The pressure was on. Archaeologists were digging near a tiny harbor on Denmark’s Lolland Island with only limited time before construction work would destroy the site forever. But that’s when they made an incredible discovery. Buried upright in the clay was a trove of ancient artifacts, including one exceptionally rare Stone Age axe.
The discovery was made by researchers from the Museum Lolland-Falster in November 2014. They had been excavating the area ahead of the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link – a multi-billion-Euro underwater tunnel that will join up the Danish island of Lolland with the German isle of Fehmarn.
The museum described the infrastructure project as “a unique opportunity to investigate a large cultural landscape by Rødbyhavn on Lolland.” So, in May 2012 archaeologists began their preliminary surveys of those areas that will be directly impacted by the link. Then, more than a year later, excavations commenced in the summer of 2013.
Historically speaking, the cultural landscape of the island was largely determined by its natural environment. Indeed, the capacity of early Lollanders to adapt to environmental change was one of the key interests of the archaeologists. The experts were also keen to learn more about the island’s transition from a hunting to a farming society and the extent to which Lolland was once an ancient gateway to the European mainland.
Once upon a time, the land near Rødbyhavn was filled with streams and fjords. Sadly, though, many such features have been lost owing to land reclamation projects. Nonetheless, surveys of fossil-filled headlands and inlets have identified extensive evidence of human habitation in the area during the period 6000-3000 BC.
“For thousands of years, the area has been under the constant influence of the sea,” read a subsequent article on the museum’s website. “[And this] has required a great adaptive capacity on the part of the local population.” Indeed, day-to-day life on Stone Age Lolland would have revolved around the vagaries of the sea, the weather and roaming fish stocks.
That said, the museum’s 2014 discovery of several “well-preserved” artifacts suggests that conditions on the island may have been relatively kind to its inhabitants. “Flint tools, fish fences, pointed poles from fish weirs, ceramics, bone needles and animal bones,” the museum revealed. “[These] show that during the Stone Age, the coast had many snug little corners and good fishing grounds.”
Confirming this, archaeologists announced an exceptional discovery on November 2, 2014. In particular, it concerned Lolland’s ancient fishing communities. “Normally, what we find is their rubbish in the form of tools and pottery,” said archaeologist Terje Stafseth. “But here, we suddenly have a completely different type of traces from the past: footprints left by a human being.”
Discovered near a 3-foot-long weir, the human footprints are believed to be the first ever recorded at a Danish Stone Age site. Furthermore, archaeologists from the museum claim that they were made by two Neolithic people who waded into the seabed to repair a fishing net.
“With finds of footprints from the Stone Age population, the excavations in Rødbyhavn have suddenly become personified,” the museum announced. “Here we have direct imprints from ancient people’s activities, which can be associated with a concrete event – a storm destroyed a fixed gillnet on stakes, and in order to secure the survival of the population, this has had to be repaired.”
In fact, the net would have formed part of a larger barrier system designed to assist the capture of fish. “The Stone Age population repeatedly repaired and actually moved parts of the capture system in order to ensure that it always worked and that it was placed optimally in relation to the coast and currents,” said Stafseth.
The footprints also confirm that the early Lollanders did have effective strategies to cope with environmental change. The period 5000-2000 BC brought significant transformation to northern Europe as glaciers melted and sea levels rose. Over generations, though, the Lollanders were able to exploit the changing character of their shoreline – as well as mitigate the risks of destructive weather events.
The discovery of Stone Age footprints at Rødbyhavn is impressive enough. However, the archaeologists soon made another, even more astounding find. On November 24, 2014, they announced the discovery of an axe buried 1 foot down in the seabed. Moreover, despite being 5,500 years old, it still had most of its wooden handle intact.
“Finding a hafted [handle-bearing] axe as well preserved as this one is quite amazing,” said Soren Anker Sorensen, an archaeologist at the Museum Lolland-Falster. Wood typically decays when buried, but this particular axe handle had been firmly submerged in clay for thousands of years. As a result, without oxygen to feed bacteria, it did not decompose.
Axes were used throughout the Stone Age to fell trees and work materials. What’s more, they had a special importance to early farmers, who had to clear large areas of forest in order to accommodate crops and pastures. This shift to sedentary lifestyles marked a milestone in human development. Indeed, it also brought with it major cultural transformations, including the growth of religion.
At the same time, Neolithic bogs, tombs and swamps often contain evidence of ceremonial burials, which suggest the emergence of cults across the Stone Age world. In fact, the artifacts recovered from Rødbyhavn – which were deliberately buried upright rather than discarded – themselves suggest a ritual or religious use.
“The upright items that have been found in the excavation areas east of Rødbyhavn clearly show that the population used the coast as an offering area,” the Museum stated. “The artifacts were deliberately jammed into the natural clay layer as part of a ritual deposit.”
Along with the axe, the archaeologists recovered a paddle, two bows and 14 other axe shafts. And that wasn’t all. Thanks to the local anaerobic conditions, the team also found numerous organic artifacts, including upright wooden stakes. The strangest items that they unearthed, however, were several animal skulls.
“They put fragments of skulls from different kinds of animals [on the sea floor], and then around that they put craniums from cows and sheep,” Lars Ewald Jensen, the museum’s project manager, subsequently told Live Science. “At the outermost of this area, they put shafts from axes. All in all, it covers about 70 square meters [83 square yards]. It’s rather peculiar.”
Ultimately, the site at Rødbyhavn yielded a veritable treasure trove of Neolithic artifacts. Since the government approved the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link in 2015, however, no more excavations of the area are possible. Fortunately, then, thanks to the hard work of the Museum Lolland-Falster, the location’s past has been documented and brought to life like never before.