Monday, June 16, 2014

Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland – Part 2

Summary of Our Goal and Method, from Part 1

Studies of shamanism often dwell on the ecstatic (i.e., out of body) trance states of shamans. Instead, Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland concentrates the shaman’s purpose for entering such states:  to communicate on behalf of the community with beings of the other world, such as the guardian, or haltija, of the elk.  In particular, we focus on how objects and performances of the sacred arts—rock painting, shamanic poetry (runes), drumming, ecstatic singing and chanting, lamenting, carving of sculptures, ceramic pottery, and more—assisted the shaman to do this by opening portals of communication between the worlds. 

Huittinen Head, Finland, Mesolithic Age

The ultimate goal of Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland is to answer the question:  Did the shamanic tradition of Finland decline or disappear during the Bronze Age transition from the wilderness noita—with their sacred arts such as ecstatic singing and rock painting—to the tietäjä—with practices such as runic incantations and playing of the kantele—or did it continue on in a new form?  To arrive at an answer, Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland presents an overview of how  the sacred arts supported the institution of shamanism across prehistory, beginning in Part 1 with the Palaeolithic Age, and in Part 2 continuing into the Mesolithic Age. 

The support given by the sacred arts to the shaman was provided within complex and shifting patterns of ontology;  cosmology, or world view; and in diverse environmental and cultural settings.  Through examining these complex circumstances, we look to gain insights that we can later apply to the transition from the noita to the tietäjä.  In particular, we identify ‘situated practices’ of shamanism—specific ritual engagements—supported by sacred arts objects and performances. It is at the scale of situated practices that the transition between the two traditions can best be understood.

Let us continue to the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic Age.

The Trek Northward

With a drastic warming in the Palaeolithic climate in about 13,000 B.C., the Scandinavian Ice Sheet began to melt and recede.  It is thought that very early ancestors of the Saami people, part of the larger Ahrensburghian archaeological culture, had been residing in what we have called the Iberian Refuge in France and Spain. This early ancestral group subsequently traveled north along the ice-free coast of Norway and settled in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. 

The newly-arrived settlers formed what is termed the Komsa culture.  They were likely isolated in northern Fennoscandia for several thousand years, their only contact being with other Arctic cultures.

In the east, the site of the Ukrainian Refuge, the beginning of the retreat of the Scandinavian Ice Sheet led to the progressive collapse of the hunting and gathering economy of the southern Russian Plain and the disintegration of the Upper Palaeolithic network of settlements.  In about 11,000 B.C. hunter-gathering peoples, many of whom would later be identified as Finno-Ugrians, flowed out of the Ukrainian refuge to the areas that were newly freed up in the Northern and Northeast European Plain. 

The ice border retreated slowly, at a mean rate of only about a kilometre per year, or about 50 kilometres during an average human lifespan of the time.  About 2,500 years were required for the ice sheet to retreat as far as the borders of what is now Finland, where the first settlement sites date to about 8,500 B.C.  Milton Nunez (1987) believes that during this time the populations moved in what can be called a ‘jumping’ manner.  A band would more or less permanently settle in a location, and after a number of generations a group would break away to move to new land that had been exposed by the retreating glacier, where hunting, fishing and gathering might be better. 

Most of those who began streaming from the Ukrainian refuge were members of what is called the Swiderian culture, what is considered an ‘archaeological culture’.  That is, it is defined primarily in terms of characteristics such as sharing of language and similarities in artefact toolkits of implements and hunting methods, rather than in the usual sense of a culture as a cohesive entity.  However, at the same time, there were a number of distinct cultures—in the familiar sense of the term—among the Swiderians and they might have foreshadowed the later various Finno-Ugric and Samoyed peoples. 

Although the Swiderians maintained their separate cultural traditions, each speaking a different dialect of Proto-Uralic, they regularly interacted with each other—economically and socially—over the time of their two-and-a-half millennium migration.  In this way they formed what Dolukhanov (1996) calls “a single socio-cultural exchange network”.  This network was subsequently kept active for millennia in the de-glaciated areas, including the area of Finland.

Recall the ‘nested scales’ of archaeological context from Part 1:

1.  Ontology
2.  Cosmology or worldview
3.  Environmental/cultural setting
4.  Situated practices

The fellow-travellers of this “socio-cultural exchange network” shared a common ontology—or set of fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality—that we have called ‘relational’.  In addition, the intensive interaction of the various cultures of the Swiderian exchange network over the course of their migration would have provided many opportunities for sharing of the cosmologies or worldviews they had earlier developed during their millenniums-long tenure in the refuge.  This exchange and sharing among Proto-Uralic peoples during the migration may have contributed to the significant commonalities that we find in their later respective Finno-Ugric belief systems. 

Proto-Uralic Cosmology or Worldview

V.V. Napolskikh (1992) surveyed the cosmological images and myths of later Uralic hunting cultures to reconstruct what he calls an original Proto-Uralic cosmology—or “world picture”—as it existed before the breakup of the Proto-Uralic language. Siikala (2008) regards this picture as “very ancient, even Palaeolithic”, i.e., in that it points to the very oldest stratum of cosmological belief of the populations of the Uralic area.  

Napolskikh summarises his work on the composite Proto-Uralic “world picture” in the graphic of a Northern scene, below.  (To view his notes on the graphic, go here.)


