Jutland itself was a marshy archipelago rich in resources. The people moved through established territories, setting up lightweight but not permanent camps and apparently returning to particular ritual sites to bury their dead. Because of sea level changes many of the sites are underwater now, which has (in some cases) helped their preservation- although sadly some have suffered badly from erosion. With fish a major part of the diet, a good number of the tools recovered were associated with fishing- red deer bone hooks, hazel spears and clever composite microlith and bone harpoons/ spears. Many of these were the usual Barbed bone or antler with sharp, back pointing serrations similar to the teeth of a predatory fish. But there were some clever uses of other materials; it’s the only example of roe deer antlers being used to make harpoons that I’ve ever seen.

A multitude of bone and antler axes ( yes really!) were discovered as well as the antler hafted tools such as the one featured in a recent video. They seem to have discovered that the huge bones of moose and Elk were strong and hard enough to be used as woodworking tools. Experiments by experimental archaeologists such as Morten Kutschera have shown that they are really effective tools.

It’s unclear just how widespread this innovative use of bone and antler was, certainly there was no shortage of trade and travel to spread ideas- the people on the Jutland archipelago were eating grain grown further south, and already had pottery! It could be that it was only preserved at these Danish sites and was actually very widespread. Certainly antler picks with small diameter wooden handles were being made and used in Doggerland during the early Mesolithic, as this find from the beaches of Holland shows.

What’s interesting is that Denmark has plenty of good flint, so presumably the bone tools were as good ( if not better) than the flint equivalents or they would have simply used stone, even if it had to be traded over some distance.

There is the added bonus that the antler acts as a shock absorber between the flint and the handle which lessens the likelihood of breakage. It also extends the working reach of the head so that a small ( tiny!) axe head can be used efficiently. Because holes can be drilled through antler, it also helps to fix the head securely to a handle without having to rely on bindings and glue in places where they will not survive use. It’s a common misconception of prehistoric axes- some at least utilised no binding at all and relied on a very good fit of axe to helve. In any case bindings have to be carefully considered, otherwise they fail very quickly. Recent find of well preserved Neolithic Axe which relies solely on a good fit of axe to helve.

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