Scientific project

1. Background: Towards a better integration of research on prehistoric coastal societies in Europe

The importance of coastal areas for prehistoric hunter-gatherers with regard to migration routes, economy on different biotopes, mobility and as social arena is known in all parts of the world. In the last two decades, large amounts of data on Mesolithic and Neolithic coastal sites have been collected all over Europe, closely linked to rescue archaeology on the one hand and an intensified research interest – especially on shell middens – on the other. Two recent international workshops have expressed the need for diverse archaeological communities to meet and to discuss the role of the coast as living space for prehistoric hunter-gatherers:

  • Rennes 2014: « Archéologie des chasseurs-cueilleurs maritimes. De la fonction des habitats à l’organisation de l’espace littoral / Archaeology of maritime hunter-gatherers From settlement function to the organization of the coastal zone », C. Dupont/G. Marchand [dir.]
  • Oslo 2016: « The Coastal Landscapes of the Mesolithic », A. Schülke/G. Fossum/L. Koxvold/S. Solheim [dir.])

These meetings have however also illustrated that there are at least two scholarly traditions in Europe that deal with these topics, a Northern/Northeastern tradition and a South-Western tradition. Even though dealing with similar research problems they have investigated these issues within their respective culture historical frame, and thus have operated independently from each other, partly due to language barriers.

The planned research network « Coast-inland dynamics in late hunter-gatherer societies » will unite interdisciplinary archaeological research from different schools and language traditions across Europe to explore the interface between land and sea for late hunter-gatherer societies, and how the cooperation of several archaeological traditions can enrich research on them. The network will work with and cooperate in the study of different coastal regions of Europe (The Atlantic Ocean, the Baltic Sea and the Skagerrak/Oslofjord), without prejudging possible extensions to other shores of Europe, or even other continents.

2. Scope

The network of researchers intends to address a number of themes that draw their origin from similar geographical or palaeo-environmental constraints, however differently preserved. These include the ability of these populations to juggle several natural cycles (tides or seasons) to ensure their subsistence. By transcending national boundaries, schools of interpretation and their epistemological limits, it also intends to propose new perspectives on these objects of research, while sharing methods and means.

2.1. A connected history of Europe

In the manner in which the prehistory of Europe has been written for decades, the coastal strip appears either as a convenient pathway for human migration or as a place to experiment with particular social and economic forms.

The circulation of human groups by sea is a hypothesis that remains little explored in Europe, except in Norway, where maritime migrations are clearly the most accepted hypothesis for human expansion in the early Holocene. On a continental scale, it is clearly the assumed modes of continental expansion – often along an East-West axis – that are favoured in archaeologists’ models. Coastal migrations, either by navigation or along the shores, were nevertheless imagined in the 1920s by some specialist of Mesolithic and have found a new life under the pen of some Palaeolithicists working on the movements of the first humans (Erlandson, 2001 ; Bailey, 2004 ; Braje et al., 2017).

On a global scale, the view on the intrinsic characteristics of certain coastal populations has undergone significant developments. The question of their particular status arose in the late 1970s and was widely debated during the 1980s in the sphere of social anthropology with a rapid transfer of questions to prehistory (Price and Brown, 1985). After the general rehabilitation of hunter-gatherers’ livelihoods (Lee and DeVore, 1968; Sahlins, 1974), it became apparent that many societies with a predation economy did not fit into such a picture, especially those on the shores of the North Pacific. Their highly hierarchical social organization, their specialized economy and the permanence of their villages were in sharp contrast to the usual practices of many hunter-gatherers societies in the ethnographic record. Most of them shared a common, massive use of aquatic resources, which allowed them to be categorized as a separate category, the “maritime hunter-gatherers” (Yesner, 1980; Erlandson, 1988). These human communities have set up specialized economies that sometimes produced surpluses, with an extremely elaborate technical system and a particular interest in storage (Testart, 1982 ; Binford, 2001; Sassaman, 2004; Kelly, 2007).