Some significant features of the Proto-Uralic “world picture” above include the following:

  • A Three-level universe:  The Proto-Uralic peoples conceived of an upper or sky world, middle or earth world, and an underworld associated with water, ocean, and the north.
  • The World Tree:  Linking the three levels is a world tree.
  • Water Bird Messengers:  Also linking the worlds are the water bird messengers that travel to and from the upper world, including swans, geese and ducks. 
  • The Island and River of the Dead:  The lower world contained the “Island of the Dead” where souls go after death, and the “Subterranean River of the Lower World”, which is the prototype of the River of Tuonela in the later Finnish tradition.  This is the place of death and renewal.
  • The “Old Woman of the South” is standing at the top right of the graphic.  Siikala says, “A significant feature in the mythologies of the Uralic peoples has been the role of the female as ruler over life, death, and the directions which symbolise them, south and north.”  
The “Old Woman of the South” of Proto-Uralic belief may be linked to the many so-called “Venus” figures found at sites in the Ukrainian refuge, usually carved from the ivory of mammoth tusks.  

The “Venus” figure person above is from the Ukrainian Kostenki 1 site.  It is among the earliest known representations of the human figure in the world.  However, too little is known of the environmental/cultural setting to identify possible “situated practices” in which the carving person played a part, or whether they were shamanistic in character. 

In about 6,000 B.C. the Proto-Uralic language began to split into the Proto-Finno-Ugric language, on one hand, and the Proto-Samoyed languages on the other.  Building upon the former Proto-Uralic world view, the Finno-Ugric peoples went on to independently develop their own significant bodies of cosmological belief.  For example, in the view of Napolskikh (1989), one of the principal later beliefs held in common by the Proto-Finno-Ugric speaking peoples is the Diving-Bird Myth, the story of a water-bird diving deep in the ocean to bring soil for the creation of the earth.

Suomusjarvi Culture and its Sacred Arts

The ‘Post-Swiderian’ peoples migrating from the Ukrainian Refuge began to settle in about 8,500 B.C. in the new lands opened up by the receding glaciers.  They formed a number of new regional cultures that still spoke dialects of Proto-Uralic.  In  archaeological terms, the establishment of these cultures marked the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic Age in this area.

The Suomusjarvi culture of Finland was one of the new Mesolithic regional cultures, (1) on the map above.  Historian Eino Jutikkala (1999) considers people of the Suomusjarvi culture as one of the groups that formed the early ancestors of the Finnish people. (More groups will be identified below.) Archaeologist C.F. Meinander (1998) also supports this view.

Jutikkala says, “And because there was never a complete break in settlement (in Finland), and the populace never died out to the point of having no descendants, there should yet live, in Finnish genes as well, traces of the legacy of these people from nine thousand years ago.“  In the view of Unto Salo (1990), this ancestral link means that the myths and beliefs of the Suomusjarvi culture—as inferred from their artefacts—can inform us about the “ancient religion” of the “ancient Finns”.

The Suomusjarvi culture was initially created through the migration of people from three earlier post-Swiderian cultures adjacent to Finland.  They include members of the Kunda Culture, (3) on the map above, who made their home in Estonia; the Veteyre Culture (2), from Karelia, also named “Eastern Kunda” because of bonds with, and resemblance to, the Kunda culture; and the Butovo Culture (4), from the region of the Volga and Oka Rivers in Russia. 

The strong ties of these cultures with the Suomusjarvi Culture of Finland is demonstrated in the fact that the oldest known Suomusjarvi settlement sites, near Lahti, dating from 8000 B.C., have yielded artefacts related to both the Kunda and Butovo cultures.  (Takala, 2009)

A fisher of the Butovo Culture, 7,500 B.C.

The Kunda, Veteyre and Butovo cultures—to which we can add the Suomusjarvi culture because migrants from the these three cultures populated it—formed what is referred to as the “Kunda-Butovo Cultural Sphere”.  The term recognises their closeness in terms of ethnic and linguistic ties and reciprocal cultural influences.  Nunez (1987) says that this network was kept active for millennia “thanks to a common linguistic and cultural background and traditional marriage and kinship ties.”

Two Elk-Head Sculptures

Below is a photo of two elk-head sculptures, one from Finland and the other from western Russia. They show distinct similarities, illustrating affinities among the cultures of the Kunda-Butovo Cultural Sphere.


The elk-head sculpture on the above left, dating from 7,000 B.C.-6,000 B.C., is called the Huittinen Head.  It was discovered in southwest Finland, an area that was occupied by members of the Suomusjarvi culture.  To the right is an elk-head carving, made of antler, from about 7,000 B.C.  It was found at Zamostje 2, a Butovo culture site on the river Dubna, a tributary of the Volga, north of Moscow.  Were these examples of sacred arts, ‘elk-head sculpture persons’, or were they, for example, decorative objects or playthings?  Let us review the scales of archaeological context.

Regarding cosmology, we saw that the Proto-Uralic “world picture” reconstructed by V.V. Napolskikh assigned a central place to water bird spirits in the communication with the other world.  However, in the northeast Eurasian area, the home of the Kunda-Butovo Cultural Sphere, the elk was the principal game animal.  According to Marek Zvelebil (2008), the people of these cultures saw the elk as representing a “’messenger animal’ with a central role in “the mediation between the world of spirits and of humans.”

The third “scale” of archaeological context—environmental/cultural setting—includes the nature of the spiritual practices of a group.  How might the sculptures have been used as part of shamanic rituals?  Each elk head sculpture has a hole into which it is likely that a stick or pole was inserted. In this form, according to Zvelebil they “find a direct parallel in a shaman’s turu, a ritual rod used to mediate between the natural and supernatural worlds” and “can be interpreted as shamanising devices.”.   

Elk-headed staffs appear in Neolithic rock carvings at Lake Onega in Karelia.  Below are two line tracings of carvings at Onega portraying such staffs—one with what appears to be an elk head and the other with what appears to be a complete elk body. 

