3.1 Discussion

The initial settlement ('Mesolithic-Serteyan') occurred in the time-span of 7300-6200 uncal. BP. All that time, the entire valley was taken up by a mesotrophic–moderately eutrophic lake which included a body of free water and the macrophyte coverage. The level of the lake remained unstable, and experienced minor fluctuations. A considerable stability of the forest canopy is apparent. Betula remained dominant, and Pinus prevailed on sandy terrain. Broadleaved forests, restricted to the clayey soil in elevated areas, consisted predominantly of Ulmus, with the inclusion of Quercus and Tilia and Corylus in the undergrowth; Alnus was common along the water channels. Herb associations with Poaceae and Cyperaceae were restricted to forest meadows and the bottomland.

The sites of that age were located on the elevated lake shores in its northern area. In several cases postholes, suggestive of light surface dwellings, were identified. No human impact on the landscape at this stage is apparent. The pottery found at Serteyan sites has no recognisable similarities in European Russia. In view of recent research (Dolukhanov and Shukurov 2004), it seems likely that sedentary groups or unrelated hunter-gatherers started independently manufacturing pottery during that period in various parts of Eastern Europe.

The next stage in the settlement covers the interval of 6000-5500 BP. While the vegetation remained basically unchanged, a significant rise in the lake level is discernible. At this stage the lake attained the maximum depth. Apparently, this reflected a wider climatic signal. The maximum rise of lake level for that time has been recorded at the lakes of the Pre-Alpine zone (Magny 2004). This rise in lake level was also recorded in southern Finland (Sarmaja-Korjonen 2001).

During this stage, the sites belonging to Rudnyaian culture appeared on the lake's coasts. Their type of settlement and subsistence remained unchanged. A fish-weir found at the site of Rudnya-Serteya suggests an advanced technique of fishing. Material culture shows continuity in relation to the previous stage. At the same time, cultural liaisons with the eastern Baltic area became apparent. Suggestively, at this stage the Western Dvina started operating as a channel through which human and cultural contacts were conducted.

The stage between 5500 and 4000 uncal. BP features the settlements of Usvyatian culture. Their appearance marks an interruption in cultural continuity and coincides with a major change in the environment. The diatom analysis signals a fall in the level of the alkaline eutrophic lake, reflecting a wider climatic trend. The low water level has been recorded at 6000-5500 in the Pre-Alpine zone (Magny et al. 2004) and at c. 4500 in southern Finland (Sarmaja-Korjonen 2001).

The pollen analysis shows considerable fluctuations of the main taxa, apparently reflecting the anthropogenic signal. This stage begins with the rapid decrease of Betula and broad-leaved species, Ulmus, Quercus, Tilia, and also Corylus, together with the culmination of Picea and Pinus, and an increased rate of herbs, Poaceae and Cyperaceae. Subsequently, there is an increase in broad-leaved species, Ulmus, Quercus, Tilia, and also Corylus, with the rise of Betula and Alnus. There is also a general increase in herbs (Poaceae and Cyperaceae) with the appearance of heliophytic herbs, Artemisia and Chenopodiaceae. This pattern, which repeats at least twice, suggests a selective felling and the subsequent regeneration of forests. A similar pattern was observed in the pollen diagrams of north-eastern Hungary and was viewed as proxy evidence of the Neolithic 'woodland management' (Gardner 2002). Poska and Saarse (2002) report the first signature of agricultural impact on vegetation on Saaremaa Island, Estonia, as occurring at about the same time, 4500-4000 cal. yrs BC.

The most spectacular feature of this stage was the emergence of settlements on the wet bottomland of the central and southern parts of the valley, which coincided with the fall in the water level. Dwelling structures included platforms resting on posts thrust into the lake mud. In their construction Picea, Pinus, Fraxinus, Acer and, rarely, Quercus were used. These pile dwellings were of a considerable size reaching, in one case, an area of c. 1000 sq. m. Remarkably similar structures appeared at that time in wetland landscapes of various parts of Europe; they became most common in the Alpine zone but also existed in other areas, including Scandinavia (Schichterle 1997; Göransson 1996).

The faunal and botanical records indicate that the livelihood of Usvyatian lake dwellers firmly relied on wild-life resources, with the round-the-year procurement of meat and fur animals and fishing. At least 30 edible wild plants were used for food. Processed hazelnut and water chestnut (Trapa natans) became the surrogate for bread and the main source of plant protein. At the same time, isolated finds of Cerealia pollen suggest a familiarity with some sort of primitive agriculture.

The pile dwellings reached their maximum size during the next stage which included the Zhizhitsian (3800-3700 BP) and North-Byelorussian (3700-3200 BP) cultures. This coincided with the new rise in lake level. Detailed excavations and statistical analysis have shown that each individual dwelling existed less than 170 years and each settlement included no more than two pile structures. The animal remains of North-Byelorussian sites include a limited amount of domesticates: cattle, sheep/goat and pig. Corresponding levels show the maximum frequency of Cerealia, and the appearance of weeds (notably, Plantago lanceolata) and apophytes. All this may be viewed as a clear signal of an increased anthropogenic impact on the landscape in conditions of initial agriculture.

Thus far the earliest evidence of agriculture in the basin of the Western Dvina comes from the Iron Age hill-fort of Podgai (Petrov 1960). The finds included grains of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) and naked six-row barley (Hordeum vulgare var. nudum). One may suggest that the same plants were cultivated in the Serteya valley at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC.

Early agriculture was apparently of slash-and-burn (swidden) type (see Swidden Agriculture in Finland, a painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela). Ethnographic evidence cited by Russian (Petrov 1968) and Finnish writers (Sarmela 1987) show that in northern Russia, Finland and Karelia 'burn clearances' were cultivated on sloping and hilly terrain. In the case of Serteya the corresponding terrain could be found along the steep slopes of the valley, at a distance of less than 2km from the site. The same writer states (p.242) that swidden farming was well suited for the natural renewal of the natural forests. After the plots were abandoned, the area became populated by young birch, later by mixed forests dominated by deciduous forests, with the natural forests being restored in 100-170 years. Our pollen record is fully consistent with ethnographic evidence.


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