Prehistory of Estonia

  By Rider, 7 November 2007; Revised
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The prehistory of the current lands of Estonia begins with the melting of the immense glaciers and the rising of the land above the sea level. During the 13th millennia BC, the glaciers of Northern Europe reached to the southern shores of the Baltic Sea and covered most of Scandinavia and all of the Balticum. The glaciers started retreating during the 12th millennia and due to the melting of the ice, the sea levels rose steadily. There existed a giant Baltic Icelake which included in itself the current Baltic Sea (not the Gulf of Bothnia though) and the current coastline areas and a large area of the surroundings of the Lake Ladoga.

The level of the water began lowering after the Icelake managed to connect itself with the oceans in the west. It is thought that the sea level shrunk by some 25 meters. During the same time, the climate warmed up and many species spread to these lands.

The First Peoples

There was no inhabitation of these lands during the Paleolithicum. The first people seem to have arrived sometime during the 9th or 8th millennia BC. There are several theories – Soviet and Pre-Soviet historians considered the people to have moved here in three larger migrationary waves. They also related the different cultures (of tools) to the groups of peoples (Indo-European and Finno-Ugric) that arrived here and assimilated the people that lived here before (there weren’t so many of them though). The newer standings say that there was one wave of migration and that the cultures aren’t related to the people – smaller groups brought in the better tools and that the people that lived here before maintained their identity for some time.

The first known settlement dates from the 9th millennia and it was discovered in 1967. The place is named Pulli and the people that lived there seemed to have been fishers and hunters. The settlement itself is not the oldest – after ’67, older ones have also been discovered but this remains the most well known. The culture that was found in Pulli and these other settlements, was named after Kunda, a settlement from the 8th millennia. Kunda itself was also situated on the shores of a smaller lake and there was a great number of fishing tools and spears (not exact spears but spearheads) found from there. [1]

The Stone Age

The first ’other’ culture found here is thought to have originated from the Finno-Ugric tribes. The archaeological objects that have been found are mostly pottery. There are also arrowheads and some axes. There are also many details that diggins have discovered about the settlements and people. They seem to have been hunters (or fishers) who lived in larger settlements of up to some 30 people. The buildings seem to have been with four corners and rather large. The burials have taken place in the buildings where people lived – many remains have been found with some artefacts. The usual way of burials seem to have been just placing the people under the ground and leaving them be.

The second culture has been thought to have appeared in Estonia along with the Indo-European Baltic tribes that came from the south. The dates have been usually said as 3000 BC or so. The largest number of remains have been of axes. Due to this, the culture has also been defined as ’venekirvekultuur’ (translation: ’vene’ – a boat; ’kirve’ – an axe; ’kultuur’ – a culture) – the axes have all been shaped into a form resembling a boat. The axes have also been so decorated that they have most likely been used for ceremonies or war purposes and not for usual every-day life. There have also been remains that refer to this period as the time when cattles became more widespread and the people discovered better ways for cultivating the land. The burials of this time are usually on top of some hills and the bodies have been bent into a sitting position. Some of the dead seem to have been tied up which would refer to the fact that the dead became scary.

The Bronze Age

During the Bronze Age, society started developing and by the end of the Bronze Age, it had already taken up such outlines that led to the later social classes. The oldest remains from this period are a spearhead and a blade. The Bronze Age was the time when the first fortified settlements were built – several ’fortified’ places have been found around the lands (at Asva, Ridala, Kaali, Iru and Narva for example). These settlements were inhabited throughout the year and they were somewhat planned. The fortifiactions were made up of a wooden wall sometimes along with a small dry moat. The rest of the people lived in open settlements – these were not settled throughout the year but rather used during some seasons and for others, people moved to the next settlement place. The burials of the Bronze Age were mostly in large circles of stones to which the dead were put lying. Also, as in Gotland, some of the burials have been alike the Viking ship burials. Bronze itself was not widely spread during this age but the people bought the raw materials in from Scandinavia and by some theories also traded with the produced items.

The Older Iron Age

After the people had started using bronze from Scandinavia, others found methods for melting iron and extracting the ore from the marshes. The marshes were the only possible source for the iron ore and therefore many people worked in those. One of the first marks of any agreements between different parishes (as they were called in those times, ’kihelkond’, which in translation is a parish) was found in a marsh.

The elite of the society must have been formed by different smiths who knew their trade and were the basis of the fortified settlements. There have also been opinions about these ’nobles’ taxing others and them creating more developed fortresses which were used only in times of trouble (still, these were not even close to the later forts that the people used). The burials of this period are also considered part of the nobles and their newer traditions – bodies were now burnt on a higher ground surrounded by rocks and stones.

The later period of the Older Iron Age, the Roman Iron Age, as it is called seems to have been a period of peace. There are signs of quicker development throughout the lands due to the peace in south (the Empire was established and Estonia was in it’s sphere of influence). It seems that the trade was now mostly done with the Empire and Imperial traders reached Estonia also. The main article of trade was amber which was prized in the Imperial lands.

Tacitus mentions in his ’Germania’ a tribe under the name of the aestii but it is unknown whether he was truly speaking of the Finno-Ugric tribes that later formed the Estonian peoples. Nowadays, most of the Finno-Ugric scientists consider the ’aestii’ a general name for the Finno-Ugric tribes.

The Periods of the Prehistory
Stone Age

Bronze Age

Older Bronze Age
Younger Bronze Age

Iron Age

Older Iron Age
Pre-Roman Iron Age
Roman Iron Age
Middle Iron Age
Younger Iron Age
Viking Age
Late Iron Age

References and Notes:
  1. ^ The Kunda culture is also used for settlements into much further south and north.