The elk-head staff on the left seems to be well into a state of transformation across dualistic boundaries, from a ritual implement of ‘this world’ to an elk spirit person of the other world. In Pederson’s (2001) terms, it possesses a “fluid ontology”, one that shamans could become attuned to and share.  Using words that might resonate within the frame of reference of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, ‘elk-headed staff persons’ made possible the situated shamanic practice of  calling upon elk spirit as a messenger and guide to the three worlds”.

Siikala (1998) points to a parallel from Siberia.  She says, “‘shamanising with a staff’ was particularly an activity of young shamans in western and southern Siberia.  A staff in the shape of an animal was used to travel or ‘ride on’, and “it might play a particular role in for example the initiation rites.”  In this way, this ritual implement supplements or reinforces the role of the shaman’s drum as a vehicle for soul travel.

A Mesolithic Spirit Boat?

Another possible example of sacred art of Mesolithic Finland is a wooden boat prow in the likeness of an elk, on the right below.  It is from Rovaniemi, Finland, now at the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki.

The boat at the left was found at Sarnate, in Latvia, but is like the boats used in Finland in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, carved from a single tree trunk.

Elk was seen as  “a link between the three worlds”.  The wooden head may have been used as the prow of a ‘spirit boat’: a shaman’s boat used for ferrying deceased persons to waterside graves.  The situated shamanic practice may have been:  conducting souls to the other world in an elk spirit boat

This must remain a speculative conclusion since we lack sufficient information about the environmental/cultural settings in which boats with elk-headed prows were used.  Drawing premature conclusions would rightfully draw a charge of “iconocentrism”.   The prow could, for example, have simply been an ornament indicating the importance of the elk for the culture, but with no specific ritual significance.  We will return to this question below, when we gather more contextual information as we consider the appearance of likely ‘spirit boats’ in the rock paintings of the Neolithic period.

Oleneostrovski mogilnik, a Cemetery in Karelia

The Mesolithic environmental/cultural context in which the wooden elk head was found was very sparse, making interpretation of the meaning of the head difficult.  However, we now turn to an archaeological setting in which there was a powerful convergence of environmental/cultural and cosmological contexts that strongly indicates the presence of sacred art objects.  This is Oleneostrovski mogilnik, a Mesolithic burial ground in Karelia. 

Oleneostrovski mogilnik is the largest known Mesolithic-age cemetery in the Boreal Forest zone, that was used for up to a 500 year period, dating from about 6000 B.C.  Referring to the northern Lake Ladoga area where the cemetery is located, Zvelebil (1984) notes that, “After the retreat of the Scandinavian glacier, the area became inhabited by foragers who shared bone and stone assemblages comparable to the Suomusjarvi culture of Finland and the Kunda culture of Estonia.”  In view of the strong stylistic similarities, he identifies the area as a part of the “Suomusjarvi-Kunda Mesolithic”, which may be seen as a sub-sector of the previously discussed “Kunda-Butovo Cultural Sphere”.  For this reason, the artefacts of the cemetery can be seen to offer a unique window on the sacred art practices related to the Suomusjarvi culture of Finland.  

The finds at Oleneostrovski mogilnik provide considerable information about the cosmology of the Mesolithic peoples who buried their dead there.  According to Zvelebil (2003), the symbolism of artefacts gives the following picture: “a three-tier universe (upper or sky world, middle or earth world, and the underworld associated with water, ocean, and the north). The tiers are linked by a turu, or a tree of life, providing a conceptual axis linking the three worlds.”   This description accords well with the Proto-Uralic “world picture” of Napolskikh. 

Reinforcing a central argument of Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland, Zvelebil (2003) says that the “ritual code of practice” reflected in the artefacts of Oleneostrovski mogilnik is one of “extraterrestrial communication by shamans with the aid of ritual equipment: the drum, mask, headdress, bag, and bones or images of ritually significant animals….” 

Oleneostrovski mogilnik is on Yuzhny Oleni (South Deer Island), about two kilometres in length, located in the northern section of Lake Onega in Karelia, Russia, near Finland. 

It appears that two separate populations used Oleneostrovski mogilnik as a burial ground and ritual gathering place, occupying different sectors of the site.  Zvelebil (2003) says, “The northern cluster was used by people with northern European and Uralic features, more indigenous to the area.”  This might refer to members of the Kunda culture, because according to Milton G. Nunez (1987), the oldest settlers of the area were primarily descendants of that culture.  On the other hand, Zvelebil (2003) says, “The southern area was used by people with southern European and Siberian features, who might have been newcomers to the area.”  We will first focus on the northern sector population and then return to the southern one.

Northern Sector

In the northern sector, four “shaft graves” were found that might have belonged to shamans or other ritual specialists.  The burials differ significantly from other ones at Oleneostrovski mogilnik.  Unlike other graves, the dead—two males, a female and a youth—are in a seated or upright position, rather than a horizontal one .  Furthermore, the graves were pointed to the west, while the other graves were oriented to the east.  Zvelebil (1984) believes that the direction is highly significant, since in the westward direction the deceased would be “facing the entrance to the underworld, the domain of spirit ancestors of the shamans and of the rulers of the underworld.”  The grave goods of the four graves were symbolic of shamanic roles, one example being the presence in one grave of beaver mandibles.

The photo below is of one of these shaft graves, of a middle-aged male, dating to 6500 B.C.  It includes nearly 500 separate grave goods, many of a shamanic nature, that were arranged with care over and around the body. 

The artefacts included pendants that were attached to what was perhaps a funeral garment and possibly a shamanic headdress.  Popova (2001) says, “It has been suggested that the placement of these artifacts, the almost vertical positioning of the body, and other features of the burial rite indicate that the deceased was exposed for viewing intentionally, so as to produce a memorable visual effect.”

As was stated above, the identity of the northern group is particularly associated with elk representations.  The graphics below show an elk carving person found in a grave in the northern sector.  The sculpture was perhaps hand-held and bound to a stick, similar to the ceremonial elk-headed staffs discussed above. 

