The Fehmarn Project and LOST (Lolland’s Stone Age)

In 2009 the Danish government decided that a permanent link be established between Lolland in Denmark and Fehmarn in Germany, marking the starting point of one of the largest archaeological investigations in Danish history and by far the largest Stone Age excavation ever conducted in Denmark. The affected areas are distributed between 187 acres located in a reclaimed former fjord area and 153 acres of hinterland on dry land.

The 187 acres in the former Syltholm fjord were archaeologically Terra incognita due to the fact that the original landscape was overlain by several meters of sand and gytja deposits. A situation which presented some challenges, not least because the traditional method of surveying with trenches were not possible as the groundwater level was very high in the reclaimed fjord area. The solution became to drill throughout the entire area. First core drilling to determine the underlying moraine landscape, then auger drilling to identify areas of potential archaeological interest. Based on the results from the drillings, 63 areas of interest measuring 4x4 meters were excavated, to further test the archaeological potential. Based on these test results, a total of 25 sites were selected for archaeological excavation in the reclaimed fjord basin, and when the excavations were concluded in 2019, a total of 78,000 square meters had been excavated.

Fishing weir

The excellent preservation conditions at the Syltholm Excavations have resulted in great amounts of well-preserved organic materials, such as this fishing weir. Photo: Museum Lolland-Falster

The shallow fjord basin was formed some 7,000 years ago when the rising sea level caused the water from the Baltic Sea to flood the low areas. From the time prior to the fjord forming, only scattered occurrences of flint objects have been found, indicating that wandering hunter tribes have visited the area. The intensity in finds increases rapidly ranging from the middle of the Ertebølle culture, approximately 6700 years ago, up to the Bronze Age, signifying a wide variety of activities in the area, after which only a few finds from Early Iron Age and nothing of younger date have been identified.

Funnel beaker

Funnel beaker found at the archaeological excavations at Syltholm.
Photo: Museum Lolland-Falster

The excavations have demonstrated the greatest intensity in both settlement and activities in the Syltholm Fjord in the period from approximately 4,500 BC and up to approximately 3,300 BC, or in other words the latter part of the Ertebølle Culture and the beginning of the Funnel Beaker Culture. As this chronological framework spans the very time period where agricultural farming was introduced in Denmark, the archaeological material from the Syltholm excavations contains important new material for elucidating the neolithisation question. Moreover, the find material holds a unique potential for illuminating the transition problem from different angles; technological changes in different materials such as ceramics, flint, bone/antlers and wood – changes in the subsistence economy based on fauna material – studies of lipids and macrofossils – changes in immolation practices that reflect changes in cosmology, religion and rituals, to name but a few of the more obvious research topics which are already being adressed.

The geographical location of the Syltholm fjord is not without significance when the neolithisation process is to be elucidated, as it is located in the most obvious place in Eastern Denmark for a direct connection between Denmark and Germany, thus also making it the most obvious place for the earliest introduction of neolithic products in Eastern Denmark. A point which has already been partially confirmed by some very early datings of bones from sheep/goats and cattle from the excavated fauna material and through the sheer number of imported shoe-last axes found on Lolland in general as well as a single one from our own excavations.

Eel-spear

Preserved eel-spear with bone-point found in-situ.
Photo: Museum Lolland-Falster

In addition to the question of the neolithisation, the excavations also revealed large amounts of archaeological material relating to Stone Age fishing in the Syltholm Fjord, both as active fishing with eel spears or eel clamps as well as passive fishing with fish weirs placed in permanent or semi-permanent systems. One of the unresolved questions concerns the function of the approximately 2000 wooden stakes, all rammed down into the seabed and seemingly unconnected with the fishing activities, which were uncovered during the excavations? More than 250 14C dates have been conducted on these stakes, documenting that they span the entire period of use/activities in the fjord.

The many data obtained through the archaeological excavations in the Syltholm Fjord will also be included in a project that will seek to refine the sea level displacement curve in Denmark further, by applying the many new dates – currently more than 600 – from a relatively limited area as the Syltholm Fjord area represents, to the existing material and knowledge.

That even the smallest, individual finds from the excavations can be of great importance and contain great scientific potential was made evident by the study of a lump of birch pitch (Stone Age chewing gum). The DNA study carried out on the seemingly nugatory lump of pitch provides yet another piece in the puzzle that is the already outlined issues regarding the neolithisation in Denmark, both in terms of diet and the population’s genetic affiliation.

It is Museum Lolland-Falster’s ambition that the material from the Fehmarn excavations can be brought into play in research projects involving both researchers and institutions from the rest of Denmark as well as abroad. It is with this in mind, that this conference has been initiated, in order to present the archaeological material to a wider circle.

Museum Lolland-Falster hopes that the LOST 2021 – Stone Age Conference will be the beginning of a number of new collaborative relationships and provide a foundation and inspiration for future research projects. Projects needed to actualize the huge amounts of research potential that lies in the material from the archaeological excavations in the Syltholm Fjord.