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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access June 2, 2023

From Coastal Sites to Elevated Hinterland Locations in the Mesolithic – Discussing Human–Woodland Interaction in the Oslo Fjord Region, Southeast Norway

  • Almut Schülke EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Archaeology


The coastal areas of Southeast Norway underwent dramatic environmental changes throughout the Mesolithic period. Continuous postglacial land uplift/isostatic rebound lead to retreating shorelines turning former seabed into coastal hinterland. While archaeological research lately has focused on the coastal and marine orientation of Mesolithic groups in the region, their interaction with the wooded coastal hinterland is little researched. This article explores shifting human–environment relations connected to these long-term changes. The starting points are nine archaeological sites in the Oslo fjord region, from which the artefact material shows that they were coast based in the earlier Mesolithic. They all have yielded radiocarbon dates from structures, mostly hearths, with later Mesolithic datings. At these later times, the sites had turned into elevated hinterland locations. First, the archaeological context and sample material of these later dates are discussed; on this basis, it is suggested that these later dates, earlier interpreted as impaction of forest fires, indicate the use of elevated hinterland locations in the Mesolithic. Second, this article explores the relevance of the wooded hinterland for the Mesolithic groups of the region, including animated beings, wayfinding practices and the possible function of these hinterland locations as potential practical and cosmological anchor points and strategic points in a communication system. It is argued that the study of the use of the hunter-fisher-gatherers’ interaction with the wooded and rocky coastal hinterland is needed to achieve a holistic understanding of their involvement and socializing with their world.

1 Introduction

Throughout the Mesolithic period (9300–3900 calBC), the coastal areas of Southeast Norway underwent dramatic environmental changes. Since the end of the last Glacial continuous land uplift lead to retreating shorelines in the Oslo fjord region, turning archipelagos and shores at the edge of the glaciers into bigger islands or into coastal hinterland. Archaeological sites that were shore based in the Mesolithic turned into hinterland locations through time and are today located in the wooded hinterland, sometimes many kilometres away from the coast.

This article deals with the shifting human–environment relations and interactions in the course of these long-term changes, with special focus on the potential use of woodlands by Mesolithic people. This topic which is little researched for the region, as infrastructure development of modern coastal hinterland areas has made archaeological excavation and research mainly focus on Mesolithic coastal communities in later years. The point of departure is a number (nine) of sites, which might indicate that they, apart from being used when they were coastal sites in the earlier Mesolithic, also were visited after they had turned into coastal hinterland locations in later Mesolithic times.[1] This assumption is based on a number of observations, which include one or more radiocarbon dates from structures (mainly hearths) which all were of later Mesolithic date(s) from sites for which the artefact material indicated an earlier Mesolithic occupation. On the backdrop of this artefact material and shore-line dating, these sites have hitherto been interpreted as typical shore-based sites, located on islands in archipelagos, while the later radiocarbon dates were mainly addressed as sign of later forest fires. Recently, the radiocarbon dates were addressed as potential traces of later visits of these places after they had turned to hinterland locations, based on the samples’ contexts and the similar topographic situations of the sites’ locations (Schülke, 2020). In the following first part of this article, this is discussed in more detail regarding archaeological context and material quality of the sample material. It is argued that it is likely that these hinterland locations, situated in elevated topographic positions, were used in the later Mesolithic. This can shed light on the interaction of the coastal Mesolithic hunter-fisher-gatherer groups with the wooded coastal hinterland. In the second part of the article, aspects of hinterland use and human interaction with the woodlands in the study region will be identified and discussed, based on the archaeological evidence and from a NatureCulture and “surroundings” perspective. These include cosmological aspects, encounters with plants and animals, movement and wayfinding practices and potential anchor points in wooded hinterland environments as potential strategic points for communication and observation. It argues that integrating the significance of the wooded and rocky environments of the coastal hinterland and the potential human encounters and involvement with them is necessary for a better understanding of the lifeways of these coastal groups and their being in the world.

2 The Setting

Today’s Oslo fjord leads off to the north from the Skagerrak strait as a long and narrow bay (Figure 1). The coastal zone of the Inner Oslo fjord varies from lowlands to ranges of hills with steep coastal cliffs, while the Outer Oslo fjord is characterized by skerries (Puschmann, 2005). Geologically these coastal zones are formed by bedrock intermitted by marine deposits which developed from former seabed. Processes of glacial retreat, isostatic rebound and sea-level changes impacted on these landscapes, including continuous land uplift since postglacial times in most of the region (Påsse & Andersson, 2005). This involved a constant retreating of the shorelines throughout all of the Mesolithic period (9300–3900 calBC) (Sørensen, Henningsmoen, Hoeg, & Gälman, 2014; Sørensen, 1979) exposing former seafloors and turning them into dry land. From being a rather expanded bay with many islands in the EM, bordered by small stripes of land at the edge of large glaciers, the Oslo fjord transformed into a narrower bay with fewer islands in later Mesolithic times (e.g. Jaksland, 2001). These processes are still operative today, and they proceeded with different intensities in different areas (Figure 1), with the highest marine maximum of around 220 m in the northeast Inner Oslo fjord area. The quality and extent of the topographic changes involved depend on a combination of the speed of the land rise and of the local topography of the respective land surface (Schülke, 2020).

Figure 1 
               The Oslo Fjord region today (red areas: densely settled areas, yellow areas: arable land, green areas: forest, blue areas: water). The marine maximum is indicated with a dark blue line, and its distance to today’s shore illustrates the amount of land that was gradually exposed through postglacial times until today. The two sea-level curves (depicted according to A: Sørensen, 1979, B: Sørensen et al., 2014) illustrate regional differences regarding intensity and speed of land-uplift in the Mesolithic period. Sites mentioned in Tables A1 and A2 and Table 1 (nos. 1–9) are mapped. Illustration: Almut Schülke & Steinar Kristensen, MCH, UiO, on the basis of data from ©kartverket (Norges grunnkart – WMS) and ©ngu (marine maximum) 2022.
Figure 1

The Oslo Fjord region today (red areas: densely settled areas, yellow areas: arable land, green areas: forest, blue areas: water). The marine maximum is indicated with a dark blue line, and its distance to today’s shore illustrates the amount of land that was gradually exposed through postglacial times until today. The two sea-level curves (depicted according to A: Sørensen, 1979, B: Sørensen et al., 2014) illustrate regional differences regarding intensity and speed of land-uplift in the Mesolithic period. Sites mentioned in Tables A1 and A2 and Table 1 (nos. 1–9) are mapped. Illustration: Almut Schülke & Steinar Kristensen, MCH, UiO, on the basis of data from ©kartverket (Norges grunnkart – WMS) and ©ngu (marine maximum) 2022.

One output of these processes is the preservation of former Mesolithic coastal areas on dry land today. Several hundred coast-based Mesolithic sites are well-documented through development-led excavations conducted in the last two decades by the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo (Damlien et al., 2021). These former coastal sites are placed differently in the terrain today, some of them more than 100 m above sea level (a.s.l.) and several kilometres away from today’s seashore in the coastal hinterland.

To reconstruct prehistoric shorelines in the region and to map the location of prehistoric sites in relation to the shore at different times, the following parameters are combined:

  1. A modern topographic elevation model of the study area (today as data in a Geographic Information System).

  2. The regional sea-level curve applying to the area, based on isobases (see e.g. Påsse & Andersson, 2005; Persson, 2008).

  3. The dating of the respective site – either on the typological/technological characteristics of artefacts or through absolute dating, such as radiocarbon dating.

Thus, the shoreline at the time of use of a site in prehistoric times can be reconstructed by modelling the sea-level to the height of sea-level at the time of use of the site according to the sea-level curve.

Such modelling is often applied to date sites in the region – a method also called shoreline dating or beach model (Berg-Hansen, 2009; Berg-Hansen, Mjærum, Roalkvam, Solheim, & Schülke, in press). It proceeds from the assumption that most of the Mesolithic sites excavated in former coastal areas were coast based when they were visited by Mesolithic people, presupposing easy access to the sea in combination with a good boat-landing place. This has to be understood in relation to the region’s topographic characteristics: shores that are to a great extent lined by rocky outcrops which facilitate direct access to seawater, and a general lack of tides, which allow stable conditions for direct access to the sea. Even though the beach model in rough terms is supported by radiocarbon dating (Solheim & Persson, 2018), there are a number of challenges related to it, such as circular argument (Berg-Hansen et al., in press) and the fact that not all sites necessarily had to be coast based (Schülke, 2020). “Coastal site” in the literature on the Mesolithic of the region usually refers to coast-based sites, and these are sites located directly at the shore or a few metres above or from it (Solheim & Persson, 2018).

Topographic reconstructions (see e.g. here Figures 6 and 7) are always rough models. However, for the Oslo Fjord region, with its clear topographic signature of marked slopes, hills and valleys, where thin soils are deposited directly on solid Precambrian rock, topographic models illustrate general prehistoric topographic traits in a somewhat reliable manner.

