The Baltic Sea at dawn – Chapter one

The Baltic Sea and us

In a series of articles, we present the incomparable history of the Baltic Sea and how much she has meant to humanity and how much she still means today. A review of events, myths and people, macho seal hunters and women collecting mussels, pirates and hijacker princesses, trawlermen and ferry captains. Together, they symbolise our great dependence on the Baltic and the importance of caring for the sea at a time of major changes in the environment and the climate. The Baltic is not only our history; it is also our future. 

Written by archeologist and author: Jonathan Lindström

At sea 

A small group of stone-age hunters paddled out on to the glittering Baltic Sea one early summer dawn almost ten thousand years ago. They had the sun in their eyes and a village of huts on the eastern Swedish mainland behind them. For a few days and nights, they followed the string of islands and islets situated increasingly far apart until they were a hundred and fifty kilometres out to sea. There they found the outermost, treeless islet, two hundred metres across.

They slipped into a small bay, lined with smooth rocks. The innermost part of the bay was a moraine beach covered with grass and boulders. They lifted out their packs and carried the boats up on to the land. They ate and lay down to sleep under their canoes as dusk fell. 

Time to camp 

The next day, they built a tent platform fifteen metres up from the beach. A bed of sand was encircled with stones. A conical leather tent with a smoke hole at the top was erected inside it, partly sheltered by boulders and rocky outcrops. The entry was placed so it faced south and there was a flap that could be folded back to let the afternoon sun into the tent on warm days. Inside the tent were layers of stone against the far wall that could be covered with bunks of twigs and grass.  

It was lit up 

A hearth was dug in the middle of the floor, half buried in the sand. That completed the hunting station, which made it possible to stay there for long periods even in winter. The hearth was needed for cooking and keeping warm, but keeping a fire going on a treeless islet was of course a problem. The solution, on the other hand, was simple.

Using a little firewood that they brought with them, along with driftwood from the beach and dry twigs and grass, they could make a small fire that they could keep going with strips of seal blubber. The blubber melted and burned without any smoke or unpleasant smell, which was a good thing because seal blubber can smell extremely bad. 

An important hunting station 

The outermost islet in the Baltic Sea was now frequently used, even in winter when it iced over. Piles of refuse, containing waste from stoneworking and burned animal bones, built up around the hut.

Hunting teams and even families may have set off from the mainland several times a year to harvest the rich resources of the outer archipelago. Bone fragments tell of hunting for grey seals as well as ringed seals and birds to a lesser extent. They may also have fished and collected eggs. A great deal of time was spent processing the catch and repairing equipment and boats. 

Seal hunting on the rocky islet 

When the weather was calm, the grey seals liked to lie on sunken rocks close to the water’s surface. If a storm blew up, they would seek out higher-lying islands instead. It was easy to catch the seals when they first congregated on the ice and later when they gathered on the rocks when the pups were born in February and March and also in the mating season and during moulting. There were several rocks at the water’s edge on the eastern and southern sides of the islet where the grey seals may have congregated. The seal hunters’ camp was completely hidden behind the rocks.

If the wind was in the right direction, they could creep over the island and then rush the final stretch and club and harpoon the seals and their pups. Any animals that escaped into the water may have been met by hunters in boats who had rowed unobtrusively round the island. 

It’s possible that the hunters may have made their way out to the islet by boat even before the ice formed or as soon as the ice was thick enough to bear both a boat and a sled. They then stayed until the ice had melted enough to enable them to return home by boat without risk. That means that they may have stayed there for months. The days were short and filled with intense hunting and work in the dim glow of the hearth and the gloom of the tent, while the nights were long and dark. Their diet consisted of bitter seal meat and fish fried in burning seal blubber.  

The changing Baltic 

The life-giving Baltic was constantly changing. On spring and summer evenings, the visitors to the islet could gaze out into the twilight that bathed the surface of the Baltic in warm red colours. Seals and quietly quacking ducks rippled the surface on their way from rock to rock.

At other times, fierce storms made the surface of the sea foam and the waves beat on the rocky beaches of the islet. The spray splattered on the sides of the tent. Inside, the hunters rested and waited. In winter, the wind tore over ice sheets and pack ice and built up sheltering snowdrifts around the tent. 

Another starry sky 

But there were also silent, clear nights when a starry sky sparkled over a black sea and icy blue wastes. This was so long ago that the stars were in different positions from where they are today. There was no Pole Star, but white Vega and red Arcturus formed a bright pair of stars in the north. They were visible all year round as soon as it got dark. Big Dipper was also distinguishable then, but it wasn’t seen as a wagon. Wagons didn’t yet exist in the world. It would be thousands of years before they began to roll along the Baltic coasts.

Comparisons of legends from all over Eurasia and North America instead indicate that the stars of Big Dipper were seen as a big game animal being pursued by hunters.  

It’s a fascinating thought, that not only can we uncover details of how people lived and worked so long ago, but we can also tell what myths they whispered to one another. They sat on their islet a hundred and fifty kilometres out in the vast Baltic Sea and looked at the stars reflected on the glittering surface of the sea.  

The relationship with the sea 

Since that moment – ten thousand years ago – humans have been highly dependent on the Baltic. The sea has provided life and nourishment – a cornucopia of apparently infinite resources of fish and seals. She has bound people together in working communities and love, but has also separated them with discord and violence. The Baltic has meant everyday graft for millions of people, but has also been the stage on which great naval battles, disasters and struggles between kingdoms along her coasts have been played out.