Feathers and fur in Stone Age Finland

Analysis of animal hairs and plant fibres from a Late Mesolithic grave have shed new light on prehistoric clothing and burial practices in Finland.

Fragments of bird feathers, canine hairs, and plant fibres identified in a Late Mesolithic grave have shed new light on prehistoric clothing and burial practices in Finland.

An artist’s impression of the Late Mesolithic child’s burial. IMAGE: Tom Bjorklund

The burial was noticed when traces of red ochre appeared at the surface of a recently dug service-trail at the site of Majoonsuo, in the municipality of Outokumpu in eastern Finland, and was later excavated in 2018 by the Finnish Heritage Agency.

The rectangular-shaped grave was heavily stained with ochre – a burial practice often documented from the Palaeolithic period onwards – and contained the single inhumation of a child aged between 3½ and 10½ years old (as indicated by tooth fragments), along with grave goods in the form of eight quartz objects, including two transverse arrowheads and two small, retouched tools. Based on the style and dating of the arrowheads, the burial probably took place around 6000 BC, during the Late Mesolithic period.

In a recent study led by Tuija Kirkinen from the University of Helsinki, the findings of which have been published in PLOS ONE (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0274849), researchers carried out large-scale soil sampling of the grave with the aim of detecting microscopic evidence of animal and plant fibres, which are seldom preserved in the extreme acidic soil environments of Finland.

The burial and grave contents were heavily stained with ochre. IMAGE: Kristiina Mannermaa

The analysis detected 24 microscopic fragments of bird feather, seven of which were derived from waterfowl down. This could represent remains of downy feathers used as grave-furnishing, or clothing crafted or decorated with waterfowl skins or feathers. Another feather, identified as that of a falcon, has been interpreted as part of the fletching of an arrow. Bast fibres – obtained from wild plants such as willows or nettles – were also found and could represent the remains of cord used to attach clothing.

Tiny bits of animal hair were identified. Although most were heavily degraded, three hairs found at the end of the grave were identified as belonging to a domestic dog or a wolf, indicating that the child wore garments or shoes crafted with canid skin, or possibly that a dog was laid at their feet.

‘Dogs buried with the deceased have been found in, for example, Skateholm, a famous burial site in southern Sweden dating back some 7,000 years,’ said co-author of the study Kristiina Mannermaa.

The study offers the first analysis of feathers and animal hair from a Finnish Mesolithic funerary context, shining a light, as Kirkinen said, on ‘how people had prepared the child for the journey after death.’