3 Thematic Background: The Hinterland as a “No-Go-Area” in a Coastal World

The waterfront with the sea is regarded as people’s main social arena in the Oslo Fjord region for all of the Mesolithic. Coastal and marine resources were vital for hunter-fisher-gatherer economy as the coast-based placement of most of the Mesolithic sites, often at locations with superb conditions for fishing such as straits and islands, indicates (Glørstad, 2010, pp. 64–86; Mansrud & Persson, 2017; Solheim & Persson, 2018). Abodes with easy access to marine resources are interpreted as centres where social diversity developed in the LM, due to division of labour (Bergsvik & Ritchie, 2020; Mjærum & Mansrud, 2020). Furthermore, site distribution shows a spatio-temporal pattern that indicates that settlement locations often were abandoned as soon as they missed their direct topographic connection to the sea (Berg-Hansen, 2009; Glørstad, 2010, pp. 97–102; but see Berg-Hansen et al., in press; Schülke, 2020). Isotope analysis of human bone material from the region shows a predominantly marine diet (Solheim, 2020); however, this evidence is restricted to very few finds.

For the EM (ca. 9300–8300 calBC), seal hunting is considered most important, but also other marine resources such as fish, shellfish and sea birds surely were of great relevance (Mansrud & Persson, 2017). The boat was the main means of transportation and an important “place” in these EM people’s lives (Bjerck, 1994). However, faunal remains are first known from the MM (ca. 8300–6400 calBC), when also fishing is attested, with finds of fish-bones and fragments of bone fishhooks (Bergsvik & Ritchie, 2020; Mansrud & Persson, 2017; Mjærum & Mansrud, 2020). There is evidence for inland settlement in Southern Norwegian mountain valleys and mountain areas from the MM onwards (Damlien & Solheim, 2018). The big rivers coming from the mountains featured as waterways connecting inland/mountain regions and coast, as some larger settlement sites along these rivers attest (Fuglestvedt, 2004; Glørstad, 2010, pp. 88–87; Mansrud & Persson, 2016; Mjærum & Mansrud, 2020).

The apparently wooded land in-between coast, rivers and inland/mountains, here termed the coastal hinterland, is seldom explicitly discussed as part of hunter-fisher-gatherer life worlds. Indirectly, these hinterland areas are and have always been present in the debate: earlier studies with a decidedly ecological perspective have stressed the potential significance of the wooded areas in the coastal hinterland regions as areas for hunting and resource exploitation (Lindblom, 1984; Mikkelsen, 1989, pp. 72–91). Also, the hunting of big game has been a prominent topic, where elk and red deer are depicted on LM rock art sites (Figure 2). They are considered an important part of the hunter-gatherer world, living and symbolism (Fuglestvedt, 2018, p. 79; Glørstad, 2010, pp. 213–248; Mikkelsen, 1977). As these rock art sites are placed along former waterways including the coast and the banks of larger rivers (Glørstad, 2010, Tables 7.1 and 7.2; Mikkelsen, 1977), the maritime/water element of – at least – elk, which can swim long distances, has been stressed (Glørstad, 2010, pp. 227–228, 252–256). Some finds of lithic assemblages along inland lakeshores, often with larger amounts of arrowheads, point to hunting activities in the inland/hinterland (Gundersen, 2013; Stokke, 2016); this is supported by some finds of terrestrial animal bones from coastal sites (see below). However, due to acid soils, there is a general shortage of organic finds including animal bones in the region, resulting in little knowledge about topics such as seasonal practices of food and resource supply. Rock quarries, some of them placed in the inland, were regularly visited to procure lithic raw materials; however, such quarries are seldom in Eastern Norway (Nyland, 2016, pp. 247–264).

Figure 2 
               Big terrestrial animals, such as elk or red deer, are depicted on Mesolithic rock carvings in Southeast Norway. Example: Depiction from the Late Mesolithic rock-art site Sjømannskolen, Ekeberg, Oslo. Picture: Almut Schülke.
Figure 2

Big terrestrial animals, such as elk or red deer, are depicted on Mesolithic rock carvings in Southeast Norway. Example: Depiction from the Late Mesolithic rock-art site Sjømannskolen, Ekeberg, Oslo. Picture: Almut Schülke.

Direct and well-documented archaeological evidence of the use of the coastal hinterland is scarce. A recently excavated MM hut site at Eidsberg, dated to around 7000 calBC and placed about 1.3 km away from the contemporary shoreline away from watercourses, is interpreted as a field camp from where big game hunting was conducted (Mjærum, 2018). Nevertheless, the coastal hinterland has been considered almost as a “no-go area” – both with regard to movement of people in the Mesolithic but also concerning research on these areas. It is time to re-consider Mesolithic people’s knowledge of and entanglement with the woods – as an important social field.

4 Exploring Places with Time Depth in Changing Environments – Methodical Background

In the following, observations on a specific group of altogether nine sites with similar traits, which are important for a discussion of human–woodland relations in the Mesolithic, are presented and discussed, based on the available publications and excavation reports. Here, some methodical steps are presented. In a recent article, the author examined the short- and long-term use of coastal sites in the Mesolithic, including the question if they were re-visited within this period (Schülke, 2020). One result was that there are more topographic variations in coastal site locations than generally assumed on the backdrop of the often generalized beach model, especially regarding the distance of a site to the shore. Particularly, interesting were situations indicating a re-use of a location during/after long time spans, as they triggered the question in how far the changing coastal environments with retreating shoreline might have affected the sites’ topographic placement through time – with a shoreline that potentially was further away from this location at the time of later occupation.

All of the nine sites (see Figure 1 and Table A1) discussed in the following first have an earlier Mesolithic main occupation phase, in all cases dated on the technology/typology of the excavated – solely lithic – artefact material, in two cases supported by radiocarbon dates. Second, according to shoreline dating, they all were placed directly at the sea shore at that time. Third, all these sites have yielded one or several structures, mainly hearths, which were radiocarbon dated to later Mesolithic times, this means later than the dating of the artefact material (Table A2). Here, it is important that radiocarbon dates from the EM in Southeast Norway are still missing, a fact that has puzzled researchers, especially considering that there are a number of EM sites with hearths which for typological reasons and reasons of find distribution are thought to date to the EM. The mismatch between artefact material and radiocarbon dates was explained with that dateable material from potential EM hearths has been washed out or is completely disintegrated, the latter assumedly also due to lesser developed and thus accessible tree vegetation in the coastal zone in the EM and therefore use of other burning material such as blubber (Damm, 2021; Jaksland, 2014). The later Mesolithic datings from the hearths were interpreted as evidence of later forest fires, with the main argument that forest fires (a) were common in prehistoric times and that (b) the sites in question have obviously not yielded artefacts that could be connected to the later Mesolithic datings (Jaksland, 2014; Nyland, 2012; Schaller Åhrberg, 2012; Solheim, Koxvold, & Havstein, 2017). Additionally, for some of the sites, it was forwarded that they were difficult to access by boat at the time of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates, as they then were placed in rocky coastal hinterland areas, a point that was used to support the argument of later forest fires (Jaksland, 2014, p. 31).

A closer examination of these nine sites’ topographic locations showed distinct parallels (Table A1): they are placed directly at or in very close vicinity to a steep rocky slope or precipice in today’s landscapes (Schülke, 2020). Six of nine sites were excavated in connection with recent motorway building – and at least two of them (nos. 1 and 2; in the following the numbers [no.] refer to the numbering of the sites which is identical in Table 1, Table A1 and Table A2) are today placed on top of tunnel entries with bridges, which require settings with extensive mountain faces. Their modern use thus indirectly indicates a certain topographic affinity of the sites. This prompted the question if the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates from the earlier coastal sites might indicate later visits of these locations – after they had turned into a hinterland location with good views.

Table 1

The topography of the locations at the time(s) of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates. For the references regarding the datings, see Table A1; for the contexts of the dates, see Table A2

Site (county)* Lab. no. BP calBC (probability, not indicated in all cases) Height of shoreline (metres a.s.l.) Approximate height of the site above sea-level (metres)** Approximate distance from the shore (metres)*** Topography at time of later radiocarbon date(s) Sea-level curve used for reconstruction of topography
1 Anvik (Vestfold) Ua-46951 7875 ± 52 7030–6930 (95.4%) 42–44 33 105 Little plateau on east-oriented steep slope, c. 30 m above the shore of a sound Sørensen et al., 2014
Ua-46950 7818 ± 49 6820–6500 (95.4%)
Ua-46952 7744 ± 49 6650–6470 (95.4%)
Ua-46953 7678 ± 49 6610–6430 (95.4%)
2 Pauler 1 (Vestfold) Tua-7848 7245 ± 45 6120–5995 39–40 87 1,870 Elongated depression on a south-oriented steep slope, from the rocky outcrops directly to the south of the site good views into a valley Sørensen et al., 2014
3 Dørdal (Telemark) Beta-417123 7120 ± 30 6045–5925 (95.4%) 35–37 63 1,410 Offset with very good views into an east-west oriented valley, into valley-junctions to the east and all opposing hillsides Sørensen et al., 2015
Ua-53183 7050 ± 31 6010–5875 (95.4%)
Beta-417122 7070 ± 30 6010–5895 (95.4%)
Ua-53184 6956 ± 31 5970–5740 (95.4%)
4 Pauler 2 (Vestfold) Beta-234403 6910 ± 40 5880–5720 35–38 85 1,770 Hearth placed rather hidden in a little “pocket”, from the rocky outcrop south of the site excellent views into two valleys (with lakes?) Sørensen et al., 2014
Beta-234404 6990 ± 40 5980–5760
5 Bakke (Vestfold) Tua-7853 6915 ± 40 5770–5700 35–36 62 3,000 Very good views into a valley to the west and to the opposing hillside Sørensen et al., 2014
6 Hegna Vest 1 (Telemark) Ua-51466 6816 ± 36 5750–5640 34–35 25 300 Col between two heights to the southeast and northwest, slopes towards northeast and southwest Sørensen et al., 2015
7 Svingen boligfelt (Akershus) Ua-45463 6336 ± 39 5465–5218 53 31 300 Little plateau on the eastern slope of a north-south going mountain ridge, 30–40 m above a valley with a little fjord arm, excellent views to the west Sørensen, 1979
8 Gunnarsrød 7 (Telemark) UBA-19129 5563 ± 30 4454–4350 22–24 33 300 Small plateaus on a northwest oriented steep slope, overlooking a little valley/plane to the northwest Sørensen et al., 2014
9 Vinterbro 3 (Akershus) T-13136 5905 ± 105 25–28 25 500 At the northern end of a range of hills where a rocky slope drops towards an L-shaped valley, excellent views, to the north a salt water fjord in c. 300 m distance, access to the open sea c. 650 m towards the west Sørensen, 1979