Prehistoric remains from coastal areas thus need to be explored with these questions in mind. Questions also arise as to the possible intensification of practices in response to diverse environmental, political, demographic, societal and symbolic or religious stimuli. Their increase does not need to be linked to a scenario of a progressive move towards neolithization, but must be analysed separately in their respective spatio-temporal and historical context. Such questions are crucial for writing the history of humans on the European continent: while agro-pastoral practices were spreading throughout Europe from the 7th to the 5th millennia before our era, some of these littoral groups developed forms of resistance, from Atlantic Europe to the North Sea and the Baltic, perceptible as long-lasting Mesolithic enclaves.

2.2. Coast-Inland dynamics

Coastal areas usually are considered as fundamental living space for hunter-gatherers, while being interpreted as peripheral in the common neolithization models. This dichotomy of centre and periphery, which is closely connected to the topic of coast-inland relations, has to be explored.

 Skerry coast in the Oslo fjord (Photograph: Almut Schülke)
Skerry coast in the Oslo fjord (Photograph: Almut Schülke)

Accessibility, maritime and inland mobility, social complexity, storage or economic intensification are some of the topics we must address in order to understand the place of the first coastal populations in a history of Europe that will take into account all the human communities and not only the continental ones.

The coastal areas of Europe have different geological characteristics and emerged in different ways, with prehistoric coastal sites being partly or fully submerged or being preserved on dry ground.  Furthermore specific soil conditions in each region have affected the preservation of archaeological materials in different coastal regions. This variety in geology, topography and material influence our ways of understanding hunter-gatherer coastal societies.  The use of the coast by prehistoric people has to be understood in relation to the hinterland/inland, as a dynamic social system. This includes aspects of human mobility, which are related to the multiple marine and continental cycles: What are their rhythms and geographical scopes? This also encompasses “linear” mobility, i. e. with regard to collective migrations, notably through navigation, as e.g. the expansion of Early Mesolithic populations to Norway.

2.3. Amplification of concepts and means networking

The objective of the research network is therefore to have researchers from these different regions and national schools cooperate and not just to compare the results in each geographical area. In particular, it will be imperative to work together on the same case studies, amongst others by building co-directed PhD or post-doctoral projects at the universities of several countries. This will go hand in hand with accomplishing funding through several sources.

3. Aim

3.1. Duration

The duration of the IRN is scheduled to run from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2023 (5 years). Its constitution took place in the autumn of 2017; the present dossier was written in January 2018 and other consultation meetings began in February 2018, in order – already – to build common actions and benefit from our current collective dynamic.

3.2. Operating mode

  • Regular organizational meetings to work on project-building, applications and external funding
  • Annual meetings/workshops (on topics from the different WPs)
  • Exchange of researchers for collaboration on diverse case studies (sites/regions/topics), publication of results in co-authored articles
  • Exchange of researchers/students in field work
  • Student and young researcher formation
  • Co-supervision of PhD-students
  • ERC-applications (2020)
  • National Founding (ANR type) – application from 2019 onwards…
  • Dissemination of results of the cooperation on international conferences (e.g. EAA, SAA, UISPP) and co-authored articles
  • Final international conference

3.3. Research object / areas

– Norway: The Oslo Fjord region

– France : Atlantic shores and islands (Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Brittany, Normandy)

– Spain : Cantabria and Asturias

– Latvia : Kurzeme Peninsula and Gulf of Riga coast

Excavation in the mesolithic site of Beg-er-Vil, Brittany, France (@Gregor Marchand)

4. Work packages

The research group will study and integrate six main topics, which are described as work packages below. They will be discussed in the annual workshops.

