People in a dynamic landscape: tracing the biography of Latvia's sandy coastal belt

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Particular events and activities that serve to charaterise the progress in project implementation.

Study of bone and antler tools in Ventspils Museum

Ilga Zagorska and Valdis Bērziņš have visited Ventspils Museum to re-examine the major collection of Stone Age bone an antler tools recovered from the River Užava at Sise. These include a large number of perforated antler axes, adzes and sleeves. This study forms the basis for a major article that has been submitted in the frame of the project.

Perforated Stone Age antler tools from the River Užava. Photo: V.Bērziņš
The ancient Ventspils Lagoon - presentation of shoreline modelling
Edijs Breijers, student participant in the project, has presented the methodology and results of his shoreline modelling work in a conference paper "Issues relating to the Littorina Sea and Ancylus Lake shorelines in the area of the Ventspils Lagoon" at the 78th International Scientific Conference of the University of Latvia, session “Quaternary geology and geomorphology”.

From the presentation by Edijs Breijers.
Preparation of samples for optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating
In the course of a research visit to the Lund Luminescence Laboratory in Sweden, Edyta Kalińska-Nartiša has prepared quartz extracts from the OSL samples from the former shorelines of the Ventspils Lagoon for luminescence tests and measurements. This involved opening the tube under darkroom conditions and separately processing the sediment in three parts. The outer part served as a water content and dose rate subsample, while the inner part provided the quartz extracts. At the Nordic Laboratory for Luminescence Dating, Risø, Denmark, the ground material was mixed with wax and then cast. The OSL datings, if successful, will be integrated with the shoreline modelling results to provide a comprehensive picture of the long-term development of the former Ventspils Lagoon.

Preparation of OSL samples under darkroom conditions. Photo: E.Kalińska-Nartiša
16.-17.07, 19.-22.09.2019
Dendro-sampling of historical tree trunks at the coast
In the frame of the project Māris Zunde is applying dendrochronology to date ancient pine trunks that were once buried under dune sands and are now exposed on the coastal bluff because of erosion. The aims of the study are: a) to dated the ancient soil horizons visible in the coastal bluff exposure associated with the anient pine turnks, b) identify periods of intensive sand blowing, and c) determine the characteristic ring-width pattern for pines growing in these sandy coastal areas, in order that, through comparison with the pattern of annual growth of pines in adjaccent (inland) areas, it may be possible to identify periods when the pines growing at the coast were affected most significantly not by climatic but by local environmental factors, such as intensive sand deposition around the trunk.
    Sixteen ancient pine trunks have been identified in the Staldzene and Liepene-Jaunupe stretches of the coast, as well as along the Klapkalnciems-Apšuciems shore of the Gulf of Riga. The time series compiled from the tree-ring data vary in length from 50 to 126 years.
     In the Liepene-Jaunupe stretch of the coast, samples have been obained from a further eight dying or dead pine trees, up to at least 222 years old, which were likewise previously partially covered by sand and whose trunks have now been exposed at the coastal bluff. A tree-ring chronology compiled for these pines reaches back from the present day to 1794.
     Wood samples have also been obtained from 32 living pine trees along five transexts established through the forested dunes behind the Liepene-Jaunupe coastal bluff. The transects, are oriented perpendicularly to the coastline and located opposite the sites with ancient pine trunks. Wood samples have been obtained from pines growing in a range of different relief conditions along each transect. The tree-ring time series compiled for these trees vary in length from 59 to 210 years. They have been used to compile a chronology reacing back from the present day to 1809.
     Dendro-sampling and analysis is planned to continue in 2020.

Dendro-sampling from an ancient pine trunk exposed by coastal erosion. Photo: R.Brūzis
12–14.07 and  21–22.09.2019
Geological fieldwork
     The fieldwork undertaken by the palaeolandscape team (Edyta Kalińska-Nartiša, Māris Krievāns, Agnis Rečs and Edijs Breijers) involved assessment in the field of the features relating to former shorelines of the Ventspils Lagoon that had been identified in the LiDAR relief data, along with collection of samples for optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating. Altogether, 21 OSL tubes were obtained from eight sites  along the shorelines of the ancient Ventspils Lagoon.

Digging a geological test-pit. Photo: E.Kalińska-Nartiša
Charcoal-burning mound excavation
Archaeological excavation was undertaken of a charcoal-burning mound at Apšuciems under the direction of Elīna Guščika. The mound measured about 15 m across and was 0.6–0.7 m high, surrounded by six large pits. About one quarter was excavated, this being sufficient to assess the structure of the mound, characterise the strata, the fill of the pits, etc., and for systematic collection of charcoal samples.  

Excavation of a charcoal-burning mound at Apšuciems. Photo: E.Guščika
Prospection for historical charcoal-burning mounds
The LiDAR relief model for the Engure-Kaņieris, Ventspils and Lilaste focus areas was analysed by Elīna Guščika to identify possible charcoal-burning sites. This resulted in the identification of about one thousand potential charcoal-burning mounds in the coastal belt near Engure, in a stretch about 20 km long between the villages of Apšuciems and Bērzciems.
     Prospection work was undertaken in this area, visually assessing features identified in the LiDAR data, coring the mounds and collecting charcoal samples. The presence of charcoal layers confirmed that the mounds here are remains from charcoal burning activities. They may be tentatively dated to the time of the ironworks at Engure, which operated from 1679 up to the early 18th century. Radiocarbon dating should indicate the chronology more definitely.

