Aivar Kriiska

Published: Environmental and Cultul History of the Eastern Baltic Region. PACT 57. Rixensart 1999, 173–183.


Riigiküla, lying on the lower reaches of the Narva River in northeastern Estonia, has interested archaeologists from the late 1930's onwards. The periods of most active investigation have been 1951–1953 (excavations by Nina Gurina at sites I, II and III), 1958 (excavations by Lembit Jaanits at site III), 1991 (phosphate investigation and inventory by Aivar Kriiska at site IV) and 1994–1996 (excavations by A. Kriiska at site IV and inventory at sites V–XIV). As the result of the last two field studies, which were supported by the PACT Networks and the EC Commission, traces of Stone Age settlements were found over a wide area of the lagoon-side coast of the former spit, and several radiocarbon dates were obtained. So far 14 sites have been investigated, but their number will probably increase in the future. This paper discusses the origins and history of the Riigiküla settlement sites and changes in the strategy of settlement distribution during the Neolithic.

Keywords: Neolithic, Narva culture, Combed Ware culture, Late Corded Ware culture.


The Riigiküla settlements are situated about 8 km northwest of the town of Narva, on the coastal lowland behind the north Estonian Klint, on a NE-SW oriented ridge (Fig. 1). The area borders on the Narva River in the northeast and the Tõrvajõgi brook in the southeast. The geological setting of the area is not yet quite clear, but it was evidently a spit reaching out into the sea and forming a lagoon behind it into which the Narva and Luuga rivers flowed. The bottom sediment of the lagoon consists of diatomite, mostly containing freshwater diatoms (Thomson, 1937, p. 214–215). Referring to Paul William Thomson, Richard Indreko connected this ridge with the coastal formations of the Ancylus Lake and Litorina Sea (Indreko, 1932, p. 50; 1948, p. 94). Thomson (1937, p. 215) proposed that it may also be connected with an end moraine which was penetrated by the Narva River before and also after the Ancylus Lake transgression. According to Lissitsyna (1961, p. 540), the ridge must have been formed during the Litorina Sea transgression (Kessel and Raukas, 1967).

Regardless of the genesis of the formation, the initiation of settlement at Riigiküla has been connected with the existence of a spit projecting into the Litorina Sea. The earliest traces of habitation represent the Early Neolithic Narva culture and cover a 2 km strip on the northeastern and southeastern slopes of the ridge (Fig. 1C). A total of 13 sites can be distinguished on the basis of the concentrations of finds, the majority situated on the lagoonal coast of the spit. The locations of sites I to III may indicate that the watershed was located where the Narva River is today.

Several fire-pits have been found that date back to the period of the Narva Culture. A 2 x 1 m stone fire-pit was found at site III that had been dug down 20 cm into the sand surface (Gurina, 1967, p. 12), and three fire-pits were investigated at site IV, although only one of them to its full extent. All of these had been hollowed out to 25–40 cm below the sand surface, two were without stones and the remaining one had just a few stones. The fire-pit which was excavated completely was oval in shape, with dimensions of 2.5 x 1.5 m (Kriiska, 1996a).

Fig. 1. A – Estonia; B – lower reaches of the Narva River; C – location of Riigiküla, sites I–XII.

Pottery of the Narva type from
Riigiküla, Site IV

Fig. 2. Pottery of the Narva type from Riigiküla, site IV (AI 6053 : 230, 127, 67, 59, 496, 60, 92, 138, 435).

The majority of the finds are potsherds. The pottery had mostly been tempered with some vegetable material which had then been destroyed on burning, or with clay mixed with mollusc shells. The sharp-bottomed conical vessels had been fashioned by the band technique, quite often out of bands only 10 mm wide with U-shaped connecting surfaces, one of the contact surfaces of the coil being convex and the other concave. The surfaces are often scratched (Fig. 2 : 2; 4–5). Decorative motifs such as comb impressions (Fig. 2 : 1–3), notches, hollows (Fig. 2 : 6), grooves (Fig. 2 : 7) and others are rare, so that only 5% of the potsherds at site IV, for example, had been decorated (Kriiska, 1996a). In addition to the sherds, small clay bars have been found at Riigiküla, of a composition similar to the Narva-type pottery (Fig. 2 : 8–9), so that they could be regarded as production residue — the ends of rolls shaped for making clay bands (Kriiska, 1995a, p. 74), although other interpretations have been put forward as well (Gurina, 1955, p. 168; 1967, p. 40).

Fig. 3. Quartzite (1) and flintstone (2) scrapers from Riigiküla, site IV (AI 6053 : 426, 129).
Fig. 4. Stone chisel from the Riigiküla XII site (AI 6053 : 513).