*Before county reform 2020. **Calculated by subtracting the highest point of sea-level a.s.l at the time of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates (see column “Height of shoreline” above) from the lowest point of the archaeological site in metres a.s.l. today (see Table A1 column “Site topography (today)”). ***visual analysis of topographic model and height of shore line at the time of re-use according to the regions sea-level curve.

These locations would have offered very different environments and possibilities of use in different times of the Mesolithic, due to the constant land upheaval: in the earlier Mesolithic the rocky slopes or precipices would have been mostly under water, with only their top popping up a.s.l. as part of an island or coastal location on fastland. Today’s slope/precipice would have shaped a strongly sloping seabed with a significant depth, providing an attractive biotope for marine resources. A settlement placed on top or very close to the precipice would have given easy access to the deep water and its resources, also by boat – a preferred site location for the period. At the time of the respective later Mesolithic radiocarbon date(s), the topography would have changed completely. The same locations were now placed on elevated points with good views into valleys in the coastal hinterland. To assess their topography further, the approximate height a.s.l. for each location at this later time was calculated by subtracting the respective later Mesolithic sea level from today’s height a.s.l. For this calculation, the highest value of the Mesolithic sea level according to the sea-level curve and the lowest value of the height a.s.l. of the respective site today (the sites often are placed on slopes which have some metres of height difference between their highest and lowest parts) were used, providing a minimum value of each location’s height a.s.l. at the respective time (Table 1 and Figure 3, see below). Furthermore, each location’s topography at the time of the respective later radiocarbon date(s) was described (Table 1 and Figure 4) and the closest distance to the shoreline was determined, by measuring the distance from the location to the nearest contour line which then marked the height a.s.l. (Table 1 and Figure 5).

Figure 3 
               The nine locations’ height relation to the sea-level, today and in later Mesolithic times (see Table A1 and Table 1).
Figure 3

The nine locations’ height relation to the sea-level, today and in later Mesolithic times (see Table A1 and Table 1).

Figure 4 
               Views from the locations at the times of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates (see Table 1).
Figure 4

Views from the locations at the times of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates (see Table 1).

Figure 5 
               The locations’ approximate distance to the shore (in metres) at the time of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates (see Table 1).
Figure 5

The locations’ approximate distance to the shore (in metres) at the time of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates (see Table 1).

5 Potential Later Use of Former Coastal Sites after They Had Turned to Prominent Hinterland Locations – Results and Discussion

5.1 General Remarks

All of the nine sites (see Table A1) have yielded solely lithic artefacts, often in high numbers (between 735 and 16,227 items). These were catalogued, following the same system, in the museum database (Gjenstandsbase, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo) in connection with the post-excavation report writing and were typologically and technologically dated; in most cases, the material was considered to be homogeneous (for references see Table A1). The occupation phases of the sites were dated to the EM with five sites (Table A1, nos. 1–5), the MM with three sites (nos. 6, 7, 9) and the LM with one site (no. 8). This covers the timespan between 9200 and 6400 calBC. Combining artefact chronology and shoreline reconstruction showed that the sites were coast based at the time of this artefact material, often located on smaller islands in skerries (Table 1, nos. 2–7; see references there). Only in some cases, it was stated that the material potentially might have very few later – Mesolithic – elements (see below).

All of these sites have also yielded one or more structures, mainly hearths, which were radiocarbon dated to later periods, hundreds, sometimes thousands of years later than the use of the site suggested by artefact material. Altogether 16 radiocarbon dates from the later Mesolithic exist from the nine sites: dates from eight sites pertain to the LM, between 6400 and 4400 BC (Table A2, nos. 2–9), and one to the MM (Table A2, no. 1). Even though an old wood effect (see e.g. Loftsgården, Rundberget, Larsen, & Mikkelsen, 2013; Persson, 2014) might have affected some of the datings, this would, in a Mesolithic context where one deals with rough dating frames, not change the general conclusion about that the absolute dating is later than the artefact material.

5.2 The Character of the Locations at the Times of the Later Mesolithic Radiocarbon Dates

The analysis showed that at the times of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates, the locations were placed on top of or only a few metres away from precipices, the former deep seabed with steep sides now turned into steep slopes along long, deep and narrow valleys which still today are typical for the region (Table 1). The topographic modelling further showed[2] that they were placed

  1. between approximately 25 and 87 m a.s.l. (Table 1 and Figure 3);

  2. at or very close to potentially excellent viewpoints. Most locations were then overlooking one (Table 1, nos. 2, 5, 7) or more valleys (nos. 3, 4, 8), sometimes with a lake or watercourse, or a sound (no. 1). One slightly elevated location would have overlooked a valley with a little fjord (no. 9), or two slopes from a col (no. 6) (Figure 4);

  3. The distance to the contemporary shoreline was now between approximately 105 and 3,000 m (Table 1). Three locations were around 300 m (Table 1, nos. 6, 7, 9), one ca. 500 m (no. 8) and four more than 1,000 m away from the shoreline (nos. 2–5) (Figure 5). They were overlooking valleys which in most of the cases lead directly from the coast into the hinterland, and surely were important communication corridors for humans (on foot/by boat) and animals. Some of these valleys are very marked up to this day (nos. 2, 3, 4, 7, 9).

5.3 General Context of the Samples on the Sites

For three of the sites, more than one later Mesolithic date exists (Table A2, nos. 1, 3, 4), either from one and the same structure (nos. 1, 4) or from two structures (no. 3). In two cases, the only hearth on the site (nos. 1, 9) gave a later Mesolithic radiocarbon date. On six of the sites (nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), there were other hearths which partly were not dated/could not be dated, but some of them yielded even younger radiocarbon dates (nos. 2, 6, 7), in two cases from the same structure as one of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates (nos. 4, 5). In these two cases (nos. 4, 5), the hearths are interpreted as belonging to the EM as the artefact material, due to their character and sometimes their relation to the artefact distribution.

5.4 The Quality of the Sample Material for Radiocarbon Dating

Plants which extract carbon from the atmosphere, such as hazelnut shell and wood, are reliable sources for radiocarbon dating (Persson, 2014). Two of the datings are conducted on charred hazelnut shells (Table A2, nos. 1 (1×), 4 (1×)), and the others are on charcoal including the following tree species: pinus/pine (eight times: nos. 1 (1×), 2 (1×), 3 (4×), 4 (1×), 7 (1×)), salix/willow (three times: nos. 1 (2×), 6 (1×) and betula/birch (two times: nos. 5 (1×), 8 (1×)), not recorded (one time: no. 9). An encompassing reconstruction of forest fires in historic times in the region showed that these were mostly of low/moderate severity and that pine trees as the species that mainly were affected by forest fires usually survived a fire by repairing itself leaving scars in the tree rings (Storaunet, Rolstad, Toeneiet, & Blanck, 2013). Only three of the sites have yielded later Mesolithic datings exclusively on pine (nos. 2, 3, 7), while two sites had several datings on different materials, amongst them pine, hazelnut shell and salix (nos. 1, 4). Five samples from three sites have yielded datings only on deciduous tree species (nos. 5, 6, 8). Deciduous tree contains much more water than coniferous trees and are thus lesser prone to forest fires.

5.5 The Quality of the Direct Archaeological Context of the Radiocarbon Sample

The quality of the archaeological context of a sample is the decisive factor for assessing if radiocarbon dates can point to human activity (e.g. Loftsgården et al., 2013). Most of the radiocarbon dates discussed here stem from layers with charcoal and burnt stones deposited in built hearths (Table A2, nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8), some of them with kerb stones (nos. 4, 5). In some cases, they are rather monumental in extension and depths (nos. 3, 4, 5). The two hearths at Dørdal (no. 3), both with large amounts of burnt stones (34 and 150 kg), have yielded two later Mesolithic dates each and no other absolute dates. From the hearth at Anvik (no. 1), altogether four later Mesolithic dates exist (as only absolute dates), pointing to minimum two incidents which left (different types of) charred material. The two hearths with dates from several periods are Pauler 2 (no. 4), where the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates stem from the same part of the hearth. At Bakke (no. 5), it was observed that the burnt gravel in the hearth might witness of long-running activities of fire (Nyland & Amundsen, 2012, p. 172). Structure A 15 at Pauler 1 (no. 2), which was characterized by charcoal, sooty earth, and some burnt stones, was under excavation dismissed as residue after a mouldering tree which was burnt at its outsides (Schaller Åhrberg, 2012, pp. 56–57). This structure is only published with some unclear photographs; therefore, this interpretation is difficult to substantiate. More doubtful however seems the context at Hegna Vest 1 (no. 6), where artefact material dated to the MM was deposited in the same, deep pit as the charcoal sample that was dated to the Late Mesolithic.