Charcoal-burning mounds identified from LiDAR data in the Engure area. Red triangle - excavated mound.Map: E.Guščika
Project implementation begins.

Project summary

The project goal is to trace the main vectors and significant turning points in the long-term development of Latvia’s sandy coastal belt, focusing on resource use and the interaction between human activities and the non-human forces shaping this dynamic and sensitive landscape.

Past settlement and resource use in the coastal belt will be characterised in relation to landscape transformations, with particular attention to water-level change, wind action and vegetation cover. Finally, the different strands of evidence will be assembled in order to identify key features of long-term coastal change.

The “landscape biography” concept permits us to explore how the landscape has been transmitted and reshaped from prehistory to the present, viewing the landscape at each point in time as the interim outcome of an interplay between agency, structure and process.

Building on previous collaboration and further strengthening interdisciplinary ties, the project brings together archaeological and historical research with a spectrum of natural sciences methods: mapping and luminescence dating of ancient shorelines, palynology, dendrochronology and wood charcoal analysis.

The results will be communicated in 13 scientific articles. We also envisage significant socioeconomic impacts, since we will offer a new understanding of the long-term development of this landscape to a range of different stakeholders in planning and development. 

  • Work package 1: Analysis of archaeological evidence relating to Mesolithic-Neolithic resource use and environmental change in the coastal belt
  • Work package 2: Investigation of charcoal-burning and tar-burning sites
  • Work package 3: Collection and analysis of archive records on human activities in relation to wind action
  • Work package 4: Shoreline mapping and dating
  • Work package 5: Pollen and non-pollen palynomorph analysis
  • Work package 6: Dendrochronology
  • Work package 7: Wood charcoal (anthracological) analysis
  • Work package 8: Stone Age settlement and shifting shorelines of the former Ventspils Bay
  • Work package 9: Human impact on the sandy coastal belt in later prehistory and the Middle Ages
  • Work package 10: Human activity and wind action at Staldzene-Liepene (and Lilaste)
  • Work package 11: Synthesis – key features in the “biography” of the sandy coastal landscape

Essential data

  • Project no. lzp-2018/1-0171, People in a dynamic landscape: tracing the biography of Latvia’s sandy coastal belt
  • Funded by the Latvian Council of Science
  • Implementation period: 31. August 2018 - 31 August 2021
Implemented by: University of Latvia
(at the university's Institute of Latvian History)

Project total costs:  € 300 000

Research team

Principal investigator:
Valdis Bērziņš, Senior Researcher

Lead participants:
Ilga Zagorska, Senior Researcher
Māris Zunde, Senior Researcher
Edyta Kalińska-Nartiša^, Specialist
Muntis Auns, Researcher
Rūdolfs Brūzis, Specialist
Māris Krievāns, Senior Researcher
Normunds Stivriņš, Senior Researcher

Student participants:
Edijs Breijers, Specialist
Inga Doniņa, Research Assistant
Elīna Guščika, Research Assistant
Mārcis Kalniņš, Research Assistant
Agnis Rečs, Researcher


Dietze, E., Theuerkauf, M., Bloom, K., Brauer, A., Dorfler, W., Feeser, I., Feurdean, A., Gedminiene, L., Giesecke, T., Jahns, S., Karpinska-Kolaczek, M., Kolaczek, P., Lamentowicz, M., Latalowa, M., Marcisz, K., Obremska, M., Pedziszewska, A., Poska, A., Rehfeld, K., Stancikaite, M., Stivrins, N., Swieta-Musznicka, J., Szal, M., Vassiljev, J., Veski, S., Wacnik, A., Weisbrodt, D., Wiethold, J., Vanniere, B., Slowinski, M. 2018. Holocene fire activity during low-natural flammability periods reveals scale-dependent cultural human-fire relationships in Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 201: 44-56.
Stivrins, N., Aakala, T., Ilvonen, L., Pasanen, L., Kuuluvainen, T., Vasander, H., Gałka, M., Disbrey, H.R., Liepins, J., Holmström, L., Seppä, H. 2019a. Integrating fire-scar, charcoal and fungal spore data to study fire events in the boreal forest of northern Europe. The Holocene, 29: 1480-1490.

Stivrins, N., Liiv, M., Brown, A., Banerjea, R.Y., Heinsalu, A., Veski, S. 2019b. Investigating the impact of anthropogenic land use on a hemiboreal lake ecosystem using carbon/nitrogen ratios and coupled-optical emission spectroscopy. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 518: 1-9.
Stivrins, N., Cerina, A., Galka, M., Heinsalu, A., Lougas, L., Veski, S. 2019c. Large herbivore population and vegetation dynamics 14,600-8300 years ago in central Latvia, northeastern Europe. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 266: 42-51.

Zagorska, I. Artistic representations from the Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic in Latvia, Eastern Baltic. International & Interdisciplinary Conference Mesolithic Art – Abstraction, Decoration, Messages. Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte Halle (Saale). 19. – 21. September 2019, pp. 29–30.

 Last updated: 06.04.2020.    Webmaster: V.Bērziņš