From Forager to Farmer in Flint: A Lithic Analysis of the Prehistoric Transition to Agriculture in Southern Scandinavia. by Michael Stafford.
Aarhus: Aarhus University Press; 1999; 147 pages; 33 tables; 101 figures; ISBN 87 7288 742 7.

         The issue of change and transition between archaeological periods is one that has consumed archaeologists. Indeed, opinion on what constitutes being ‘Mesolithic’ or ‘Neolithic’ is constantly being modified. The change or transition from a foraging to an agricultural economy is poorly understood and its causes and pace remain elusive. Part of the difficulty in attempting to resolve the Mesolithic - Neolithic transition issue, particularly in Ireland and Britain, is that the number of well-dated sites is small. Denmark, however, has a wealth of very well excavated and dated archaeological sites that span this transition period. It is clear from the Danish evidence that there was a time lag of at least 800 years between the availability of domesticates and the final adoption of agricultural in Denmark. The debate now centres on finding the reason or reasons for this time lag and addressing the issue of cultural continuity or replacement. This book aims ‘to examine the flint materials from a group of prehistoric settlements in Denmark that span the transition to agriculture, evaluate how the form and production technology of stone tools changed over this period, and determine how these changes relate to the adoption of a food producing economy’.

         The first chapter opens with an outline of the main issues and themes that are to be addressed, defining the ‘research problem’ and presenting the views of other authors on the ‘adoption of agriculture’. There appears to have been several complicating factors that have affected previous research and could also have a biasing factor in future research. These factors include questionable stratigraphic assemblages, the identification of key sites with Mesolithic and Neolithic contexts, site variation (geographical, seasonal and environmental), the degree of regionalisation within period-specific assemblages and poor detailed information on late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic assemblages. Following this discussion the project undertaken by Stafford is outlined with a presentation of the seven Åmose sites and the shell midden site at Norsminde whose material has been the focus of this research.

         The second chapter concentrates on the cultural and theoretical framework to Stafford’s research. A very useful synopsis of the evidence for and the current thinking on, the Late Mesolithic Ertebølle (EBK) and Early Neolithic Tragthbæger (TRB) cultures is presented together with a summary of the radiocarbon dates spanning the transition period. The views of researchers on the origins and spread of TRB into Denmark are discussed. In addition five main reasons that have been proposed as why the transition to domestication in southern Scandinavia is so difficult to solve in terms of mechanisms and causal elements are discussed in detail. It is concluded that environmental reasons, such as changes, in and availability of, food resources now seem to have been less of a ‘prime-mover’ in the transition process than once believed. While there is no clear evidence for population increase at the transition period, territoriality during the Late Mesolithic is indicated by stylistic zones of lithic material. Social inequality within Late Mesolithic groups aided by the exchange or trade of items from more southern Neolithic farmers seems to have been very important - possession of Neolithic items may well have improved the social standing of individuals and prompted competition. This chapter concludes with a review of writings on the issue of ‘transition’.

         The following two chapters present the analysis of the flint assemblages from the sites at Åmose and Norsminde. The third chapter examines flint and flint technology with an assessment of flint supplies and availability, and the reduction sequences associated with particular formal tool types, in particular axes of various types that span the transition period. Following a brief assessment of the difficulties associated with lithic analysis and interpretation the following chapter presents the methodological approach to the project and explains in great detail the attribute and other analyses undertaken.

         Chapter 5 presents a discussion of the results of the analysis and concludes with a comparison of the Åmose and Norsminde sites. It is argued that the variability between the assemblages from the two areas is the result of different activities in each area, although overall there are more similarities between the sites than differences. Certain general trends, however, in technology from the Late Mesolithic to the Early Neolithic can be discerned. These trends include the move away from the use of blades to flakes for tool blanks, an increase in percentage of scrapers and transverse arrow-points alongside the appearance of polished axe types.

         The final chapter discusses the issues brought to light by the study. The similarities and differences between the Mesolithic and Neolithic assemblages are discussed in greater detail. It is suggested that the decline in blade technology and production may be related to, in some small way, a decline in supplies of antler. It is also proposed that the Neolithic pointed-butt axe is a direct technological derivative of the Mesolithic specialised core axe, although the quadriface axes have no obvious precursor.

         One of the problems of attempting to identify ‘transition’ is that foraging continued as a subsistence activity well into Neolithic times. Variation in specific tool types is therefore difficult to identify. One major difference between both periods is the increase in the numbers of scrapers during the Early Neolithic and the author suggests that this might be related to the increase in demand for more tangible goods such as hides or furs. The shape of the scraper also changes and while this is undoubtedly related to the shift from the use of blades to flakes it is also possible that the demand for trade/exchange goods such as hides may have necessitated the need for a scraper with a broader working area. It is also proposed that the appearance of the polished stone axe may not necessarily be connected to the appearance of agriculture and the need for forest clearance. Indeed, the author argues that the polished axes ‘were also status-laden emulations of scarce imported metal axes’. The author strongly argues, on the basis of the flint analysis that an invasion of Neolithic people into Denmark did not occur. He suggests that the arrival of ‘Neolithic’ was a gradual process within the social context of Late Mesolithic foragers becoming increasingly competitive and status orientated and that change was achieved by the acquisition of imported goods. Polished axes were easily transported, but they also embodied a social message and were therefore desirable to status-seeking foragers. Equally, domesticates may also have held symbolic meaning, but were adopted later owing to their less portable nature. In time the ‘novel’ status of these items was so diminished that they had become part of everyday life. The flint assemblages illustrate the continuity in subsistence between the Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic, while the different tool types (particularly scrapers) suggest the production of valuable local goods that were exchanged for goods such as axes. The author argues that it is with the arrival of these first foreign objects that the Neolithic really began and so the transition from foraging to farming was a symbolic and economic transformation rather than one based on subsistence.

         One flaw in the presentation of the work is the inconsistent use of radiocarbon years and calibrated years at the beginning of the book. Overall, however, this book will be of great interest to anyone working in the fields of Mesolithic and Neolithic studies and anyone with a keen interest in lithic studies. It provides an up-to-date synopsis of the arguments for the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in southern Scandinavia and gives food for thought in terms of the Irish and British evidence.

Sinéad McCartan
Department of Archaeology & Ethnography
Ulster Museum

Review Submitted: February 2003

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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