5.6 Find Material Related to the Later Mesolithic Radiocarbon Dates

In case of four of the sites, the excavators do not rule out that there are (minor amounts of) artefacts which might be deposited at the time of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon datings (Table A2, nos. 1, 7, 8, 9); these are however not specified. A restudy of the artefact material from these sites to identify potential later artefacts is desirable but would clearly go beyond the scope of this article.

5.7 Looking Closer at Two Examples

Pauler 2 (no. 4), was, on the backdrop of lithic artefact typology/technology (3708 lithic artefacts) and shoreline dating dated to 9150–8850 cal BC, interpreted as traces of one, maybe to visits within this period (Nyland, 2012). The site was shore based on a western sloping terrace towards a little bay, protruding into the southern coast of an island (Nyland, 2012, Figure 2) (see Figure 6a). Find concentrations indicated four activity areas, together with three stone accumulations and three hearths. One of the hearths (S1) yielded two overlapping LM radiocarbon dates, dated on hazelnut and on pine (Beta-234403: 6910 ± 40BP, 5880–5720 calBC and Beta-234404: 6990 ± 40BP, 5980–5760 calBC) from the same context (layer 2 – under the top layer). The circular hearth, 1.3 m × 1.1 m in diameter and a few centimetres deep, with kerb stones and a packing of burnt stones, was placed centrally on the site in an area with an artefact concentration. This and the structure’s similarity to hearths from two other EM sites strengthened an interpretation as an EM hearth; the later radiocarbon dates were interpreted as impact of later forest fires (Nyland, 2012). However, the context and the two later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates, one on pine and one on hazelnut shell, which stem from the same part of the hearth can indicate an LM (re-?)use of the hearth. The topographic situation at the time of these later Mesolithic dates, based on the shoreline curve from Sørensen et al. (2014), shows the significant changes which the area underwent due to land upheaval (Figure 6b): now the location was placed around 2 km away from the coast to the east, located about 85 m a.s.l., on a plateau at the northern side of a narrow and steep east–west going valley, which lead directly to the sea to the east. It was placed in a sheltered position above a little side valley (the former bay), with very good overview of the narrow valley to the south from higher points right beside the site, and about 1,770 m from the shoreline at the time. Six later dates from S1 might point to repeated use of this hearth through ages.

Figure 6 
                  The site of Pauler 2 (red x) and its topographic changes through time. (a) At the time of its Early Mesolithic use (with the sea-level modelled to 120 m a.s.l.), the site was shore based at the eastern side of a little bay at the southern shore of an island. (b) At the time of the Late Mesolithic radiocarbon dates (hearth S1), the site was located on a precipice above an east-west going steep valley with very good views (orange arrows), and the contemporary shore ca. 2,000 m to the east (blue arrow). Map: Almut Schülke based on a landscape model by Gjermund Steinskog, MCH, UiO.
Figure 6

The site of Pauler 2 (red x) and its topographic changes through time. (a) At the time of its Early Mesolithic use (with the sea-level modelled to 120 m a.s.l.), the site was shore based at the eastern side of a little bay at the southern shore of an island. (b) At the time of the Late Mesolithic radiocarbon dates (hearth S1), the site was located on a precipice above an east-west going steep valley with very good views (orange arrows), and the contemporary shore ca. 2,000 m to the east (blue arrow). Map: Almut Schülke based on a landscape model by Gjermund Steinskog, MCH, UiO.

At Dørdal (no. 3), 735 lithic artefacts were excavated; they were typologically and technologically dated to the EM; the site was shoreline dated to the later EM, to 8600–8400 BC (Solheim et al., 2017). Then, it was shore based on a plateau at the southwest edge of a little island, sheltered in a little bay, with a slight elevation to its right (Solheim et al., 2017, Figure 13.3) (see Figure 7a). Two hearths were excavated in 4–5 m distance to each other. Hearth A792 was placed centrally on the offset, sharply delimited from the surroundings. It had a packing with 34 kg of burnt stones, an elongated shape, with a size of 1.35 m × 0.75 m and up to 0.2 m deep. Two charcoal samples (pine) were radiocarbon dated to respectively 6045–5925 calBC (95.4%) (Beta-417123, 7120 ± 30 BP) and 6010–5875 calBC (95.4%) (7050 ± 31 BP, Ua-53183). Hearth A1134, an almost circular packing with 150 kg of burnt stones, with a diameter of 1.6 m yielded two radiocarbon samples. At least one was taken from layer 3 in the middle of the hearth. They were dated to 6010–5895 calBC (95.4%) (Beta-417122, 7070 ± 30 BP) and 5970–5740 calBC (95.4%) (Ua-53184, 6956 ± 31 BP) (Solheim et al., 2017). All dates from the two hearths overlap, falling into the period 6045 to 5740 calBC – the earlier part of the LM phase 3. Dørdal is interpreted as one or two EM visits at a location with good possibilities to scout marine resources; the hearths were interpreted as maybe being of EM origin, the later dates as results of natural processes (Solheim et al., 2017). However, the context, the number of the samples and the contemporaneity of the datings speak for a later Mesolithic use (and even building?) of the hearth. Modelling the topographic situation of the location at the time of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates around 5900 calBC (using the shoreline curve from Sørensen, Høeg, & Gälman, 2015) shows that it then was placed around 63 m a.s.l. at the eastern end of an ENE–WSW-going mountain ridge that delimited a steeper valley to the south (Figure 7b). From the elevation west to the site, there were excellent views into several valleys meeting to the west of the mountain ridge. The linear distance to the coast was at the time around 1,400 m.

Figure 7 
                  The site of Dørdal (red x) and its topographic changes through time. (a) At the time of its Early Mesolithic use, the site was placed at the western end of an elongated island. (b) At the time of the Late Mesolithic radiocarbon dates from the two hearths, the site was located at the west end of an elongated mountain ridge, with very good views into a junction of several valleys to the east, and approximately 1,400 km from the coast. Map: Almut Schülke based on a landscape model by Gjermund Steinskog, MCH, UiO.
Figure 7

The site of Dørdal (red x) and its topographic changes through time. (a) At the time of its Early Mesolithic use, the site was placed at the western end of an elongated island. (b) At the time of the Late Mesolithic radiocarbon dates from the two hearths, the site was located at the west end of an elongated mountain ridge, with very good views into a junction of several valleys to the east, and approximately 1,400 km from the coast. Map: Almut Schülke based on a landscape model by Gjermund Steinskog, MCH, UiO.

5.8 Discussion

In terms of data quality regarding sample material and context much speaks for that at least five of the sites, which have either good archaeological context and/or sample material not only composed of pine, but of deciduous tree species or hazelnut shells (cf. Table A2, nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 7), might witness of later Mesolithic human activity at a location that earlier was a coastal site. This argument is put forward on the background of that, given one would deal with sites from which artefact material chronologically would “match” the radiocarbon dates, the dating would without doubt be accepted as valuable absolute chronological indicator of human activity, and not as potential remains of a forest fire – as numerous publications on Mesolithic sites in the region attest. It is therefore important to consider the possibility that these – radiocarbon dated – situations can point to later Mesolithic human activity related to the burning of fire. The following points further support this suggestion:

  1. When excavating Svingen boligfelt (no. 7) elk and elk faeces were repeatedly observed on site; locals confirmed that on elk track was running across the site. It was therefore suggested that the LM dating of charcoal (pinus) from one of the hearths might be connected to a short visit related to elk-hunting in later Mesolithic times and after the site had turned a hinterland location, a visit which would have left no significant material traces (Eymundsson, 2013, p. 73). To get there people would have followed the elk/elk track into the woods.

  2. Recent studies have pointed out that natural forest fires in the Mesolithic period in Southeast Norway were of low severity. It is suggested that charcoal or other signs of burning from this period instead would point to human management of fires to manipulate the surroundings (Selsing, 2016, pp. 44–48). Burning isolated trees to produce smoke signals is e.g. pointed out as one method (Selsing, 2016, p. 46). Hearth A 15 at Pauler 1 (no. 2) could thus potentially be interpreted as remains of an intentional fire at the elevated hinterland site, for which also the location of the hearth at the highest point of the site could speak.

  3. In his discussion of the later radiocarbon dates from hearths on EM sites excavated in the Pauler-project, Jaksland (2014, p. 31) makes the point that the respective locations would not have been directly accessible by boat in the later times of the radiocarbon dates. This argument is based on the idea of the vital role of boat transport in the EM, which he uses to support the interpretation of the later dates as remains of natural events. The possibility of movement on foot, vital for e.g. hunting and gathering (see below), should however not be dismissed as important practice also in the Mesolithic of the region. Charcoal kiln from historic times documented at Bakke (no. 5) illustrate that the location was accessible by foot and was used for fire management in later times. The charcoal particles which were observed during the Pauler excavations in the soils outside the archaeological sites (Jaksland, 2014, p. 32) could be remnants of charcoal which was spread (wind, animals, erosion, trampling) in the course of historic charcoal production/fire management.