As most of the sites investigated so far have yielded multicultural finds, differentiation of the material is complicated. Some tendencies can nevertheless be extracted. Relatively little use is made of stone, as flint and quartz were the most frequent materials, fragments of other rocks and some smaller tools — mainly scrapers — being less common (Fig. 3). Some stone chisels are certainly connected with the Narva culture, and one such item has been found in a trial pit at site XII, together with Narva pottery. This has been radiocarbon dated using charcoal from a cultural layer in the same place (Fig. 4; Table 1). Antler and bone tools have also been found : harpoon tips (Fig. 5 : 1), points made of hollow bone (Fig. 5 : 2), including a bone with an edge cut at an angle of 45°, which is considered one of the leading forms in the Narva culture (Jaanits, 1968, p. 19; Loze, 1988, p. 26), awls, wedges etc. (Gurina, 1967; Kriiska, 1996a).

Fig. 5. Fragments of a bone harpoon (1) and point (2) (AI 6053 : 187, 351).

The settlement at Riigiküla was based on a hunting and gathering economy. The osteological material includes numerous fish and bird bones, and the seal played an important role among the mammals, although the main terrestrial animals were evidently also caught (see Lõugas, this volume, Chapter I.9). Marten bones were surprisingly numerous amongst the osteological material at site IV (35% of the mammal bones), which may be indicative of intensive hunting of fur-bearing animals in winter (Tanel Moora, oral communication).

It is still difficult to judge how permanent the settlement was. The ecological edge-effect which must have prevailed at such a place where the distribution areas of animal populations intersected, provided conditions under which the population of Riigiküla could cope throughout the year. The wide variety of species represented in the osteological material indicates permanent rather than seasonal habitation. The occurrence of occupational layers over a fairly wide area suggests mobility in this settlement unit, and even periodic break-ups cannot be excluded.

Four radiocarbon dates referring to the period 6023±95 to 5268±58 BP (Table 1), i.e. connected with the Narva Culture, have been obtained from Riigiküla up to now.


Site Material
14C age BP
Lab. nr.
Cal. Age BC
(2 sigma)
Riigiküla IV charcoal
Riigiküla XI charcoal
Riigiküla XII charcoal
Kudruküla bone
L. Comb. Ware
L. Comb. Ware
L. Comb. Ware
L. Comb. Ware
(L.Comb.Ware = Late Combed Ware)


The continuous process of land uplift caused the sea to retreat from Riigiküla, and the lagoon became overgrown. This inevitably influenced human settlement, too. At the present state of investigation, it is not possible to date the changes in either the environment or human habitation very precisely, but the locations of the sites of the Typical Combed Ware culture suggest that this shift had already taken place by that time. The Combed Ware reported up to now and the other finds of that period have been concentrated in the northeastern part of the ridge, at the sites located closer to the Narva River (Fig. 1). Typical and Late Combed Ware make up 73% of the Neolithic pottery at site I, 98% at site II and 17% at site III (Table 2). At the same time, the southeastern part of the ridge, the previous lagoon coast has almost only finds of the Narva culture. Among the Neolithic pottery at site IV, only 0.3% is Combed Ware (5 sherds), even though sieving proceeded through the entire occupation layer during the excavation at this site, unlike the others. Three out of 148 potsherds gathered from the trial pits at sites V–XII (2%) represent Typical Combed Ware (partly published by Kriiska 1995b, p. 453), and these should probably be treated in the same way as the sites established on the river bank not far from the estuary. Chronologically, they lie between the latest date for the Narva culture at Riigiküla and the earliest date for the Late Combed Ware culture in Kudruküla, i.e. 5268±58 to 4860±60 BP (Table 1).


Narva Type
Combed Ware
Combed Ware
Corded Ware

The most exciting complexes of Riigiküla connected with the period discussed here are the bottoms of buildings with inhumation burials dug down below the surface at site I. As the latter have quite often been published, they will not be discussed in any more detail here (see Gurina, 1967; Jaanits et al., 1982; Kriiska, 1996b). A stone fire-pit 1.5 m in diameter extending 50 cm into the sand surface has also been investigated at site II (Gurina, 1967, p. 16).

The majority of the finds are potsherds. The Typical Combed Ware has been made with a mineral addition, mostly stone rubble mixed with clay, and the remains are of quite large, thick-walled, conical, round-bottomed vessels decorated with comb impressions, hollows and pits. The decoration covers the vessel surfaces in zones, with alternating lines of comb impressions and pits or hollows. The sherds representing Late Combed Ware at Riigiküla belong to the first, earlier chronological group. The composition of the clay used for making the vessels changed, the stone rubble being replaced by organic matter, vegetable material or cracked mollusc shells, but the decoration still corresponds to the canons of the Typical Combed Ware (Kriiska, 1995a).

Among the other finds, the Combed Ware culture can most easily be connected with artefacts made of imported flint, because with only a few exceptions, the use of flint in the Narva Culture was based on local raw material of low quality. In addition to scrapers and burins, there are many arrowheads and spearheads, mainly sharp and oval in shape or diamond-shaped (Gurina, 1967), as throughout the area of the Combed Ware culture (Edgren, 1984, p. 68; Loze, 1984, p. 30). Stone chisels have also been found, including a claw-shaped chisel, a form which did not exist in Estonia before the Typical Combed Ware culture (Jaanits et al., 1982, p.70).

