The archaeological mission 2NOR Neolithization of Northwest Russia, supported by the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, is a Franco-Russian collaboration between the CNRS (coordinator Y. Maigrot) and the Hermitage Museum (coordinator A. Mazurkevich).
The project focuses on the history of the first sedentary communities of the Serteya valley, a tributary of the Dvina (100 km northwest of Smolensk). The valley is characterised by a series of depressions which correspond to former lakes in the early Holocene. During the Early Neolithic (Serteya and later Rudnya culture, late 7th to early 5th millennia BC), settlements were mainly located on the edges of terraces in the north and south of the valley. They included sedentary hunter-gatherer communities and pottery producers. At the time of the Atlantic/Subboreal transition, a significant drop in water levels occurred, and at around 3700 BC, the first lacustrine villages of the Middle Neolithic (Usvyasty culture) appeared on the edges of residual lakes in the south of the valley. These settlements lasted until the Final Neolithic (Zhizhitsa culture and then the North Belorussian culture, 2550 – 1950 BC), i.e., with the first mixed farming communities of the region.
The Serteya II site corresponds to one of these occupations. Underwater excavations at the site since 2008 by A. Mazurkevich have yielded exceptional material, including organic remains. However, these excavations are inhibited by the current river bed, and only offer a very partial view of settlement. In order to gain a more global spatial and diachronic understanding of the site, from 2015 onwards, the excavation area was extended to the riverbanks, in particular the western zone, which corresponds to the former bank of the palaeolake. The opening up of these new sectors provides us with access to the succession of communities that settled there, and brings to light the strategies they used for exploiting the surrounding environment, conditioned by variations in the water level over time. The earliest known anthropic evidence to date is attributed to the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods. The latter are limited to the western part of the site and remains are scant, consisting of bone arrowheads, probably lost during hunting sessions, as well as a few eroded shards belonging to the Serteya and Rudnya cultures. The first real phases of occupation are dated to the first half of the 4th mill. BC. They correspond to the arrival of people from the steppes. Two waves of immigration are recorded. The first is associated with the Khvalynskaya culture, which originated in the middle Volga. The second, somewhat later, represents the Snedny Stog culture, which encompasses a vast territory including the Dnieper region, the Seversky Donets basin and the Don. The local evolution of these cultures in the Middle Neolithic gave rise to the Uvyatsy culture, which developed between 3100 and 2900 BC. The Uvyasty culture was followed by the Late Neolithic Zhizhitsa culture, which covered a little more than half of the 3rd millennium BC. The archaeological layers of the Middle and Final Neolithic are accumulated in a thick layer of brown/olive sapropel, sometimes more than a metre thick, which has largely contributed to the preservation of structures and objects, including organic material. This exceptional documentation allows us to reconstruct the operating strategies of these lacustrine communities. Despite contacts with agro-pastoral groups, no markers of a production economy have been found. The inhabitants took advantage of the rich and diversified resources of the environment and practiced hunting (elk, beaver, wild boar), fishing (catfish, pike, perch) and gathering.
The internal organisation of the villages, at least for Zhizhitsa, seemed to have been adapted to the topography and the lake’s low water level, with specialised activity areas (e.g., butchery) sheltered from the floods, then the settlement area made up of raised houses and the fisheries. Furthermore, the material culture of these populations highlights the existence of numerous exchange networks over varying distances. This is the case, for example, for amber pendants, found as early as the Middle Neolithic. The nearest source of amber is to be found in the Baltic. Finally, these communities reflect a more complex economy and cultural dynamics than they appear at first glance.