WP 1- The Coast and Coastal Societies – Concepts and terminology

The cooperation of researchers from various countries, different research traditions and languages requires a mutual understanding of the different perspectives on research, and on methodological and theoretical approaches. We would like to actively take advantage of the diversity of the group, and integrate differences in approach as a constructive element into the cooperation. A first workshop will therefore be dedicated to discuss our respective terminologies, our understanding of the research object and our research traditions, to find a way of communicating together. An aim will be to produce a discussion paper which will not only serve as a basis for the programme, but also as a compilation of the status and history of research in different parts of Europe, and thus will be interesting for an international audience. This reflective approach will also serve to make obvious different modes of how we as archaeologists deal with subject of study.

WP 2 – Methods to study the coast as an interface between the inland and the sea

This WP is an opportunity to share analytical methods which can develop joint field work or laboratory analyses carried out jointly. In areas affected by a significant continental uplift, as in Norway, the former shorelines are now located above the present-day sea-level. Their exploration provides fundamental insights into the rules of human settlement along the shoreline. When the dynamics of marine transgression dominated, the flooding of late Palaeolithic or Mesolithic dwellings involved either geophysical surveys (sonar, sediment penetrator…) or surveys by underwater diving. Prospecting below the present-day sea level is also now practiced in some geographic zones and is extremely useful for establishing a link between earth and sea. Besides the discovery of submerged Mesolithic habitats, these sub-marine observations can also reveal the massive structures involved in predatory activities and fisheries (Langoüet et Daire, 2009 ; Gandois et al., 2017).

In some cases, the ancient coastlines are difficult to locate accurately and it is necessary to reconstruct the coastal paleogeography by working in strong interaction with geomorphologists and palaeo-ecologists on the topics of the relative sea-level rise and the paléoenvironnemental changes (Uehara et al., 2006; Stéphan and Goslin, 2014; Pailler et al., 2014). Thematic seminars will have to be conducted, based on joint field work.

Core drilling on a Mesolithic site in Brittany, carried out by Eneko Iriarte and Pablo Arias (photograph : Gregor Marchand)

The coastal archaeological sites share a lot of problem as acidity of the soil, salinity effects, taphonomy. It also involves identifying them and sharing knowledge. Other crucial issues, such as the use of marine organic materials for dating, are raised, with the question of the Marine Radiocarbon Reservoir Effect, but also the dating of the dunes, the lagoons or other natural formations on the coast. The studies of shell middens or shell layers, which are particularly emblematic sites of these populations, has been greatly amplified over the last few years on various coastlines of the planet (Erlandson and Fitzpatrick, 2006 ; Gutiérrez-Zugasti et al., 2011 ; Bailey et al., 2013 ; Marchand, 2014 ; Bjerck et al., 2016). They integrate a very wide variety of scientific methods, from geophysical surveys to the data analysis in laboratory after excavation. This analytical bubbling must generate in-depth exchanges between researchers and sharing of experience.

WP3 – The site as the nodal point of a network

Archaeological sites like settlements, graves, caches etc. in the coastal zone and the connected hinterland will be studied with regard to their use at certain times, the meanings that were ascribed these locations and how they were part of a material, cultural and social networks. To understand a site’s significance in a certain period, the activities that were conducted at the site will be entangled by studying the archaeological remains and taphonomic aspects of site formation. While functional and systemic approaches have ascribed archaeological sites a special function within a contemporary society/population or a social network, studies of activities and tasks that were performed at a place, will understand these sites in their landscapes as being experienced through activities and as being formed and re-formed through time (Conneller, 2006). Such studies will explore the multiple meanings of sites in the coastal strip, as nodal points of networks as well as how the sites were used, re-used and abandoned in social networks. This will cast light on not only the meaning and function of coast-bound sites, but also on social organization, economy and affiliation to land and sea at different times, and thus on the topic of coast-inland dynamics. The question of depositional practices, either intended or unintended, will be central for the understanding of the marking of the land/coast.

Middle Mesolithic coastal site Trolldalen, Akershus, today placed elevated in the woods (Photograph: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo).