There is contextual  evidence that the grave contains a person who had a ceremonial role.  The situated practice represented here may be helping to continue to use one’s powers in the lower world".  That is, the elk sculpture person might have assisted the person to continue to traverse the three levels of the universe, from their home in the land of the dead.

The photo below, left, is of a male carved sculpture figure.  Popova (2001) notes the figure has animal hooves, in her view probably those of an elk, in the place of the feet of a human. For comparison, on the right is a photo of elk legs and hooves.  Popova classes the sculpture as “anthropo-zoomorphic”—i.e., having characteristics of both human and animal—in this case seemly midway in the process of transforming between them.  In doing so, it would have been crossing the dualistic boundary of human and animal, that is possible according to the relational ontology of the hunter-gatherer populations using Oleneostrovski mogilnik.  

The elk-human person would perhaps have not  merely represented the transformation, it might have exercised agency to help  facilitate it.  The shamanic situated practice may have been that of helping a shaman by assisting to transform into one’s soul animal.  This is often referred to as “shape shifting”, and it enables the shaman to visit and communicate with beings of the other world with all the power of the soul animal.

As we have seen, the identity of the group using the northern sector is particularly associated with elk figures.  Popova  says, “the sacred elk…was the pet of prehistoric humans of the Oleni island cemetery.  It ruled the forest; it was ‘the master’ who guaranteed success in hunting.” 

Popova suggests that the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of the northern sector, related to the Suomusjarvi and Kunda cultures, might have had a “totemic” relationship with the elk, i.e., that the elk was seen as the original ancestor of the group and that the social organisation of the group reflected this principle.  However, in another place in her article, Popova refers to an “elk cult”, a less encompassing form of social organisation than totemism.  This is an important distinction—one that must be explored later.  As for now, we lack sufficient evidence among the finds at Oleneostrovski Mogilnik to determine which one was in play. 

Southern Sector

To this point we have been discussing the people interred in the northern sector of Oleneostrovski mogilnik, for whom the elk was a central symbol.  Regarding the southern sector, Zvelebil (2003) says, “The southern area was used by people with southern European and Siberian features, who might have been newcomers to the area.”  The lineage or clan symbol of southern area was the snake.  Below are two snake sculpture persons recovered from graves in this sector.

According to Popov, the lower snake sculpture person shows some human characteristics in the face area.  This  suggests that it might also have been used in a situated shamanic practice of "assisting to transform into one’s soul animal." 

Popova notes that the southern areas had “a high incidence of Lapponoid burials”, suggesting  a “new ethnos”.   It is conceivable that the clan using the southern sector had links to the Komsa culture of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. 

The Komsa People

The Komsa people, Mesolithic pioneers of Northern Fennoscandia, arrived in northern Finland from the Palaeo-European Iberian Refuge about 9,000 B.C.  Their culture continued for four millennia, until 5000 B.C.  Šumkin (2008) says, “The contemporary Saami are descendants of (this) Palaeo-European population.” 

Just as the Suomusjarvi people were heir to a Palaeolithic rock painting tradition—represented in the paintings in Kapova Cave—the Komsa people were descended from the sacred rock artists of Lascaux Caves, in France.  And like the Proto-Uralic peoples, the hunter-gatherers of the Komsa culture appear to have inherited an ontology that we have called here relational.  The nature of this ontology appears to be demonstrated in the following well-known rock painting of Lascaux. 

In the painting, often referred to as the “shaft scene”, there appear a male human person, a bird-headed staff, and a bison.  Wallis (2013)  says, “Some scholars  suggest the human figure in the may be a shaman accompanied by a shamanic tool of some sort in the form of a bird-headed staff”. 

As the enlargement at left, above, shows, the bird-headed staff and human share similar birdlike features in the head areaboth having beaks.  As interpreted by Wallis, this similarity of facial features may show that the shaman is in the process of adjusting to the communicative level of his “bird-ally”.  The shaman is “isomorphic with the fluid ontology” of the bird-headed staff person.  With the help of the bird person staff, the shaman has been made ready to interact with the bison spirit person. The shaman appears to be in a trance state, which enhances the “fluidity” of his adjustment.  Altogether, the situated practice, the use of a bird-headed “turu”, might be termed helping to communicate with an animal haltija

The “shaft scene” painting is consistent with a relational ontology.  According to Wallis, “The figurative elements in the Lascaux shaft scene are arguably fluid “things” or “persons”, which disrupt such simple binary divisions as subject/object, human/animal, and culture/nature.”

The Komsa culture originated in southern Europe, but language was one factor placing them and the later proto-Saami people among the Uralic, later Finno-Ugric peoples. It is likely that originally, the Komsa likely spoke an ancient European language; one writer suggests it was Basque.  However, by 7,500 B.C. members of the Suomusjarvi culture had traveled north to the territory of the Komsa, and these early ancestors of the Saami likely adopted the Proto-Uralic language from the visitors. 

Šumkin says that while linguists class the later post-Komsa Saami language with the Finno-Ugric group, one third of the Saami vocabulary items find no parallels among other Finno-Ugric languages.  As the heirs of a population group that initially traveled out of the Iberian Refuge, the language and culture of the Komsa and later of the Saami had very old roots.

Another factor establishing the Komsa as a Uralic—later Finno-Ugric—people was their early and long history of contacts with nearby Uralic cultures, as pictured in the map below.  They had extensive cultural contacts and mating networks to the east with other Arctic-based nomadic and hunting cultures, particularly Samoyed-speaking peoples.  Immediately to the east of the Saami were the Nanets, a shamanic people in northern Arctic area of Russia.  The Nenets extended west to the tundra regions on the European side of the Ural Mountains.  Other arctic peoples speaking Samoyed languages included the Enets, Nganasan, and Selkup. 

