The prehistory of South Karelia

 

Mesolithic Stone Age (8300 – 5100 BC)

The Antrea net, a fishing net complete with stone weights, is usually considered the oldest Stone Age find in Karelia and, in fact, the whole of Finland. However, discoveries made since 1999 have revealed a number of even older dwelling sites in Imatra and Joutseno, on the Finnish side of the Russian border. The finds in Saarenoja in Joutseno are particularly significant, including not only quartz of domestic origin but splinters of flint, rare for stone age Finland, and a bone arrow with a cone-shaped head, indicating that the dwelling sites in question were inhabited by new settlers from the south or south-east. Equally ancient settlements have been discovered at various places along the Salpausselkä Ridge. In South Karelia, another find dating back to the same period is located in Luumäki (Ontela and Mustaniemi). Among others, large cloven-hoofed animals such as the elk and deer were hunted by stone-age people.

 

Comb Ware Culture (5100 – 3500 BC)

Numerous settlements dating from the Comb Ware period – and especially from the so-called Typical Comb Ware period (4000 – 3500 BC) – have been discovered along the shores of Lake Saimaa. It seems that the epicentre of this phase of development was around Lake Saimaa; indeed, the decorative pattern typical of the age may even have originated here. Abundant use of flint and amber from abroad indicates that the people of the Typical Comb Ware period maintained active links with the outside world. In addition to flint flakes and arrowheads, the statuette of a bear, found in Syrjälä in Taipalsaari, is a good example of this ‘foreign trade’.

The Vaateranta settlement in Taipalsaari offers a rich insight into the lifestyle of people inhabiting the shores of Lake Saimaa, just before the River Vuoksi broke through the Salpausselkä Ridge at Vuoksenniska. The very same place is an excellent beach, even today. This location is significant due to the stone-age burial ground found there. Red ochre was sprinkled over the deceased, buried without incineration, which makes it easier to find the graves today.

 

The 30 known rock paintings of the region probably date from the same period. Together with the paintings discovered in Southern Savo and Kymenlaakso (the valley of the River Kymi) they represent the largest concentration of rock art in Finland. Made with red ochre, these works are painted onto rock faces rising vertically from the water. The most usual themes are humans and cloven-hoofed animals. The region’s most famous painting, found in Kolmiköytisenvuori in Ruokolahti, depicts shamans and snake patterns.

 

Stone-Bronze Age (3500 BC – 250 AD)

Late Stone Age culture continued almost unchanged into the Bronze Age, since little copper and tin was brought into this area. However, a small arrowhead made of metal and a copper bead have been discovered in Utula in Ruokolahti and Hiekkaniemi in Puumala.

As early as by the end of the Stone Age (1900 BC), it seems that people began to diversify from hunting and fishing into crop cultivation and animal husbandry. These new livelihoods apparently led to the disintegration of the settlement as such: the rich combware-culture lakeshore dwelling sites were abandoned and do not seem to have been replaced with anything similar, although the population evidently did not disappear.

In the Bronze Age, people were often buried in round mounds made of stone. Something indicative of this exists in South Karelia, too, as some shallow burial mounds of stone (Lapland cairns) have been found here. The carefully assembled cairns are in burn-beaten areas, almost without exception of late origin (1700–1800 BC).

Use of asbestos is characteristic of the ceramics traditions of the age. The idea that clay vessels could be strengthened with asbestos fibres seems to have evolved quite early amongst people living on the northern shores of Lake Saimaa. Early Asbestos Ware has been named after Kaunissaari in Parikkala. Following the Comb Ware Culture, asbestos ware came to dominate the next phase in South Karelia. Commonly known asbestos ware types are those from Pöljä, Kierikki, Luukonsaari and Sirnihta. Textile ware, patterned with textiles, was made simultaneously.

 

The Iron Age (250 – 1320 AD)

The Iron Age marks the beginning of the farming economy. Distinct signs of crop cultivation dating from 500 BC and 750 AD have been discovered in Savitaipale and Luumäki, respectively. Kauskila in Lappeenranta was apparently cultivated terrain throughout the Iron Age. The extensive, ground-level burial ground in Kauskila, dating from the 13th to the 17th century, mainly contains Christian graves. The remains of a church or chapel have been discovered in the middle of this site.

For some reason, there are no pre-Viking Era (800-1050 AD.) finds in the Kauskila area at all. In fact, these are rare in the entire region. In recent years, abundant late Iron Age findings have been discovered in Ruokolahti (Kyläjärvi) and Rautjärvi (Purnujärvi). Apparently, the Vuoksi River valley and the province in general have been a source of goods and influences, communicated between the Lake Ladoga and Finland’s inland lake regions.

Defence based on ancient castles was characteristic of the Stone Age Culture. The ancient castles of Kuivaketvele in Taipalsaari and Turasalo are impressive sights.

Iron-age people no longer made rock paintings, but tried to secure good crops by sacrificing on cup-marked, sacrificial stones, which can be found here and there throughout the region.

Jukka Luoto

 

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