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21 January 2018
Norwegian houses reused for over 1000 years during Stone Age

We've always heard that Stone Age people lived in caves. It turns out that they often lived in earthen huts, which they reused for centuries and kept up rather than building new ones. Small, simple earthen huts found in Norway appear to have been used for 1000 years. They may have stood empty for 40-50 years at a time before being maintained and reused - again and again.
     Archaeologist Silje Fretheim at NTNU's Department of Archaeology and Cultural History finds that incredible. "Few buildings today have lasted for as long as 1000 years. Their use for that long tells us there was a point to maintaining the homes," she says.
     The Mesolithic period in Norway spans approximately 5500 years, starting about 9500 BCE, when people were nomadic hunters and gatherers. At the beginning of the period, people lived in tents believed to have been made from animal hides, although no tent coverings have been found from this time. Eventually the homes became more permanent.
     Fretheim analysed information from 150 excavated Stone Age dwellings, extending from the northernmost county of Finnmark to southern Norway. The amount of relatively well-preserved Mesolithic dwellings in Norway is unique to Northern Europe, and Fretheim's dissertation thus gives a new picture of the Stone Age population that also reaches beyond Norway's borders.
     "In Norway, Stone Age remains have been preserved because the areas along the coast rebounded from the glacial weight of the last Ice Age. Another reason is that agriculture in Norway has been less extensive, and so it hasn't covered the traces of the Stone Age. In Finnmark, where cultivated land is the least prevalent, it's possible to see many traces of the oldest dwellings", says Fretheim.
     Not surprisingly, finding traces of 10.000 to 11.500 year old homes of people from the Mesolithic period is pretty limited. Fretheim says archaeologists have found tent rings, which are stones that were placed on the tent flaps. They've also found cleared surfaces, with clearly defined concentrations of tool remains. Producing stone tools created a lot of debris.
     The floor area of these early dwellings "is almost always between five and ten square metres", says Fretheim, "which may indicate that nuclear families moved around with portable tents. I think the tents were probably part of the mobile lifestyle 'package' that people travelled with."
      When the forest spread into new areas, the sea level along the coast stabilized and the final ice sheets from the last ice age retreated from the interior, 9500 years ago, dwellings then became larger. Instead of pitching a tent on the ground, the floor was partially dug down into the ground of so-called pit houses. The rest of the house was built up with a framework of wood and turf. The largest pit houses were up to 40 square metres. "Several families may have lived together, or perhaps hunting teams shared houses", says Fretheim.
     As the sea level stabilized, Fretheim believes people came to prefer living in areas with fishing and hunting conditions that were stable and varied. The pit houses were kept up and reused to a great extent, with the most used ones being maintained for over 1000 years. Fretheim thinks it's fascinating to think about how these house remains affected people in the Stone Age and somehow kept drawing them back to those places. "I imagine that the pit sites that were visible in the landscape at the time helped to create the first cultural landscape. These were the first visible traces left behind, so people recognized those places and chose to rebuild there rather than in new locations", Fretheim says.

Edited from ScienceNordic (17 January 2018)

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