Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-1 (May 2009)Leendert P. Louwe Kooijmans: The agency factor in the process of Neolithisation – a Dutch case study1

1 Neolithisation in the Low Countries

In the past few decades a long series of excavations has step by step enhanced our understanding of the Neolithisation process in the Lower Rhine area, the western part of the large fluvial plain to the north of the loess zone. We now have a picture of a long-lasting static frontier between farming communities on the southern loess soils and communities further north which very gradually, over a period of roughly two millennia, incorporated the new achievements into their own way of life in a trajectory ranging from the Late Mesolithic via the Swifterbant culture to the Hazendonk group (Louwe Kooijmans 2007). There was no case of any interruption in cultural development; quite the contrary – the whole process was characterised by marked continuity. It was no ‘package deal’, but a long succession of adoptions, beginning with technology in the form of ground stone woodcutting tools, pottery and large blade implements, followed by subsistence elements, first livestock, then cereals. This turned the Late Mesolithic subsistence system into what is known as an ‘extended broad-spectrum economy’. Other aspects changed, too. A new deposition tradition evolved, with depositions being made both near the settlements and out in the wilderness beyond them, and more attention was paid to the burial of the deceased in formal cemeteries. It is generally assumed that the population became more sedentary in the context of the Neolithisation process, increased in size, and consequently became more socially differentiated. Until recently, however, we had only very little evidence of changes in the settlement system, and hence social organisation, in our study area. It would seem that Hodder’s domus-agrios contrast (1988) does not hold for the communities in the Lower Rhine area.

1.1 The problem

It so happens that the grand narrative of the process of Neolithisation in the Lower Rhine area is based on detailed evidence on local communities obtained in excavations. This evidence is dominated by information provided by sites in the wetlands of the Rhine-Meuse delta, because those sites are so very well preserved, in marked contrast to sites on the surrounding sandy soils. The sites cover the entire expanse of the vast Dutch wetlands, are characterised by diverse palaeoecological conditions and most probably also had different functions. They enable us to follow the entire process in its spatial differentiation, in particular with respect to the introduction of stock keeping and crop cultivation. Two key questions, however, are how representative these sites are of the period from which they date and the area in which they lie, and what role the local communities played in the process. The Neolithisation process was after all not a sauce that was poured over the people, as it were, but a process of interaction involving the choices made by people living on either side of the frontline of the agricultural world. In prehistoric times, too, people did not just observe or express the rules that applied in their society in a stereotype manner – they were people of flesh and blood, with their own desires and preferences, who made choices within the margins applying in their community. Due to the restricted nature of our archaeological evidence those choices can usually not, or virtually not, be specified. Recent, concentrated and intensive research carried out within the limited area of the Dutch Delfland region however provided the conditions under which we were able to gain an understanding of rather unexpected differences in the adoption of various aspects of Neolithic life, different local ‘practices’ in the sense defined by Bourdieu (1977) – generally referred to as ‘agency’ in the archaeological literature – in relation to the general principle of Neolithisation. The concept of ‘agency is here used in an extended way, to apply to local groups rather than individuals. This can be justified by the notion that choices made by and in such a group, which will have consisted of a few households, will have been based on the consensus of a few individuals or even one dominant person.The stage of the Hazendonk group appears to be particularly suitable for such a study, because it coincided with a turning point in the Neolithisation process - in geographical terms between the Michelsberg culture of the southern loess belt and the (unknown) late Swifterbant of the northern sandy soils, and in chronological terms between the ‘classical phase’ of the Swifterbant culture, around 4000 BC, and the phase of the Vlaardingen group. There are more than enough arguments for interpreting all the sites as permanent settlements of complete households. The sites all had the same basic function, so there is no case of any functional differentiation. Nevertheless, there are some conspicuous differences, in particular in settlement layout, in the composition of the faunal assemblages and in burial rites. Thanks to their wetland conditions, these sites are of high informational value: the sites were buried and have been preserved in a sealed state, as it were, including differentiated data on landscape and subsistence based on organic remains. And last but not least, the sites have been recently excavated according to the latest standards.

We now know of six sites (and 18 subsites) in Delfland with occupation remains that can on the basis of finds and 14C dates be attributed to the Hazendonk group. In the following discussion we will restrict ourselves mainly to the four excavated settlements, but we will incidentally also refer to the other sites. But before we start talking about fundamental differences between the individual sites we will first have to consider the uniformity of three important limiting conditions: landscape, evidence and chronology.


Fig. 1 Location of sites, referred to in the text.

1 Bronneger

2 Urk

3 Swifterbant

4 Hoge Vaart

5 Ede

6 Oosterhout - Klumke

7 Vormer

8 Gassel

9 Kraaienberg

10 Hazendonk

11 Hardinxveld - Polderweg

Hardinxveld - De Bruin

12 Leiden

13 Voorschoten

14 Leidschendam

15 Ypenburg

16 Rijswijk

17 Schipluiden

18 Wateringse Veld

19 Wateringen