WP4 – Connection / links / mobility

The functional status of the different settlements (WP 3) defines only one aspect of the network. The different functional status of habitats leads to the concepts of complementarities and therefore transfers between the sites (human displacement, exchanges …). The measurement of its connectivity, what is being transferred and what drives it is more problematic. Other indicators such as the spatial distribution of raw materials or production sequences give a dimension to the networks, anyway not enough to characterize them with precision. It is necessary to inject a temporality that we suppose to be cyclic following the seasons or the tides. Indicators given by the hunted prey or vegetable intake are of then crucial.

The role of islands and archipelagos, as final destinations or simple stopovers, is also an important matter of research. Maritime mobility (by coastal navigation) or marine mobility (by deep-sea navigation) is still a difficult topic to study in archaeology, as they often rely on tenuous and indirect markers: the poor knowledge of embarkations clearly presents problems, as does the deficient chronological framework, which hampers direct correlations of contemporaneity between insular and continental populations.

WP5 – Perception of the coastal areas

The perception of coastal areas in the sense of different landscapes is an important aspect for understanding life along the interface of land of sea. The choices of how and to which degree the resources of the sea were exploited and the physical possibilities of the coastal strip will be studied. This includes topographic features of the different case-study areas along the coastline and in the water (depths, currents etc.), different biotopes, natural cycles like the tides and different seasons, but also social and cosmological aspects of the coast that are expressed in the archaeological material. Central for this approach will be the strengthening of our knowledge on the technological mastery of tasks related to the sea like fishing, hunting sea mammals and the use of sea-going vessels/boats in a historical perspective, and thus the (changing) degree of capability of managing the sea. To investigate the perception of coastal landscapes will also include investigations on how living at and with the coast is perceived in historic times as well as today in different parts of the world, and will thus also contribute to our recent understanding of coastal areas.

WP6 – Actions and reactions: neolithization

By placing the dynamics of interactions between coastal and continental human communities at the centre of this programme, there is a risk of dealing – at least unconsciously – only with closed or fixed situations. However, these populations have been confronted with tremendous transformations, the definition and measurement of which are essential. Geographically, these lifestyles have obviously been disrupted by the more or less rapid changes in the landscapes as a result of changes in sea level. The effects of climatic events, such as that of 9300 or 8200 cal BP, are the subject of numerous studies (Breivik et al., 2017; Marchand and Perrin, 2017), on which they should be based.

Finally, the major disruption of systems is undoubtedly of human origin, with in the first place the more or less rapid changes that accompany neolithization. Several archaeologists in our network have been involved for a very long time in the fundamental question of the relationship between late hunter-gatherers and the farming communities and their role in the transition to the Neolithic. In such a perspective, mastery of chronology is essential. It gives the phenomena their real chronological thickness and characterizes in fine the nature of the changes. By questioning the different historical agents – human and non-human – it is ultimately the stability and resilience of systems (WP 3 and WP 4) that one is led to question a little differently.

5. References

Bailey, G. (2004). World Prehistory from the Margins: The Role of Coastlines in Human Evolution, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in History and Archaeology, Vol. 1 , No.1 (Summer 2004), p. 39-50.

Bailey, G. N., Hardy, K., Camara A. (ed.) (2013). Shell Energy: Mollusc Shells as Coastal Resources, Oxbow Books, 320 p.

Binford, L. R. (2001). Constructing frames of reference. An analytical method for archaeological theory building using ethnographic and environmental data sets. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Braje, T. J., Dillehay, T. D., Erlandson, J. M., Klein, R. G., Rick, T. C. (2017). Finding the first Americans, Science, Vol. 358, Issue 6363, p. 592-594 – DOI: 10.1126/science.aao5473

Bjerck, H. B., Breivik, H. M., Fretheim, S. E., Piana, E. L., Tivoli, A. M., Zangrando, A. F. J., Skar, B. (2016). Marine Ventures. Archaeological Perspectives on Human-Sea Relations. Sheffield, Bristol : Equinox Publishing Ltd, 428 p.

Conneller, C. (2006). The Space and Time of the chaîne opératoire: Technological Approaches to Past Landscapes. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 21, 2006, p. 38-49.

