3 Background: Mesolithic and Neolithic sites in the Lower Rhine basin (c. 5500-3500 cal BC)
3.1 Late Mesolithic sitesnext section
From the Late Mesolithic the most important sites are both sites at Hardinxveld-Giessendam: Polderweg (5450-5050 BC.) and De Bruin (5250-4500 BC, Louwe Kooijmans 2001a, 2001b; Mol & van Zijverden 2007). The sites are located on river dunes that were, at least in their first phase, occupied in winter. Apart from profuse habitation remains, several graves and isolated scattered human bones were recovered, in total representing 19 individuals. At Polderweg one complete and one disturbed grave were excavated. The complete grave held the skeletal remains of an elderly woman, the oldest known skeleton from the Netherlands. She was buried on the back with stretched limbs. Some tiny pieces of red ochre were also recovered from the grave pit as well. At the site of De Bruin one of the graves contained the bones of a man from which an originally sitting position could be deducted. An interesting observation is a healed depression fracture on the right parietal bone of the skull (fig. 2). The size and shape indicates a blunt force trauma with a longitudinal object like a club. A third grave had been disturbed in ancient times leaving only the upper half of the skeleton. It belonged to a man who had been buried in a supine position just like the Polderweg woman. From the graves with the skeletal remains of the male individuals no grave goods were recovered.
Fig. 2 Hardinxveld-De Bruin, burial 2, skull of an adult man with healed depression fracture on the right parietal bone, Late Mesolithic (after Louwe Kooijmans & Smits 2001)
The physical anthropological study of the human skeletal remains indicate the presence of men, women and children which show the occupation of both sites by family groups (Smits & Louwe Kooijmans 2001; Louwe Kooijmans & Smits 2001). This finding supports the archaeological evidence concerning the varied toolkit, the long occupation period and the presence of formal burials, which typify these sites as base camps (Louwe Kooijmans 2001a, 2001b).
At Mariënberg an extensive complex of Middle and Late Mesolithic hearth pits was excavated, together with some Beaker burial pits. A group of six Mesolithic pits, indirectly dated to c. 5100 cal BC., were interpreted by the excavator as grave pits, in view of the presence of red ochre colouring of the pit fills and some specific objects, especially so-called arrow shaft polishers. The deceased would have been buried in a sitting position (Verlinde 2005; Verlinde & Newell 2006). This interpretation is disputable, mainly because no human remains were preserved (Louwe Kooijmans in press).
Two sites yielded a few cremated remains in a settlement context; these are Dalfsen (Verlinde 1974) and Oirschot (Arts & Hoogland 1987). The interpretation of the remains at Late Mesolithic Dalfsen is unclear, as only a few calcinated bones were recovered from the fills of some domestic pits. At Oirschot a distinct concentration of cremation remains of one subadult individual, 10-13 years of age, were found, associated with a small pit and a small flint scatter. The complex is dated to the Middle Mesolithic on the basis of microlith typology and several 14C dates, one from the cremated bone itself (GrA-13390 8320 ± 40 BP, Lanting 2001).
3.2 Middle Neolithic sites
The Swifterbant site cluster is eponymous for the Swifterbant-culture, as characterized by specific point-based pottery with wide flaring rims. The cluster comprises several river dunes and river banks on which settlement traces, burials and isolated human bones have been discovered (Van der Waals 1977). Formal burial grounds were located on the sites of S11 and S21-23, dating from the period 4200-4000 BC. Burial practices are comparable with those witnessed at Hardinxveld-Giessendam, indicating that the dead were buried in a supine position without grave goods except for a few amber beads. The study of the human remains of c. 66 individuals, based on the burials and the isolated human bones, provided insight into the population structure with the presence of men, women and children indicating the use of these areas by family groups (Meiklejohn & Constandse-Westermann 1978; Constandse-Westermann & Meiklejohn 1979).
At Zoelen an extraordinary grave was excavated dating from c. 4000 cal BC. An association with a nearby settlement is unknown as the excavation was limited to this location. This grave contained the skeletal remains of three individuals, two women and one child. At the bottom of the grave the articulated skeletal remains of a child of c. 7 years old at death were discovered. It had been buried face down. Positioned on top of this child were the articulated bones of a woman of c. 50-70 years of age, positioned face down as well. Deposited on top, separated by a thin layer of organic remains like plants or leaves, were a few unarticulated bones belonging to another woman of c. 30-60 years of age. Apparently this was a burial of a number of skeletonised remains after decomposition of the body (Hogestijn & Lauwerier 1992).
Near Urk a small burial ground from c. 4200-3400 cal BC was discovered on the highest part of a dune that was used as a settlement site in the same period, although not necessarily at the same time (Peters & Peeters 2001). Five grave pits were found, which held the skeletal remains of eight individuals. The burial position is variable. Five individuals were buried extended on the back, another may have been buried on the right side in a crouched position, but the interpretation of the incomplete and badly preserved remains is problematical. In addition there was a grave with remains of three individuals. Apart from these burials two isolated skulls – one with articulated mandible – were found that might have been discarded, as no traces of a pit were present. But as the bone tissue was badly preserved it is not improbable that the remainder of the skeletons have decayed altogether and in absence of more precise evidence these skulls might best be interpreted as the last remains of formal burials. The bad preservation conditions could also explain the almost complete absence of the skeletons of young children and infants, which if present originally, will have fully decayed as well. The top of the dune was moreover eroded. Shallow graves may thus have disappeared. The total number of individuals from this site amounts to ten. The sex and age diagnosis indicated the presence of adult men and women and a single bone of a child.
One grave contained five amber beads, which were probably part of a necklace. No other gifts or material items were present.
On a coastal dune at Schipluiden, a settlement has been excavated, dating from c. 3600-3400 BC, as well as a small burial ground and scattered human bones. The layout shows that this was a permanent settlement of several cooperating households; the analysis of the archaeozoological and archaeobotanical remains supports a year round occupation (Louwe Kooijmans & Jongste 2006).
The individuals were positioned in the graves with tightly flexed limbs. The position of the trunk showed some variation, on the chest, on the back, on the left or right side. The skeletal remains of seven individuals were discovered in six graves, one of which was a double grave. At least another eight individuals were represented in the scattered bones around the site. The human remains represent mainly adult men and children. Only one isolated bone was identified as being (possibly) from a female individual. The anthropological findings, both from the graves and the scattered bones, indicate the presence of family groups (Smits & Louwe Kooijmans 2006).
Grave goods were almost absent; one child was buried with a few beads made of bird bone and one man originally held a strike-a-light, consisting of several flints and a fragment of pyrite, in his hand.
An extensive Middle Neolithic settlement area with a cemetery, dating from the same period as Schipluiden, has been excavated at Ypenburg (Koot et al. 2008). The cemetery could, however, not be associated with any of the seven house sites, nor attributed to one of the occupation phases. Two clusters of graves comprise 31 graves with a total of 41 individuals. Some loose human bones were recovered as well from domestic refuse. Most of the dead were buried with flexed limbs in shallow grave pits. Twelve individuals were deposited on the left side, 8 on the right side, and 5 in a supine position. Only 2 individuals were buried in a stretched posture. Of 14 individuals the exact position is unknown owing to the unarticulated arrangement of the skeletons in these graves, caused by post-depositional disturbances. The population comprised men, women and children indicating the presence of complete households (Baetsen 2008). No relation between burial position, sex and age could be attested. Material items were limited to some personal adornments like beads, associated with 9 individuals, comprising 1 men, 2 women and 6 children.