A Forest Fire on the Outermost Isles

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Spent Friday working for my friends Mattias Pettersson and Roger Wikell, digging on one of their Mesolithic sites in the Tyresta nature reserve south of Stockholm. It’s an incredible place. Imagine:

An archipelago with lots of little rocky islands, located far from the coast of the mainland and teeming with seals. Mesolithic people go there in kayaks to hunt at certain times of the year, bringing chunks of rock for toolmaking. At their camps, they knap it into arrowheads, blades to edge bone harpoons, and knives to butcher seals. The camps are strewn with bones, knapping debris, charcoal and the shells of hazelnuts brought from the mainland as snacks.

Now imagine the land rising out of the sea as we press Fast Forward. As the sea drains away from the archipelago, the hunters follow the receding coastline, making new shore camps at ever-lower levels, and finally they never come back. (All this takes place before the world has even been made according to Biblical chronology.) The area becomes rugged highlands with lakes and brooks and bogs, and is soon covered by dense woods. These woods are useful to people for hunting, logging, charcoal production and pasturing livestock. But they don’t stay there much and they leave few traces. The scatters of Mesolithic seal-hunting debris under the moss are rarely disturbed.

In 1999 a forest fire raged through the Tyresta nature reserve, wiping out hundreds of hectares of pine, spruce and birch — a sixth of the reserve’s area. The heat was so intense that the ground vegetation, moss and grass turf, also went up in smoke. A few large trees survived, but over a vast area, everything that had accumulated there since the end of the Mesolithic was gone. Suddenly the islands of the ancient archipelago were once again in plain view of each other, but no longer across the waves of the sea — across low-lying expanses of naked rock and charcoal. The vegetation is regenerating slowly, but the burnt area is still an absolutely amazing sight, a drained Mesolithic archipelago.


Into this Mordor-like post-apocalyptic landscape Mattias and Roger wandered. Ancient lithics scatters were everywhere, peeping out of the scorched earth if you knew what to look for. The material has never been covered by much sediment, it’s really just sitting on the ground surface where it ended up thousands of years ago. The sites the guys discovered number in the hundreds. And right now they’re digging at site number 121, about 65 meters above current sea level, corresponding to a shoreline in the Maglemosian.


It’s on the shore of what was once the inner reaches of a long, canal-like inlet sheltered by low cliff walls. The inlet had shallows near its mouth and the shore-displacement was rapid, so the time when it was a good place for a sealing camp was brief, perhaps only one generation. Very good for archaeologists seeking sites with single-component occupation.


Digging and sieving half a square meter to a depth of 10-20 cm today, I found a handful of knapped quartz. Earlier, the guys have found a chip of Cambrian flint at the site, a material traded from Västergötland on the mainland, hundreds of kilometers away. No 121 hasn’t got any preserved bone, but with a bit of luck these sites produce carbonised hazelnut shells for radiocarbon dating. (No hazel bushes are likely to ever have grown in such a rocky habitat.) Such dates are valuable not only for archaeology, but also for the shore-displacement research done by quaternary geologists who follow the Tyresta excavations avidly.

I had a great day at Tyresta, wonderful to be able to contribute a little to such exciting work. All research-driven, no land-developer pressure, only the most informative sites are targeted for excavation! And all, of course, on a shoestring budget.

Read Mattias & Roger’s paper about Tyresta in the Coast to Coast: Arrival anthology. (Massive PDF file).



Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

11 thoughts on “A Forest Fire on the Outermost Isles”

  1. Well, I must admit that this sounds interesting. Stone Age is not on my top-100 list in life but once in a while there is an exception. Is it a research dig or are they going to build a new air strip there?


  2. All this takes place before the world has even been made according to Biblical chronology.

    Excellent point. Do you think the phenomena of land rise, its easily observable rate (it would take a person a year to measure it manually and coarsely at the fastest places) and the often reported remnants of old shore camps way inland has been an efficient local antidote to YE creationists? I can’t find many of those around Sweden – maybe because we are there, in a rather pervasive sense.