It was through these contacts that the Komsa, and later Saami peoples, likely developed the distinctive Arctic features of their shamanism.  In contrast, the Suomusjarvi, and later Finnic groups, mainly related to the peoples of Eurasian forest zone, in the area below the Arctic Circle, to the east of Finland, in the map above.  Siikala (2002) says, “Many features of Finnish shamanism point to the shamanistic complex of subarctic forested regions, for instance the shamanic institution of the Evenks.”

By the late Mesolithic, the Komsa culture people had forged links with the culture of the Volga-Oka region, perhaps initially through trading relationships in important goods such as slate and flint, and perhaps through intermarriage.  While ethnically dissimilar, they shared similar Proto-Uralic dialects, and perhaps also mating networks. These links were very important in receiving cultural influences from that area. 

Pottery: a New Sacred Art in Finland

From the Mesolithic through the Neolithic Ages, the Volga-Oka region of Russia was what Christian Carpelan (2006) calls “a sort of cultural boiling pot” that radiated cultural and linguistic influences to Finland/Karelia. The two areas—Volga-Oka and Finland/Karelia—formed a continuous common cultural sphere, sharing ethnic, linguistic, cultural connections that were to continue from 8,500 B.C., until  about 3100 B.C., the end of the Comb Ware III period,

An early influence of the Volga-Oka region on Finland was the introduction of ceramic pottery, an innovation flowing from Volga-Oka that possibly originated in China.  In the eyes of archaeologists, the arrival of pottery marked the end of the late Mesolithic Age and the beginning of the early Neolithic Age in Finland.  Carpelan calls the adoption of pottery “an archaeological turning point” for Finland. 

The earliest ceramic pottery in Finland was Sperrings 1, or Early Comb Ware.  It was adopted by the Suomusjarvi culture in southern and eastern Finland and Karelia, that subsequently became in the eyes of archaeologists the Neolithic Sperrings culture.  A shard is pictured above, with the distinctive ‘comb’ stamp, here in vertical rows, dating from 5150 B.C.  Sperrings 1 was soon followed by Säräisniemi 1 Ware, found in the northern areas of Finland, the location of the Komsa culture.  The new Neolithic culture is generally referred to by archaeologists by the abbreviated name  Särs 1.

In the view of Pesonen and Leskinen (2008), the manufacture of pottery, “brought an important new task in society” and “potters may have been valued members of their groups”.  It is widely assumed by archaeologists that it was women who were responsible for making and decorating pottery.  This new role would have complemented their pre-existing one in the production of baskets and other portable storage and carrying tools.  As well, because women were in charge of food preparation, involving the regular use of fire, they would have already possessed critical skills for attaining the temperatures necessary for the pottery-making process. 

Women also played a major role in the diffusion of this new art in Neolithic Finland and Karelia.  That is, Pesonen and Leskinen suggest the diffusion was made possible by the mating networks between the Upper Volga and Finland that may have already existed as early as 7000 B.C.  Through these networks, women who had learned the art of pottery moved west, settling into new bands in new geographical areas through intermarriage and the exchange of partners that accompanied it.

Siiriäinen (1982) believes that the hunting of large animals—particularly elk and bear—dominated the subsistence base of the late Mesolithic Suomusjarvi culture.  Around the time of the introduction of pottery, the subsistence base in Finland had shifted to seal-hunting.  There is evidence that for a considerable time pots were used by the Sperrings people primarily for storage of seal fat for household use and for trade, rather than as for vessels for cooking. 

Pesonen believes that pottery may have been adopted more for “social and symbolic reasons” than out of practical necessity.  One of the most important social and symbolic purposes for pottery was as a form of sacred art, a new source of support for forager shamanic practices.  For example, Gheorghiu (2008)  refers to the “ magical…and ritual character” of pottery in hunter-gatherer social groups. 

As a type of sacred art, pottery was revolutionary:  it concentrated within a single pot more ritual qualities and meanings than was the case for any other sacred art object, with the  possible exception of  the shaman’s costume.  However, unlike the shaman’s costume, pottery was a new ‘public’ sacred art, accessible to everyone in the forager band.

Technical Sequence

The technical sequence of steps in producing artefacts, such as pottery, is often referred to in archaeological literature as the chaîne opératoire.  Much is known about the chaîne opératoire of pottery, and examining it in some depth in will provide us with general perspectives on the technical aspects of creating a ritual object that we can apply later to other forms of sacred art.  It becomes an additional tool for looking deeply into the nature of the sacred arts in Finland.

We may summarise the technical sequence in producing pottery in Neolithic Finland as follows, based on a list created by of Milton Nunez (1990), a Finnish archaeologist:

  • Gathering of materials—including clay, temper and other ingredients—and mixing to make clay paste
  • Forming the paste into coils and shaping the pot (typically conical)
  • Assembling decorative tools and applying a design to the surface
  • Drying and final preparation of the surface
  • Firing the pot
In each of the above technical stages, the Neolithic potter had scope to make decisions that had ritual implications.  Gheorghiu says, “Not only some of the stages, but the entire chaîne opératoire could become repetitive actions of symbolisation, since repetitive actions identified in the archaeological record are considered to have ritual content…any technical action could therefore include a ritual dimension.” 

Impressing a comb pattern with a bone tool

Some of these technical/ritual decisions would have been made by the potter, as influenced by her personal on-going ‘conversation’ with spirit.  Other decisions would likely have been made in a more collective matter, at the level of the band.  Finally, the potter would have been guided by the cultural “pattern book”, or technical/ritual characteristics and designs adopted by loosely affiliated bands over a wide geographic area.  For example, the use of the distinctive comb design in the photo above was a key element in the ‘pattern book’ of the Volga-Oka area of Russia, where Comb Ceramic pottery originated.