  4. Furthermore, the insight that human occupation does not always leave behind (similar) traces, not even when talking about repeated visits of one and the same site, is important. Grøn and Peeters (2021) discuss the topic of visibility and dateability of Mesolithic activities and the general difficulty of assessing the Mesolithic importance of what today is archaeological material, not least on the backdrop of ethnographic knowledge about extensive use of organic material in recent hunter-fisher-gatherer communities which often is not preserved in archaeological contexts. They discuss so-called “ghost sites” from different parts of Northern Europe, which have yielded Mesolithic absolute dates based on organic material, partly with remnants of organic dwelling constructions, but surprisingly little/no lithic material. Grøn and Peeters show that different activities were conducted at different times at the same location – in environments that changed through time. In Southeast Norway the assessment of activities is unavoidably based on the study of lithic artefacts due to poor preservation conditions of organic material in acid soils. Other activities, e.g. involving organic material, would seldom/not leave traces in the record, not to speak of many other prehistoric activities that do not leave traces at all. Diagnostic artefacts (e.g. sandstone knives) were used over long time spans and several periods and do therefore not help to date activities to more than to a long time span. Furthermore, not all of the lithic material might be visually dated that easily (here e.g. in case of no. 3 and no. 9). For some of the sites discussed here, it is mentioned that single artefacts might stem from a later occupation, later than the time of the larger part of the artefact material (Table A2, nos. 1, 7, 8, 9).

  5. A most important point is that the topographic and experiential character of the locations discussed here changed drastically from earlier to later Mesolithic times – from being coastal sites directly at a deep seabed, to being an elevated and prominent hinterland locations with good views. These changing settings offered different possibilities of use at different times. They would have attracted people in different ways and for different reasons, what was easy access to sea water at first was later excellent views into valleys. Therefore, it is also reasonable to expect that not necessarily the same type of artefacts or traces of activities were left at these locations at different periods. For the later Mesolithic periods, this would be mainly the evidence of fire/burning either by re-using an old or building a new hearth – different to the deposition of lithic artefact material in earlier times.

5.9 To Sum Up

Even if some of the later radiocarbon dates, observed individually, can be questioned regarding the here forwarded suggestion, in their entity, the described observations support the assumption that at least some of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates from the here presented sites indicate human activities at elevated coastal hinterland locations which in earlier times were used as coastal settlement sites. Due to the drastic change of topography with a growing distance to the shoreline, the locations offered different possibilities of use at different times: in the earlier Mesolithic, they provided easy access to the sea with deep water from smaller island in archipelagos and were therefore valuable as places of settlement and, in the later Mesolithic, they offered good views into valleys (partly with waterbodies) which might have served as communication corridors for humans and animals (Figure 8). Eight of the sites provide possible evidence of the lighting of fire in a hearth (with charcoal as fuel or through the roasting of hazelnuts) in later Mesolithic times, while on dating seems questionable (no. 6). One dates to the later MM (no. 1). Seven date to the LM, phase 3 (6300–4500 calBC). Five of these are located on the western side of the Oslo fjord (South Vestfold and Bamble) and date to the earlier part of the LM (Table A2, nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 8), while two, both from the eastern side of the fjord (former Akershus county), date to the later part of the LM (Appendix nos. 7, 9) (cf. Figure 1). The absence or only faint potential traces of diagnostic archaeological material (lithic artefacts) from these later periods need not speak against later visits of the locations. Instead, this might witness of short-term activities on these elevated and not always easily accessible locations, where objects or baggage were taking along (for not leaving traces?), or of activities that did involve organic material of which no traces are preserved.

Figure 8 
                  Sketch of the shifting topographic contexts at the same location throughout the Mesolithic period. (a) The situation in the EM with the settlement placed directly at the coast on bedrock and with a strongly sloping seabed. (b) The situation in later Mesolithic times, after the shoreline, had retreated and the same placed would have been placed on top or very close to a rocky precipice with good overview into a valley. Illustrations: Almut Schülke.
Figure 8

Sketch of the shifting topographic contexts at the same location throughout the Mesolithic period. (a) The situation in the EM with the settlement placed directly at the coast on bedrock and with a strongly sloping seabed. (b) The situation in later Mesolithic times, after the shoreline, had retreated and the same placed would have been placed on top or very close to a rocky precipice with good overview into a valley. Illustrations: Almut Schülke.

These indications of Mesolithic people’s movement beyond coast and waterways into the wooded hinterlands in the Oslo Fjord area will now be discussed in a wider archaeological context.

6 Exploring the Coastal Hinterland: Socializing in and with the Woods

Southeast Norway is situated at the uttermost southwest edge of the Eurasian taiga forests, which until today are inhabited by hunter-fisher-gatherers (Jordan, 2011a; Piezonka, Adaev, Kirleis, Poshekhonova, & Rud, 2021; Piezonka, 2015). Even though the coastal zone was a main centre of social life in Mesolithic Southeast Norway, the coastal hinterland must have played an important role in the lives of people, for example, and often indirectly presupposed for the supply of food and other resources, including bone, fur, hides, wood and rock material through collecting, gathering and hunting. Merely explored, the engagement with the hinterland must have played a role in connection with the general human need of understanding places of stay and their – wider – surroundings with regard to be informed and to feel safe (Kelly, 2013, p. 95), including the safeguarding of basic needs such as access to freshwater, or the ruling out danger such as predators or human enemies. To check out the hinterland for gaining control of a place or a situation must have been a pivotal part of living and moving in coastal areas – for individuals, task groups and larger groups. Also, cosmological aspects should not be underestimated. Ethnologies of recent Northern Eurasian hunter-fisher-gatherers report that the people living around the circumpolar zone perceive their surroundings as inhabited of persons and “a range of other ‘animated’ presences” (Jordan, 2011b, p. 30), and e.g. for the Iukagir in Northern Siberia it was reported that they fear the forested areas (Willerslev, 2011).

From an archaeological perspective, it is also important to reflect on the intertwinement of nature and culture. The concept of NatureCultures is about the interweaving of humans and non-humans, about their “joint lives” and stresses that the humanist division of “nature” and “culture” is a construct, which insufficiently considers that humans are part of ecological systems, both biophysically and socially (Haraway, 2003). In NatureCultures people closely interact with animals or plants, but humans and non-humans are not the same and are thus “bonded in significant otherness” (Haraway, 2003, p. 15). Haraway (2003, p. 14) defines these non-humans as “companion species”, which are organic beings (animated beings) “which make life for humans what it is”. A NatureCulture approach as part of a responsible science also includes the “neglected things” (Latimer & Miele, 2013), as e.g. here new focus on a few radiocarbon dates which do at first site do not match the site. From a landscape archaeological perspective it makes sense to extent the concept of NatureCultures from being about the relationship between human and organic beings to also including the “inanimate” – such as for example water in its different forms (ice, snow, fluid), earth, rock, minerals and topography – and objects made in and from these. In an attempt to put this enmeshment into words, however more from an archaeological/material perspective, the author has earlier reflected on the relation between humans and their “surroundings” (Schülke, 2016): “surroundings” have physical and social qualities. The term describes the complex and multifaceted world that people live in, a physical world, which consists of “natural” and “cultural” elements, including other animated beings (animals, plants). Human beings have many different relations to their surroundings and are connected with them in diverse, intertwined and often inseparable ways, and they react and respond to them: through their bodies, their senses, through mind and memory and not least through language. The “surrounding” approach and the NatureCulture approach can be helpful for discussing Mesolithic people’s engagement with the wooded hinterland – including addressing the hitherto neglected things and aspects. To set sites into context, such as the group of nine hinterland sites in focus here, diverse potential significances of the wooded coastal hinterland for Mesolithic people will be explored in the following.

6.1 Engaging with Hinterland Topography and Vegetation

The land behind the mainly rocky coast of the Oslo fjord region was also in later Mesolithic times characterized by pronounced bedrock formations, cut by rivers and numerous valleys with lakes and bogs. The vegetation cover with deciduous forests on thin and acid soils evolved throughout millennia after the last glacial, with land uplift and the separation of basins from the sea (e.g. Høeg, Henningsmoen, & Sørensen 2019; Sørensen et al., 2014; Wiekowska-Lüth, Solheim, Schülke, & Kirleis, 2018). The latitude of Southeast Norway is exposed to marked seasons with cold and dark winters, short spring periods, summers with only a few hours of darkness at night and autumns with early frost. Thus, the environment traverses enormous seasonal changes, where snow and ice in winter have the biggest impact on vegetation, animal life and on the physical communication potential, generally seen as a period of stress (Frislid & Jensen, 1994; Selsing, 2021).

The vegetation of the region in the Atlantic period, which can be paralleled with later Mesolithic times, was dominated by a mixed oak forest in which also linden occurred; the presence of species, such as mistletoe and ivy, indicates a warmer climate and longer growing seasons (Hoeg et al., 2019). Local pollen analysis explore the vegetation history of more delimited areas. A laminated lake core from Lake Skogstjern, Bamble, Telemark shows the changing vegetation through time. In the LM, Lake Skogstjern was placed about 500 m away from the coast, in the hinterland. Around the lake the vegetation in the LM was characterized by deciduous forest with elm, linden and hazel and indicated human manipulation of vegetation in the coast-near hinterland, which is interpreted as being intentional, at several occasions, to attract game, or even to form certain types of woods for other purposes such as weaving of wickerwork for shelters, fences, fish traps or baskets (Wiekowska-Lüth et al., 2018).

