Tainiaro, located in southwestern Finnish Lapland, some 80 km south of the Arctic Circle, is the largest Stone Age cemetery discovered so far in the country. According to a recent study by researchers from the University of Oulu, Tainiaro is much larger than previously thought. They estimate that there are at least 120 graves at Tainiaro, and the actual number could be even over two hundred, which surprised the researchers. This site appears to be one of the largest cemeteries of its time in Northern Europe.

Tainiaro’s cemetery dates back approximately 6,500 years. The Finnish Heritage Agency conducted excavations at Tainiaro, led by co-author Tuija Laurén in the 1980s and 1990s, but the lack of resources left the analysis of the findings incomplete and unpublished. Only about one-tenth of the total area has been investigated through excavations, which suggested the presence of around forty graves.

In 2018, archaeologists from the University of Oulu conducted new fieldwork. The data from this work, combined with the latest geographic information systems, measurement equipment used in the field, and the results of trial excavations, have provided a comprehensive picture.

The approximately 40 graves at Tainiaro had long been only preliminary interpretations. “The acidity of the soil destroys organic matter, including human remains, within two millennia. Stone Age graves leave behind only the shapes of pits and red ochre, which is scarce at Tainiaro. So the evidence is quite elusive,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Aki Hakonen.

In the study, the pits found at Tainiaro were compared with 869 Stone Age graves from northern Europe, located in 14 cemeteries. Researchers found that the pits at Tainiaro closely resembled the structure of the better-preserved grave pits in southern limestone-rich soil, indicating that they too are likely graves.

Researchers were surprised by the size of the cemetery, as previously it was thought that such large cemeteries existed much further to the south. “The research on Tainiaro shows that apparently large cemeteries also existed near the Arctic Circle. In the future, all research on this era in the north needs to be re-evaluated to some extent because these societies may not have been as small as previously thought,” Hakonen says.

Southern Lapland and the coasts of the Gulf of Bothnia were inhabited at the time by the Early Comb Ware ceramic culture, a hunter-gatherer society, whose true identity is still being discovered. Tainiaro was not just a cemetery; numerous traces of fire and the crafting of distinctive stone objects also suggests habitation at the site.

According to Aki Hakonen, the discovery of Tainiaro calls for a reconsideration of the role of the north in the prehistoric world. “The research raises questions about why such a site exists so high up on the map and whether there are similar cemeteries yet to be discovered in the dozen-or-so river valleys of the Bothnian Bay.”

The research findings are still unverified because the assumed graves cannot be directly proven as such, and their exact number can, for now, only be estimated. In collaboration with geophysicist Kari Moisio of the University of Oulu Mining School, Tainiaro has undergone ground-penetrating radar testing, which could potentially map the entire site in the future without further disturbance. According to Hakonen, new excavations are still urgently needed.

“New soil samples could be analyzed for fossilized hair, which has been found in Stone Age graves in recent years. It seems animal furs and bird feathers were often used in burial rituals. Chemical analyses, such as the still experimental collection of ancient DNA directly from the soil, may provide unequivocal evidence for the burial interpretation or reveal entirely new findings that will guide our understanding of the Stone Age society to an even more fascinating direction,” Hakonen reflects.

The research article has been published in the Antiquity Media journal: Aki Hakonen, Noora Perälä, Samuel Vaneeckhout, Tuija Laurén, Jari Okkonen: A large fifth-millennium BC cemetery in the subarctic north of the Baltic Sea?