Breivik, H. M., Fossum, G., Solheim, S. (2017). Exploring human responses to climatic fluctuations and environmental diversity: Two stories from Mesolithic Norway. Quaternary International, March 2017, p. 1-18. DOI10.1016/j.quaint.2016.12.019

Erlandson, J. M. (1988). The Role of Shellfish in Prehistoric Economies: A Protein Perspective. American Antiquity, 53 (1), 102-109.

Erlandson, J.M., Fitzpatrick, S.M. (2006). Oceans, islands, and coasts: current perspectives on the role of the sea in human prehistory. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 1: 5–32.

Gandois H., Stéphan P., Cuisnier D., Hulot O., Ehrhold A., Paul M., Le Dantec N., Franzetti M. The stone fish traps of the Molène archipelago (Iroise Sea, Brittany, Western France): a long-term tradition starting with very early megalithic constructions. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12277

Gutierrez-Zugasti, F.I., Andersen, S.H., Araujo, A.C., Dupont, C., Milner, N., Monge-Soares, A.M. (2011). Shell midden research in Atlantic Europe: state of art, research problems and perspectives for the future. Quaternary International, 239, p. 70-85.

Kelly, R. (2007). The foraging spectrum. Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer lifeways. New York : Percheron Press, 446 p.

Langouët, L. and Daire, M.Y. (2009). Ancient maritime fish-traps of Brittany (France): A reappraisal of the relationship between human and coastal environment during the Holocene. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 4 (2), 131-148.

Lee, R.B., and Devore, I. (1968). Man the Hunter. Chicago, Adline.

Marchand, G. (2014). Préhistoire atlantique. Fonctionnement et évolution des sociétés du Paléolithique au Néolithique. Arles, France, Éditions Errance.

Marchand, G., Perrin, T. (2017). Why this revolution? Explaining the major technical shift in Southwestern Europe during the 7th millennium cal. BC, Quaternary International, Volume 428, Part B, 15 January 2017, p. 73–85, DOI information: 10.1016/j.quaint.2015.07.059

Pailler Y., Stéphan P., Gandois H., Nicolas C., Sparfel Y., Tresset A., Donnart K., Dréano Y., Fichaut B., Suanez S., Dupont C., Audouard L., Marcoux N., Mougne C., Salanova L., Sellami F., Dietsch-Sellami M.-F. (2014). Landscape evolution and human settlement in the Iroise Sea (Finistère, Brittany, France) during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, Proceedings of Prehistoric Society, 80, 105-139. DOI: 10.1017/ppr.2014.9.

Price, T. D. and Brown, J.A. (1985) Aspects of Hunter-Gatherer Complexity. In: Price, T. D. & Brown, J. A. (eds.) Prehistoric hunter-gatherers: The emergence of cultural complexity. New York, Academic Press.

Stéphan, P., Goslin, J. (2014). Holocene relative sea-level rise along the atlantic and English channel coasts of France: Reassessment of existing data using “Sea-level index points” method, Quaternaire, 25, 4, 295-312.

Salhins, M. (1974). Stone Age Economics. Chicago & New-York, Aldine, Atherton, Inc.

Sassaman, K.E. (2004). Complex hunter-gatherers in evolution and history: a north-american perspective. Journal of archaeological research, 12 (3), 227-280.

Testart, A. (1982). Les chasseurs-cueilleurs ou l’origine des inégalités. Paris, Société d’Ethnographie.

Uehara K., Scourse J.D., Horsburgh K.J., Lambeck K., Purcell A.P. (2006) – Tidal evolution of the northwest European shelf seas from the Last Glacial Maximum to the present. J Geophys Res 111:C09,025

Yesner, D. (1980) Maritime Hunter-Gatherers: Ecology and Prehistory. Current Anthropology, 21 (6), p. 727-750.

Cite this blog post
Gregor Marchand (2020, January 10). Scientific project. PrehCOAST. Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

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