Archaeological evidence indicates the intentional use of wood for fire (Selsing, 2016, 2018), for construction and equipment, as e.g. indirectly manifested in the Nøstvet axes (Jaksland, 2005; Wiekowska-Lüth et al., 2018), and the collecting of hazelnuts. Other resources that potentially were collected in the woods, but that are difficult to grasp archaeologically are: fibres, berries, roots, diverse parts of plants and mushrooms as food, for medical purposes or for dying etc., with a high season in summer/autumn.

6.2 Encounters with Animals

Almost all of the animal bones preserved from Mesolithic coastal sites in the Oslo fjord region encompass fish/sea mammals and terrestrial animals (Glørstad, 2010, pp. 70–88; Mansrud & Persson, 2017; Solheim, 2020, Table 3.1). These, relatively seen, few bone-finds are all burned and highly fragmented; often they only can indicate the presence or absence of certain species (Mansrud & Persson, 2017). The species represented (Table A3) include ungulates (elk, red deer, roe deer or rein deer), rodents (beaver, squirrel), hares and predators (brown bear, red fox, mustelids and otter). While elk, squirrel and brown bear only are known from MM sites and roe deer, deer/reindeer, hare, red fox, mustelids and otter only from LM sites, red deer, wild boar and beaver occur in both periods. Wild boar occurs on most of the sites. This picture might however be biased by a number of source critical factors including poor preservation conditions.

Table A3

Terrestrial animals (presence marked with x) represented on Middle and Late Mesolithic coastal sites in the Oslo fjord area (SE-Norway and W-Sweden (site of Gåshult)) and information on their respective habitats, food and patterns of (seasonal) movements (according to Frislid & Jensen, 1994). The data on the bones material are based on compilations by Mansrud and Persson (2017), Table 6.2) (for the Middle Mesolithic) and Glørstad (2010), Table 3.4) (Late Mesolithic, Phase 3); see also Solheim (2020, Table 3.1)

Species Middle Mesolithic sites (dating to between 7600 and 6500 BC) Late Mesolithic sites (dating to between 6400 and 4600 BC (phase 3)) Habitat, food and pattern of (seasonal movement)
Prestemoen 1 Tørkop Søndre Vardal 3 Langangen Vestgård 1 Vinterbro 3 Saugbrug 1 Saugbrug 2 Saugbrug 3 Frebergsvik Torpum 9 Skoklefald Gåshult Nøstvet
Mammals indeterminable* x x x x x x x x
Elk x Coniferous forests and mixed woodlands, preferably with herbs, bogs and wetlands. Adapts to other environments (mountain birch woods, highlands, cultural landscapes). Can live in minor areas (2–10 km2), but seasonal movements relating to access to food (leaves and branches, herbs, heather, water plants) and snow conditions are usual (50–60 km) following the same tracks. Swims in fresh and saltwater
Alces alces
Red deer x x x x Coast and inland areas. Food: gras, herbs, heather, blueberry leaves, birch leaves, mushrooms. Winter Food: branches of aspen, sallow and rowan, only rarely bark. In Norway, due to deep snow in winter, long movements from the wood or mountain areas towards the coast
Cervus elaphus
Roe deer x x Favour areas with wood and open areas. Herbivores, eating also acorns and mushrooms, in winter especially heather, blueberry and branches of bushes and trees. Moves within a certain area (100–1,000 dekar (1 dekar = 1,000 m2)), but some places in the North they move between summer and winter areas (due to snow)
Deer/reindeer x x Originally in the mountain areas, in the tundra and in coniferous forests. Food: lichen growing on stone (summer) or trees (winter), gras and herbs (spring), mushrooms (autumn). Seasonal movement patterns to access food, often due to snow, but also other types of daily or weather-dependent movement
Wild boar x x x x x x x Lives in different environments, preferably in deciduous, slightly humid forests, mainly herbivore (green plants, roots and other subterrenean parts of plants, acorn), eats also small animals (e.g. insects, worms, mouse, snails)
Sus scrofa
Ungulate family x
Cloven-hooved animal x x x
Beaver x x x Fresh water (preferably lakes and ponds), builds lodges at waterfront, deciduous forest as building material and food, not further than 500 m away from water, herbivore (herbs, grass, water plants, bark). Winter rest in lodge at waterfront
Castor fiber
Squirrel x Woods (mostly coniferous and mixed, but also deciduous). Food: seeds of coniferous trees, nuts, buds of conifers, mushrooms, many other parts of plants, insects, eggs, little birds, animal bones. Needs freshwater for drinking. Uses several dens within a restricted area
Sciurus vulgaris
Rodent x
Hare/mountain hare x x Very variable, from coast to mountains. Often wooded areas, in winter in areas with deciduous forest or Food: grass, herbs, heather, blueberry, cranberry, branches and bark
Lepus timidus
Brown bear x x Coniferous forest, sometimes mountains, crosses large territories, omnivore (herbs, berries, insects, birds terrestrial animals). Winter rest in hollows
Ursus arctos
Red fox x Very adaptable, lives in many environments, but not deep in the woods and in the high mountains. Mainly carnivore, eats also reptiles, fish and insects. Autumn: eats also fruit and berries
Vulpes vulpes
Mustelids x Coniferous and deciduous forest, faunivore (squirrels, rodents, birds, eggs, insects)
Otter x x Coast. Food: fish. Needs also freshwater
Lutra lutra

*not indicated for the Middle Mesolithic sites; x marks that the respective species is represented on a site.

To expand information the habitats of the represented animals were collected for this article (according to Frislid & Jensen, 1994; see Table A3). The animals’ habitats allow insights into human engagement with terrestrial animals in a spatial perspective as the surroundings in which the respective animal species dwell and move indicate which environments had to be frequented by humans to meet and hunt these animals.

Snow conditions in winter are the factor that affects animal movement most. Ungulates mainly tarry in wooded areas, but in the winter season, they move away from areas with deep snow as it limits possibilities of grazing (e.g. heather, blueberry leaves) (Frislid & Jensen, 1994, pp. 274–317). Some of the ungulate species move closer to the coast with milder climate and lesser snow, and red deer and elk travel across long distances, using the same tracks (Frislid & Jensen, 1994, pp. 280–286, 293–298). Thus, there were good chances for Mesolithic hunters to meet ungulates at the coast or along bigger watercourses. But, there are also species represented which only live in the woods (Table A3). Beaver, for example, depend on freshwater and deciduous trees (Frislid & Jensen, 1994, pp. 106–112). Seldomly and unpredictable they occur in coastal waters (Hardeng, 1998). Bear lives in coniferous woods or sometimes higher up in the mountains, preferably in areas that are difficult to access (Frislid & Jensen, 1994, pp. 200–206). Squirrels and mustelids mainly dwell in the woods (Frislid & Jensen, 1994, pp. 100–106, 230–234). Wild boar also prefers deciduous, slightly humid forests, but they can, as the other listed species (Table A3), have more varied habitats, which do not include woods. To encounter and hunt some of these animals, Mesolithic people had to access deciduous forests with fresh water sources (beaver) (Figure 9) or rather impassable coniferous forests (bear).

The animals’ different patterns of movement, sometimes explicitly seasonal, is decisive for human-animal encounters (Elliott, 2019; Fuglestvedt, 2018, p. 114). It must have been important for structuring human movements in the woods. Compared to the smaller terrestrial animals with more restricted territories of movement, which would have afforded less human mobility to follow them, the high mobility of the ungulates would have had impact on humans as hunting big game was difficult (Selsing, 2021). Following their paths was surely important. Big game was an important symbol and reference for Mesolithic people (Glørstad, 2010, pp. 227–236, 252–256; Fuglestvedt, 2018). Elk or deer are the dominating motives on the 10 LM rock art sites known from Southeast-Norway, all of which were situated directly at waterways in their time, three of them at the coast (Fuglestvedt, 2018, Table 2.1; Glørstad, 2010, pp. 216–223; Mikkelsen, 1977). A close communication and metaphysical interrelation between animals and humans might have been expressed e.g. in depictions of hunting situations on rock art, but also in eating meat and processing other parts of the animal (e.g. hides and bones into clothes and tools) (Fuglestvedt, 2018, p. 117 ff.). The close relationship of elk and water is also observed expressed in symbolic terms in the archaeological material (Glørstad, 2010, pp. 227–228, 252–256), which might suggest the hunting elk at well-known tracks or posts at open water, as it e.g. still is practiced in some parts of the large Northern Eurasian taiga (Willerslev, 2011). Scandinavian rock art fields with big game depictions often are placed close to seasonal gathering areas of larger groups of animals, and close to elk tracks in the woods, sometimes even placed close to historic elk-hunting pits (Gjerde, 2010, pp. 426–434). It was proposed that hunting pits are depicted on the SE-Norwegian rock art-sites Ekeberg and Skogerveien (Gjerde, 2010, pp. 433–434); the sites were both coast based in the Mesolithic. This might indicate that hunters tracked down elk in the hinterlands/woods, as hunting pits usually are placed along elk tracks between grazing areas. It required different senses and practices of movement for the hunter to detect and finally meet these animals, such as the ability to move quiet and undetected, including to prevent the animals from smelling the hunter (Willerslev, 2011), or waiting – in cases of hunting along known animal tracks. As the animals are very mobile, most likely different types of hunting had to be practiced, adjusted to the situation (Selsing, 2021).