    Btw, brush fires, road constructions, treasure hunting, … – is there any unusual influence on nature that an archaeologist wouldn’t turn into an opportunity? Because, damn, turn a stone and … 😉


  3. Dude, that does look way too cool. Are those handy dandy shovel test screens stainless steel? Any core/flake refitting studies?– sounds like a perfect place for them. Single-component is where it’s at, folks crazy to jump into a huge lithic site that’s been camped on dozens of times and try to make sense of it. It is so much fun to do work that “real” scientists can use; instead of isostatic rebound, here in central Mississippi Valley we get to date the sequence and timing of Mag7+ earthquakes from prehistoric sites under and over sandblows. Glad you got to spend a day in the woods getting dirty and found something besides tupperware.


  4. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado has had numerous fires that revealed archaeology, although this can threaten the archaeology as well.


    I thought this was interesting:

    A Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) Team organized by the Department of the Interior is working to evaluate and mitigate adverse effects of both the Bircher and Pony Fires. The BAER Team is working with the park and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation to implement measures to deal with soil erosion, road building and repair, threats to rare plant species, and protection of archeological sites. It is exciting to find new archeological sites, but fire destroys the vegetation that protected sites and suppression efforts can be destructive. Fuel reduction programs will continue to reduce overgrown vegetation to lessen the danger of fire damage in the future. Crews worked through the summer of 2001, assessing fire damage and treating damaged sites. Occasionally, temporary barricades were installed to divert water where erosion damage to ancient structures may occur. Grasses were planted. Trees that threatened to fall onto archeological sites or disturb subsurface structures were removed. Sites affected by fire were surveyed, mapped and classified. As of November 5, 2001, these crews had accomplished the following:

    Number of sites previously recorded in fire areas: 1616 sites
    Number of sites assessed: 1500 sites
    Number of sites remaining to assess: 116
    Previously unrecorded sites: 184 (67 on tribal land, 4 on BLM land)
    Sites recommended for treatment: 394
    Sites treated: 314


  5. Be careful Martin, be very, veeery careful. Once the Brotherhood of Quartz has gotten its hooks into you, it will not let go. The sect is infamous and feared in the archaeological community, they have been known to clear a conference room in 2 minutes. It is said the Leader – known as Woger – will hypnotize you with his glasses and confuse you with his wavy hair.
    Before you know it, you will be re-fitting quartz, haunt moraine hills and write poems about windy shores and new land still wet from the sea it has risen from…
    The only cure is some serious de-programming at the nearest Iron Age conference on bavarian belt decorations.

    Seriously – Great pictures and a wonderfully written account of the area. It IS interesting, but I would rather eat slate and japsis than admit it to Roger’s face 😉


  6. Lars, it’s a research dig funded by the Tyresta Foundation. It’s a nature reserve, you know!

    Torbjörn, creationism of all kinds is a symptom of fundamentalist religion, of which Sweden luckily has very little.

    Mary, the screens are steel mesh in an aluminium frame with plastic wheels and a table-like structure (not pictured) that allow you to roll the frame to & fro at belly height and study the contents. No re-fitting so far: quartz is a bastard of a material.


  7. Rich, truly Tunguskan!

    Windy, that film short actually sounds worth seeing!

    Jeff, that’s a good parallel!

    Åsa, haha, I know what you mean! I think I’m kind of safe because I know absolutely nothing about the actual knapping and so can’t classify lithics. But Woger and his disciples are a charismatic lot of cultists.


  8. Great text and jolly good photos, Martin! Thanks!

    Yes, we are thinking about re-fitting as a desirable ingredient in the analyzis, along with wear-mark studies on the edges of the quartz pieces.

    The recent week we have started digging on two more sites a few kilometres from No 121 that Martin visited. And the last day, during a lunch-walk, a brand new site on 65 m above sea-level was found. Quartz was found at extreme abundance in the damage from a fallen tree.

    And about re-fitting: Just a few hours ago when I was washing quartz from this particular site I saw two pieces that had surfaces that seemed to be related. I tried to fit them together and suddenly they fit! And remember this happened without serious effort! So, despite Marin’s just stement that quartz is “a bastard of a material” in this respect, there is definetely some light at the end of the tunnel.



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