The animal bones point to changes in the hunting and gathering economy. The decline in the importance of sealing can be seen in the percentage of bones of these creatures, while the hunting of wild boar became more important (see Lõugas, this volume, Chapter I.9). These effects were probably brought about by a change in the natural environment. The swamped lagoon and surrounding damp forest provided a suitable environment for wild boars, as is also the case today (Aul et al., 1957, p. 284). The variety of bones and artefacts is not indicative of seasonal habitation in Riigiküla in the time of Combed Ware culture.

The people evidently left the area of Riigiküla later, probably following the retreat of the sea, as may be concluded from the existence of the sites of Kudruküla and Väiküla some kilometres to the northwest (Fig. 1). The majority of finds from these two sites belong to the younger chronological group of the Late Combed Ware, which has a different decoration as well as being produced from a clay of a different composition (Kriiska, 1995a, p. 93–94). Radiocarbon dates of 4860±60 and 4750±100 BP have been obtained for the Kudruküla site (Table 1).

The quite rich bone material gathered from the Kudruküla site comprises both human and animal bones. The latter point to the important role of sealing alongside the hunting of terrestrial animals and fishing. At the same time the frequency of seal bones is twice as high as at the Riigiküla sites or even more. The majority of the seal bones were of the harp seal (Lõugas, 1993, p. 83).


A new phase in settlement at Riigiküla is connected with the Late Corded Ware culture. Radiocarbon dates are still lacking, but the typology of the artefacts, the stratigraphy and the location of the sites in the landscape all suggest that this stage belongs to the end of the Neolithic period and the beginning of the Bronze Age (Jaanits et al., 1982, p. 109, 130; Jaanits, 1992, p. 51– 52). Late Corded Ware has been found in the same area as the traces of earlier settlement, as a by-product of the investigations at sites I, II and IV at Riigiküla (Table 2). Only site XIV is a "proper" one, where trial pits yielded only Late Corded Ware sherds. Unfortunately this site has not been excavated. Another site on the lower reaches of the Narva River where potsherds of the same type have also been found is Narva Joaoru (Kriiska, 1995a, p. 95). No other finds can be connected with this culture, although the Corded Ware sherds of are stratigraphically distinct, occurring in the uppermost part of the cultural layer at the Riigiküla IV site, for instance. This is of course the layer mixed most by ploughing.

The potsherds come from vessels with a small flat bottom that widen out in the upper part (Fig. 6, 2–3). The decoration, with its cord impressions (Fig. 6, 1), grooves and notches, can be seen mostly in the upper part of the vessels but the surfaces are often striated (Jaanits, 1954, p. 358; Kriiska, 1995a, p. 99, 104; 1996). Fine curved line imprints on the surfaces of vessels are peculiar to the Late Corded Ware found in Riigiküla and other places in Estonia (Jaanits, 1959, p. 152; Kriiska, 1995a, p. 100) (Fig. 6, 4–9), and these together with small round holes inside the sherds indicate that a lot of hair was mixed into the temper.

The settlement pattern which developed at that time differed from the previous one. Sites were established on a high sandy ridge several kilometres from the sea, bordering on the Narva River in the northeast and the Tõrvajõgi brook in the southeast. Changes in the subsistence pattern can be assumed to have taken place, and the needs of the farming economy were evidently taken into consideration when choosing the place for habitation. The farming economy was probably something closer to a mixed economy in this context. The increase in the number of cultural graminaceous (grass) plants in the pollen diagrams indicates quite active cultivation of the land in Estonia (Moe et al., 1992; Lang, 1995, p. 136), but the scarcity of finds in the cultural layers suggests only a short duration for the habitation period and fairly small human groups, particularly by comparison with those that subsisted on hunting and gathering.

Fig. 6. Late Corded Ware pottery from Riigiküla, site IV (AI 6053:200, 388, 258, 203, 278, 131, 388, 319, 278).


In this way Riigiküla gained its first inhabitants at the beginning of the Neolithic period, when people of the Narva culture settled on the spit-side shore of the lagoon. After clogging of the lagoon, the settlement moved from the ridges of Riigiküla and Tõrvala to the banks of the Narva River, a process that took place before the time when the Comb Ware culture settlement was formed. The settlement moved later following the regression of the sea, and no new sites were established in the area of Riigiküla itself, which was unsuitable for a hunting and gathering economy. It was only at the end of the Neolithic period or the beginning of the Bronze Age that a settlement representing the Late Corded Ware culture and evidently based on a farming economy formed on the ridge bordering on the rivers.

Department of Archaeology
Tartu University
Ülikooli 18
EE-51003 TARTU, Estonia



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