These diverse sensual qualities and practices of movement were most likely also important for other aspects of social life taking place in the forest, such as taking control of situations, e.g. by conducting activities that should stay unseen for others, or observing other humans’ activities and movements, for examples from places with good views (see below).

6.3 Wayfinding Practices

To reach hinterland locations, as some of the ones presented above, rocky wooded hinterland areas would have need to be crossed on foot. One would have been confronted with significant height differences due to a splitting up of the landscape by basins, wetlands and valleys cutting the steep bedrock formations. This would have required other skills than navigating along the shores with a boat. Hunter-fisher-gatherers in the Boreal zone, especially in areas with a low density of people, would usually not have moved alone, as the forest was full of dangers and a safe return had to be guaranteed (Lovis, 2016). Wayfinding practices are movements of the actively perceiving and sensing practitioner, who avoided obstacles and who would have preferred the following of human and animal traces (Takada, 2016). Identifying safe pathways in hinterland areas would have included the crossing, overcoming (upwards and downwards) or circumventing of steep and often slippery slopes – to the elevated hinterland locations – as well as valley floors with bogs and wetlands, including the knowledge of which vegetation would indicate which type of underground at what time of the year (dry, wet, frozen, fluid, solid). Seasonal differences with different advantages/disadvantages of movement would be important, so that the cost of movement also would have played a role (Kelly, 2013, p. 101). In winter, snow and ice are challenges, but the crossing of wetlands and lakes on foot is possible; further, movement and transport can be made easier by using technical help such as ski or pulling aids. In frost-free seasons, lakes and watercourses can be overcome by boat/canoe or swimming. Reading animal tracks, spoors and excrements would help to identify paths and tracking animals. Senses such as smelling (e.g. the fox) and listening (e.g. to the song, calls or silence of the birds) would have given signs of safeness or danger, or of closeness of animals.

Furthermore, the memorizing of paths and places would have been crucial for orientation. Specific points in the perceived landscape would have been needed as important landmarks, to be connected in a memory sequence of strings/lines with different characteristics, which would pointed into the right direction (Takada, 2016). In Southeast Norway, these could for example include rock formations, wetland basins, characteristic trees or large anthills. Cumulative knowledge of an area would have increased the better the groups using it were familiar with the area (Lovis, 2016; see below). For areas in the Northern Boreal forest which are more regularly frequented by hunter-fisher-gatherer groups, landscape marking or the marking of tracks with e.g. cut off branches, cairns or animal skeletons in trees, is reported (Lovis, 2016).

7 Elevated Hinterland Sites as Anchor Points and Places of Social Communication

Hinterland locations were used in later Mesolithic times according to the above analysis, placed at elevated locations on top of or very close to steep precipices, with very good views into one or more valleys – often with watercourses. The later Mesolithic activities could have been coincidently placed on ancient, formerly coastal, sites. However, as foragers generally are excellent readers of traces (Knutsson, 2005), it might be that these places were recognized as ancient, formerly used places in some cases possibly with traces of old fire places/hearths. This might suggest an intentional (and maybe periodical though archaeologically little visible) revisiting of ancient places – even after severe environmental changes. These might have been anchor points with a historic depth for the people frequenting the then wooded coastal hinterland (Knutsson, 2005). In a mere practical perspective, these elevated locations would have provided overview of the surroundings, but could also have served as prominent places which could be seen, e.g. by lighting a fire (smoke/light signals; see Selsing 2018) in an (already existing?) fireplace.

Maybe they were part of a – cosmological – narrative: they might have been experienced – through existing remnants such as lithic artefacts, remains of a hearth or vegetational characteristics, but they could even have been orally traded as places with historic depth – for example connected to stories on ancient times with higher waters. They could have been anchor points in the wooded landscapes, as social nodes at specific natural features and maybe close to a mobility route (Lovis, 2016), or to an animal track and thus part of a socialized world.

The elevated locations and in some cases maybe old hearths could have served as space attractors, allowing to light a fire and providing heat at a place where provoking a forest fire was rather low, due to the fact that elevated places in the region often have a more open vegetation cover due to thin soil cover. However, they could also have been used more outwardly, e.g. with a function in a communication system, such as sending or receiving smoke or light signals (Schülke, 2020; Selsing, 2018), or as a means for others to locate you (Lovis, 2016). These prominent points in the landscape could also have served as observation points of the valleys and watercourses that they allowed insight in – to trace animals and humans. This could involve both friendly situations, but also moments or times of conflict. Recent investigations on fortified settlements in Siberia in the times around 6000 calBC set the issue of conflict in hunter-fisher-gatherer groups on the agenda (Piezonka, Kosinskaya, Chairkina, Dubotseva, & Schreiber, 2020; Schreiber, 2021). The topic of conflict has so far not been in focus when discussing the groups in Southeast Norway, but should not to be underestimated.

8 Conclusion and Outlook

The indications of visits of these hinterland locations thus contribute to understanding the social life of hunter-fisher-gatherers in the region, with regard to the Mesolithic use of the wooded areas beyond the shoreline and the main watercourses.

As this study shows, the knowledge of direct evidence of the use of hinterland locations is still at its beginnings – not least considering the large time span of the well 5,000 years covering the Mesolithic in the region. In the future more, signs of Mesolithic hinterland use need to be identified to better understand potential (changing?) patterns of use through time. Here, attention has to be drawn to the fact that development-led excavations are the most important and visible “suppliers” of data. They are mainly concentrated in the densely settled areas close to today’s shoreline and coastal hinterland. Thus, potentially used hinterland sites, including those placed further inland, usually lie away from archaeological investigations. This goes also for the EM and MM which in these times would have been coastal/close to the shoreline due to higher sea levels, but for which hinterland activities also are an issue (Mjærum, 2018). In future, more focus should be on the supposedly rather little marked evidence of Mesolithic activity in form of artefacts, structures and radiocarbon datings further inland, and not least connected to large scale excavation of Iron Age sites in arable land. LM activity traces (artefacts and a radiocarbon date) are e.g. found in connection with the archaeological survey for the motorway E18 Retvet-Vinterbro at Askjum (Herstad & Boon, 2016, pp. 66–70), on a location which was several kilometres away from the former coast.

It has been argued that LM societies in the Oslo fjord area were familiar with the landscape for generations and capable to deal with it (Glørstad, 2010, pp. 100–102). This might be right seen in archaeological retrospective and discussing a material culture complex, which stretched across 18 centuries, as a whole. But how would this have been perceived for an individual/group within a generation? Considering the size of the Oslo fjord area with its today 1,984 km2 (, last visit 24.04.2022), the coastal complexity with archipelagos and sounds, it is likely that a single group/unit was familiar with general ways of dealing with this environment (plants, marine and terrestrial animals, birds, water in its different conditions (snow, ice) and forces (from creeks to torrential streams), dark winters and short nights in summer). They would have had territories that they, and especially the older members were familiar with (Lovis, 2016), but not each of them would have been familiar with all of the region. Thus, as soon as familiar environments were left, a cautious and questioning engagement with the surroundings was necessary, as the hinterland, with woods, steep rocky slopes, clefts and so on might have concealed practical, social and cosmological dangers.

Integrating these aspects into the study of later Mesolithic people’s engagement with their surroundings adds new dimensions to the discussion. From a more experiential perspective it opens purposefully to the fact that, to make a hunter-fisher-gatherer living, people had to overcome the open and easily accessible shoreline with its broad horizon. They, or some of them, had to turn around and merge with the woods, which opened up for a range of necessary human–animal–plant relations – as part of the social, spiritual and economic life of these groups.

Figure 9 
               A recent beavers’ lodge at a lakeshore with deciduous forest in the coastal hinterland (Nøklevannet, Oslo). Photo: Almut Schülke.
Figure 9

A recent beavers’ lodge at a lakeshore with deciduous forest in the coastal hinterland (Nøklevannet, Oslo). Photo: Almut Schülke.



Early Mesolithic


Middle Mesolithic


Late Mesolithic


Museum of Cultural History


University of Oslo

Special Issue Published in Cooperation with Meso'2020 – Tenth International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe, edited by Thomas Perrin, Benjamin Marquebielle, Sylvie Philibert, and Nicolas Valdeyron.


This study is conducted within the International Research Network PrehCOAST ( as part of the Norway group of the network ( I would like to thank my colleagues in this network for inspiring discussions on the topic. Thanks to two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this article.