Gathering and Mixing of Materials

An example of an initial ‘technical’ choice, and its ritual significance, is in the gathering of materials.  This is the selection of the clay that was to be used.  The decision would have been a local onetied to the land the band occupiedrather than an element of the cultural ‘pattern book’.  Gheorghiu highlights the ritual significance of the choice of clay: “Since pottery was made from local soils, its production could represent a symbolic taking into “possession” of new places, literally incorporating new places within its fabric.” 

The choice of temper is another decision charged with ritual meaning. Gheorghiu says, “The temper in the clay paste could be dung, sand, grog, crushed bones, calcite or flint, depending upon the symbol the community intends to transmit (communicate).” 

Forming and Shaping the pot

The Comb Ceramic pots were conical with pointed bottoms.  The decorative design extended to the very tip of the cone.  Below, we will examine a powerful ritual reason that may have influenced the choice of a conical shape.

Applying Decorative Designs

Tools to make impressions in wet clay were of two types, natural objects and constructed implements.  Tools of the natural type included teeth of animals that were hunted, one of them being the beaver.  This animal was considered to be sacred and its teeth were often used to make impressions of various kinds in the wet clay.  Beaver teeth also frequently appeared as part of the costumes of shamans.

The rows of vertical lines such as the ones in the photo of shards of Sperrings 1, below, were created by fish vertebrae.  They were primary tools used to make decorative impressions in these ceramics.  In fact, more than half of all the Sperrings 1 pottery vessels that have been found are ornamented with them.

That fish vertebrae were used as a decorative tool was perhaps an element of the general cultural ‘pattern book’.  However, the particular fish species chosen to ornament the pots might have been local, perhaps based on the ritual importance of the species for the group. Common choices included pike, bream, and perch

Humerus bones of waterfowl—sacred birds in Neolithic Finland—were sometimes used to make impressions in pottery.  As well,  waterfowl also appear as images impressed in the clay of Neolithic Finnish ceramics.

The swan images above represent possibly the oldest known representation of birds in prehistoric pottery in Fennoscandia.  The Säräisniemi 1 shard was found at Kiikarusniemi, Sotkamo, Finland.

Final Preparation of the Surface

Ochre literally means “coloured earth”.  In Finland the main form was red ochre, occurring in natural iron oxide deposits.  It was painted on most early Sperrings 1 and Säräisniemi 1 pots before firing. 

Nunez (1986) says,“Red, the color of blood, from iron oxide appears to have played an important ritual role among northern Eurasian peoples.” It is thought that this is because the colour red was seen as related to blood, the most essential substance for life and birth.  By painting red ochre on pots, potters may have been ‘enlivening’ them, reinforcing their animacy.

Nunez references Nina Gurina’s observation that “The red colour of ochre has often also been associated with fire – representing light, warmth and the hearth.” This suggests that another possible reason for using red ochre as a paint or wash was as a means of ritually incorporating into the body of the pot the power of fire, the elemental force that gave ‘birth’ to it.
Firing of the Pot

Fire—with its enormous practical and ritual significance for hunter-gatherers—formed the basis of the final step in the production of pottery.  Zvelebil (2010)  says, “Along with iron smelting, pottery might also be classed as a ‘transformative’ technology, with firing the most risky stage in manipulating the chemical properties of the clay”. 

Zvelebil is referring to the physical transformation of the raw elements assembled by the potter by fire, fusing and hardening them.  For Neolithic hunter-gatherers, the power of fire to cause a physical transformation would have been matched by its capacity to produce an ontological one, in this case to fuse the ritual properties of the pot and thereby impart a “magical”—animistic—nature to it. 

© Johannes Setälä
The above painting by the Finnish shaman-artist Johannes Setälä, suggests the twin transformative powers of fire—the physical and ontological—and the ability of the proto-Finnish shaman to command them. 

Ritual Biography

Normally, the ritual or ceremonial significance of pottery is seen to be located in the decorative design alone; the undecorated pot is seen as merely a blank slate, ready to receive the carvings and impressions.  However, as we have seen, the decorative design was only a single part of what we can call the ritual “biography”(Larsson, 2010) of a ceramic pot in early Neolithic Finland . 

Gheorghiu  observes, “symbols were hidden inside the chaînes opératoire”.  That is, each pot embodied a unique assemblage of components and qualities intimately related to the lifeways and cosmology of the hunter-gatherers. In addition to the decorative design, the elements included the land they lived on (the clay), certain prized elements (temper), the impress of other-than-human persons who they hunted (mammal and fish teeth and bones), an animating substance (red ochre), and finally, the physical and ontological fusion of these elements through the firing process into what  Zvelebil refers to as “artificial stone”.  In hands of a sacred artist, the final product was rich in ceremonial character.

Ritual uses of pottery

Nunez (1990) has pointed out that there is evidence that pottery had “magico-religious” functions.  What were the ritual uses to which pottery was put? 

Dolukhanov (2009) suggests one possible ritual significance of  pottery when he notes that “early pottery ornamental designs often consist of geometric designs”, evident in the shard of Sperrings 1, below.  These designs might have been, he says, “entoptic motifs created in altered states of consciousness”.

Dolukhanov refers here to the influential theory of Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) that identifies the geometric designs--zig-zag, spiral, wavy, etc.—that appear on Neolithic rock art as well as pottery, with “entoptic” motifs  encoded within the optic system of the human brain.  According to this argument, we normally are unaware of these ‘hardwired’ entoptic designs.  However, they become vivid for us when we enter an altered state of consciousness.  Lewis-Williams and Dowson believe that in fact, the extensive presence of entoptic motifs in the rock paintings and on artefacts of Neolithic cultures was the result of shamans ritually entering altered states of consciousness, encountering the motifs, and recording the motifs in their art. 

