Stories of subsistence: people and coast over the last 6,000 years in the Limfjord, Denmark

Coasts have a long history of human settlement and resource exploitation, especially for nutrition. Nowhere in Europe is this key relationship more clear than the Limfjord lagoonal system in northern Jutland, Denmark. This region has an exceptionally rich archaeological record of coastal use and activity from the Mesolithic (hunter-gatherer societies) to historic times, including the world-famous shell heaps or middens (“Køkkenmøddinger” in Danish) of the Mesolithic and Neolithic (early agricultural) periods. There are major changes throughout the archaeological record which are as yet unexplained – from the abrupt replacement of oysters by cockles in shell middens at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition (when farming was introduced into Denmark) to the last millennium when Limfjord fish bone analyses suggest switches between brackish and marine species. These changes may be driven by changes in the marine environment, such as salinity, productivity and temperature, but there is a dearth of studies from coastal areas that can test these hypotheses critically.

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Several Bronze Age barrows are clearly visible on the horizon to the left, just above the floating sediment coring platform. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis, Loughborough University.

Fjords and coastal areas contain sediment archives of environmental change, recording signals of past changes (including salinity, nutrient concentrations, temperature and sea level) in their sediments, geochemistry and biological remains, but have rarely been analysed in sufficient detail and with good enough dating control to explore these questions. This project brings together archaeological and environmental science and researchers from the UK and Denmark to address this fundamental issue by focussing on the Limfjord and western Kattegat as a key region for northern European archaeological and coastal environmental change, and combines environmental science with archaeology to explore past diet, settlement and migration in the context of marine environmental change.

The Limfjord and Kattegat region in Denmark provides an excellent case study for developing state-of-the-art coastal palaeoenvironmental science, exploring the nature of ecological thresholds and triggers to regime shifts in relation to environmental change and human activity, and parallel changes in human diet, migration, settlement and culture. Integrating sediment-based records of environmental change with archaeological data will address major debates on the interactions between humans and their environments. While it is now recognised that human activity in the recent past is driving ecological and environmental change on land, along coasts and at sea, the interplay between human activity, cultural change and coastal environmental change in the past remains a subject of intense debate. The present project will explore and test such hypotheses both of human response to environmental change, and environmental response to human activity, at different times in the past within one key region.

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(a) Location map of Denmark and the Limfjord (inset). (b) Detail of Limfjord indicating Mesolithic/Neolithic shell middens (red dots), Kilen fjord and proposed late Mesolithic shoreline (after Andersen, 2007; dotted line). New coring sites proposed for this project are shown (stars).

We will collect sediment cores from shallow, near-coast sites in the Limfjord and Kattegat which will provide a continuous natural archive of environmental change over the last 6,000 years from microfossil and geochemical analyses. In parallel, we will examine the isotopic composition of human remains, with past and recent dietary sources, from known excavations adjacent to the Limfjord since the later Mesolithic to examine the changing importance of freshwater, marine and terrestrial protein sources, and provenance (migration). Past patterns of cultural development and settlement will be reconstructed using archaeological records.

Knowledge of the past has relevance to coastal populations today by providing information on the long-term development and patterns of variability of these systems. Assessing the past natural variability of coastal ecosystems quantitatively, and exploring their relationships to socio-cultural developments, is vital to understanding, and ultimately predicting and managing, coastal environmental change. Examining resilience and response of coastal ecosystems driven by natural change and human activity is increasingly important as human impact along coasts (such as global warming and eutrophication) has become ever more dominant over the last century.

Dr David Ryves
Loughborough University