  1. Funding information: Author states no funding involved.

  2. Conflict of interest: Author states no conflicts of interest.

  3. Data availability statement: All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article.


Table A1

The nine earlier Mesolithic sites with later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates from structures discussed in the study

Site (county*, id number according to Askeladden database) Height in metres a.s.l. (today) Site topography (today) Dating of main occupation which corresponds with earliest visit(s) of the location Total number of artefacts (all lithics) Background for dating Site topography at time of main occupation (EM/MM/LM) Reference (publication or report of the site)
1 Anvik (Vestfold, id 119055) 77–80 A little plateau of the steep eastern slope of a mountain chain right above the lake Farrisvannet to the east ca. 8550–8250 calBC (transition EM/MM) 4,751 Technology, shoreline dating Shore-based mainland location in a skerry landscape Eymundsson, 2014
2 Pauler 1 (Vestfold, id 97782) 127–130 On a terrace above a steep southward falling precipice ca. 9200–8900 calBC (EM) 16,227 Technology and typology, shoreline dating On a sheltered shore-based terrace with a little bay to the east, at the southern side of an island Schaller Åhrberg, 2012
3 Dørdal (Telemark, id 146146) 100–101 On a plateau limited by outcrops, a steep precipice towards the south into an east–west going valley, slopes towards the west and east. ca. 8600–8400 calBC (EM) 735 Technology, shoreline dating At the southwestern side of a little east–west oriented island, coast based at a little bay, in a skerry landscape Solheim et al., 2017
4 Pauler 2 (Vestfold, id 97791) 123–124 On a southwest-sloping terrace, towards the south a steep precipice ca. 9150–8850 calBC (EM) 3,708 Technology, shoreline dating On a sheltered shore-based terrace with a little bay to the west, at the southern side of an island Nyland, 2012
5 Bakke (Vestfold, id 97832) 98–103 Two opposed planes on a terrace delimited by an outcrop to the east, eastwards a steep precipice into a north-south going valley ca. 8900–8550 calBC (EM) 9,558 Technology, shoreline dating In the southern part of an island, on a sheltered shore-based terrace directly at a sound (to the east) Nyland & Amundsen, 2012
6 Hegna Vest 1 (Telemark, id 138264) 60–61 In an undulating landscape on a col, and between rocky outcrops, 2.5 km in the hinterland ca. 8000–7800 calBC (MM) 6,113 Technology and typology, shoreline dating, two radiocarbon dates from hearths (A1483-A9819) In a skerry landscape at the outer coast, on a conjunction between a little peninsula and land, with water to the north and south Fossum, 2017
7 Svingen boligfelt (Akershus, id 129045) 84–87 On an elongated south–north oriented little plane on west-sloping ridge, with steep sloping terrain towards the southwest ca. 7700–7500 calBC (MM) 1,775 Technology, shoreline dating, radiocarbon dates Shore based at the western shore of an island Eymundsson, 2013
8 Gunnarsrød 7 (Telemark, id 136600, id 136603) 57–59 On a northwest sloping terrace on the lower northern slope of a mountain ridge, ca. 10 m above a little valley towards the northwest ca. 7800–7300 calBC (MM) 12,397 Technology and typology, shoreline dating, four concentrations of finds interpreted as several visits Shore based at a sound towards the northwest Fossum, 2014
9 Vinterbro 3 (Akershus) 73–75 On a surface sloping slightly to the north, only several metres from a precipice to the north sloping into the junction of and east–west and north–south going valley ca. 7500 BP (LM) 6,744 Technology and typology, shoreline dating On the northern tip of a little protrusion directly at the coast of a sound, bending towards north and west directly at this location Jaksland, 2001, pp. 86–104

*Before county reform 2020.

Table A2

Context and material of the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates from the nine sites discussed in this study. For references see last column in Table A1

Context of later Mesolithic radiocarbon date(s) Later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates Material for dating (hn = hazelnut shell) Potential artefact material related to the later Mesolithic radiocarbon dates Radiocarbon dates younger than LM
1. Anvik
Hearth (S10520): oval, 0.78 m × 0.9 m, 0.19 m deep, burnt stones, placed centrally in the western part of the plateau between the four find concentrations, which mostly had late EM – early MM character. The charcoal sample was taken from the profile in a depth of 0–0.17 m (under the surface exposed through soil stripping), four charcoal pieces from the sample were dated 1) 7875 ± 52 BP (Ua-46951) Salix A minor part of the artefact material with MM character might be deposited at the time of the later visit(s) (Eymundsson, 2014, p. 36)
70306930 calBC (95.4%)
2) 7818 ± 49 BP (Ua-46950) hn
68206500 calBC (95.4%)
→ point to minimum two visits 3) 7744 ± 49BP (Ua-46952) Salix
66506470 calBC (95.4%)
4) 7678 ± 49 BP (Ua-46953) Pinus
66106430 calBC (95.4%)
2. Pauler 1
Hearth (A15): 1 m × 0.6 m, charcoal and sooty earth, burnt stones, in the westernmost (Enhet 6/väst) area of the site. This feature was later dismissed by as residue after a mouldering tree, which was burnt at its outsides (Schaller Åhrberg, 2012, pp. 56–57) 7245 + −45 BP (Tua-7848) Pinus From a structure in another area of the site
61205995 calBC
3. Dørdal
Two hearths: A792: Pinus The artefact material was interpreted as EM by the excavators, even though there were just a few diagnostic finds
A792 was placed centrally on the offset: stone packing with 34 kg burnt stones in a sandy layer conglutinated by hard pan on top of a hard packed sand and gravel layer, elongated, 1.35 m × 0.75 m, several layers, up to 0.2 m deep 1) 7120 ± 30 BP (Beta-417123)
60455925 calBC (95.4%)
A792: Pinus
2) 7050 ± 31 BP (Ua-53183)
60105875 calBC, (95.4%)
A1134 was placed in the eastern part of the offset and close to a find concentration: stone packing with 150 kg of burnt stones, pear-shaped to circular, c. 1.6 m in diameter, c. 0.25 m deep, several layers. The samples for radiocarbon dating were taken from the sandy layer with burnt stones (A792) and from the middle of the structure between burnt stones (A1134) taken A1134: Pinus
1) 7070 ± 30 BP (Beta-417122)
60105895 calBC (95.4%)
A1134: Pinus
2) 6956 ± 31 BP (Ua-53184)
59705740 calBC (95.4%)
4. Pauler 2
Hearth, circular, 1.3 m × 1.1 m, with 11 kerb stones and a packing with 12 litres of burnt stones in a layer of sand and gravel (0.5–0.1 m thick) on a layer of fine sand. Radiocarbon samples were taken from four areas in the hearth. The two LM datings stem from the same area of the hearth 1) 6910 ± 40 BP (Beta-234403) hn The find material is technologically/typologically dated to the EM. So is the hearth, as it is character resembles other hearths found on EM sites in the vicinity (Nyland, 2012). Two flint pieces were found in the masses of the hearth, and around it some burnt flint flakes were found Six other datings, ranging from around 3650 calBC to around 1260 AD stem from three other parts of the hearth
58805720 calBC [hn]
2) 6990 ± 40 BP (Beta-234404) Pinus
59805760 calBC
5. Bakke
Hearth (S4), oval, stone packing 4 m × 2 m, with kerb stones. In the middle of S4 a marked packing of gravel with burnt/weathered stones, which witnessed of long use. Depth of S up to 0.5 m deep, consisting of a black-brown sand-layer on bedrock in a depression, under a homogeneous sand and gravel layer, topped by a gravel layer with burnt stones. The samples for the radiocarbon dates were taken from the gravel layer with burnt stones. S4 was placed on the highest point of the site 6915 ± 40 BP (Tua-7853) Betula The find material is technologically/typologically dated to the EM. So is the hearth, as it is character resembles other hearths found on EM sites in the vicinity (Nyland/Amundsen, 2012) Another sample from another part of S4 in about 1 m distance: 180–60 calBC
57705700 calBC
6. Hegna Vest 1
Pit 100079, placed in an agglomeration with three other pits, up to 0.7 m deep with homogeneous filling 6816 ± 36 BP (Ua-51466) Salix In Pit 100079, MM artefacts were found. The excavator does not rule out that the pit represents a LM structure, but stresses that this is a bit doubtful regarding the mismatch of finds and the close vicinity to the three Iron Age pits (Fossum, 2017) From several other structures: two to the MM, the others Bronze Age and Iron Age (amongst these the three pits close to Pit 100079)
57505640 calBC
7. Svingen boligfelt
Hearth (S312), placed at the northern end of the plateau outside the distinct find concentrations. Characterized by an agglomeration of burnt stones in charcoal-speckled layer, oval, 0.74 m × 0.68 m, c. 0.12 m deep 6336 ± 39 BP (Ua-45463) Pinus Very little in the material might indicate a use in LM Three other structures were 14C-dated: a hearth to the MM, two postholes to the Bronze Age
54655218 calBC
8. Gunnarsrød 7
Eroded hearth (A1000), washed out, but with some burnt stone, oval form, 1.3 m × 0.5 m, 0.05 m depth 5563 ± 30 BP (UBA-19129) Betula The radiocarbon date and a fragment of an A1-arrowhead in a find concentration nearby might point to a revisit of the site in the late part of the LM (Kjeøy-phase) (Fossum 2014, 193–194)
44544350 calBC
9. Vinterbro 3
Remains of a washed out hearth, centrally placed on the location. Not documented further 5905 ± 105 BP (T-13136) Charcoal, tree species not reported The find material is most likely from the early LM; it is however not completely homogeneous, some polished flint flakes indicate a Neolithic revisit. According to the excavator, a repeated occupation of the site is thinkable, the later Mesolithic radiocarbon date might stem from a later visit (Jaksland, 2001, p. 104)


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Received: 2022-04-27
Revised: 2023-01-30
Accepted: 2023-04-09
Published Online: 2023-06-02

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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