According to this reasoning, the designs on pottery of the Neolithic of Finland can be seen as depictions of entoptic imagery as experienced during trance states.  The theory also purports to explain the origin of cosmological features of shamanic cultures such as ‘the three worlds’ and transformation into a soul animal.  That is, they are seen as no more than highly elaborate mental images that originated in the minds of shamans, constructed on the basis of their experiences with entoptic motifs while in altered states.

Now the hypothesis that the geometric designs of Neolithic pottery were influenced by altered states of consciousness, in turn even helping to trigger them, is interesting and would seem to merit further consideration.  However, it cannot stand on its own as an explanation of the ritual significance of the designs.  In fact, Lewis-Williams and Dowson have been accused of reducing what are complex Neolithic cosmologies and artefacts to emanations of neuropsychological brain states.  Their case is not helped by statements made by them such as, “religious experience…is a set of mental states created by the functioning of the human brain”, and “Neolithic people were caught in a web spun by their own minds.” (quoted in Wallis, 2009)

“Poetic Involvement”

Nunez (1990) takes a different approach to explanation of the ritual function of pottery in Neolithic Finland in suggesting that, “There is likely to be a message encoded in most pottery decoration”.  Similarly, Zvelebil (2010) sees the ritual function of the decorative design of the pots of Finland and other Neolithic settings as a form of “sacred discourse”.  He says,  “the choice to add specific motifs might reflect attempts to arrange symbols in structured sequences, which would convey messages in ways akin to a sacred textual or linguistic ‘discourse’ conveying cosmology, identity and beliefs of groups”. 

In contrast with Zvelebil, Tim Ingold (1996)  argues that hunter-gatherers, in creating stories, decorative designs and artefacts such as pottery, were not fashioning “symbols and metaphors” that “represent” their world—“mental maps” of their cosmology and beliefs. Instead, they were creating means of “directly ascertaining the truth of that world”.  In Ingold’s view, decorative designs, such as those on pottery, as well as artefacts such as the pottery itself, were meant “to conduct the attention of performers into the world, deeper and deeper, as one proceeds from outward appearances to an ever more intense poetic involvement.” 

In his use of the concept of “poetic involvement”, Ingold is referring to poetics in its original sense as poiesis, which has been described in the following way: Neither technical production nor creation in the romantic sense, poïetic work reconciles thought with matter and time and person with the world”. (Wikipedia, 2014)  That is, poiesis does not refer to poetry as individual aesthetic creation (“in the romantic sense”).  Instead, it refers to the work of  ‘reconciliation’, of bringing phenomena into mutual alignment across dualistic boundaries: “thought with matter and time”, “person with the world”.  

Ingold explains that during the “most intense” phase of poetic involvement, when sacred artefacts and designs are conducting the attention of hunter-gatherers deeper and deeper into the world, “the boundaries between person and place, between self and the landscape, dissolve altogether.  It is at this point that, as the people say, they become their ancestors and discover the real meaning of things”. 

Ingold’s concept of “poetic involvement” is powerful in illuminating the nature of non-dual experience.  At the same time, his work owes much to the philosophy of phenomenology, and the phrase “become their ancestors” could be taken as metaphor.  However, in a relational approach, it can be seen as referring to an actual ritual setting in which a shaman summons deceased ancestors.  Living members of the band are assisted to ‘enter their haltija’, and through the agency of pottery and its design, storytelling, and other artefacts, they achieve an “adjusted state of communication” with ancestors—the ability to “see as they see”—and receive their guidance.  In this way, band members ‘become one’ with their ancestors. 

(Below is a Comb Ceramic pot shard from Kerimäki, Finland, with the impress of a possible shaman figure.)

In such a ritual setting, pottery—in its internal ritual makeup and external decorative design—can be seen as functioning as more than just a representation of the cosmology of the group.  Rather, it can be seen as embodying the cosmology of the population that produced it and becoming an active agent of it.  In this way, we can say ritual ‘pot persons’, together with other object-persons—stories, decorative designs and other artefacts—may have made possible within a ritual setting  the situated practice of “helping us look deeper into our sacred world”.

Dialogue with Ancestors

Another example of a ritual role for pottery in Neolithic Finland in making dialogue possible with ancestors is suggested by its conical shape.  That is, Comb Ceramic pots had pointed bottoms, as in the photo below, and the decorative design extended to the very bottom of the cone.  Milton Nunez (1990) observes that, “Finnish Comb Ceramic vessels are characterised by having impressed/incised decoration throughout their outer surface.  Exceptions to this rule are exceptionally rare…” 

Nunez feels that this is significant in that, “unless we are prepared to accept that the pots were used upside down, it implies that at least a considerable portion of the decoration would have remained buried in the ground or sand” and normally would not have been visible for humans dwelling above ground.  Nunez suggests that this made handling of the pot easier.  While this may have been the case, there might also have been a ritual reason.  In particular, if the designs at the bottoms of pots were not visible to humans, might they have been intended for a non-human audience?

Robert J. Wallis (2013), speaking of carvings on stone megaliths in the Boyne Valley of Ireland, observes that some of the art was intentionally hidden “on the reverse of the stones, away from the human gaze.” Wallis observes that, “Thinking animically, this hidden art may have been produced for consumption by other-than-human-persons, and was only ever to be ‘seen’ and actively engaged with by them.  In this way, engagements between human-persons and stone-persons may be seen as two-way and relational rather than involving a one-way inscription of human meaning.” 

