Seal hunters’ dwellings by the River Kemijoki in the Stone Age    

Since the Mesolithic Stone Age, Finnish settlement was concentrated on the coast shaped by rapid uplift of land. People were attracted by seal hunting and fishing above all. Determinations of bones from the Stone Age dwelling places on the coast prove that since the Comb-Ware period, the proportion of seal bones increases to 80–90 % of the total number (Siiriäinen 1981). At the rivermouths at the bottom of the northern part of the Gulf of Bothnia, settlement also gets denser during the typical Comb-Ware period and reaches its highest point in the late Neolithic period. In the middle and towards the end of the Neolithic period, in solar years about 6200–4100 years ago, the River Kemijoki emptied its waters into a wide gulf in Ossauskoski, Tervola. Today, this ancient gulf is mainly bogland split by moraine heaths. About 110 dwelling places on raised beaches are known from the Neolithic period. Of these, 52 dwelling places have dwelling ground rows, which are partly dug in and follow the raised beach zones. The sites, which can be supposed to be winter dwelling places, form 12 larger groups, of which about 1000 dwelling grounds have been distinguished. Today, about 3500 prehistoric dwelling grounds are known from Finland. In addition to the areas by the northern part of the Gulf of Bothnia, there are large groups of dwelling grounds on the banks of Varangerfjord and in Russian Karelia, among others (e.g.. Kotivuori 1993, Pesonen 2002).

In Finland, interest in Stone Age dwellings arose as early as the beginning of the 20th century. In Lapland, Ilmari Itkonen being the foreman, the first Stone Age kota hut site was excavated in the dwelling place of Vuopaja in Inari in 1909. (Itkonen 1913, Carpelan 2003). Juho Hoikka, a lay member of a circuit court, who was interested in archaelogy, investigated ancient dwelling grounds in Rovaniemi as early as the 1860’s. Considering the early time, he made sharp-eyed observations on structures and documented his excavation subjects even with cross section drawings (Kotivuori 1996). In the Neolithic period, a fishing and hunting community of about 150–250 people lived in the area of the lower course of the River Kemijoki. They moved according to the seasons inside a 60-kilometre-long section of the river between the present-day Town of Rovaniemi and the Tervola municipality. In late autumn, the whole tribe seems to have settled down in rows of dwellings on the seaside. There they could carry on active seal hunting on ice, when the ringed seal population was bringing forth young on the edge of pack ice in March–April.

Stone Age semisubterranean houses

One Stone Age hunting village in Tervola consisted of 6–8 dwellings, the grounds of which were on the average about 44 centimetres deep, if compared with the embankments on the edges. The pit was usually 7,5 x 5,8 metres wide, so the average area of a dwelling was 43,5 m². The often rectangular floor covered 22,3 m² on the average (Kotivuori 2002). It can be supposed that the sleeping places were beneath the slopes of the roof, and only the floor space around the central hearth was trodden to be distinguished during the excavations. The hearth consisted of layers of broken pieces of burnt stones with coal, quartz and slate cements as well as burnt bones. A separate hearth ground is oblong (about 1,5 x 1,0 metres). Little by little, when stones crumbled by heat were replaced with new ones, the hearth area was enlarged. The dwellings had to be warmed up during cold winters, but the hearth was necessary for cooking and burning organic waste, too. Pieces of stones and refuse were thrown on the hut embankment or buried in waste pits. 

The rapid uplift of land resulted in the fact that a hut could be used for about 15–25 years. It is obvious that a hut had a ridge pole supported by upright poles, and against it rested the straight roof slopes starting from the edge embankment. Longitudinal supporting poles held  both insulating birchbark and sods which had been laid above it. Observations have been made both of pole places and birchbark, but otherwise the structure has been determined by means of ethnological comparison material. The timber framework bordering the lower part of a hut has also been found in two or three excavation sites. A dwelling in Kärmelahti, Puumala which was researched in the district of Lake Saimaa, already resembled a timber-based house (Katiskoski, 2002). Two or three covered door corridors were often made in a hut and they can still be distinguished as hollows in embankments. Different dwelling constructions were used in the district of the northern part of the Gulf of Bothnia in the Stone Age, but most of the wintertime dwellings were probably rectangular, roundish-ended, ridge-roofed and sod-covered huts. In summertime, when people moved from place to place, it was more practical to live in light birchbark and skin huts. On the basis of the comparisons made between coastal and inland find material, it is very evident that ancient finds left behind by one group of people or one tribe are in question. 

Hunting community

On the basis of dwellings, the size of a community can also be estimated. On the basis of taxation data from the historical time, it is known that a Forest Lapp family living on hunting and fishing consisted of five members on an average. Analogy with Stone Age conditions is not without problems, but it is suggestive. On the basis of an analogy calculation like this, the population of one seal hunting community was about 30–48 people. According to calculations based on uplift, there were two similar rows of huts in one area at the same time. In that case, the number of the population of the area has remained quite unchanged during the period which corresponds to the present height level, about 65,0–41,2 metres above sea level. If estimated maximally, the seaside-bound fishing settlement in Tervola goes back to about 4150–2100 calBC, i.e. to about 3400–1750 BC, gradient being taken into consideration (Kotivuori 2002). According to these calculations, the stage of use of the Stone Age winter villages on the coast as real solar years was more than 2000 years. By the lower course of the River Kemijoki, changes due to the fact that the climate got colder and bogs were formed, cut off the cultural phase which had lasted almost for 70 generations. In the Early Metal Age, inhabitants in inland areas and on the coast went their separate cultural ways more and more clearly.

Hannu Kotivuori, The Provincial Museum of Lapland
www.rovaniemi.fi/maakuntamuseo


References

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  • Katiskoski, K. 2002. The Semisubterranean Dwelling at Kärmelahti in Puumala, Savo Province, Eastern Finland. In: Helena Ranta (Ed.), Huts and Houses. Stone Age and Early Metal Age Buildings in Finland. The National Board of Antiquities.
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  • Pesonen, P. 2002. Semisubterrenean Houses in Finland – a Review. In: Helena Ranta (Ed.), Huts and Houses. Stone Age and Early Metal Age Buildings in Finland. The National Board of Antiquities.
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