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The chronology of stone barrows, stone-cist graves, stone ships and Celtic fields

1500 - 500 BC
  • Culture
    The Middle and the Late Bronze Age
  • Population
    At first 2000-4000, in the Late Bronze Age 8000-10000
  • Genes
    21% European hunter-gatherers, 19% early farmers, 60% Steppe migrants
  • Language
    North-West Indo-European proto-language, Proto-Germanic language
  • Climate
    Slightly warmer than today
  • Flora
    Mixed forest, birch, pine, semi-natural grasslands, crop
  • Fauna
    Wild animals same as today, additionally bisons, aurochs, goats, sheep, pigs and cattle

When did the construction of stone barrows (Estonian 'hiiukerised') along the Finnish coastlines begin, is not known for certain, although so far the oldest grave goods found in them belong to the second period of the Nordic Bronze Age (1500-1300 BC). Such graves were built throughout the entire Bronze Age as well as during the older Iron Age. Whereas the Bronze Age graves are larger, contain more often chests and ringwalls, and are located on higher cliff edges, the later graves are smaller, more often without constructions and located on lower hillsides.

A stone barrow with two circles of ore stones (the inner one, which is slightly wider, and the outer one, which is slightly narrower).
Figure 1. Rieskaronmäki 89. grave (stone barrow) constructions (Salo 1970, fig. 37)

The chronology of the Estonian stone-cist graves has been clarified the best, due to the numerous radio carbon datings of the bone remains of the people buried in the graves. The oldest datings fall in between the period ca. 1300-1100 and 1200-1100 BC (Muuksi, Jõelähtme, Tõugu). The construction of new stone-cist graves most likely ended before 400 BC, although many of them were used for burials also during later centuries, at times until the Middle Ages. A certain change in the tradition of stone-cist grave burials seems to have taken place during the 10th-9th centuries BC, when also ceramics began to be put in the graves. At the end of the stone-cist grave period, a feature appears in their construction that is apparently taken over from the tradition of the early tarand graves: the placement of new grave goods (chests, half-circles) in addition to the prior ones. Whereas the stone-cist graves of North Latvia, based on datings so far, seem to belong only to the late Bronze Age, 8th-6th centuries BC, the Reznes type mounds began to be used for burials already in the 14th-13th centuries BC, lasting to the end of the Bronze Age.

The sites of the stone cist graves marked on the map in Estonia and Latvia -  located mainly near the coast of Northern Estonia, on the coast of Western Estonia (around Lihula), Saaremaa. In Latvia, most of the stone cist graves are found on the west coast, in the area between the rivers Koiva and Salatsi.
Figure 2. Stone-cist grave distribution in Estonia and Latvia (Lang 2007a, jn 82 ja LA 19974, jn 16 järgi. Koostas Kristel Roog)
Stone cist grave - in the centre, a coffin the size of a man, surrounded by a circular limestone cairn.
Figure 3. Rebala I stone-cist grave (Tartu University's archaeological archives).
The upper burial layer of the Reznas burial mound is characterised by the abundance of burials - at slightly different heights there were a number of stone cairns for both mortuary and cremation burials.
Figure 4. Reznasi 2. barrow topmost burial layer (Graudonis 1967, jn 19)

Based on numerous radio carbon datings, also the chronology of the stone ships has been found out. All datings originating from Gotland, Åland, Courland and Saaremaa fall within the time period 1300-500 BC, although excluding some extremes to the period 1200-750 BC. The stone ships of Courland belong to the first half of this period, those of Åland to the 11th-10th centuries BC, and the Lülle graves in Saaremaa to the 9th-6th centuries BC. Stone ships remained a short-lasting and distinct burial custom on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea.

The oldest datings so far of the Celtic fields (Estonian 'kamberpõld') near Tallinn in Loo and Saha-Loo belong (excluding everything prior) to the timespan of ca. 1400-1150 BC. Proosa fields originate only from the beginning of the pre-Roman Iron Age, and those of Rebala even still from the end of that period.

There are no datings of the cup marked stones, more precisely of the cup carvings on the stones, that are founded on methods of natural sciences.

Plan of the location of the remains of the Saha-Loo ancient fields. Fields were often rectangular or square, enclosed by a low stone wall.
Figure 5. Fossil field in Saha-Lool.

Read more

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Kaldre, H., Aguraiuja, Ü. & Livin, L. 2010. Preliminary investigations of fossil field systems at Loo. – Arheoloogilised välitööd Eestis 2009, 73–82.

Laneman, M. 2012. Stone-cist graves at Kaseküla, western Estonia, in the light of AMS dates of the human bones. – Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 16: 2, 91–117­.

Laneman, M. 2021. The date of the stone-cist cemetery at Jõelähtme reconsidered. – Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 25/1, 55–89.

Laneman, M. 2021. Chronology of a group of stone-cist graves in Northern-Estonia: radiocarbon dates from Lastekangrud at Rebala. Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 25/2, 113–139.

Laneman, M. 2022. The age of the stone-cist graves at the lower reaches of the Pirita river reconsidered: analysis of the radiocarbon data. – Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 26/1, 27–55.

Laneman, M. & Lang, V. 2013. New radiocarbon dates for two stone-cist graves at Muuksi, northern Estonia. – Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 17: 2, 89–122.

Laneman, M., Lang, V., Malve, M. & Rannamäe, E. 2015. New data on Jaani stone graves at Väo, northern Estonia. – Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 19: 2, 110–137.

Vasks, A., Zariņa, G., Legzdiņa, D. & Plankājs, E. 2021. New data on funeral customs and burials of the Bronze Age Reznes cemetery in Latvia. – Estonian Journal of Archaeology.


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