HELSINKI – Museovirasto, the Finnish Heritage Agency (FHA, previously the National Board of Antiquities) and part of the Ministry of Education, has announced that it will be conducting a new countrywide field inspection of ancient monuments protected by the Finnish government.
The project began this June and will continue for the next three years creating an extensive directory of Finland’s ancient monuments. It will cover both known sites and new areas, while updating existing surveys.
The FHA is responsible for preserving Finland’s cultural heritage. The agency serves as a both as a cultural resource and a research institution. It is charged by the Finnish government with preserving Finland’s built heritage, its culturally-valuable documentary material and the protection of archaeological sites across the country.
The “Nationally Significant Archaeological Sites” initiative (called “VARK”) hopes to create “a chronologically and regionally representative catalogue of the past 10,000 years,” said Teija Tiitinen speaking with the Finnish news agency YLE UUTISET/NEWS. Tiitinen is part of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities and the project manager of the VARK initiative.
The inventory is practical as well as cultural. The inventory will help with land-use planning and building by identifying significant archaeological sites in continental Finland. VARK sites may be subject to stricter criteria concerning the granting of building, disturbance and research permits.
The history of Finland reliably dates to about 9,000 BCE, the end of the last ice age. There is however, one archaeological site, the Wolf Cave in Kristinestad on the Western coast along the Gulf of Bothnia, that may be approximately 125,000 years old. If verified, it would be the oldest site of human habitation in the Nordic nations.
Confirmed human settlements in the modern area of Finland are found in the southeastern area of the nation near the city of Lahti and the town of Orimattila. In that area, continuous human settlements date to about 8,900 BCE.
The oldest artifact found in Finland is the Antrea Net, found on the Karelian isthmus that connects Finland to northwest Russia, near St. Petersburg. The site where the net was found, Antrea, is today part of Russia.
The net was found in 1913 and dated to about 8,450 BCE. The net is laced with a unique knot that has been found in similar items in nearby modern nations such as Estonia. The net was made out of willow bark and was likely used for salmon and bream fishing.
However these truly ancient artifacts and locations represent only part of the history of human habitation in Finland. Pottery has been found dating to about 5,000 BCE. The 40 stone enclosures sites called Giant’s Church were built buy hunter-gatherers arriving in the area around 3,500 BCE.
The more modern periods include sites that traded with the Roman empire for pelts, gold, weapons and luxury items including wine glasses.
And of course, the more recent Viking period from about 800 CE to about 1025 CE, during which time the oldest mentions referring to a “Land of the Fins” were found; these are the runestone at Söderby and the runestone in Gotland both in Sweden.
The FHA estimates that about 3,000 sites from both the Finnish mainland and the inland archipelago will be included in the VARK list by the conclusion of the program in 2021
The conclusion of the VARK project will support preservation efforts across Finland. As stated in the Finnish Antiquities Act of 1963, “Ancient monuments are protected by law as antiquities pertaining to the past settlement and history of Finland.” It is illegal to “excavate, cover, alter, damage or remove ancient monuments, or to disturb them in any other way.”
The Act is extensive and defines monuments broadly not only including pre-Christian burial grounds and cemeteries as well as hillforts and castles and moats but also, “mounds of earth and stone, cairns, circles and other settings and structures of stones made in the past by man” to “sacrificial springs, trees and stones, other ancient places of worship, and ancient trial sites.”
The Act also empowers the FHA not only with conservancy responsibilities but also with protection of sites. “All ancient monuments are automatically protected by the Antiquities Act. Some stipulations on actions such as tampering or land use might be stricter,” Tiitinen commented to YLE UUTISET/NEWS.
Earlier this month, University of Helsinki reported that one of these protected sites may have helped solve a migration mystery in Finland. Bones (specifically teeth) preserved for almost 1,5000 years in Levänluhta Spring in Isokyrö, in western Finland remained so immaculately preserved in the oxygen-deprived, iron-laden water that DNA was easily extracted.
The ancient DNA matches that of the present-day Sámi people who live in the extreme north of Scandinavian nations of Norway, Sweden and Finland as well as extreme northwest region of Russia called the Murmansk Oblast. The findings suggest not only hereunto unknown migration pathways of the Sámi people but also how the populations changed over time.
Another recent finding, just this past week, from the same water burial site at Levänluhta springs show a network of trade from Finland across the Baltic sea and into southern Europe. Copper artifacts found in the springs help show that extensive trade networks allowed for the movement of people as well as goods from very large distances and across a long period of time.
“A variety of ancient sites is needed to tell Finland’s story,” Tiitinen said. “Then again, unique monuments are more likely to be added than a regular though impressive grave site, of which there are many.” The new VARK project assures these sites will be preserved and undisturbed so they can share their secrets about Finland’s past.