Analogous to the rocks with ‘hidden’ carvings in the Boyne Valley, it is conceivable that Comb ceramic pots in early Neolithic Finland were specifically designed so that a portion of the design would be only ‘visible’ underground in order to engage with ancestors dwelling in the lower world.  The pot and its design would have allowed humans to “see as the ancestors do” and, perhaps, would have simultaneously allowed ancestors to “see as the living do”.  This ritual enablement of two-way communication would have been overseen by a shaman.  We might term this a situated shamanic practice of “helping us to converse with ancestors”

Sacred Arts and Social Change

Major changes in Neolithic Finland—social, cultural, or economic—influenced the cosmologies of hunter-gatherers. (We will explore in Part 3 an example of such a transformation: the arrival of ‘surplus population’ from the Volga-Oka area to Finland about 4,000 B.C.)  In turn, Gheorghiu observes, this would have affected the ritual or ‘cosmological’ content of pottery, causing changes in the pottery chaîne opératoire and making it a ‘marker’ of social transformation.

Here Gheorghiu points to one possible type of relationship of social change and the sacred arts—a reactive mode—in which the ritual content of the chaîne opératoire is altered in response to social and cosmological change.  However, we have seen above that there was another, active, mode of relationship of sacred arts to cosmology. 

It has been argued above that pottery, designs, and other artefacts could function as agents of the forager cosmology through the situated shamanic practice of “helping us to look deeper into our sacred world” and “helping us to converse with ancestors”.   In Ingold’s view they provided means of “directly ascertaining the truth” of the world of the foragers.  As a result, bands attained new, deeper knowledge than they previously possessed, even the shaman. 

The new knowledge could have led to changes in the life of a band (e.g., through helping them achieve more productive hunting), in the local practice of shamanism (e.g., introducing the shaman to new spirit allies), and even the larger cosmology (e.g., through the cumulative effect of many years of the counsel of ancestors).  Therefore, while pottery and other sacred art artefacts could symbolically represent changes in the forager cosmology, in turn they had their own space or autonomy to help shape the lifeways and cosmology of the group through their function as intermediaries with the other world. 

Taina Chahal (2000) says, “The ancient Finns believed everything in the world was alive…stones as well as animals, trees, the wind and the rain had consciousness; they could hear, had the faculty of understanding and could talk..” To Chahal’s list we must add pottery, and the other objects and performances of the sacred arts, who made communication possible with those residents of the forest, water and sky.  They were persons in their own right, and together with the haltija and deities of stones, animals, trees, the wind and the rain, helped shape the course of the prehistory of Finland, in a reciprocal relationship with humans. 

In a later post of Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland we will explore the resistance of hunter-gatherers of post-Neolithic Finland to the ending of this reciprocal relationship, in the face of the advance of agriculture.

Summary: The ‘Ritual Code of Practice’

Zvelebil (2003) summarises  the “ritual code of practice” reflected in the artefacts of Oleneostrovski mogilnik burial ground as “extraterrestrial communication by shamans with the aid of ritual equipment: the drum, mask, headdress, bag, and bones or images of ritually significant animals…..” 

We are now able to present a fuller version of the ritual code of practice of the hunter-gatherer bands in the Mesolithic and early Neolithic of Finland, based upon our analysis in Parts 1 and 2 of Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland.  The following is a list of the objects and performances presented so far, and the situated shamanic practices they may have made possible: 

This list shows that the shamans of the hunter-gatherer bands in the Mesolithic and early Neolithic of Finland depended upon a number of objects and performances of the sacred arts to help them establish and mediate communication (“extraterrestrial communication”) with non-human persons residing in the other world, such as the haltija of the elk. 

At the same time, the objects of the sacred arts were clearly more than just “ritual equipment”, or tools, for the shaman, as Zvelebil characterises them.  As we have seen, they were sacred beings—persons—in their own right, and the shaman would have related to them in this way. The shaman would have shown care, for example, in the words that were used around them, in the way  they were stored, and in the practice of ‘awakening’ them at the beginning of ceremonies.  It was a form of ritual partnership.

The “ritual code of practice” would have been based upon such a partnership, and might have taken the following form (with reference to the items on the list above):  

  • In order to establish respectful relations with important beings of the other world, shamans enlisted the help of object-persons of the sacred arts to summon these beings (b), and honour them by make offerings (c). 
  • Based on these respectful relations, the object-persons mediated further communication on behalf of the shaman with beings of the three worlds (d, e) particularly with spirit persons of the upper world (e,) and with ancestors of the lower world (d, g).
  • Shamans also requested specific types of assistance from the object-persons:  to accompany the dead to the lower world (d), to facilitate ontological transformations, or shape shifting (f),  and to enable the hunter-gatherer band to attain deeper truths about their world (g). 
In upcoming posts will look at further sacred arts–shamanic poetry, rock paintings, ceramic figurines, shamanic costumes, drumming, playing of kantele, and more—and the situated shamanic practices they supported.

Looking ahead to Part 3

In Part 3 we will continue to explore the broad social and symbolic dimensions of pottery as a sacred art in Neolithic Finland, beginning with the two types to initially appearing in 5150 B.C.: Sperrings 1 Ware and Säräisniemi 1 Ware. We will see how these two types of pottery became markers of differentiation of populations in Finland. 

In a later post, we will focus on the arrival in the mid-Neolithic Age of a new pottery type, Typical Comb Ceramic.  This pottery is widely believed to have been brought to Finland by a population group from the Volga-Oka region.  We will see that the brief 500 hundred year span of the Typical Comb Ceramic culture—from 4000 to 3500 B.C.—was a watershed period in the pre-history of Finland.  For example, it was during this time that rock painting—perhaps the premiere Neolithic sacred art form—appeared on the waterside cliffs of Finland.

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