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Burial of a Stone Age fisherman discovered at Lake Burtnieks

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Burial of a Stone Age fisherman discovered at Lake Burtnieks

Aija Macane and Ute Brinker

In the course of archaeological excavation at the Riņņukalns Stone Age site, located by the outflow of the River Salaca from Lake Burtnieks, an ancient burial has been discovered. The deceased was provided with a meal of fish, as indicated by a spread of fish bones surrounding the skull. It is known that in the ancient past this was a particularly attractive spot for fishing and for collecting mussels, because the site has an accumulation of food refuse from the people living at that time, mainly consisting of fish bones and freshwater mussel shells. That fish were placed in the grave suggests that fishing also had an important place in the rituals and world view of the people inhabiting the lakeshore in ancient times.

Der Fundplatz Rinnukalns

The Riņņukalns site is a unique ancient habitation site in Northern Europe, a very rich source of information about the nutrition and way of life of the ancient inhabitants in the 4th millennium BC – a time when agriculture and stock-keeping had not yet widely developed in this region. Although excavation took place at Riņņukalns already in the 19th century, the analytical methods available today permit us to obtain a much more accurate and detailed picture of everyday life in prehistory.

The archaeologists are currently excavating Rinnukalns2the deeper layers of the site in order to establish when people first settled at this location and how their way of life changed over the course of time. However, to uncover an intact burial in the course of this excavation was a real stroke of good fortune. Right above the grave was a preserved hearth, which most probably can also be connected with burial practices or commemoration of the dead: it contained burned ochre, such as was widely used in burial rites in the Stone Age, along with fragments of broken clay pots.

All of the earth excavated by the archaeologists is being sieved through a fine mesh in order to recover the smallest artefacts, along with bones of fish, mammals and birds, mussel shells, and remains of nuts and seeds. Employing the latest digital technologies, the archaeological layers are being documented photogrammetrically, building up a detailed 3D model from a large number of photographs.  

Der Arbeitsplatz zum Schlämmen und Sieben des Erdaushubs

The excavation at Riņņukalns is being undertaken by a team of researchers from the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (Schleswig, Germany) and the University of Latvia, together with students from the University of Latvia and Kiel University. The material recovered will be analysed by specialists from the two countries.

The Riņņukalns excavation will continue next year. It is being led by the researchers Valdis Bērziņš, Latvia, and Harald Lübke, Germany; and it is part of the scientific project Riņņukalns, a Neolithic freshwater shell midden site in northern Latvia and its significance for cultural development of the Eastern Baltic Stone Age, funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and headed by Harald Lübke, John Meadows and Ulrich Schmölcke, ZBSA in close cooperation with Valdis Bērziņš and Ilga Zagorska, LVI, University of Latvia.

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